Gateway to the Classics: Life of Gladstone by M. B. Synge
Life of Gladstone by  M. B. Synge

A "First Rate Performance"

"Look, what thy soul holds dear, imagine it

To lie that way thou go'st, not whence thou com'st."


Though Mr. Gladstone held no office, he yet spoke constantly in the House on all important occasions.

It was on June 24. 1850, while Lord John Russell was Prime Minister, that he made the greatest speech he had yet made—great not only because it was magnificently eloquent, but because it "marked an era; it revealed a man; it foreshadowed a life's policy."


Lord John Russel.

It is interesting to see what drew forth this eloquence.

There was a Jew, a British subject, named Don Pacifico, living in Athens. For some reason or other the Greeks had wrecked and robbed his house as long ago a 1847.

Don Pacifico made the modest claim of thirty thousand pounds to the Greek Government. His bill for damages was a ridiculous one; his bedstead he valued at one hundred and fifty pounds, the sheets at thirty pounds, one pillowcase at ten pounds! The Greek Government, somewhat naturally, refused to pay this vast sum. Don Pacifico appealed to England. Lord Palmerston, Foreign Secretary under Lord John Russell, had various grievances against Greece. He ordered the Greek Government to pay Don Pacifico; and on their declining, he ordered the British fleet to enforce his commands. This high-handed course gave offence, not only to Greece, but to France and Russia. All Europe was thrown into alarm; and though war was averted, a violent attack was made on Lord Palmerston: there were murmur, that the "honour and dignity of the country" were at stake.

In a full House, Lord Palmerston defended his policy. He spoke for five hours, "from the dusk of one day to the dawn of the next."

When Mr. Gladstone rose to his feet, it was already early morning. He felt strongly that England had been meddling in matters that dial not concern her; he asserted bravely that England must beware lest she be ruined by her own self-esteem.

"Sir," he cried in the course of his speech, "I say the policy of the noble lord tends to encourage and confirm in us that which is our besetting fault and weakness, both as a nation and as individuals. Let an Englishman travel where he will, as a private person, he is found in general to be upright, high-minded, brave, liberal, and true; but with all this . . . he has too great a tendency to self-esteem—too little disposition to regard the feelings, the habits, and the ideas of others. Let us recognize, and recognize with frankness, the equality of the weak with the strong; the principle of brotherhood among nations, and of their sacred independence. When we are asking for the maintenance of the rights which belong to our fellow-subjects resident in Greece, let us do as we would be done by."

The whole speech was on a very high level. It was as even Lord Palmerston acknowledged, a "first-rate performance." It showed forth, for the first time, the high standard of the young statesman—those principles which had "grown with his growth, and strengthened with his strength."

As a test of foreign policy, he asks, "not whether it is striking or brilliant or successful, but is it right? Is it consistent with moral principle and public duty; with the chivalry due from the strong to the weak; with the principles of brotherhood among nations, and of their sacred independence.

The debate lasted four days. As the sunlight was beginning to stream into the corridors and lobbies of the House, the members left. Among them was Sir Robert Peel. He was leaving for the last time. That very Saturday afternoon he had a fall from his horse. The injuries he received were beyond human skill to cure. He lingered two or three days, and then died.

It fell to Mr. Gladstone, his young disciple, to pay the last tribute in the House of Commons to his departed chief. He felt his loss very keenly, as was shown in his speech, which was both eloquent and pathetic.

"I call it," he said, "the premature death of Sir Robert Peel; for although he has died full of years and full of honours, yet it is a death that in human eyes is premature, because we had fondly hoped that, in whatever position Providence might assign to him, by the weight of his ability, by the splendour of his talents, and by the purity of his virtues, he might still have been spared to render us most essential services." he ended his brilliant speech by quoting Scott's words on the death of Pitt:—

"Now is the sturdy column broke,

The beacon light is quenched in smoke,

The trumpet's silver voice is still,

The warder silent on the hill."

Thirty years later, when speaking Midlothian, Mr. Gladstone, spoke thus of his hold chief: "Let me, gentlemen, in the face of you who are Liberals, and determined Liberals, let me render this tribute to the memory of Sir Robert Peel. I never knew a more enlightened statesman. And this opinion I give with confidence, in the face of the world, founded upon many years of intimate communication with him upon every subject of public interest."

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