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- William Ewart Gladstone - 1/8 -


by James Bryce


No man has lived in our times of whom it is so hard to speak in a concise and summary fashion as Mr. Gladstone. For forty years he was so closely associated with the public affairs of his country that the record of his parliamentary life comes near to being an outline of English politics. His activity spread itself out over many fields. He was the author of several learned and thoughtful books, and of a multitude of articles upon all sorts of subjects. He showed himself as eagerly interested in matters of classical scholarship and Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical history as in questions of national finance and foreign policy. No account of him could be complete without reviewing his actions and estimating the results of his work in all these directions. But the difficulty of describing and judging him goes deeper. His was a singularly complex nature, a character hard to unravel. His individuality was extremely strong; all that he said or did bore its impress. Yet it was an individuality so far from being self-consistent as sometimes to seem a bundle of opposite qualities capriciously united in a single person. He might with equal truth be called, and he has been in fact called, a conservative and a revolutionary. He was dangerously impulsive, and had frequently to suffer from his impulsiveness; yet he was also not merely wary and cautious, but so astute as to have been accused of craft and dissimulation. So great was his respect for authority and tradition that he clung to views regarding the unity of Homer and the historical claims of Christian sacerdotalism which the majority of competent specialists have now rejected. So bold was he in practical matters that he transformed the British constitution, changed the course of English policy in the Orient, destroyed an established church in one part of the United Kingdom, and committed himself to the destruction of two established churches in two other parts. He came near to being a Roman Catholic in his religious opinions, yet was for twenty years the darling leader of the English Protestant Nonconformists and the Scotch Presbyterians. No one who knew him intimately doubted his conscientious sincerity and earnestness, yet four fifths of the English upper classes were in his later years wont to regard him as a self-interested schemer who would sacrifice his country to his lust for power. Though he loved general principles, and often soared out of the sight of his audience when discussing them, he generally ended by deciding upon points of detail the question at issue. He was at different times of his life the defender and the assailant of the same institutions, yet he scarcely seemed inconsistent in doing opposite things, because his method and his arguments preserved the same type and color throughout. Any one who had at the beginning of his career discerned in him the capacity for such strange diversities and contradictions would probably have predicted that they must wreck it by making his purposes weak and his course erratic. Such a prediction would have proved true of any one with less firmness of will and less intensity of temper. It was the persistent heat and vehemence of his character, the sustained passion which he threw into the pursuit of the object on which he was for the moment bent, that fused these dissimilar qualities and made them appear to contribute to and to increase the total force which he exerted.


The circumstances of Mr. Gladstone's political career help to explain, or, at any rate, will furnish occasion for the attempt to explain, this complexity and variety of character. But before we come to his manhood it is convenient to advert to three conditions whose influence on him has been profound: the first his Scottish blood, the second his Oxford education, the third his apprenticeship to public life under Sir Robert Peel.

Theories of character based on race differences are dangerous, because they are so easy to form and so hard to test. Still, no one denies that there are qualities and tendencies generally found in the minds of men of certain stocks, just as there are peculiarities in their faces or in their speech. Mr. Gladstone was born and brought up in Liverpool, and always retained a touch of Lancashire accent. But, as he was fond of saying, every drop of blood in his veins was Scotch. His father was a Lowland Scot from the neighborhood of Biggar, in the Upper Ward of Lanarkshire, where the old yeoman's dwelling of Gledstanes--"the kite's rock"--may still be seen. His mother was of Highland extraction, by name Robertson, from Dingwall, in Ross-shire. Thus he was not only a Scot, but a Scot with a strong infusion of the Celtic element, the element whence the Scotch derive most of what distinguishes them from the English. The Scot is more excitable, more easily brought to a glow of passion, more apt to be eagerly absorbed in one thing at a time. He is also more fond of abstract intellectual effort. It is not merely that the taste for metaphysical theology is commoner in Scotland than in England, but that the Scotch have a stronger relish for general principles. They like to set out by ascertaining and defining such principles, and then to pursue a series of logical deductions from them. They are, therefore, somewhat bolder reasoners than the English, less content to remain in the region of concrete facts, more eager to hasten on to the process of working out a body of speculative doctrines. The Englishman is apt to plume himself on being right in spite of logic; the Scotchman delights to think that it is through logic he has reached his conclusions, and that he can by logic defend them. These are qualities which Mr. Gladstone drew from his Scottish blood. He had a keen enjoyment of the processes of dialectic. He loved to get hold of an abstract principle and to derive all sorts of conclusions from it. He was wont to begin the discussion of a question by laying down two or three sweeping propositions covering the subject as a whole, and would then proceed to draw from these others which he could apply to the particular matter in hand. His well-stored memory and boundless ingenuity made this finding of such general propositions so easy a task that a method in itself agreeable sometimes appeared to be carried to excess. He frequently arrived at conclusions which the judgment of the sober auditor did not approve, because, although they seemed to have been legitimately deduced from the general principles just enunciated, they were somehow at variance with the plain teaching of the facts. At such moments one felt that the man who was charming but perplexing Englishmen by his subtlety and ingenuity was not himself an Englishman in mental quality, but had the love for abstractions and refinements and dialectical analysis which characterizes the Scotch intellect. He had also a large measure of that warmth and vehemence, called in the sixteenth century the perfervidum ingenium Scotorum, which belong to the Scottish temperament, and particularly to the Celtic Scot. He kindled quickly, and when kindled, he shot forth a strong and brilliant flame. To any one with less power of self-control such intensity of emotion as he frequently showed would have been dangerous; nor did this excitability fail, even with him, to prompt words and acts which a cooler judgment would have disapproved. But it gave that spontaneity which was one of the charms of his nature; it produced that impression of profound earnestness and of resistless force which raised him out of the rank of ordinary statesmen. The tide of emotion swelling fast and full seemed to turn the whole rushing stream of intellectual effort into whatever channel lay at the moment nearest.

With these Scottish qualities, Mr. Gladstone was brought up at school and college among Englishmen, and received at Oxford, then lately awakened from a long torpor, a bias and tendency which never thereafter ceased to affect him. The so-called "Oxford Movement," which afterward obtained the name of Tractarianism and carried Dr. Newman, together with other less famous leaders, on to Rome, had not yet, in 1831, when Mr. Gladstone won his degree with double first- class honors, taken visible shape, or become, so to speak, conscious of its own purposes. But its doctrinal views, its peculiar vein of religious sentiment, its respect for antiquity and tradition, its proneness to casuistry, its taste for symbolism, were already potent influences working on the more susceptible of the younger minds. On Mr. Gladstone they told with full force. He became, and never ceased to be, not merely a High-churchman, but what may be called an Anglo-Catholic, in his theology, deferential not only to ecclesiastical tradition, but to the living voice of the visible church, respecting the priesthood as the recipients (if duly ordained) of a special grace and peculiar powers, attaching great importance to the sacraments, feeling himself nearer to the Church of Rome, despite what he deemed her corruptions, than to any of the non-episcopal Protestant churches. Henceforth his interests in life were as much ecclesiastical as political. For a time he desired to be ordained a clergyman. Had this wish been carried out, it can scarcely be doubted that he would eventually have become the leading figure in the Church of England and have sensibly affected her recent history. The later stages in his career drew him away from the main current of political opinion within that church. He who had been the strongest advocate of established churches came to be the leading agent in the disestablishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Ireland, and a supporter of the policy of disestablishment in Scotland and in Wales. But the color which these Oxford years gave to his mind and thoughts was never obliterated. They widened the range of his interests and deepened his moral zeal and religious earnestness. But at the same time they confirmed his natural bent toward over-subtle distinctions and fine- drawn reasonings, and they put him somewhat out of sympathy not only with the attitude of the average Englishman, who is essentially a Protestant,--that is to say, averse to sacerdotalism, and suspicious of any other religious authority than that of the Bible and the individual conscience,--but also with two of the strongest influences of our time, the influence of the sciences of nature, and the influence of historical criticism. Mr. Gladstone, though too wise to rail at science, as many religious men did till within the last few years, could never quite reconcile himself either to the conclusions of geology and zoology regarding the history of the physical world and the animals which inhabit it, or to the modern methods of critical inquiry as applied to Scripture and to ancient literature generally. The training which Oxford then gave, stimulating as it was, and free from the modern error of over specialization, was defective in omitting the experimental sciences, and in laying undue stress upon the study of language. A proneness to dwell on verbal distinctions and to trust overmuch to the analysis of terms as a means of reaching the truth of things is noticeable in many eminent Oxford writers of that and the next succeeding generation--some of them, like the illustrious F. D. Maurice, far removed from Dr. Newman and Mr. Gladstone in theological opinion.

When the brilliant young Oxonian entered the House of Commons at the age of twenty-three, Sir Robert Peel was leading the Tory party with

William Ewart Gladstone - 1/8

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