The Most Eminent Victorian

Adored as "the People's William" and execrated by "the upper ten thousand," Gladstone was the great statesman of his age.



William Ewart Gladstone

ON March 3, 1894, William Ewart Gladstone resigned for the last time as Prime Minister of England. He was in his eighty-fifth year and had been a member of Parliament for more than sixty years, since his election, at twenty-two, to the first reformed Parliament, after the great Reform Bill of 1832 had adumbrated the gradual democratization of England. He had first joined the Cabinet at thirty-three, as the third youngest man ever to do so; he had become Prime Minister for the first time more than twenty-six years before his final departure; and he had held the office four times in all, in 1868-1874, in 1880- 1885, for six months in 1886, and in 1892-1894.

The sheer length and scope of his public life make him stand alone in the history of his or any other country: Winston Churchill is the only comparison. It has been said that all political careers end in failure, and Gladstone might seem to illustrate the saying. When he finally left Downing Street, it was to the relief of most of his colleagues, with almost no thanks from Queen Victoria, who had come to detest him, and without accomplishing the great task of his later years -- a just settlement for Ireland. For all that, Gladstone had done more with his life than another two or three politicians put together, and his legislative and financial record places him in the very first rank of English statesmen.

And yet what best defines this extraordinary man is the way in which he spent his last day as the leader of what was then the greatest power on earth. He recorded that he had been to church, written half a dozen letters, seen half a dozen people, "Read I. Hen. VI. And finished my version of the Odes of Horace." Reading a Shakespeare play might seem unlikely enough in the circumstances, let alone completing a classical translation. But then, as Gladstone recorded in the breathtaking human document that is his Diaries, he read during the course of his life at least 20,000 books in at least six languages, and he was an indefatigable writer, translator, and controversialist.

He had a wondrous ability to switch off from politics and write an enormously long article on church music, say, or a 15,000-word critical essay on Tennyson. Earlier in his career, when out of office for the moment, he had thought nothing of producing a four-volume translation of Farini's Lo stato romano. On one occasion when he had recently ceased to be Chancellor of the Exchequer, and on another when he had ceased to be Prime Minister, he published vast if idiosyncratic studies of Homer.

Some of what he wrote -- an essay on Giacomo Leopardi, for example -- is still worth reading, though his writing was uneven, partly because of his inexhaustible prolificity. This was itself an expression of the demonic energy that otherwise manifested itself in enormously long walks, in hill-climbing into old age, and in his most famous physical pastime of tree-felling (in the mordant phrase of Lord Randolph Churchill, father of Winston, "The forest laments, in order that Mr. Gladstone may perspire").


GLADSTONE'S latest biographer hesitates to claim that he was the greatest of all premiers; for one thing, unlike the two William Pitts, Lloyd George, and Churchill, he never led his country in the supreme test of war. But Roy Jenkins has "no doubt that he was the most remarkable specimen of humanity of all the fifty who, from [Robert] Walpole to [John] Major, have so far held the office of British Prime Minister." Few who read this utterly absorbing life will disagree with him.

Prime Minister of England, I have called him, and he would have called himself, but by descent he was pure Scotch, as he would also have said. Although it is sometimes observed that our damp little island has a class system (as if other countries were innocent of class), the system has always been permeable by money. John Gladstone was not a gentleman but a corn merchant from Leith, near Edinburgh. He moved to Liverpool and made a larger fortune, partly from West Indian sugar, which is to say from slavery. His son William was born in 1809, and those unlovely profits were used to give him a traditional upper-class education at Eton and Christ Church. Despite that, and despite marrying into a landed family, the Glynnes, whose estate at Hawarden, in northeast Wales, eventually passed to his descendants, Gladstone was all his life conscious of not belonging to the aristocracy.

Before the end of his days he was to become a byword for liberalism. Literally so: almost a hundred years after his death "Gladstonian Liberal" is still a phrase by which some of us are happy to describe ourselves. But this was after he had made the lengthiest possible political pilgrimage, having begun life as far on the other side as could be. His first Commons speech was in dutifully filial opposition to a slavery-abolition bill, and a few years later he was described by the essayist Thomas Babington Macaulay as "the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories." The phrase, which haunted Gladstone for years, was inspired by his first, truly bizarre book, The State in its Relations With the Church. It was a work of intellectual fanaticism, a last-ditch defense of the confessional state that Tory England had tried to construct and maintain since the Restoration, in 1660, with all office and power reserved to communicant members of the Established Church of England. At a time when Catholic emancipation had just been passed, and full Jewish emancipation was within sight, Gladstone proposed a Protestant Episcopalian theocracy not only in England (which could at least claim to be a Protestant country) but in Ireland also.

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