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William Ewart Gladstone   By: (1838-1922)

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This etext was produced from the 1919 The Century Co. edition by David Price, email


by James Bryce


No man has lived in our times of whom it is so hard to speak in a concise and summary fashion as Mr. Gladstone. For forty years he was so closely associated with the public affairs of his country that the record of his parliamentary life comes near to being an outline of English politics. His activity spread itself out over many fields. He was the author of several learned and thoughtful books, and of a multitude of articles upon all sorts of subjects. He showed himself as eagerly interested in matters of classical scholarship and Christian doctrine and ecclesiastical history as in questions of national finance and foreign policy. No account of him could be complete without reviewing his actions and estimating the results of his work in all these directions. But the difficulty of describing and judging him goes deeper. His was a singularly complex nature, a character hard to unravel. His individuality was extremely strong; all that he said or did bore its impress. Yet it was an individuality so far from being self consistent as sometimes to seem a bundle of opposite qualities capriciously united in a single person. He might with equal truth be called, and he has been in fact called, a conservative and a revolutionary. He was dangerously impulsive, and had frequently to suffer from his impulsiveness; yet he was also not merely wary and cautious, but so astute as to have been accused of craft and dissimulation. So great was his respect for authority and tradition that he clung to views regarding the unity of Homer and the historical claims of Christian sacerdotalism which the majority of competent specialists have now rejected. So bold was he in practical matters that he transformed the British constitution, changed the course of English policy in the Orient, destroyed an established church in one part of the United Kingdom, and committed himself to the destruction of two established churches in two other parts. He came near to being a Roman Catholic in his religious opinions, yet was for twenty years the darling leader of the English Protestant Nonconformists and the Scotch Presbyterians. No one who knew him intimately doubted his conscientious sincerity and earnestness, yet four fifths of the English upper classes were in his later years wont to regard him as a self interested schemer who would sacrifice his country to his lust for power. Though he loved general principles, and often soared out of the sight of his audience when discussing them, he generally ended by deciding upon points of detail the question at issue. He was at different times of his life the defender and the assailant of the same institutions, yet he scarcely seemed inconsistent in doing opposite things, because his method and his arguments preserved the same type and color throughout. Any one who had at the beginning of his career discerned in him the capacity for such strange diversities and contradictions would probably have predicted that they must wreck it by making his purposes weak and his course erratic. Such a prediction would have proved true of any one with less firmness of will and less intensity of temper. It was the persistent heat and vehemence of his character, the sustained passion which he threw into the pursuit of the object on which he was for the moment bent, that fused these dissimilar qualities and made them appear to contribute to and to increase the total force which he exerted.


The circumstances of Mr. Gladstone's political career help to explain, or, at any rate, will furnish occasion for the attempt to explain, this complexity and variety of character. But before we come to his manhood it is convenient to advert to three conditions whose influence on him has been profound: the first his Scottish blood, the second his Oxford education, the third his apprenticeship to public life under Sir Robert Peel... Continue reading book >>

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