William Ewart Gladstone (29 December 1809 – 19 May 1898) was a British Liberal Party statesman and four times Prime Minister (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886 and 1892–94). He was a champion of the Home Rule Bill which would have established self-government in Ireland.
Gladstone is also famous for his intense rivalry with the Conservative Party Leader Benjamin Disraeli. The rivalry was not only political, but also personal. When Disraeli died, Gladstone proposed a state funeral, but Disraeli's will asked for him to be buried next to his wife, to which Gladstone replied, "As [Disraeli] lived, so he died — all display, without reality or genuineness." Disraeli, for his part, said that GOM (which stood for Grand Old Man, Gladstone's nickname), really stood for "God's Only Mistake".
The British statesman was famously at odds with Queen Victoria for much of his career. She once complained "He always addresses me as if I were a public meeting." Gladstone was known affectionately by his supporters as the "Grand Old Man" or "The People's William". He is still regarded as one of the greatest British prime ministers, with Winston Churchill and others citing Gladstone as their inspiration.
William Gladstone was educated from 1816 to 1821 at a preparatory school at the vicarage of St. Thomas' Church at Seaforth, close to his family's residence, Seaforth House. In 1821 William followed in the footsteps of his older brothers and attended Eton College before matriculating in 1828 at Christ Church, Oxford, where he read Classics and Mathematics for a double first class degree although he had no great interest in mathematics. In December 1831 he achieved the double first he had long desired. Gladstone served as President of the Oxford Union debating society, where he developed a reputation as an orator, which followed him into the House of Commons. At university Gladstone was a Tory and denounced Whig proposals for parliamentary reform.
Following the success of his double first, William travelled with his brother John on a Grand Tour of Europe, visiting Belgium, France, Germany and Italy. On his return to England, William was elected to Parliament in 1832 as Conservative Member of Parliament (MP) for Newark, partly through the influence of the local patron, the Duke of Newcastle. Although Gladstone entered Lincoln's Inn in 1833, with a view to becoming a barrister, by 1839 he had requested that his name should be removed from the list because he no longer intended to be called to the Bar.
In the House of Commons, Gladstone was initially a disciple of High Toryism, opposing the abolition of slavery and factory legislation. In December 1834 he was appointed as a Junior Lord of the Treasury in Robert Peel's first ministry. The following month he was appointed Under-Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, an office he held until the government's resignation in April 1835.
Gladstone published his first book, The State in its Relations with the Church, in 1838, in which he argued that the goal of the state should be to promote and defend the interests of the Church of England. The following year he married Catherine Glynne, to whom he remained married until his death 59 years later. They had eight children together, including Herbert John Gladstone and Henry Neville Gladstone. Gladstone's eldest son William (known as "Willy" to distinguish him from his father) became a Member of Parliament but pre-deceased his father, dying in the early 1890s.
In 1840 Gladstone began to rescue and rehabilitate London prostitutes, walking the streets of London himself and encouraging the women he encountered to change their ways. He continued this practice decades later, even after he was elected Prime Minister.
Gladstone returned to Peel's government as Colonial Secretary in December. The following year Peel's government fell over the MPs' repeal of the Corn Laws and Gladstone followed his leader into a course of separation from mainstream Conservatives. After Peel's death in 1850 Gladstone emerged as the leader of the Peelites in the House of Commons.
As Chancellor he pushed to extend the free trade liberalisations in the 1840s and worked to reduce public expenditures, policies that when combined with his moral and religious ideals became known as "Gladstonian Liberalism". He was re-elected for the University of Oxford in 1847 and became a constant critic of Lord Palmerston.
In 1848 he also founded the Church Penitentiary Association for the Reclamation of Fallen Women. In May 1849 he began his most active "rescue work" with "fallen women" and met prostitutes late at night on the street, in his house or in their houses, writing their names in a private notebook. He aided the House of Mercy at Clewe near Windsor (which exercised extreme in-house discipline) and spent much time arranging employment for ex-prostitutes. (In 1927, during a court case over published claims that he had had improper relationships with some of these women, the jury unanimously found that the evidence "completely vindicated the high moral character of the late Mr W.E. Gladstone.")
In 1852, following the ascendancy of Lord Aberdeen, as premier, head of a coalition of Whigs and Peelites, Gladstone became Chancellor of the Exchequer and unsuccessfully tried to abolish the income tax. Instead he ended up raising it because of the Crimean War. He served until 1855, a few weeks into Lord Palmerston's first premiership. Lord Stanley became Prime Minister in 1858, but Gladstone declined a position in his government, opting not to sacrifice his free trade principles. In 1859, Lord Palmerston formed a new mixed government with Radicals included, and Gladstone again joined the government as Chancellor of the Exchequer (with most of the other remaining Peelites) to become part of the new Liberal Party.
During consideration of his Budget for 1860, it was generally assumed that Gladstone would use the budget's surplus of £5 million to abolish the income tax, as in 1853 he had promised to do this before the decade was out. Instead, Gladstone proposed to increase it and use the additional revenue to abolish duties on paper, a controversial policy because the duties had traditionally inflated the costs of publishing and disseminating radical working-class ideas. Although Palmerston supported continuation of the duties, using them and income tax revenues to make armament purchases, a majority of his Cabinet supported Gladstone. The Bill to abolish duties on paper narrowly passed Commons but was rejected by the House of Lords. As no money bill had been rejected by Lords for over two hundred years, a furore arose over this vote. The next year, Gladstone included the abolition of paper duties in a Finance Bill in order to force the Lords to accept it, and accept it they did.
Significantly, Gladstone succeeded in steadily reducing the income tax over the course of his tenure as Chancellor. In 1861 the tax was reduced to ninepence; in 1863 to sevenpence; in 1864 to fivepence; and in 1865 to fourpence. Gladstone believed that government was extravagant and wasteful with taxpayers' money and so sought to let money "fructify in the pockets of the people" by keeping taxation levels down through "peace and retrenchment".
When Gladstone first joined Palmerston's government in 1859, he opposed further electoral reform, but he moved toward the Left during Palmerston's last premiership, and by 1865 he was firmly in favour of enfranchising the working classes in towns. This latter policy created friction with Palmerston, who strongly opposed enfranchisement. At the beginning of each session, Gladstone would passionately urge the Cabinet to adopt new policies, while Palmerston would fixedly stare at a paper before him. At a lull in Gladstone's speech, Palmerston would smile, rap the table with his knuckles, and interject pointedly, "Now, my Lords and gentlemen, let us go to business".
As Chancellor, Gladstone made a speech at Newcastle on 7 October 1862 in which he supported the independence of the Confederate States of America in the American Civil War, claiming that Jefferson Davis had "made a nation". Great Britain was officially neutral at the time, and Gladstone later regretted the Newcastle speech. In May 1864 Gladstone said that he saw no reason in principle why all mentally able men could not be enfranchised, but admitted that this would only come about once the working-classes themselves showed more interest in the subject. Queen Victoria was not pleased with this statement, and an outraged Palmerston considered it seditious incitement to agitation.
Gladstone's support for electoral reform and disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Ireland had alienated him from his constituents in his Oxford University seat, and he lost it in the 1865 general election. A month later, however, he stood as a candidate in South Lancashire, where he was elected third MP (South Lancashire at this time elected three MPs). Palmerston campaigned for Gladstone in Oxford because he believed that his constituents would keep him "partially muzzled". A victorious Gladstone told his new constituency, "At last, my friends, I am come among you; and I am come--to use an expression which has become very famous and is not likely to be forgotten--I am come 'unmuzzled'."
In 1858 Gladstone took up the hobby of tree felling, mostly of oak trees, an exercise he continued with enthusiasm until he was 81 in 1891. Eventually, he became notorious for this activity, prompting Lord Randolph Churchill to snicker, "The forest laments in order that Mr. Gladstone may perspire." Less noticed at the time was his practice of replacing the trees he'd felled with newly-planted saplings. Possibly related to this hobby is the fact that Gladstone was a lifelong bibliophile.
Lord Russell retired in 1867 and Gladstone became a leader of the Liberal Party. In the next general election in 1868 he was defeated in Lancashire but was elected MP for Greenwich, it being quite common then for candidates to stand in two constituencies simultaneously. He became Prime Minister for the first time and remained in the office until 1874.
In the 1860s and 1870s, Gladstonian Liberalism was characterised by a number of policies intended to improve individual liberty and loosen political and economic restraints. First was the minimization of public expenditure on the premise that the economy and society were best helped by allowing people to spend as they saw fit. Secondly, his foreign policy aimed at promoting peace to help reduce expenditures and taxation and enhance trade. Thirdly, laws that prevented people from acting freely to improve themselves were reformed.
Gladstone's first premiership instituted reforms in the British Army, Civil Service, and local government to cut restrictions on individual advancement. He instituted abolition of the sale of commissions in the army as well as court reorganization. In foreign affairs his overriding aim was to promote peace and understanding, characterized by his settlement of the Alabama Claims in 1872 in favour of the Americans.
The issue of disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was used by Gladstone to unite the Liberal Party for government in 1868. The Act was passed in 1869 and meant that Irish Roman Catholics did not need to pay their tithes to the Anglican Church of Ireland. He also instituted the Cardwell Reforms in 1869 that made peacetime flogging illegal and, in 1870, the Irish Land Act in and the Forster's Education Act. In 1871 he instituted the University Test Act. In 1872, he secured passage of the Ballot Act for secret voting ballots. In 1873, his leadership led to the passage of laws restructuring the High Courts. He also passed the 1872 licensing act.
Gladstone was outraged at the Roman Catholic Church's Decree of Papal Infallibility and set about to refute it. In November 1874 he published the pamphlet The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance. In it, Gladstone claimed that this decree had placed British Catholics in a dilemma over their loyalty to the Crown and their loyalty to the Pope. Gladstone urged British Catholics to reject papal infallibility as they had opposed the Spanish Armada of 1588. The pamphlet sold 150,000 copies by the end of 1874. In February 1875 Gladstone published a second anti-catholic pamphlet which was a defence of his earlier pamphlet and a reply to his critics, entitled Vaticanism: an Answer to Reproofs and Replies. He described the Catholic Church as "an Asian monarchy: nothing but one giddy height of despotism, and one dead level of religious subservience". He further claimed that the Pope wanted to destroy the rule of law and replace it with arbitrary tyranny, and then to hide these "crimes against liberty beneath a suffocating cloud of incense".
A pamphlet he published in 1876, Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East, attacked the Disraeli government for its indifference to the violent repression of the Bulgarian rebellion in the Ottoman Empire (Known as the Bulgarian April uprising). An often-quoted excerpt illustrates his formidable rhetorical powers:
Let the Turks now carry away their abuses, in the only possible manner, namely, by carrying off themselves. Their Zaptiehs and their Mudirs, their Bimbashis and Yuzbashis, their Kaimakams and their Pashas, one and all, bag and baggage, shall, I hope, clear out from the province that they have desolated and profaned. This thorough riddance, this most blessed deliverance, is the only reparation we can make to those heaps and heaps of dead, the violated purity alike of matron and of maiden and of child; to the civilization which has been affronted and shamed; to the laws of God, or, if you like, of Allah; to the moral sense of mankind at large. There is not a criminal in a European jail, there is not a criminal in the South Sea Islands, whose indignation would not rise and over-boil at the recital of that which has been done, which has too late been examined, but which remains unavenged, which has left behind all the foul and all the fierce passions which produced it and which may again spring up in another murderous harvest from the soil soaked and reeking with blood and in the air tainted with every imaginable deed of crime and shame. That such things should be done once is a damning disgrace to the portion of our race which did them; that the door should be left open to their ever so barely possible repetition would spread that shame over the world.!
Let me endeavor, very briefly to sketch, in the rudest outline what the Turkish race was and what it is. It is not a question of Mohammedanism simply, but of Mohammedanism compounded with the peculiar character of a race. They are not the mild Mohammedans of India, nor the chivalrous Saladins of Syria, nor the cultured Moors of Spain. They were, upon the whole, from the black day when they first entered Europe, the one great anti-human specimen of humanity. Wherever they went a broad line of blood marked the track behind them, and, as far as their dominion reached, civilization vanished from view. They represented everywhere government by force as opposed to government by law.—Yet a government by force can not be maintained without the aid of an intellectual element.— Hence there grew up, what has been rare in the history of the world, a kind of tolerance in the midst of cruelty, tyranny and rapine. Much of Christian life was contemptuously left alone and a race of Greeks was attracted to Constantinople which has all along made up, in some degree, the deficiencies of Turkish Islam in the element of mind!
During his rousing election campaign (the so-called Midlothian campaign) of 1879, he spoke against Disraeli's foreign policies during the ongoing Second Anglo-Afghan War in Afghanistan. (See Great Game). He saw the war as "great dishonour" and also criticised British conduct in the Zulu War.
In 1880 the Liberals won again, and the new Liberal leader Lord Hartington, retired in Gladstone's favour. Gladstone won his constituency election in Midlothian and also in [Leeds], where he had also been adopted as a candidate. As he could lawfully only serve as MP for one constituency, Leeds was passed to his son Herbert. One of his other sons, Henry, was also elected as an MP.
Queen Victoria asked Lord Hartington to form a ministry, but he persuaded her to send for Gladstone. Gladstone's second administration — both as PM and again as Chancellor of the Exchequer till 1882 — lasted from June 1880 to June 1885. Gladstone had opposed himself to the "colonial lobby" pushing for the scramble for Africa. He thus saw the end of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, First Boer War and the war against the Mahdi in Sudan.
However, he could not respect his electoral promise to disengage from Egypt. June 1882 saw a riot in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, with about 300 people being killed as part of the Urabi Revolt. In Parliament an angry and retributive mood developed against Egypt, and the Cabinet approved the bombardment of Urabi's gun emplacements by Admiral Sir Beauchamp Seymour and the subsequent landing of British troops to restore order to the city. Gladstone defended this in the Commons by exclaiming that Egypt was "in a state of military violence, without any law whatsoever".
In 1881 he established the Irish Coercion Act, which permitted the Viceroy to detain people for as "long as was thought necessary". He also extended the franchise to agricultural labourers and others in the 1884 Reform Act, which gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs— adult male householders and £10 lodgers—and added about six million to the total number who could vote in parliamentary elections. Parliamentary reform continued with the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885.
Gladstone was becoming increasingly uneasy about the direction in which British politics was moving. In a letter to Lord Acton on 11 February 1885, Gladstone criticised Tory Democracy as "demagogism" that "put down pacific, law-respecting, economic elements that ennobled the old Conservatism" but "still, in secret, as obstinately attached as ever to the evil principle of class interests". He found contemporary Liberalism better, "but far from being good". Gladstone claimed that this Liberalism's "pet idea is what they call construction, that is to say, taking into the hands of the State the business of the individual man". Both Tory Democracy and this new Liberalism, Gladstone wrote, had done "much to estrange me, and had for many, many years".
The fall of General Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1885 was a major blow to Gladstone's popularity. Many believed Gladstone had neglected military affairs and had not acted promptly enough to save the besieged Gordon. Critics inverted his acronym, "G.O.M." (for "Grand Old Man"), to "M.O.G." (for "Murderer of Gordon"). He resigned as Prime Minister in 1885 and declined Queen Victoria's offer of an Earldom.
In 1886 Gladstone's party was allied with Irish Nationalists to defeat Lord Salisbury's government; Gladstone regained his position as PM and combined the office with that of Lord Privy Seal. During this administration he first introduced his Home Rule Bill for Ireland. The issue split the Liberal Party (a breakway group went on to create the Liberal Unionist party ) and the bill was thrown out on the second reading, ending his government after only a few months and inaugurating another headed by Lord Salisbury.
In 1895, at the age of 85, Gladstone bequeathed £40,000 (equivalent to approximately £22 million in 2006 terms) and much of his library to found St Deiniol's Library, the only residential library in Britain. Despite his advanced age, he himself hauled most of his 32,000 books a quarter mile to their new home, using his wheelbarrow.
In 1896 in his last noteworthy speech, he denounced Armenian massacres by Ottomans in a talk delivered at Liverpool.
Gladstone died at Hawarden Castle, Flintshire, North Wales in 1898 at the age of 88 from metastatic cancer that had started behind his cheekbone. His coffin was transported on the London Underground before his State funeral at Westminster Abbey, at which the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and the Duke of York (the future George V) acted as pallbearers. Two years after Gladstone's burial in Westminster Abbey, his wife, Catherine Gladstone (née Glynne), was laid to rest with him (see image at left).