John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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could not be relied upon. The Speaker went upstairs to
dress, and on his return found that they had agreed on
moving another select committee. He told them that he
thought this a weak course, but if the previous question
should be defeated, perhaps a committee could not be helped.
Bradlaugh came to the table, and the hostile motion was
made. Mr. Gladstone proposed his committee, and carried it
by a good majority against the motion that Bradlaugh, being
without religious belief, could not take an oath. The debate
was warm, and the attacks on Bradlaugh were often gross.
The Speaker honourably pointed out that such attacks on
an elected member whose absence was enforced by their own
order, were unfair and unbecoming, but the feelings of the
House were too strong for him and too strong for chivalry.
The opposition turned affairs to ignoble party account, and
were not ashamed in their prints and elsewhere to level the
charge of 'open patronage of unbelief and Malthusianism,
Bradlaugh and Blasphemy/ against a government that
contained Gladstone, Bright, and Selborne, three of the most
conspicuously devout men to be found in all England. One

1 See vol. i. p. 138.

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BOOK expression of faith used by a leader in the attack on Brad-
• * laugh lived in Mr. Gladstone's memory to the end of his

1S80, days. 'You know, Mr. Speaker/ cried the champion of
orthodox creeds, ' we all of us believe in a God of some sort
or another/ That a man should consent to clothe the naked
human soul in this truly singular and scanty remnant of
spiritual apparel, was held to be the unalterable condition
of fitness for a seat in parliament and the company of
decent people. Well might Mr. Gladstone point out how
vast a disparagement of Christianity, and of orthodox theism
also, was here involved : —

They say this, that you may go any length you please in the
denial of religion, provided only you do not reject the name of the
Deity. They tear religion into shreds, so to speak, and say that
there is one particular shred with which nothing will ever induce
them to part. They divide religion into the dispensable and the
indispensable, and among that kind which can be dispensed with —
I am not now speaking of those who declare, or are admitted,
under a special law, I am not speaking of Jews or those who make
a declaration, I am speaking solely of those for whom no provision
is made except the provision of oath — they divide, I say, religion
into what can and what cannot be dispensed with. There is some-
thing, however, that cannot be dispensed with. I am not willing,
Sir, that Christianity, if the appeal is made to us as a Christian
legislature, shall stand in any rank lower than that which is indis-
pensable. I may illustrate what I mean. Suppose a commander
has to despatch a small body of men on an expedition on which it
is necessary for them to carry on their backs all that they can take
with them ; the men will part with everything that is unnecessary,
and take only that which is essential. That is the course you
ask us to take in drawing us upon theological ground ; you require
us to distinguish between superfluities and necessaries, and you
tell us that Christianity is one of the superfluities, one of the
excrescences, and has nothing to do with the vital substance, the
name of the Deity, which is indispensable. I say that the . adop-
tion of such a proposition as that, which is in reality at the very
root of your contention, is disparaging in the very highest degree
to the Christian faith. . . - 1

1 Speech on second reading of Affirmation bill, 1883.

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Even viewed as a theistic test, he contended, this oath
embraced no acknowledgment of Providence, of divine
government, of responsibility, or retribution ; it involved i ® r# 71 -
nothing but a bare and abstract admission, a form void of
all practical meaning and concern.

The House, however, speedily showed how inaccessible
were most of its members to reason and argument of this
kind or any kind. On June 21, Mr. Gladstone thus described
the proceedings to the Queen. 'With the renewal of the
discussion/ he wrote, 'the temper of the House does not
improve, both excitement and suspicion appearing to prevail
in different quarters.' A motion made by Mr. Bradlaugh's
colleague that he should be permitted to affirm, was met
by a motion that he should not be allowed either to affirm
or to swear.

To the Queen.

Many warm speeches were made by the opposition in the name
of religion ; to those Mr. Bright has warmly replied in the name of
religious liberty. The contention on the other side really is that
as to a certain ill-defined fragment of truth the House is still,
under the Oaths Act, the guardian of religion. The primary
question, whether the House has jurisdiction under the statute, is
almost hopelessly mixed with the question whether an atheist, who
has declared himself an atheist, ought to sit in parliament. Mr.
Gladstone's own view is that the House has no jurisdiction for the
purpose of excluding any one willing to qualify when he has been
duly elected ; but he is very uncertain how the House will vote or
what will be the end of the business, if the House undertakes the
business of exclusion.

Jwne 22. — The House of Commons has been occupied from the
commencement of the evening until a late hour with the adjourned
debate on the case of Mr. Bradlaugh. The divided state of
opinion in the House made itself manifest throughout the evening.
Mr. Newdegate made a speech which turned almost wholly upon
the respective merits of theism and atheism. Mr. Gladstone
thought it his duty to advise the House to beware of entangling
itself in difficulties possibly of a serious character, by assuming a
jurisdiction in cases of this class.

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BOOK At one o'clock in the morning, the first great division
' / was taken, and the House resolved by 275 votes against 230

1880. th&t Mr. Bradlaugh should neither affirm nor swear. The
excitement at this result was tremendous. Some minutes
elapsed before the Speaker could declare the numbers.
' Indeed/ wrote Mr. Gladstone to the Queen, ' it was an
ecstatic transport, and exceeded anything which Mr. Glad-
stone remembers to have witnessed. He read in it only a
witness to the dangers of the course on which the House has
entered, and to its unfitness for the office which it has rashly
chosen to assume.' He might also have read in it, if he had
liked, the exquisite delight of the first stroke of revenge for

The next day (June 23) the matter entered on a more
violent phase.

To the Queen.
This day, when the Speaker took the chair at a quarter past
twelve, Mr. Bradlaugh came to the table and claimed to take the
oa£h. The Speaker read to him the resolution of the House
which forbids it. Mr. Bradlaugh asked to be heard, and no objec-
tion was taken. He then addressed the House from the bar.
His address was that of a consummate speaker. But it was an
address which could not have any effect unless the House had
undergone a complete revolution of mind. He challenged the
legality of the act of the House, expressing hereby an opinion in
which Mr. Gladstone himself, going beyond some other members
of the minority, has the misfortune to lean towards agreeing with
him. . . . The Speaker now again announced to Mr. Bradlaugh
the resolution of the House. Only a small minority voted against
enforcing it. Mr. Bradlaugh declining to withdraw, was removed
by the serjeant-at-arms. Having suffered this removal, he again
came beyond the bar, and entered into what was almost a corporal
struggle with the Serjeant. Hereupon Sir S. Northcote moved
that Mr. Bradlaugh be committed for his offence. Mr. Gladstone
said that while he thought it did not belong to him, under the
circumstances of the case, to advise the House, he could take no
objection to the advice thus given.

The Speaker, it may be said, thought this view of

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Mr. Gladstone's a mistake, and that when Bradlaugh refused
to withdraw, the leader of the House ought, as a matter of *
policy, to have been the person to move first the order to JEfSm 74 -
withdraw, next the committal to the custody of the serjeant-
at-arms. ' I was placed in a false position/ says the Speaker,
' and so was the House, in having to follow the lead of the
leader of the opposition, while the leader of the House and
the great majority were passive spectators.' 1 As Mr. Glad-
stone and other members of the government voted for
Bradlaugh's committal, on the ground that his resistance
to the serjeant had nothing to do with the establishment of
his rights before either a court or his constituency, it would
seem that the Speaker's complaint is not unjust. To this
position, however, Mr. Gladstone adhered, in entire con-
formity apparently to the wishes of the keenest members
of his cabinet and the leading men of his party.

The Speaker wrote to Sir Stafford Northcote urging on
him the propriety of allowing Bradlaugh to take the oath
without question. But Northcote was forced on against his
better judgment by his more ardent supporters. It was a
strange and painful situation, and the party system assur-
edly did not work at its best — one leading man forced on
to mischief by the least responsible of his sections, the other
held back from providing a cure by the narrowest of the
other sections. In the April of 1881 Mr. Gladstone gave
notice of a bill providing for affirmation, but it was
immediately apparent that the opposition would make the
most of every obstacle to a settlement, and the proposal fell
through. In August of this year the Speaker notes, ' The
difficulties in the way of settling this question satisfactorily
are great, and in the present temper of the House almost

. II
It is not necessary to recount all the stages of this pro-
tracted struggle : what devices and expedients and motions,
how many odious scenes of physical violence, how many
hard-fought actions in the lawcourts, how many conflicts

1 Lord Hampden 9 a Diaries,

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BOOK between the House of Commons and the constituency, what
VI1L ,gW and rubbing of hands in the camp of the opposition at
1&& having thrust their rivals deep into a quagmire so un-
pleasant The scandal was intolerable, but ministers were
helpless, as a marked incident now demonstrated. It was
not until 1883 that a serious attempt was made to change
the law. The Affirmation bill of that year has a biographic
place, because it marks in a definite way how far Mr. Glad-
stone's mind, — perhaps not, as I have said before, by nature
or by instinct peculiarly tolerant, — had travelled along one
of the grand highroads of human progress. The occasion
was for many reasons one of great anxiety. Here are one or
two short entries, the reader remembering that by this time
the question was two years old : —

April 24, Tuesday. — On Sunday night a gap of three hours in
my sleep was rather ominous ; but it was not repeated. . . . Saw
the Archbishop of Canterbury, with whom I had a very long con-
versation on the Affirmation bill and on Church and State policy
generally as well as on special subjects. . . . Globe Theatre in
the evening; excellent acting. ... 25. . . . Worked on Oaths
question. ... 26. . . . Made a long and begeistert 1 speech on the
Affirmation bill, taking the bull by the horns.

His speech upon this measure was a noble effort. It
was delivered under circumstances of unsurpassed difficulty,
for there was revolt in the party, the client was repugnant,
the opinions brought into issue were to Mr. Gladstone
hateful. Yet the speech proved one of his greatest Im-
posing, lofty, persuasive, sage it would have been, from
whatever lips it might have fallen ; it was signal indeed as
coming from one so fervid, so definite, so unfaltering in a
faith of his own, one who had started from the opposite pole
to that great civil principle of which he now displayed a
grasp invincible. If it be true of a writer that the best
style is that which most directly flows from living qualities
in the writer's own mind and is a pattern of their actual
working, so is the same thing to be said of oratory. These
high themes of Faith, on the one hand, and Freedom on the

1 Perhaps the best equivalent for begeUUrt here it 'daemonic*

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other, exactly fitted the range of the thoughts in which CHAP.
Mr. Gladstone habitually lived. ' I have no fear of Atheism v_

in this House/ he said ; ' Truth is the expression of the Mt - 74 -
Divine mind, and however little our feeble vision may be
able to discern the means by which God may provide for its
preservation, we may leave the matter in His hands, and we
may be sure that a firm and courageous application of every
principle of equity and of justice is the best method we can
adopt for the preservation and influence of Truth.' This
was Mr. Gladstone at his sincerest and his highest. I
wonder, too, if there has been a leader in parliament since
the seventeenth century, who could venture to address
it in the strain of the memorable passage now to be tran-
scribed: —

You draw your line at the point where the abstract denial of
God is severed from the abstract admission of the Deity. My pro-
position is that the line thus drawn is worthless, and that much on
your side of the line is as objectionable as the atheism on the other.
If you call upon us to make distinctions, let them at least be rational ;
I do not say let them be Christian distinctions, but let them be
rational I can understand one rational distinction, that you should
frame the oath in such a way as to recognise not only the existence
of the Deity, but the providence of the Deity, and man's responsi-
bility to the Deity ; and in such a way as to indicate the knowledge
in a man's own mind that he must answer to the Deity for what he
does, and is able to do. But is that your present rule 1 No, Sir,
you know very well that from ancient times there have been sects
and schools that have admitted in the abstract as freely as
Christians the existence of a Deity, but have held that of practical .
relations between Him and man there can be none. Many of the
members of this House will recollect the majestic and noble lines —

Omnia enim per se divom natura necesse est

Immortali sevo surama com pace fruatur,

Semota a nostra rebus sejnnctaqne longe.

Nam private dolore omni, private periclis,

Ipsa snis pollens opibus, nihil indiga nostri,

Nee bene promeritis capitnr, neo tangitur ira. 1

1 Lucretius, ii. 646. ' For the of ours ; free from all our pains, free

nature of the gods mast ever of itself from all our perils, strong in resources

enjoy repose supreme through endless of its own, needing nought from us,

time, far withdrawn from all concerns no favours win it, no angsr moves.'

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BOOK 'Divinity exists' — according to these, I must say, magnificent
lines — 'in remote and inaccessible recesses; but with us it has
no dealing, of us it has no need, with us it has no relation.'
I do not hesitate to say that the specific evil, the specific
form of irreligion, with which in the educated society of this
country you have to contend, and with respect to which you ought
to be on your guard, is not blank atheism. That is a rare opinion
very seldom met with ; but what is frequently met with is that
form of opinion which would teach us that, whatever may be
beyond the visible things of this world, whatever there may be
beyond this short span of life, you know and you can know nothing
of it, and that it is a bootless undertaking to attempt to establish
relations with it. That is the mischief of the age, and that mischief
you do not attempt to touch.

The House, though but few perhaps recollected their Lucre-
tius or had ever even read him, sat, as I well remember, with
reverential stillness, hearkening from this born master of
moving cadence and high sustained modulation to c the rise
and long roll of the hexameter/ — to the plangent lines that
have come down across the night of time to us from great
Rome. But all these impressions of sublime feeling and
strong reasoning were soon effaced by honest bigotry, by
narrow and selfish calculation, by flat cowardice. The re-
lieving bill was cast out by a majority of three. The catho-
lics in the main voted against it, and many nonconformists,
hereditary champions of all the rights of private judgment,
either voted against it or did not vote at all. So soon in
these affairs, as the world has long ago found out, do bodies
of men forget in a day of power the maxims that they held
sacred and inviolable in days when they were weak.

The drama did not end here. In that parliament Brad-
laugh was never allowed to discharge his duty as a member,
but when after the general election of 1885, being once more
chosen by Northampton, he went to the table to take the
oath, as in former days Mill and others of like non-theologic
complexion had taken it, the Speaker would suffer no inter-
vention against him. Then in 1888, though the majority
was conservative, Bradlaugh himself secured the passing of

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an affirmation law. Finally, in the beginning of 1891, upon
the motion of a Scotch member, supported by Mr. Gladstone, *
the House formally struck out from its records the resolution JSrgm 74#
of June 22, 1881, that had been passed, as we have seen,
amid 'ecstatic transports/ Bradlaugh then lay upon his
deathbed, and was unconscious of what had been done. Mr.
Gladstone a few days later, in moving a bill of his own to
discard a lingering case of civil disability attached to reli-
gious profession, made a last reference to Mr. Bradlaugh:—

A distinguished man, he said, and admirable member of this
House, was laid yesterday in his mother-earth. He was the subject
of a long controversy in this House — a controversy the beginning
of which we recollect, and the ending of which we recollect. We
remember with what zeal it was prosecuted ; we remember how
summarily it was dropped ; we remember also what reparation has
been done within the last few days to the distinguished man who
was the immediate object of that controversy. But does anybody
who hears me believe that that controversy, so prosecuted and so
abandoned, was beneficial to the Christian religion ? l

1 Religious Disabilities Removal biU, Feb. 4, 1891.

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€ls dW/wurw tOcruov Attjs
iftir\€X0fac<rO' &** drolas.

Mbob. Prom. 1078.

In a boundless coil of mischief pore senselessness will entangle yon.

BOOK It would almost need the pen of Tacitus or Dante to tell
, ' / the story of European power in South Africa. For forty

188 °- years, said Mr. Gladstone in 1881, ' I have always regarded
the South African question as the one great unsolved and
perhaps insoluble problem of our colonial system.' Among
the other legacies of the forward policy that the constitu-
encies had decisively condemned in 1880, this insoluble
problem rapidly became acute and formidable.

One of the great heads of impeachment in Midlothian
had been a war undertaken in 1878-9 against a fierce tribe
on the borders of the colony of NataL The author and
instrument of the Zulu war was Sir Bartle Frere, a man of
tenacious character and grave and lofty if ill-calculated aims.
The conservative government, as I have already said, 1 with-
out enthusiasm assented, and at one stage they even formally
censured him. When Mr. Gladstone acceded to office, the
expectation was universal that Sir Bartle would be at once
recalled. At the first meeting of the new cabinet (May 3) it
was decided to retain him. The prime minister at first was
his marked protector. The substantial reason against recall
was that his presence was needed to carry out the policy
of confederation, and towards confederation it was hoped
that the Cape parliament was immediately about to take

1 Above p. 191.

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a long preliminary step. 'Confederation,' Mr. Gladstone CHAP,
said, ' is the pole-star of the present action of our gtfvearn- * ' /
ment/ In a few weeks, for a reason that will be mentioned ^ **•
in treating the second episode of this chapter, confederation
broke down. A less substantial, but still not wholly inopera-
tive reason, was the strong feeling of the Queen for the
high commissioner. The royal prepossessions notwithstand-
ing, and in spite of the former leanings of Mr. Gladstone,
the cabinet determined, at the end of July, that Sir Bartle
should be recalled. The whole state of the case is made
sufficiently clear in the two following communications from
the prime minister to the Queen : —

To the Queen.

May 28, 1880. — Mr. Gladstone presents his humble duty, and
has had the honour to receive your Majesty's telegram respecting
Sir B. Frere. Mr. Gladstone used on Saturday his best efforts to
avert a movement for his dismissal, which it was intended by a
powerful body of members on the liberal side to promote by a
memorial to Mr. Gladstone, and by a motion in the House. He
hopes that he has in some degree succeeded, and he understands
that it is to be decided on Monday whether they will at present
desist or persevere. Of course no sign will be given by your
Majesty's advisers which could tend to promote perseverance, at
the same time Mr. Gladstone does not conceal from himself two
things : the first, that the only chance of Sir B. Frere's remaining
seems to depend upon his ability to make progress in the matter of
confederation ; the second, that if the agitation respecting him in
the House, the press, and the country should continue, confidence
in him may be so paralysed as to render his situation intolerable
to a high-minded man and to weaken hit hands fatally for any
purpose of good

July 29, 1880. — It was not without some differences of opinion
among themselves that, upon their accession to office, the cabinet
arrived at the conclusion that, if there was a prospect of progress
in the great matter of confederation, this might afford a ground
of co-operation between them and Sir B. Frere, notwithstanding
the strong censures which many of them in opposition had pro-

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BOOK nounced upon his policy. This conclusion gave the liveliest satis-
' / faction to a large portion, perhaps to the majority of the House
of Commons; but they embraced it with the more satisfaction
because of your Majesty's warm regard for Sir B. Frere, a senti-
ment which some among them personally share.

It was evident, however, and it was perhaps in the nature of
the case, that a confidence thus restricted was far from agreeable
to Sir B. Frere, who, in the opinion of Mr. Gladstone, has only
been held back by a commendable self-restraint and sense of duty,
from declaring himself aggrieved. Thus, though the cabinet have
done the best they could, his standing ground was not firm, nor
could they make it so. But the total failure of the effort made to
induce the Cape parliament to move, has put confederation wholly
out of view, for a time quite indefinite, and almost certainly con-
siderable. Mr. Gladstone has therefore the painful duty of sub-
mitting to your Majesty, on behalf of the cabinet, the enclosed
copy of a ciphered telegram of recall.


The breaking of the military power of the Zulus was
destined to prove much less important than another pro-
ceeding closely related to it, though not drawing the same
attention at the moment. I advise the reader not to grudge
a rather strict regard to the main details of transactions that
owing to unhappy events of later date, have to this day held
a conspicuous place in the general controversy as to the
great minister's statesmanship.

For some time past, powerful native tribes had been
slowly but steadily pushing the Boers of the Transvaal
back, and the inability to resist was now dangerously plain.
In 1876 the Boers had been worsted in one of their inces-
sant struggles with the native races, and this time they had
barely been able to hold their own against an insignificant
tribe of one of the least warlike branches. It was thought

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 24 of 91)