William Gladstone

(William Ewart Gladstone)


William Gladstone was one of the two most famous politicians of Victorian England, and is still considered by some to be the very model of a Great Liberal Statesman. He supported many reforms that were resisted by conservatives of the day, and sometimes irritated his opponents by his sanctimonious dismissal of their concerns. On the other hand, he took a number of courageous and unpopular stands and defended them on principle, even at the expense of his political position. His political philosophy evolved gradually over his career from a conservative Tory to the extreme wing of the liberal party, and this transition appears to have sprung from genuine conviction rather than political posturing. He served as Prime Minster of England on four occasions, and often lost his position by pursuing what he considered noble, but unpopular causes. He was, like every great politician, both admired and loathed, but is credited with courage—a rare trait in his chosen occupation—even by his detractors.

Gladstone entered Parliament as a Tory in 1832 and retired for the last time in 1894, a service that spanned over 62 years. He did not serve continuously however; his career was interrupted by several retirements, resignations, and even a failed election. When Robert Peel split from the Tory party in 1846 over the corn-laws (protective tariffs on food-stuffs), Gladstone became a 'Peelite', and after Peel's death, joined forces with the Whigs and helped form the Liberal party. At the same time, his life-long antagonist, Disraeli transformed the protection Tories into the Conservative party. Both men served long careers in Parliament and were the most renowned orators of the day.

It is difficult to understand precisely how Gladstone's political positions evolved over time without a good knowledge of how the British government was administered during his age. Ideas of "liberal" and "conservative" as applied in Victorian England, have almost no bearing to their current uses. For example, as a liberal, Gladstone supported low-taxes and free-trade, while contemporary conservatives favored protective tariffs. Also, the influence of the Anglican Church in the Victorian era government was enormous so church-state relations of the age were exceedingly intertwined. The church had its own source of revenues and a great number of clients, and "social reforms" in Gladstone's age typically meddled with the Church's existing functions. Although Gladstone was a life-long Anglican he frequently took positions in opposition to that of the state-church, and was joined in his opposition by both sincere Christians and ardent secularists.

The issue that probably most characterized Gladstone during his career, was his continued support for the political rights for Ireland. This was a contentious issue because the Irish had centuries of grievances against England and a wide-spread radical element, and the memories of the French Revolution were still fresh in the minds of most Victorians. In spite of wide-spread resistance, Gladstone spent a great deal of his "political capital" supporting the cause of the Irish, and it more than once led to his downfall.

Gladstone also came to oppose Britain's long-term support for the Ottoman Turks against the Russian Empire on humanitarian grounds, at a time when conservatives believed that the security of Britain's empire in Asia required forming alliances against Russia. Gladstone was more interested in domestic reforms than imperial expansion, and foreign policy remained one of the areas in which Gladstone and Disraeli were nearly always at odds.

Gladstone's first term as Prime Minister, from 1868 to 1874, was by far his most productive and he retired soon after it was over. No leader of the Liberal party emerged afterward however, who had anything nearing his credibility and oratorical skills, so he was called out of retirement on several occasions by a very devoted following within his party. He did not serve his second ministry until he was 71, and he continued to serve various roles in government until a few years before his death at age 90.

Key events during the life of William Ewart Gladstone:

William Gladstone born to a prosperous merchant
Enrolled at Christ Church, Oxford and graduated with honors.
Elected to Parliament as a Tory.
Wrote a in defense of the Anglican Church.
Resigned his position after changing his views on church-state matters.
Ministry of Peel collapses over the 'corn-law' issue.
First appointment to Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Lost his seat at Oxford over the question of dis-establishing the Irish church.
Returned to parliament from a new district as a liberal.
First Ministry, served 5 years.
Second Ministry, served 5 years.
Third Ministry, served 6 months.
Fourth Ministry, served 2 years.
Death of Gladstone

Book Links
Life of Gladstone  by  M. B. Synge

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Recent Times  in  The Hanoverians  by  C. J. B. Gaskoin
William Ewart Gladstone  in  Famous Men of Modern Times  by  John H. Haaren
Gladstone and Disraeli  in  The Story of England  by  Samuel B. Harding
Gladstone, Apostle of Reform  in  Nations of Europe and the Great War  by  Charles Morris
Mr. Gladstone  in  The Reign of Queen Victoria  by  M. B. Synge

Image Links

William Ewart Gladstone
 in The Hanoverians

 in  The Story of the English

 in Famous Men of Modern Times
Hawarden Castle, home of Gladstone
Hawarden Castle, home of Gladstone
 in Back Matter
Gladstone's first home rule bill
Gladstone's first home rule bill
 in Back Matter

William Ewart Gladstone
 in Life of Gladstone

She presented him with one of her books.
 in Life of Gladstone

He openly denounced the boys.
 in Life of Gladstone

Mrs. Gladstone
 in Life of Gladstone

Mr. Gladstone held the house spell-bound.
 in Life of Gladstone

Thou writest a bonny hand.
 in Life of Gladstone

A messenger with a telegram.
 in Life of Gladstone

Mr. Gladstone stood calm, resolute, patient.
 in Life of Gladstone

The Temple of Peace, Hawarden
 in Life of Gladstone

Mr. Gladstone and Lord Tennyson in the Pembroke Castle.
 in Life of Gladstone

He began his speech amid breathless silence.
 in Life of Gladstone

Mr. Gladstone at the age of 35
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

William Ewart Gladstone
 in The Reign of Queen Victoria

Short Biography
Victoria I Longest reigning English Monarch. Presided over the British Empire at its height.
Robert Peel Important Victorian Era British prime minister who oversaw several free market and political reforms.
Benjamin Disraeli Prime Minister, Author, and conservative rival of Gladstone.
Alfred Tennyson Best known poet of he Victorian Age. Write Idylls of the King and many others.