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- William Ewart Gladstone - 3/8 -

declarations against the Irish church establishment in 1868, against the Turks and the traditional English policy of supporting them in 1876, and in favor of Irish home rule in 1886,--did any popular demand suggest his pronouncement. It was the masses who took their view from him, not he who took his mandate from the masses. In all of these instances he was at the time in opposition, and was accused of having made this new departure for the sake of recovering power. In the two former he prevailed, and was ultimately admitted, by his more candid adversaries, to have counseled wisely. In all of them he may, perhaps, be censured for not having sooner perceived, or at any rate for not having sooner announced, the need for reform. But it was very characteristic of him not to give the full strength of his mind to a question till he felt that it pressed for a solution. Those who discussed politics with him were scarcely more struck by the range of his vision and his power of correlating principles and details than by his unwillingness to commit himself on matters whose decision he could postpone. Reticence and caution were sometimes carried too far, not merely because they exposed him to misconstruction, but because they withheld from his party the guidance it needed. This was true in all the three instances just mentioned; and in the last of them his reticence probably contributed to the separation from him of some of his former colleagues. Nor did he always rightly divine the popular mind. Absorbed in his own financial views, he omitted to note the change that had been in progress between 1862 and 1874, and thus his proposal in the latter year to extinguish the income tax fell completely flat. He often failed to perceive how much the credit of his party was suffering from the belief, quite groundless so far as he personally was concerned, that his government was indifferent to what are called Imperial interests, the interests of England outside England. But he always thought for himself, and never stooped to flatter the prejudices or inflame the passions of any class in the community.

Though the power of reading the signs of the times and moving the mind of the nation as a whole may be now more essential to an English statesman than the skill which manages a legislature or holds together a cabinet, that skill counts for much, and must continue to do so while the House of Commons remains the supreme governing authority of the country. A man can hardly reach high place, and certainly cannot retain high place, without possessing this kind of art. Mr. Gladstone was at one time thought to want it. In 1864, when Lord Palmerston's end was evidently near and Mr. Gladstone had shown himself the most brilliant and capable man among the Liberal ministers in the House of Common's, people speculated about the succession to the headship of the party; and the wiseacres of the day were never tired of repeating that Mr. Gladstone could not possibly lead the House of Commons. He wanted tact (they said), he was too excitable, too impulsive, too much absorbed in his own ideas, too unversed in the arts by which individuals are conciliated. But when, after twenty-five years of his unquestioned reign, the time for his own departure drew nigh, men asked how the Liberal party in the House of Commons would ever hold together after it had lost a leader of such consummate capacity. Seldom has a prediction been more utterly falsified than that of the Whig critics of 1864. They had grown so accustomed to Palmerston's way of handling the House as to forget that a man might succeed by quite different methods. And they forgot also that a man may have many defects and yet in spite of them be incomparably the fittest for a great place.

Mr. Gladstone had the defects that were ascribed to him. His impulsiveness sometimes betrayed him into declarations which a cooler man would have abstained from. The second reading of the Irish Home-Rule Bill of 1886 would probably have been carried had he not been goaded by his opponents into words which seemed to recall or modify the concessions he had announced at a meeting of the Liberal party held just before. More than once precious time was wasted in useless debates because his antagonists, knowing his excitable temper, brought on discussions with the sole object of annoying him and drawing from him some hasty deliverance. Nor was he an adept, like Disraeli and Sir John A. Macdonald, in the management of individuals. He had a contempt for the meaner side of human nature which made him refuse to play upon it. He had comparatively little sympathy with many of the pursuits which attract ordinary men; and he was too constantly engrossed by the subjects of enterprises which specially appealed to him to have leisure for the lighter but often very important devices of political strategy. A trifling anecdote, which was told in London about twenty-five years ago, may illustrate this characteristic. Mr. Delane, then editor of the "Times," had been invited to meet the prime minister at a moment when the support of the "Times" would have been specially valuable to the Liberal government. Instead of using the opportunity to set forth his policy and invite an opinion on it, Mr. Gladstone talked the whole time of dinner upon the question of the exhaustion of the English coal-beds, to the surprise of the company and the unconcealed annoyance of the powerful guest. It was the subject then uppermost in his mind, and he either did not think of winning Mr. Delane or disdained to do so. In the House of Commons he was entirely free from airs, or, indeed, from any sort of assumption of superiority. The youngest member might accost him in the lobby and be listened to with perfect courtesy. But he seldom addressed any one outside his own very small group of friends, and more than once made enemies by omitting to notice and show some attention to members of his party who, having been eminent in their own towns, expected to be made much of when they entered Parliament. Having himself plenty of pride and comparatively little vanity, he never realized the extent to which, and the cheapness with which, men can be captured and used through their vanity. And his mind, flexible as it was in seizing new points of view and devising expedients to meet new circumstances, did not easily enter into the characters of other men. Ideas and causes interested him more than personal traits did; his sympathy was keener and stronger for the sufferings of nations or masses of men than with the fortunes of a particular person. With all his accessibility and immensely wide circle of acquaintances, he was at bottom a man chary of real friendship, while the circle of his intimates became constantly smaller with advancing years.

So it befell that though his popularity among the general body of his adherents went on increasing, and the admiration of his parliamentary followers remained undiminished, he had few intimate friends, few men in the House of Commons who linked him to the party at large and rendered to him those confidential personal services which count for much in keeping a party in hearty accord and enabling the commander to gage the sentiment of his troops. Thus adherents were lost who turned into dangerous foes--lost for the want not so much of tact as of a sense for the need and use of tact in humoring and managing men.

If, however, we speak of parliamentary strategy in its larger sense, as covering familiarity with parliamentary forms and usages, the powers of seizing a parliamentary situation and knowing how to deal with it, the art of guiding a debate and choosing the right moment for reserve and for openness, for a dignified retreat, for a watchful defense, for a sudden rattling charge upon the enemy, no one had a fuller mastery of it. His recollection of precedents was unrivaled, for it began in 1833 with the first reformed Parliament, and it seemed as fresh for those remote days as for last month. He enjoyed combat for its own sake, not so much from any inborn pugnacity, for he was not disputatious in ordinary conversation, as because it called out his fighting force and stimulated his whole nature. "I am never nervous in reply," he once said, "though I am sometimes nervous in opening a debate." And although his impetuosity sometimes betrayed him into imprudence when he was taken unawares, no one could be more wary or guarded when a crisis arrived whose gravity he had foreseen. In the summer of 1881 the House of Lords made some amendments to the Irish Land Bill which were deemed ruinous to the working of the measure, and therewith to the prospects of the pacification of Ireland. A conflict was expected which might have strained the fabric of the constitution. The excitement which quickly arose in Parliament spread to the whole nation. Mr. Gladstone alone remained calm and confident. He devised a series of compromises, which he advocated in conciliatory speeches. He so played his game that by a few minor concessions he secured nearly all of the points he cared for, and, while sparing the dignity of the Lords, steered his bill triumphantly out of the breakers which had threatened to engulf it. Very different was his ordinary demeanor in debate when he was off his guard. Observers have often described how his face and gestures while he sat in the House of Commons listening to an opponent would express all the emotions that crossed his mind; with what eagerness he would follow every sentence, sometimes contradicting half aloud, sometimes turning to his next neighbor to express his displeasure at the groundless allegations or fallacious arguments he was listening to, till at last he would spring to his feet and deliver a passionate reply. His warmth would often be in excess of what the occasion required, and quite disproportioned to the importance of his antagonist. It was in fact the unimportance of the occasion that made him thus yield to his feeling. As soon as he saw that bad weather was coming, and that careful seamanship was wanted, his coolness returned, his language became guarded and careful, and passion, though it might increase the force of his oratory, never made him deviate a hand's breadth from the course he had chosen.


Of that oratory, something must now be said. By it he rose to fame and power, as, indeed, by it most English statesmen have risen, save those to whom wealth and rank and family connections have given a sort of presumptive claim to high office, like the Cavendishes and the Russells, the Cecils and the Bentincks. And for many years, during which Mr. Gladstone was distrusted as a statesman because, while he had ceased to be a Tory, he had not fully become a Liberal, his eloquence was the main, one might almost say the sole, source of his influence. Oratory was a power in English politics even a century and a half ago, as the career of the elder Pitt shows. But within the last fifty years, years which have seen the power of rank and family connections decline, it has continued to be essential to the highest success although much less cultivated as a fine art, and brings a man quickly to the front, though it will not keep him there should he prove to want the other branches of statesmanlike capacity.

The permanent reputation of an orator depends upon two things, the witness of contemporaries to the impression produced upon them, and the written or printed--we may, perhaps, be soon able to say the phonographed--record of his speeches. Few are the famous speakers who would be famous if they were tried by this latter test alone, and Mr. Gladstone was not one of them. It is only by a rare combination of gifts that one who speaks with so much readiness, force, and brilliance as to charm his listeners is also able to deliver such valuable thoughts in such choice words that posterity will read them as literature. Some few of the ancient orators did this; but we seldom know how far those of their speeches which have been preserved are the speeches which they actually delivered.

William Ewart Gladstone - 3/8

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