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- William Ewart Gladstone - 2/8 -

an authority and ability rarely surpassed in parliamentary annals. Within two years the young man was admitted into the short-lived Tory ministry of 1834, and soon proved himself an active and promising lieutenant of the experienced chief. Peel was an eminently wary and cautious man, alive to the necessity of watching the signs of the times, of studying and interpreting the changeful phases of public opinion. His habit was to keep his own counsel, and even when he perceived that the policy he had hitherto followed would need to be modified, to continue to use guarded language and refuse to commit himself to change till he perceived that the fitting moment had arrived. He was, moreover, a master of detail, slow to propound a plan until he had seen how its outlines were to be filled up by appropriate devices for carrying it out in practice. These qualities and habits of the minister profoundly affected his gifted disciple. They became part of the texture of his own political character, and in his case, as in that of Peel, they sometimes brought censure upon him, as having withheld too long from the public views or purposes which he thought it unwise to disclose till effect could promptly be given to them. Such reserve, such a guarded attitude and conservative attachment to existing institutions, were not altogether natural to Mr. Gladstone's mind, and the contrast between them and some of his other qualities, like the contrast which ultimately appeared between his sacerdotal tendencies and his political liberalism, contributed to make his character perplexing and to expose his conduct to the charge of inconsistency. Inconsistent, in the ordinary sense of the word, he was not, much less changeable. He was really, in the main features of his political convictions and the main habits of his mind, one of the most tenacious and persistent of men. But there were always at work in him two tendencies. One was the speculative desire to probe everything to the bottom, to try it by the light of general principles and logic, and where it failed to stand this test, to reject it. The other was the sense of the complexity of existing social and political arrangements, and of the risk of disturbing any one part of them unless the time had arrived for resettling other parts also. Every statesman feels both these sides to every concrete question of reform. No one has set them forth more cogently, and in particular no one has more earnestly dwelt on the necessity for the latter, than the most profound thinker among English statesmen, Edmund Burke. Mr. Gladstone, however, felt and stated them with quite unusual force, and when he stated the one side, people forgot that there was another which would be no less vividly present to him at some other moment. He was not only, like all successful parliamentarians, necessarily something of an opportunist, though perhaps less so than his master Peel, but was moved by emotion more than most statesmen, and certainly more than Peel. The relative strength with which the need for comprehensive reform or the need for watchful conservatism presented itself to his mind depended largely upon the weight which his emotions cast into one or the other scale, and this element made it difficult to forecast his probable action. Thus his political character was the result of influences differing widely in their origin--influences, moreover, which it was hard for ordinary observers to appreciate.


Mr. Gladstone sat for sixty-three years in Parliament, and for more than twenty-six years was the leader of his party, and therefore the central figure of English politics. As has been said, he began as a high Tory, remained about fifteen years in that camp, was then led by the split between Peel and the protectionists to take up an intermediate position, and finally was forced to cast in his lot with the Liberals, for in England, as in America, third parties seldom endure. No parliamentary career in English annals is comparable to his for its length and variety; and of those who saw its close in the House of Commons, there was only one man, Mr. Villiers (who died in January, 1898), who could remember its beginning. He had been opposed in 1833 to men who might have been his grandfathers; he was opposed in 1893 to men who might have been his grandchildren. In a sketch like this, it is impossible to describe or comment on the events of such a life. All that can be done is to indicate the more salient characteristics which a study of his career as a statesman and a parliamentarian sets before us.

The most remarkable of these characteristics is the sustained freshness, openness, eagerness of mind, which he preserved down to the end of his life. Most of us, just as we make few intimate friends, so we form few new opinions after thirty-five. Intellectual curiosity may remain fresh and strong even after fifty, but its range steadily narrows as one abandons the hope of attaining any thorough knowledge of subjects other than those which make the main business of one's life. One cannot follow the progress of all the new ideas that are set afloat in the world. One cannot be always examining the foundations of one's political or religious beliefs. Repeated disappointments and disillusionments make a man expect less from changes the older he grows; and mere indolence adds its influence in deterring us from entering upon new enterprises. None of these causes seemed to affect Mr. Gladstone. He was as much excited over a new book (such as Cardinal Manning's Life) at eighty- six as when at fourteen he insisted on compelling little Arthur Stanley (afterward Dean of Westminster, and then aged nine) to procure Gray's poems, which he had just perused himself. His reading covered almost the whole field of literature, except physical and mathematical science. While frequently declaring that he must confine his political thinking and leadership to a few subjects, he was so observant of the movements of opinion that the course of talk brought up scarcely any topic in which he did not seem to know what was the latest thing that had been said or done. Neither the lassitude nor the prejudices common in old age prevented him from giving a fair consideration to any new doctrines. But though his intellect was restlessly at work, and though his eager curiosity disposed him to relish novelties, except in theology, that bottom rock in his mind of caution and reserve, which has already been referred to, made him refuse to part with old views even when he was beginning to accept new ones. He allowed both to "lie on the table" together, and while declaring his mind to be open to conviction, he felt it safer to speak and act on the old lines till the process of conviction had been completed. It took fourteen years, from 1846 to 1860, to carry him from the Conservative into the Liberal camp. It took five stormy years to bring him round to Irish home rule, though his mind was constantly occupied with the subject from 1880 to 1885, and those who watched him closely saw that the process had advanced some considerable way even in 1881. And as regards ecclesiastical establishments, having written a book in 1838 as a warm advocate of state churches, it was not till 1867 that he adopted the policy of disestablishment for Ireland, not till 1890 that he declared himself ready to apply it in Wales and Scotland also.

Both these qualities--his disposition to revise his opinions in the light of new arguments and changing conditions, and the reticence he maintained till the process of revision had been completed--exposed him to misconstruction. Commonplace men, unwont to give serious scrutiny to their opinions, ascribed his changes to self-interest, or at best regarded them as the index of an unstable mind. Dull men could not understand why he should have forborne to set forth all that was passing in his mind, and saw little difference between reticence and dishonesty. Much of the suspicion and even fear with which he was regarded, especially after 1885, arose from the idea that it was impossible to predict what he would do next, and how far his openness of mind would carry him. In so far as they tended to shake public confidence, these characteristics injured him in his statesman's work, but the loss was far outweighed by the gain. In a country where opinion is active and changeful, where the economic conditions that legislation has to deal with are in a state of perpetual flux, where the balance of power between the upper and middle and poorer classes has been swiftly altering during the last sixty years, no statesman can continue to serve the public if he adheres obstinately to the views with which he started in life. He must--unless, of course, he stands aloof in permanent opposition-- either submit to advocate measures he secretly mislikes, or else must keep himself always ready to learn from events, and to reconsider his opinions in the light of emergent tendencies and insistent facts. Mr. Gladstone's pride as well as his conscience forbade the former alternative; it was fortunate that the inexhaustible activity of his intellect made the latter natural to him. He was accustomed to say that the great mistake of his earlier views had been in not sufficiently recognizing the worth and power of liberty, and the tendency which things have to work out for good when left to themselves. The application of this principle gave room for many developments, and many developments there were. He may have wanted that prescience which is, after integrity, the highest gift of a statesman, but which is almost impossible to a man so pressed by the constant and engrossing occupations of an English minister that he cannot find time for the patient study and thought from which alone sound forecasts can issue. But he had the next best quality, that of always learning from the events which passed under his eyes.

With this singular openness and flexibility of mind, there went a not less remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness. His mind was fertile in expedients, and still more fertile in reasonings by which to recommend the expedients. This gift was often dangerous, for he was apt to be carried away by the dexterity of his own dialectic, and to think schemes substantially good in whose support he could muster so formidable an array of arguments. He never seemed to be at a loss, in public or private, for a criticism, or for an answer to the criticisms of others. If his power of adapting his own mind to the minds of those whom he had to convince had been equal to the skill and swiftness with which he accumulated a mass of matter persuasive to those who looked at things in his own way, no one would have exercised so complete a control over the political opinion of his time. But his mind had not this power of adaptation. It moved on its own lines--peculiar lines, which were often misconceived, even by those who sought to follow him most loyally. Thus it happened that he was blamed for two opposite faults. Some, pointing to the fact that he had frequently altered his views, denounced him as a demagogue profuse of promises, ready to propose whatever he thought likely to catch the people's ear. Others complained that there was no knowing where to have him; that he had an erratic mind, whose currents ran underground and came to the surface in unexpected places; that he did not consult his party, but followed his own predilections; that his guidance was unsafe because his decisions were unpredictable. Both these views were unfair, yet the latter came nearer to the truth than the former. No great popular leader had in him less of the true ring of the demagogue. He saw, of course, that a statesman cannot oppose the popular will beyond a certain point, and may have to humor it in order that he may direct it. Now and then, in his later days, he so far yielded to his party advisers as to express his approval of proposals for which he cared little personally. But he was too self-absorbed, too eagerly interested in the ideas that suited his own cast of thought, to be able to watch and gage the tendencies of the multitude. On several occasions he announced a policy which startled people and gave a new turn to the course of events. But in none of these instances, and certainly not in the three most remarkable,--his

William Ewart Gladstone - 2/8

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