Nations of Europe and the Great War - Charles Morris

Gladstone as an Apostle of Reform

Great Britain Becomes a World Power


It is a fact of much interest, as showing the growth of the human mind, that William Ewart Gladstone, the great advocate of English Liberalism, made his first political speech in vigorous opposition to the Reform Bill of 1831. He was then a student at Oxford University, but this boyish address had such an effect upon his hearers, that Bishop Wordsworth felt sure the speaker would "one day rise to be Prime Minister of England." This prophetic utterance may be mated with another one, by Archdeacon Denison, who said: "I have just heard the best speech I ever heard in my life, by Gladstone, against the Reform Bill. But, mark my words, that man will one day be a Liberal, for he argued against the Bill on liberal grounds."

Both these far-seeing men hit the mark. Gladstone became Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Party in England. Yet he had been reared as a Conservative, and for many years he marched under the banner of Conservatism. His political career began in the first Reform Parliament, in January, 1833. Two years afterward he was made an under-secretary in Sir Robert Peel's Cabinet. It was under the same premier that he first became a full member of the cabinet, in 1845, as Secretary of State for the Colonies. He was still a Tory in home politics, but had become a Liberal in his commercial ideas, and was Peel's right-hand man in carrying out his great commercial policy.

The repeal of the Corn-Laws was the work for which his cabinet had been formed, and Gladstone, as the leading free-trader in the Tory ranks, was called to it. As for Cobden, the apostle of free-trade, Gladstone admired him immensely. "I do not know," he said in later years, "that there is in any period a man whose public career and life were nobler or more admirable. Of course, I except Washington. Washington, to my mind, is the purest figure in history." As an advocate of free trade Gladstone first came into connection with another noble figure, that of John Bright, who was to remain associated with him during most of his career. In 1857 he first took rank as one of the great moral forces of modern times. In that year he visited Naples, where he saw the barbarous treatment of political prisoners under the government of the infamous King Bomba, and described them in letters whose indignation was breathed in such tremendous tones that England was stirred to its depths and all Europe awakened. These thrilling epistles gave the cause of Italian freedom an impetus that had much to do with its subsequent success, and gained for Gladstone the warmest veneration of patriotic Italians.

[Illustration] from Europe and the Great War by Charles Morris


Gladstone and Disraeli

In 1852 he first came into opposition with the man against whom he was to be pitted during the remainder of his career, Benjamin Disraeli, who had made himself a power in Parliament, and in that year became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Derby's Cabinet and leader of the House of Commons. The revenue budget introduced by him showed a sad lack of financial ability, and called forth sharp criticisms, to which he replied in a speech made up of scoffs, gibes and biting sarcasms, so daring and audacious in character as almost to intimidate the House. As he sat down Mr. Gladstone rose and launched forth into an oration which became historic. He gave voice to that indignation which lay suppressed beneath the cowed feeling which for the moment the Chancellor of the Exchequer's performance had left among his hearers. In a few minutes the House was wildly cheering the intrepid champion who had rushed into the breach, and when Mr. Gladstone concluded, having torn to shreds the proposals of the budget, a majority followed him into the division lobby, and Mr. Disraeli found his government beaten by nineteen votes. Such was the first great encounter between the two rivals.

Gladstone's Famous Budget

In the cabinet that followed, headed by Lord Aberdeen, Gladstone succeeded Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position in which he was to make a great mark. In April, 1853, he introduced his first budget, a marvel of ingenious statesmanship, in its highly successful effort to equalize taxation. It remitted various taxes which had pressed hard upon the poor and restricted business, and replaced them by applying the succession duty to real estate, increasing the duty on spirits, and extending the income tax.

Taken altogether, and especially in its expedients to equalize taxation, this first budget of Mr. Gladstone may be justly called the greatest of the century. The speech in which it was introduced and expounded created an extraordinary impression on the House and the country. For the first time in Parliament figures were made as interesting as a fairy tale; the dry bones of statistics were invested with a new and potent life, and it was shown how the yearly balancing of the national accounts might be directed by and made to promote the profoundest and most fruitful principles of statesmanship. With such lucidity and picturesqueness was this financial oratory rolled forth that the dullest intellect could follow with pleasure the complicated scheme; and for five hours the House of Commons sat as if it were under the sway of a magician's wand. When Mr. Gladstone resumed his seat, it was felt that the career of the coalition ministry was assured by the genius that was discovered in its Chancellor of the Exchequer.

It was, indeed, to Gladstone's remarkable oratorical powers that much of his success as a statesman was due. No man of his period was his equal in swaying and convincing his hearers. His rich and musical voice, his varied and animated gestures, his impressive and vigorous delivery, great fluency, and wonderful precision of statement, gave him a power over an audience which few men of the century have enjoyed. His sentences, indeed, were long and involved, growing more so as his years advanced, but their fine choice of words, rich rhetoric, and eloquent delivery carried away all that heard him, as did his deep earnestness and intense conviction of the truth of his utterances.

Meanwhile his Liberalism had been steadily growing, reaching its culmination in 1865, when the Tory University of Oxford, which he had long represented, rejected him as its member, unable longer to swallow his ultra views. The rejection was greeted by him as a compliment. He at once offered himself as a candidate for South Lancashire and in the opening of his speech at Manchester said: "At last, my friends, I am come among you; to use an expression which has become very famous and is not likely to be forgotten, 'I am come among you unmuzzled.'"

Unmuzzled he indeed was, free at last to give the fullest expression to his Liberal faith. In 1866 he became, for the first time in his career, leader of the House of Commons—Lord Russell, the Prime Minister, being in the House of Lords. Many of his friends feared for him in this difficult position; but the event proved that they had no occasion for alarm, he showing himself one of the most successful leaders the House had ever had.

A Suffrage Reform Bill

His first important duty in this position was to introduce the new Suffrage Reform Bill, a measure to extend the franchise in counties and boroughs that would have added about 400,000 voters to the electorate. In the debate that followed Gladstone and Disraeli were again pitted against each other in a grand oratorical contest. Disraeli taunted him with his youthful speech at Oxford against the Reform Bill of 1831. Gladstone retorted by scoring his opponent for clinging to a conservatism which he gloried in having been strong enough to reject. He ended with this stirring prediction:

"You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side. The great social forces which move onwards in their might and majesty, and which the tumult of our debates does not for a moment impede or disturb, those great social forces are against you: they are marshaled on our side; and the banner which we now carry into this fight, though perhaps at some moment it may droop over our sinking heads, yet it soon again will float in the eye of Heaven, and it will be borne by the firm hands of the united people of the three kingdoms, perhaps not to an easy, but to a certain, and to a not far distant, victory."

He was right in saying that it would not be a distant victory. Disraeli and his party defeated the bill, but the people rose in a vigorous demand for it, ten thousand of them marching past Gladstone's house, singing odes in honor of "the People's William." John Bright, an eloquent orator and strenuous advocate of moral reform and political progress, joined Gladstone in his campaign. Through the force of their eloquence the tide of public opinion rose to such a height that the new Derby-Disraeli ministry was obliged to bring in a bill similar in purpose to that which it had overthrown.

Disraeli's Reform Measure

This Tory bill proved satisfactory to Gladstone in its general features. He had won a great victory in forcing its introduction. But he proposed so many changes in its details—all of them yielded in committee—that a satirical lord remarked that nothing of the original bill remained but its opening word "Whereas." As thus modified, it was more liberal than the measure that had been defeated, and the people gave full credit for it to Gladstone, whom they credited with giving them their right to vote.

The two potent political champions, Gladstone and Disraeli, soon after attained the summit height of British political ambition. In February, 1868, the failing health of Lord Derby forced him to resign the ministry, and Disraeli succeeded him as Prime Minister, thus the "Asian Mystery," as he had been entitled, gained the highest office in the British government. He did not hold this office long. His party was defeated on the question of the disestablishment of the Irish Church, and on December 4th of the same year Gladstone took his place. Thus, after thirty-five years of public life, Gladstone had attained the post in which he was to spend most of his later life.

Bishop Wilberforce, who met him in this hour of triumph, wrote thus of him in his journal: "Gladstone as ever great, earnest and honest; as unlike the tricky Disraeli as possible. He is so delightfully true and the same; just as full of interest in every good thing of every kind."

The period which followed the election of 1868—the period of the Gladstone Administration of 186874—has been called "the golden age of Liberalism." It was certainly a period of great reforms. The first, the most heroic, and probably—taking all the results into account—the most completely successful of these, was the disestablishment of the Irish Church.

Irish Church Disestablishment

Any interference with the prerogatives or absoluteness of an established church institution is sure to arouse vigorous opposition. The Disestablishment Bill, introduced on the 1st of March, 1869, was greeted in Ireland with the wildest protests from those interested in the Establishment. One synod, with a large assumption of inspired knowledge, denounced it as "highly offensive to the Almighty God." A martial clergyman offered to "kick the Queen's crown into the Boyne," if she assented to any such measure. Another proposed to fight with the Bible in one hand and the sword in the other.

These wild outbreaks of theological partisanship had no effect on Gladstone, whose speech was one of the greatest marvels amongst his oratorical achievements. His chief opponent declared that, though it lasted three hours, it did not contain a redundant word. The scheme which it unfolded—a scheme which withdrew the temporal establishment of a Church in such a manner that the Church was benefited, not injured, and which lifted from the backs of an oppressed people an intolerable burden—was a triumph of creative genius.

Disraeli's speech in opposition to this measure was referred to by the London Times as "flimsiness relieved by spangles." After a debate in which Mr. Bright made one of his most famous speeches, the bill was carried by a majority of 118. Before this strong manifestation of the popular will the House of Lords, which deeply disliked the bill, felt obliged to give way, and passed it by a majority of seven. ,

An Irish Land Bill

In 1870 Mr. Gladstone introduced his Irish Land Bill, a measure of reform which Parliament had for years refused to grant. By it the tenant was given the right to hold his farm as long as he paid his rent, and received a claim upon the improvement made by himself and his predecessors—a tenant-right which he could sell. This bill was triumphantly carried; and another important Liberal measure, Mr. Forster's Education Bill, became law.

Other liberal measures were passed, but the tide which had set so long in this direction turned at last, the government was defeated in 1873 on a bill for University Education, and in a subsequent election the Liberal party met with defeat. Gladstone at once resigned and was succeeded by Disraeli. Two years later the latter was raised to the peerage by the Queen under the title of the Earl of Beaconsfield. Gladstone was not in the field for honors of this type. He much preferred to inherit the title of a distinguished predecessor, that of "The Great Commoner." During his recess from office he occupied himself in literary labors and as a critical commentator upon the foreign policy of Disraeli, which plunged the country into a Zulu war which Gladstone denounced as "one of the most monstrous and indefensible in our history," and an Afghan war which he described as a national crime.

These and other acts of Tory policy in time brought liberalism again into the forefront, an election held in 1880 resulted in a great Liberal victory, Disraeli (then Lord Beaconsfield) resigned, and Gladstone was once again called to the head of the ministry. In the new administration the foreign policy, the meddling in the concerns of the East, which had held precedence over domestic affairs under the preceding administration, vanished from sight, and the Irish question again became prominent. Ireland had now gained an able leader, Charles Stewart Parnell, founder of the Irish Land League, a trade union of Irish farmers, and its affairs could no longer be consigned to the background.

Gladstone, in assuming control of the new government, was quite unaware of the task before him. When he had completed his work with the Church and the Land bills ten years before, he fondly fancied that the Irish question was definitely settled. The Home Rule movement, which was started in 1870, seemed to him a wild delusion which would die away of itself. In 1884 he said: "I frankly admit that I had had much upon my hands connected with the doings of the Beaconsfield Government in every quarter of the world, and I did not know—no one knew—the severity of the crisis that was already swelling upon the horizon, and that shortly after rushed upon us like a flood."

Desperate State of Ireland

He was not long in discovering the gravity of the situation, of which the House had been warned by Mr. Parnell. The famine had brought its crop of misery, and, while the charitable were seeking to relieve the distress, many of the landlords were turning adrift their tenants for non-payment of rents. The Irish party brought in a Bill for the Suspension of Evictions; which the government replaced by a similar one for Compensation for Disturbance. This was passed with a large majority by the Commons, but was rejected by the Lords, and Ireland was left to face its misery without relief.

The state of Ireland at that moment was too critical to be dealt with in this manner. The rejection of the Compensation for Disturbance Bill was, to the peasantry whom it had been intended to protect, a message of despair, and it was followed by the usual symptom of despair in Ireland, an outbreak of agrarian crime. On the one hand over 17,000 persons were evicted; on the other there was a dreadful crop of murders and outrages. The Land League sought to do what Parliament did not; but in doing so it came in contact with the law. Moreover, the revolution—for revolution it seemed to be—grew too formidable for its control; the utmost it succeeded in doing was in some sense to ride without directing the storm. The first decisive step of Mr. Forster, the chief secretary for Ireland, was to strike a blow at the Land League. In November he ordered the prosecution of Mr. Parnell, Mr. Biggar, and several of the officials of the organization, and before the year was out he announced his intention of introducing a Coercion Bill. This step threw the Irish members under Mr. Parnell and the Liberal Government into relations of definitive antagonism.

The Coercion Bill

Mr. Forster introduced his Coercion Bill on January 24, 1881. It was a formidable measure, which enabled the chief secretary, by signing a warrant, to arrest any man on suspicion of having committed a given offense, and to imprison him without trial at the pleasure of the government. It practically suspended the liberties of Ireland. The Irish members exhausted every resource of parliamentary action in resisting it, and their tactics resulted in several scenes unprecedented in parliamentary history. In order to pass the bill it was necessary to suspend them in a body several times. Mr. Gladstone, with manifest pain, found himself, as leader of the House, the agent by whom this extreme resolve had to be executed.

The Coercion Bill passed, Mr. Gladstone introduced his Land Bill of 1881, which was the measure of conciliation intended to balance the measure of repression. This was really a great and sweeping reform, whose dominant feature was the introduction of the novel and far-reaching principle of the state stepping in between landlord and tenant and fixing the rents. The bill had some defects, as a series of amending acts, which were subsequently passed by both Liberal and Tory governments, proved; but, apart from these, it was on the whole the greatest measure of land reform ever passed for Ireland by the Imperial Parliament.

But Ireland was not yet satisfied. Parnell had no confidence in the good intentions of the government, and took steps to test its honesty, which so angered Mr. Forster that he arrested Mr. Parnell and several other leaders and pronounced the Land League an illegal body. Forster was well-meaning but mistaken. He fancied that by locking up the ring-leaders he could bring quiet to the country. On the contrary, affairs were soon far worse than ever, crime and outrage spreading widely. In despair, Mr. Forster released Parnell and resigned. All now seemed hopeful; coercion had proved a failure; peace and quiet were looked for; when, four days afterward, the whole country was horrified by a terrible crime. The new Secretary for Ireland, Lord Cavendish, and the under-secretary, Mr. Burke, were attacked and hacked to death with knives in Phoenix Park. Everywhere panic and indignation arose. A new Coercion Act was passed without delay. It was vigorously put into effect, and a state of virtual war between England and Ireland again came into existence.

Wars in Africa

Meanwhile Great Britain had been brought back into the tide of foreign affairs. Events were taking place abroad which must here be dealt with briefly. The ambitious Briton, who loves to carry the world on his shoulders, had made the control of the Suez Canal an excuse for meddling with the government of Egypt. The immediate results were a revolution that drove Ismail Pasha from his throne, and a revolt of the people under an ambitious leader named Arabi Pasha, who seized Alexandria and drove out the British, many of whom were killed.

[Illustration] from Europe and the Great War by Charles Morris


Gladstone, who deprecated war, now found himself with a conflict thrust upon his hands. The British fleet bombarded Alexandria, and the British army occupied it after it had been half reduced to ashes. Soon after General Wolseley defeated Arabi and his army and the insurrection ended. A sequel to this affair was a formidable outbreak in the Soudan, under El Mandi, a Mohammedan fanatic, who captured the city of Khartoum and killed the famous General Gordon. Years passed before Upper Egypt was reconquered, it being recovered only at the close of the century. Since then Egypt has remained under British control.

There were serious troubles also in South Africa. The British of Cape Colony had pushed their way into the Boer settlement of the Transvaal, claiming jurisdiction over it. The valiant Dutch settlers broke into war, and dealt the invaders a signal defeat at Majuba Hill. This was the opening step in a series of occurrences which led to the later Boer war, in which the British, with great loss, conquered the Boers, followed in later years by a practical reconquest of the country by its Boer inhabitants in peaceful ways.

Such were the wars of the Gladstone administration, events of which he did not approve, but into which he was irresistibly drawn. At home the Irish question continued in the forefront. The African wars having weakened the administration, a vigorous assault was made on it by the Irish party in 1885, and it fell. But its demise was a very brief one. After a short experience of a Tory ministry under Lord Salisbury, Parnell's party rallied to Gladstone's side, the new government was defeated, and on February 1, 1886, Gladstone became Prime Minister for the third time.

[Illustration] from Europe and the Great War by Charles Morris


Home Rule for Ireland

During the brief interval his opinions had suffered a great revolution. He no longer thought that Ireland had all it could justly demand. He returned to power as an advocate of a most radical measure, that of Home Rule for Ireland, a restoration of that separate Parliament which it had lost in 1800. He also had a scheme to buy out the Irish landlords and establish a peasant proprietary by state aid. His new views were revolutionary in character, but he did not hesitate—he never hesitated to do what his conscience told him was right. On April 8, 1886, he introduced to Parliament his Home Rule Bill.

The scene that afternoon was one of the most remarkable in Parliamentary history. Never before was such interest manifested in a debate by either the public or the members of the House. In order to secure their places, members arrived at St. Stephen's at six o'clock in the morning, and spent the day on the premises; and, a thing quite unprecedented, members who could not find places on the benches filled up the floor of the House with rows of chairs. The strangers', diplomats', peers', and ladies' galleries were filled to overflowing. Men begged even to be admitted to the ventilating passages beneath the floor of the chamber that they might in some sense be witnesses of the greatest feat in the lifetime of an illustrious old man of eighty. Around Palace Yard an enormous crowd surged, waiting to give the veteran a welcome as he drove up from Downing Street.

Mr. Gladstone arrived in the House, pale and still panting from the excitement of his reception in the streets. As he sat there the entire Liberal party—with the exception of Lord Hartington, Sir Henry James, Mr. Chamberlain and Sir George Trevelyan—and the Nationalist members, by a spontaneous impulse, sprang to their feet and cheered him again and again. The speech which he delivered was in every way worthy of the occasion. It expounded, with marvelous lucidity and a noble eloquence, a tremendous scheme of constructive legislation—the re-establishment of a legislature in Ireland, but one subordinate to the Imperial Parliament, and hedged round with every safeguard which could protect the unity of the Empire. It took three hours in delivery, and was listened to throughout with the utmost attention on every side of the House. At its close all parties united in a tribute of admiration for the genius which had astonished them with such an exhibition of its powers.

Yet it is one thing to cheer an orator, another thing to vote for a revolution. The bill was defeated—as it was almost sure to be. Mr. Gladstone at once dissolved Parliament and appealed to the country in a new election, with the result that he was decisively defeated. His bold declaration that the contest was one between the classes and the masses turned the aristocracy against him, while he had again roused the bitter hatred of his opponents.

Gladstone, the "Grand Old Man," a title which he had nobly won, returned to power in 1892, after a period of wholesale coercion in Ireland. He was not to remain there long. He brought in a new Home Rule Bill, supported it with much of his old vigor, and had the intense satisfaction of having it passed, with a majority of thirty-four. It was defeated in the House of Lords, and Home Rule still remains the prominent issue in Ireland, which it has divided into two camps, Protestant Ulster being in revolt against the Catholic provinces.

With this great event the public career of the Grand Old Man came to an end. The burden had grown too heavy for his reduced strength. In March, 1894, to the consternation of his party, he announced his intention of retiring from public life. The Queen offered, as she had done once before, to raise him to the peerage as an earl, but he declined the proffer. His own plain name was a title higher than that of any earldom in the kingdom.

On May 19, 1898, William Ewart Gladstone laid down the burden of his life as he had already done that of labor. The noblest figure in legislative life of the nineteenth century had passed away from earth.