William Ewart Gladstone was born of Scotch parents, and he was one of the very few Scotchmen who have taken a prominent part in British statecraft.
He was sent to the great public school at Eton when twelve years of age. There he was always noted for his good behavior and for his regular attendance at the chapel services. It is also recorded of him that he could recite more verses of scripture than any other boy in the school.
The character of Mr. Gladstone is very hard to analyse because of its many-sidedness; and for that reason he was often misunderstood and lost many friends.
He graduated from Christ Church College, Oxford, when twenty-two years of age, having won the highest honors the college could bestow.
An account of his appearance, published at the time of his graduation says, "In features he is handsome; his face is bold and masculine; his eyes are of piercing luster; and his hair, which he tosses back in debate, is like a lion's mane. He speaks five languages, is an excellent tenor singer, is on more than speaking terms with many of the greatest men in England, and besides all this he is rich in English gold."
His influence at college was so abiding that Cardinal Manning has said that, "There was less wine drunk at Oxford during the forties than would have been the case if Gladstone had not been there in the thirties."
It appears to have been his intention to become a clergyman of the English church, and he studied with this object in view.
His father had other plans for him and half forced him into politics; so that immediately on leaving college he ran for Parliament, was elected, and at once made his influence felt in the House of Commons.
For more than sixty years thereafter, he was one of the powers to be reckoned with on all questions connected with the English government.
At thirty-three years of age he was a member of the British Cabinet; but three years later his absolute honesty compelled him to resign from the Ministry. His opponents said, "Gladstone is an extinct volcano." But they were continually discovering that a volcano is a difficult thing to subdue.
In his home life he was gentle, amiable and hospitable. His social instincts were large and his disposition was kindly. He was always true to his friends, and they revered him to a point little short of idolatry.
He delivered his maiden speech in Parliament on a subject connected with the great movement for the emancipation of the West Indian slaves; but he seemed to have confined himself mainly to a defense of the manner in which his father's estates were managed, the course of the debate having brought out some charges against the management of the elder Gladstone's possessions in one of the West Indian Islands.
In January, 1835, Sir Robert Peel appointed Gladstone to the office of a Junior Lord of the Treasury. In the next year Peel, who was quick to appreciate the great abilities and the sound commercial knowledge of his new recruit, gave him the important post of Undersecretary for the Colonies.
Peel went out of office very soon after he had made Mr. Gladstone Undersecretary for the colonies. Lord John Russell brought forward a series of motions on the subject of the Irish Church, and Peel being defeated, resigned. It is almost needless to say that Gladstone went with him. In 1841, Sir Robert Peel again came into power, and Gladstone was given a seat in his Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade.
At the general election in 1847, Mr. Gladstone, still accepted as a Tory, was chosen one of the representatives of the University of Oxford.
Up to the time of the movement which led to the abolition of the Corn Laws, Mr. Gladstone had been a Tory of a rather old-fashioned school. The corn-law agitation probably first set him thinking over the possible defects of the social and legislative system, and showed him the necessity for reform at least in one direction.
By the death of Sir Robert Peel, in 1850, Mr. Gladstone lost a trusted leader, and a dear friend. But the loss of his leader brought Gladstone himself more directly to the front.
It was not until after Peel's death that he compelled the House of Commons and the country to recognize in him a supreme master of parliamentary debate. The first really great speech made by Mr. Gladstone in Parliament was made in the debate on Mr. Disraeli's budget in the winter of 1852, the first session of the new Parliament.
Mr. Disraeli sat down at two o'clock in the morning, and then Mr. Gladstone rose to reply to him. Most men in the House, even on the opposition side, were filled with the belief that it would be impossible to make any real impression on the House after such a speech as that of Mr. Disraeli. Long before Mr. Gladstone had concluded, every one admitted that the effect of Mr. Disraeli's speech had been outdone, and Gladstone became fully recognized as the man of the hour; a man to rank with Bolingbroke, Pitt, and Fox.
With that speech began the long parliamentary duel between these two great masters of debate, Mr. Gladstone and Mr. Disraeli, which was carried on for four and twenty years.
On the fall of the short-lived Tory administration, Lord Aberdeen came into office. He formed the famous Coalition Ministry. Lord Palmerston took what most people would have thought the uncongenial office of Home Secretary. Mr. Gladstone, who with other of the "Peelites," as they were called, had joined the new administration, was made Chancellor of the Exchequer.
His speech on the introduction of his first budget was waited for with great interest, but none of those who listened to it would have wished it to be shortened by a sentence. A budget speech by Mr. Gladstone was a triumph in the realm of fine arts.
The Crimean War broke up the Coalition Ministry; but the year 1859 saw Lord Palmerston back in office, and Mr. Gladstone in his old place as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The death of Lord Palmerston, in 1865, called Lord Russell to the position of prime minister, and made Mr. Gladstone leader of the House of Commons.
Mr. Gladstone's mind had long been turning in the direction of an extension, or rather expansion, of the suffrage. It was assumed by everyone that Lord Russell and Mr. Gladstone being now at the head of affairs, a reform bill would be sure to come. It did come in 1866, a very moderate and cautious bill, enlarging the area of the franchise in boroughs and counties. The Conservative party opposed it. The bill was defeated, and the Liberal statesman went out of office.
Somewhere about this time the attention of Mr. Gladstone began to be attracted to the condition of Ireland. The distress and distracted state of Ireland, the unceasing popular agitation and discontent, and the Fenian insurrection, with its contemplated attack on Chester Castle, led Mr. Gladstone to the conviction that the time had come when statesmanship must seek through Parliament for some process of remedy.
In 1868 the Liberals returned to power, and Mr. Gladstone became prime minister.
In his first session of government he disestablished and disendowed the state church in Ireland. In the next session he passed a measure which for the first time recognized the right of the Irish tenant to the value of the improvements he had himself made at his own cost and labor. Never probably was there such a period of energetic reform in almost every direction as that which set in when Mr. Gladstone became prime minister.
It was also at this time, and quite largely through Mr. Gladstone's efforts, that the first system of national education was established in England. The Ballot Act was passed for the protection of the voters so that they might vote as they wished without having to suffer painful consequences after the election was over. These two measures have been of great value to the English people and they prize them very highly.
For awhile Mr. Gladstone occupied himself in literary and historical studies, and published quite a number of essays and pamphlets. But even in his literary career Mr. Gladstone would appear to have always kept glancing at the House of Commons, as Charles V in his monastery kept his eyes on the world of politics outside.
The atrocious conduct of the Turkish officials in Bulgaria aroused his generous anger, and he flung down his books and rushed out from his study to preach a crusade against the Ottoman power in Europe.
It was an unpropitious hour at which to return to office. There were troubles in Egypt; there was impending war in the Sudan and in South Africa. There was something like an agrarian revolution going on in Ireland; and the Home Rule party in the House of Commons was under new, resolute, and uncompromising leadership.
He was out of office in a few months; and then the general elections came on. These elections were to give the first opportunity to the newly-made voters under Mr. Gladstone's latest reform act; and these voters sent him back into office and he once again took the helm and strove to guide the ship of state through the troubled seas which beat upon it from every point of the compass.
Under his leadership a home-rule bill for Ireland was passed by the Commons in spite of most bitter opposition. It was rejected almost unanimously by the House of Lords.
But time was beginning to tell upon the "Grand Old Man;" for he was now eighty-four years old and felt himself unequal to the gigantic struggle of the hour. He therefore resigned his offices and retired into private life in March 1894.
Mr. Gladstone sat in Parliament for sixty-three years; and for twenty-six years he was the leader of his party.
The three most notable acts of his political career were, the Disestablishment of the Irish Church, in 1866; his opposition to England's support of Turkey in 1876; and his work in favor of Home Rule for Ireland in 1886; while he had also much to do with the two great Reform Bills of 1855 and 1884.
Mr. Gladstone affords a splendid example of a man who devoted his life to the political service of his country, and still preserved his moral and religious character.
He died at his home, Hawarden Castle, in 1898.