"He stood forth simply as a leader in the cause of humanity."
In the winter of 1850, Mr. Gladstone, still out of office, went to Naples with his wife and family. One of his children was ill, and a warm climate was advised for her. In the early spring he had lost his little child Catherine, five years old, and this had proved a terrible grief both to father and mother. So they started off before Christmas, Mr. Gladstone with no other idea than to watch over the recovery of his child, and to give himself a rest from his political work. But he was not to rest long. He soon found there was other work cut out for him in Naples besides loitering among the ruins of Pompeii or watching the eruptions of Vesuvius.
The kingdom of Naples at that time was one of the worst governed countries in Europe. Mr. Gladstone soon learned the evils of misrule; he heard of thousands in prison subjected to cruelties and insults. His humanity was stirred to its depths; his holiday was at an end. He got leave to visit the prisons. He saw the men in their chains; he found out who they were and what they had done; he found men of high character and honour, suffering unjustly. Having satisfied himself of the truth of all this, he wrote a letter to Lord Aberdeen, pointing out the "horrors" amidst which the government of Naples was carried on.
This letter, dated April 7, 1851, was published, and it created great consternation throughout Europe. It was followed by a second and a third. They were simple, they were eloquent, they were the work of a man who saw injustice and cruelty in the place of justice and mercy, and, knowing it, could not keep silent. He must right the wrong where it was possible.
Still the controversy raged. He was meddling with the concerns of another nation, people said, remembering well his great speech but a few months before. Perhaps Lord Palmerston summed up the situation best in his answer to the House.
"Mr. Gladstone," he said, "when I may freely name, though not in his capacity of a Member of Parliament, has done himself, I think, very great honour by the course he pursued at Naples, and by the course he has followed since; for I think that when you see an English gentleman, who goes to pass a winter at Naples, instead of confining himself to those amusements that abound in that city, instead of **living into volcanoes and exploring excavated cities when we see him going to courts of justice, visiting prisons, descending into dungeons with a view afterwards to enlist public opinion in the endeavour to remedy those abuses—I think that is a course that does honour to the person who pursues it; and concurring in feeling with him that the influence of public opinion in Europe might have some useful effect in setting such matters right, I thought it my duty to send copies of his pamphlet to our Ministers at the various Courts of Europe."
The result of Mr. Gladstone's work at Naples was seen, some years later, in the revolution which created a free and united Italy.
Perhaps the following story shows how he lived in the hearts of Italians for many a long year:**
An English boy of fifteen, travelling with his father in Italy many years later, was taken very ill in a little mountain village. He was nursed by the Italian hotel-keeper and his wife as if he had been their own child, and the village doctor watched by him day and night. When he got well, the father very naturally offered the doctor his fee, but to his immense surprise the doctor refused it. He asked the reason.
"The debt has been long ago paid," answered the doctor.
The father was puzzled, and asked for an explanation.
"We Italians can never forget what your nation has done for ours," he said; and taking a small locket out of his pocket, he opened it and showed them a portrait of Mr. Gladstone.
Those letters on the horrors inflicted on political prisoners in Naples had first awakened the conscience of Europe to the oppression of the Italian people.
Mr. Gladstone had spoken as man to man. "He stood forth simply as a leader in the cause of humanity: that, and that only, was the flag he unfurled."