John Morley.

The life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 online

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years later, the tomb was opened to receive the faithful and
devoted companion of his life.


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Anybody can see the host of general and speculative
. questions raised by a career so extraordinary. How would
his fame have stood if his political life had ended in
1854, or 1874, or 1881, or 1885? What light does it
shed upon the working of the parliamentary system;
on the weakness and strength of popular government; on
the good and bad of political party; on the superiority of
rule by cabinet or by an elected president ; on the relations
of opinion to law? Here is material for a volume of
disquisition, and nobody can ever discuss such speculations
without reference to power as it was exercised by Mr. Glad-
stone. Those thronged halls, those vast progresses, those
strenuous orations — what did they amount to? Did they
mean a real moulding of opinion, an actual impression,
whether by argument or temper or personality or all three,
on the minds of hearers? Or was it no more than the
same kind of interest that takes men to stage-plays with
a favourite performer ? This could hardly be, for his hearers
gave him long spells of power and a practical authority that
was unique and supreme. What thoughts does his career
suggest on the relations of Christianity to patriotism, or to
empire, or to what has been called neo-paganism ? How
many points arise as to the dependence of ethics on dogma ?
These are deep and living and perhaps burning issues, not
to be discussed at the end of what the reader may well have
found a long journey. They offer themselves for his inde-
pendent consideration.

Mr. Gladstone's own summary of the period in which he


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had been so conspicuous a figure was this, when for him the CHAP,
drama was at an end : —

Of his own career, he says, it is a career certainly chargeable
with many errors of judgment, but I hope on the whole, governed
at least by uprightness of intention and by a desire to learn.
The personal aspect may now readily be dismissed as it concerns
the past. But the public aspect of the period which closes for me
with the fourteen years (so I love to reckon them) of my formal
connection with Midlothian is too important to pass without a
word. I consider it as beginning with the Reform Act of Lord
Grey's government. That great Act was for England improve-
ment and extension, for Scotland it was political birth, the
beginning of a duty and a power, neither of which had attached
to the Scottish nation in the preceding period. I rejoice to think
how the solemnity of that duty has been recognised, and how that
power has been used. The three-score years offer us the pictures
of what the historian will recognise as a great legislative and
administrative period — perhaps, on the whole, the greatest in our
annals. It has been predominantly a history of emancipation —
that is of enabling man to do his work of emancipation, political,
economical, social, moral, intellectual. Not numerous merely, but
almost numberless, have been the causes brought to issue, and in
every one of them I rejoice to think that, so far as my knowledge
goes, Scotland has done battle for the right.

Another period has opened and is opening still — a period
possibly of yet greater moral dangers, certainly a great ordeal for
those classes which are now becoming largely conscious of power,
and never heretofore subject to its deteriorating influences. These
have been confined in their actions to the classes above them,
because they were its sole possessors. Now is the time for the
true friend of his country to remind the masses that their present
political elevation is owing to no principles less broad and noble
than these — the love of liberty, of liberty for all without distinc-
tion of class, creed or country, and the resolute preference of the
interests of the whole to any interest, be it what it may, of a
narrower scope. 1

A year later, in bidding farewell to his constituents ' with
1 Letter to Sir John Cowan, March 17, 1894.

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sentiments of gratitude and attachment that can never be
effaced/ he proceeds : —

Though in regard to public affairs many things are disputable,
there are some which belong to history and which have passed out
of the region of contention. It is, for example as I conceive, be-
yond question that the century now expiring has exhibited since
the close of its first quarter a period of unexampled activity both
in legislative and administrative changes; that these changes,
taken in the mass, have been in the direction of true and most
beneficial progress ; that both the conditions and the franchises of
the people have made in relation to the former state of things, an
extraordinary advance; that of these reforms an overwhelming
proportion have been effected by direct action of the liberal party,
or of statesmen such as Peel and Canning, ready to meet odium
or to forfeit power for the public good ; and that in every one of
the fifteen parliaments the people of Scotland have decisively
expressed their convictions in favour of this wise, temperate,
and in every way remarkable policy. 1

To charge him with habitually rousing popular forces into
dangerous excitement, is to ignore or misread his action in
some of the most critical of his movements. 'Here is
a man/ said Huxley, ' with the greatest intellect in Europe,
and yet he debases it by simply following majorities
and the crowd.' He was called a mere mirror of the passing
humours and intellectual confusions of the popular mind.
He had nothing, said his detractors, but a sort of clever
pilot's eye for winds and currents, and the rising of the
tide to the exact height that would float him and his
cargo over the bar. All this is the" exact opposite of
the truth. What he thought was that the statesman's gift
consisted in insight into the facts of a particular era, dis-
closing the existence of material for forming public opinion
and directing public opinion to a given purpose. In every
one of his achievements of high mark — even in his last
marked failure of achievement — he expressly formed, or
endeavoured to form and create, the public opinion upon
which he knew that in the last resort he must depend.

1 July 1, 1S96.

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We have seen the triumph of 1853. 1 Did he, in renewing chap.
the most hated of taxes, run about anxiously feeling the
pulse of public opinion ? On the contrary, he grappled with
the facts with infinite labour — and half his genius was labour
— he built up a great plan; he carried it to the cabinet;
they warned him that the House of Commons would be
against him ; the officials of the treasury told him the Bank
would be against him; that a strong press of commercial
interests would be against him. Like the bold and sinewy
athlete that he always was, he stood to his plan ; he carried
the cabinet; he persuaded the House of Commons; he
vanquished the Bank and the hostile interests ; and in the
words of Sir Stafford Northcote, he changed and turned for
many years to come, a current of public opinion that seemed
far too powerful for any minister to resist. In the tem-
pestuous discussions during the seventies on the policy of
this country in respect of the Christian races of the Balkan
Peninsula, he with his own voice created, moulded, inspired,
and kindled with resistless flame the whole of the public
opinion that eventually guided the policy of the nation with
such admirable effect both for its own fame, and for the good
of the world. Take again the Land Act of 1881, in some ways
the most deep-reaching of all his legislative achievements.
Here he had no flowing tide, every current was against him.
He carried his scheme against the ignorance of the country,
against the prejudice of the country, and against the stand-
ing prejudices of both branches of the legislature, who were
steeped from the crown of the head to the sole of the foot in
the strictest doctrines of contract.

Then his passion for economy, his ceaseless war against
public profusion, his insistence upon rigorous keeping of the
national accounts — in this great department of affairs he led
and did not follow. In no sphere of his activities was he
more strenuous, and in no sphere, as he must well have
known, was he less likely to win popularity. For democracy
is spendthrift ; if, to be sure, we may not say that most forms
of government are apt to be the same.

In a survey of Mr. Gladstone's performances, some would

1 See voL i. p. 457.

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place this of which I have last spoken, as foremost among
his services to the country. Others would call him greatest
in the associated service of a skilful handling and adjust-
ment of the burden of taxation ; or the strengthening of the
foundations of national prosperity and well-being by his
reformation of the tariff. Yet others again choose to re-
member him for his share in guiding the successive ex-
tensions of popular power, and simplifying and purifying
electoral machinery. Irishmen at least, and others so far
as they are able to comprehend the history and vile wrongs
and sharp needs of Ireland, will have no doubt what rank
in legislation they will assign to the establishment of religious
equality and agrarian justice in that portion of the realm.
Not a few will count first the vigour with which he repaired
what had been an erroneous judgment of his own and of vast
hosts of his countrymen, by his courage in carrying through
the submission of the Alabama claims to arbitration. Still
more, looking from west to east, in this comparison among
his achievements, will judge alike in its result and in the
effort that produced it, nothing equal to the valour and
insight with which he burst the chains of a mischievous and
degrading policy as to the Ottoman empire. When we look
at this exploit, how in face of an opponent of genius and
authority and a tenacity not inferior to his own, in face of
strongly rooted tradition on behalf of the Turk, and an easily
roused antipathy against the Russian, by his own energy
and strength of arm he wrested the rudder from the hand of
the helmsman and put about the course of the ship, and held
England back from the enormity of trying to keep several
millions of men and women under the yoke of barbaric
oppression and misrule, — we may say that this great feat
alone was fame enough for one statesman. Let us make
what choice we will of this or that particular achievement*
how splendid a list it is of benefits conferred and public
work effectually performed. Was he a good parliamentary
tactician, they ask ? Was his eye sure, his hand firm, his
measurement of forces, distances, and possibilities of change
in wind and tide accurate ? Did he usually hit the proper
moment for a magisterial intervention? Experts did not

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always agree on his quality as tactician. At least he was
pilot enough to bring many valuable cargoes safely home.

He was one of the three statesmen in the House of
Commons of his own generation who had the gift of large
and spacious conception of the place and power of England
in the world, ancf of the policies by which she could maintain
it. Cobden and Disraeli were the other two. Wide as the
poles asunder in genius, in character, and in the mark they
made upon the nation, yet each of these three was capable
of wide surveys from high eminence. But Mr. Gladstone's
performances in the sphere of active government were
beyond comparison.

Again he was often harshly judged by that tenacious class
who insist that if a general principle be sound, there can never
be a reason why it should not be applied forthwith, and that
a rule subject to exceptions is not worth calling a rule ; and
the worst of it is that these people are mostly the salt of the
earth. In their impatient moments they dismissed him as
an opportunist, but whenever there was a chance of getting
anything done, they mostly found that he was the only man
with courage and resolution enough to attempt to do it In
thinking about him we have constantly to remember, as Sir
George Lewis said, that government is a very rough affair
at best, a huge rough machine, not the delicate springs,
wheels, and balances of a chronometer, and those concerned
in working it have to be satisfied with what is far below the
best. 'Men have no business to talk of disenchantment/
Mr. Gladstone said ; ' ideals are never realised.' That is no
reason, he meant, why men should not persist and toil and
hope, and this is plainly the true temper for the politician.
Yet he did not feed upon illusions. ' The history of nations/
he wrote in 1876, 'is a melancholy chapter; that is, the
history of governments is one of the most immoral parts of
human history/


It might well be said that Mr. Gladstone took too little,
rather than too much trouble to be popular. His religious
conservatism puzzled and irritated those who admired and

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BOOK shared his political liberalism, just as churchmen watched
/ ' with uneasiness and suspicion his radical alliances. Neither
those who were churchmen first, nor those whose interests
were keenest in politics, could comprehend the union of what
seemed incompatibles, and because they could not compre-
hend they sometimes in their shallower humours doubted
his sincerity. Mr. Gladstone was never, after say 1850, really
afraid of disestablishment; on the contrary he was much
more afraid of the perils of establishment for the integrity of
the faith. Yet political disestablishers often doubted him,
because they had not logic enough to see that a man may
be a fervent believer in anglican institutions and what he
thinks catholic tradition, and yet be as ready as Cavour for
the principle of free church in free state.

It is curious that some of the things that made men
suspicious, were in fact the liveliest tokens of his sincerity
and simplicity. With all his power of political imagination,
yet his mind was an intensely literal mind. He did not
look at an act or a decision from the point of view at which
it might be regarded by other people. Ewelme, the mission
to the Ionian Islands, the royal warrant, the affair of the
judicial committee, Vaticanism, and all the other things that
gave offence, and stirred misgivings even in friends, showed
that the very last question he ever asked himself was how
his action would look; what construction might be put
upon it, or even would pretty certainly be put upon it;
whom it would encourage, whom it would estrange, whom
it would perplex. Is the given end right, he seemed to ask;
what are the surest means ; are the means as right as the
end, as right as they are sure? But right — on strict and
literal construction. What he sometimes forgot was that in
political action, construction is part of the act, nay, may
even be its most important part. 1

The more you make of his errors, the more is the need to
explain his vast renown, the long reign of his authority, the
substance and reality of his powers. We call men great for
many reasons apart from service wrought or eminence of
intellect or even from force and depth of character. To

1 See Guardian, Feb. 25, 1874.

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have taken a leading part in transactions of decisive
moment ; to have proved himself able to meet demands
on which high issues hung; to combine intellectual
qualities, though moderate yet adequate and sufficient, with
the moral qualities needed for the given circumstance — with
daring, circumspection, energy, intrepid initiative ; to have
fallen in with one of those occasions in the world that
impart their own greatness even to a mediocre actor, and
surround his name with a halo not radiating from within
but shed upon him from without — in all these and many
other ways men come to be counted great. Mr. Gladstone
belongs to the rarer class who acquired authority and fame
by transcendent qualities of genius within, in half indepen-
dence of any occasions beyond those they create for them-


Of his attitude in respect of church parties, it is not for
me to speak. He has himself described at least one aspect
of it in a letter to an inquirer, which would be a very noble
piece by whomsoever written, and in the name of what-
soever creed or no-creed, whether Christian or Rationalist
or Nathan the Wise Jew's creed. It was addressed to a
clergyman who seems to have asked of what section Mr.
Gladstone considered himself an adherent : —

Feb. 4, 1865. — It is impossible to misinterpret either the inten-
tion or the terms of your letter ; and I thank you for it sincerely.
But I cannot answer the question which you put to me, and
I think I can even satisfy you that with my convictions I should
do wrong in replying to it in any manner. Whatever reason
I may have for being painfully and daily conscious of every kind
of unworthiness, yet I am sufficiently aware of the dignity of
religious belief to have been throughout a political life, now in its
thirty-third year, steadily resolved never by my own voluntary
act to make it the subject of any compact or assurance with a
view to a political object. You think (and pray do not suppose
I make this matter of complaint) that I have been associated with
one party in the church of England, and that I may now lean
rather towards another. . . . There is no one about whom in-

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formation can be more easily had than myself. I have had and
. have friends of many colours, churchmen high and low, presby-
terians, Greeks, Roman catholics, dissenters, who can speak
abundantly, though perhaps not very well of me. And further,
as member for the university, I have honestly endeavoured at all
times to put my constituents in possession of all I could convey
to them that could be considered as in the nature of a fact, by
answering as explicitly as I was able all questions relating to the
matters, and they are numerous enough, on which I have had to
act or speak. Perhaps I shall surprise you by what I have yet
further to say. I have never by any conscious act yielded my
allegiance to any person or party in matters of religion. You and
others may have called me (without the least offence) a church-
man of some particular kind, and I have more than once seen
announced in print my own secession from the church of England.
These things I have not commonly contradicted, for the atmo-
sphere of religious controversy and contradiction is as odious as
the atmosphere of mental freedom is precious, to me ; and I have
feared to lose the one and be drawn into the other, by heat and
bitterness creeping into the mind. If another chooses to call him-
self, or to call me, a member of this or that party, I am not to
complain. But I respectfully claim the right not to call myself
so, and on this claim, I have I believe acted throughout my life,
without a single exception ; and I feel that were I to waive it,
I should at once put in hazard that allegiance to Truth, which is
at once the supreme duty and the supreme joy of life. I have
only to add the expression of my hope that in what I have said
there is nothing to hurt or to offend you ; and, if there be, very
heartily to wish it unsaid.

Yet there was never the shadow of mistake about his own
fervent faith. As he said to another correspondent: —

Feb. 5, 1876. — I am in principle a strong denominationalist.
' One fold and one shepherd ' was the note of early Christendom.
The shepherd is still one and knows his sheep ; but the folds are
many ; and, without condemning any others, I am of opinion that
it is best for us all that we should all of us be jealous for the
honour of whatever we have and hold as positive truth, apper-
taining to the Divine Word and the foundation and history of

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the Christian community. I admit that this question becomes
one of circumstance and degree, but I take it as I find it defined
for myself by and in my own position.


Of Mr. Gladstone as orator and improvisatore, enough has
been said and seen. Besides being orator and statesman
he was scholar and critic. Perhaps scholar in his interests,
not in abiding contribution. The most copious of his pro-
ductions in this delightful but arduous field was the three
large volumes on Homer and the Homeric Age, given to the
world in 1858. Into what has been well called the whirl-
pool of Homeric controversies, the reader shall not here be
dragged. Mr. Gladstone himself gave them the go-by, with
an indifference and disdain such as might have been well
enough in the economic field if exhibited towards a protec-
tionist farmer, or a partisan of retaliatory duties on manu-
factured goods, but that were hardly to the point in dealing
with profound and original critics. What he too con-
temptuously dismissed as Homeric 'bubble-schemes/ were
in truth centres of scientific illumination. At the end of the
eighteenth century Wolfs famous Prolegomena appeared, in
which he advanced, with hints from earlier scholars, the theory
that Homer was no single poet, nor a name for two poets, nor
an individual at all ; the Iliad and Odyssey were collections
of independent lays, folk-lore and folk-songs connected by a
common set of themes, and edited, redacted, or compacted
about the middle of the sixth century before Christ. A learned
man of our own day has said that F. A. Wolf ought to be
counted one of the half dozen writers that within the last three
centuries have most influenced thought. This would bring
Wolf into line with Descartes, Newton, Locke, Kant, Rousseau,
or whatever other five master-spirits of thought from then
to now the judicious reader may select The present writer
has assuredly no competence to assign Wolfs place in the
history of modern criticism, but straying aside for a season
from the green pastures of Hansard, and turning over again
the slim volume of a hundred and fifty pages in which Wolf
•discusses his theme, one may easily discern a fountain of

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broad streams of modern thought (apart from the particular
thesis) that to Mr. Gladstone, by the force of all his educa-
tion and his deepest prepossessions, were in the highest
degree chimerical and dangerous.

He once wrote to Lord Acton (1889) about the Old
Testament and Mosaic legislation : —

Now I think that the most important parts of the argument
have in a great degree a solid standing ground apart from the
destructive criticism on dates and on the text : and I am suffici-
ently aware of my own rawness and ignorance in the matter not
to allow myself to judge definitely, or condemn. I feel also that
I have a prepossession derived from the criticisms in the case of
Homer. Of them I have a very bad opinion, not only in them-
selves, but as to the levity, precipitancy, and shallowness of mind
which they display; and here I do venture to speak, because I
believe myself to have done a great deal more than any of the
destructives in the examination of the text, which is the true
source of the materials of judgment. They are a soulless lot;
but there was a time when they had possession of the public ear
as much I suppose as the Old Testament destructives now have,
within their own precinct. It is only the constructive part of
their work on which I feel tempted to judge; and I must own
that it seems to me sadly wanting in the elements of rational

This unpromising method is sufficiently set but when he
says: — 'I find in the plot of the Iliad enough of beauty,
order, and structure, not merely to sustain the supposition
of its own unity, but to bear an independent testimony,
should it be still needed, to the existence of a personal and
individual Homer as its author.' x From such a method no
permanent contribution could come.

Yet scholars allow that Mr. Gladstone in these three
volumes, as well as in Jwventus Mundi and his Homeric
Primer, has added not a little to our scientific knowledge
of the Homeric poems, 2 by his extraordinary mastery of the
text, the result of unwearied and prolonged industry, aided

1 iii. p. 396.

a For instance, Geddes, Problem of tht Homeric Poems, 1878, p. 16.

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by a memory both tenacious and ready. Taking his own CHAP,

Online LibraryJohn MorleyThe life of William Ewart Gladstone, Volume 2 → online text (page 71 of 91)