Story of England - S. B. Harding

Gladstone and Disraeli


Early life of Gladstone; development of his political opinions; his attitude towards the Civil war in America; later admits his mistake; settles the "Alabama" claims.

Disraeli becomes leader of the Conservative party; defeats the Liberal bill for reforming Parliament; passes a more radical bill himself.

Gladstone for the first time Prime Minister; Irish Church disestablished; elementary education established; other reforms; Gladstone defeated by Disraeli.

Gladstone a second time Prime Minister; beginning of his measures for Ireland.

The best known statesman of the reign of Queen Victoria was William E. Gladstone. He was for sixty-two years a member of the House of Commons, and was four times Prime Minister. He was the greatest political speaker of the latter half of that century, and his name is connected with some of the most important laws of that time.

Mr. Gladstone was born at Liverpool, in 1809, the same year that Abraham Lincoln was born. His parents were of Scottish descent, and his father was a successful merchant. When he was eleven years old, he was sent to the great school for boys at Eton, which many noblemen's sons attended. At that time there was much flogging in English schools, and much fighting among the boys; Englishmen defended both as good things, because they said that they made the boys sturdy and self-reliant. From Eton, Gladstone went to Oxford University, where he ranked very high in Greek and Latin, and also in mathematics. In after years he never forgot his interest in learning, and amid his active political life he carried on much reading and study.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

Eton College

Gladstone was always very much interested in religion, and for a time he wanted to become a clergyman of the Church of England. Instead, he followed the wishes of his father, and entered political life. He became a member of the House of Commons in 1833, the year after the great Reform Bill was passed. He owed his first seat to the favor of a great nobleman, who controlled one of the "rotten boroughs" which had not yet been reformed.

For many years Gladstone acted with the aristocratic party, and was described as "the rising hope of the stern, unbending Tories." But he was a member of Sir Robert Peel's Cabinet when it repealed the Corn Laws, in 1846; and when the Tory party was split into two, on that question, he followed Peel against the Protectionists. Thirteen years later, he joined the Whig (or Liberal) party, and, after he came to be its leader, he gradually became more and more radical, until finally a number of his followers deserted him and joined the Conservative party. Late in his life Mr. Gladstone summed up the changes in his political principles in these words:

"I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it. That is the key to all my changes."

When the Civil War broke out in America, in 1861, the upper classes of Great Britain sympathized with the South. The Southern planters were great landlords, like the English nobles and gentry, and had the same aristocratic ideas; moreover, Englishmen admired the dashing courage which the South showed in fighting the richer and more populous North. They disliked the North, because of the tariff which it put on English goods, and because the war prevented England's getting the cotton it needed to run its factories; besides, Englishmen did not believe that the North was sincere in opposing slavery. Gladstone shared these feelings, in part, and in 1862 he said:

"We may have our own opinions about slavery; we may be for or against the South. But there is no doubt that Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the South have made an army;  they are making, it appears, a navy;  and they have made what is more than either, they have made a nation."

Long afterwards Mr. Gladstone admitted that it was a great mistake for him to make such a speech. The Northern States were already very angry with Great Britain for its favor to the South, and this speech made people think that the British government intended to recognize Southern independence. Matters became worse when Great Britain permitted Southern cruisers, like the Alabama, to set out from British ports and destroy the shipping and commerce of the North. At times, there was real danger of war between the United States and England.

In the end it was Mr. Gladstone who removed the last disagreement between the two countries, growing out of this war. In 1871 his government agreed that the "Alabama  claims" should be submitted for decision to arbitrators, chosen chiefly by the rulers of Italy, Switzerland, and Brazil. The arbitrators decided that Great Britain was wrong, and that she should pay to the United States the sum of $15,000,000 for the damages done by the Southern cruisers. Many Englishmen protested against this decision, but it was one of Gladstone's strong points that he never hesitated to confess it when he knew that he was in the wrong, and to do what he could to make matters right.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

William Ewart Gladstone

For more than twenty years, Mr. Gladstone's chief opponent in politics was Benjamin Disraeli, whom Queen Victoria made Earl of Beaconsfield. Disraeli was the son of Jewish parents, but was himself a Christian. He was a writer of well-known novels, as well as a statesman. When he first entered Parliament he was a radical in politics, but later became a Tory. He was one of the leaders of those who deserted Peel on the question of the repeal of the Corn Laws, and was very bitter in his attacks on that statesman. He said that Peel had "caught the Whigs bathing, and had walked off with their clothes"—meaning that he had stolen his ideas from the Whigs. Disraeli was a very brilliant speaker, and in many ways was an able statesman; and, since men of ability were scarce on the Tory side after Peel's downfall, it was not long before Disraeli became their most important member. Under his leadership, the Tories became more liberal, and less opposed to needed reforms; he also gave more prominence to foreign and colonial questions than the Whigs.

For a number of years, the Whigs had been trying to pass a new measure of Parliamentary reform, which should take away more of the rotten boroughs, and give the right of voting to more people.

"You cannot fight against the future," said Gladstone to the Tories, who were opposing this step. "Time is on our side."

But the Whig reform measure was defeated, by votes of the Tories and of Whigs who sided with them against their own leaders.

Then the Tories, or Conservatives, came into power, with Mr. Disraeli as their leader in the House of Commons; and they proceeded, in 1867, to pass a measure ever so much more radical than the one proposed by the Liberals. It more than doubled the number of voters, by giving the vote to the workingmen in the towns. Those liberals who had aided the Tories in turning Mr. Gladstone out of office protested in vain against this Conservative bill. Even the Tory leader, in the House of Lords, had his doubts about the measure: "It is a leap in the dark," he said.

But, under Disraeli's urging, the Tories took the leap. One result of this step was that, after a time, the working people became less opposed to the Tories, and that party regained a great deal of power it had lost in 1832.

But the first effect of this Reform Act, in the elections held in 1868, was to give the Liberal party a majority of the House of Commons. For the first time Mr. Gladstone became Prime Minister, at the age of sixty years; and during the five years that he now held that office, he passed reform after reform.

One of the first matters that he dealt with was the Church question in Ireland. Nine-tenths of the people there were Catholics; nevertheless, the people were long taxed to support the Protestant Episcopal established Church. In many parishes there were no worshipers in the fine buildings of the established Church, while the poor tumble-down Catholic chapels, near by, were crowded and overflowing. Against bitter opposition, Gladstone passed a law by which the Protestant Church in Ireland was disestablished—that is, it ceased to be supported by the state, and was put on much the same footing as the Catholic Church there. The measure was very gratifying to the oppressed people in Ireland.

"Thank God," said an Irishman, when the measure became a law, "the bridge is at last broken down that has so long separated the English and Irish peoples."

Ireland still had many injustices to complain of, but one of the oldest of them was now done away with. And again and again, in after years, as will be shown in the next chapter, Mr. Gladstone tried to remove further injustices, and to improve Ireland's sad condition.

In England, also, he carried out many reforms. When the right of voting was given to the workingmen, in 1867, one of the Whigs who had opposed that measure said: "Now we must educate our masters."

Gladstone fully agreed that more provision should be made for educating the people, and in 1870 he passed a law for establishing new elementary schools in places which needed them, and supporting them by local taxes. Other laws have since increased the number and importance of these schools, but England is still far behind the United States in its free public school system.

[Illustration] from The Story of England by S. B. Harding

View of the House of Commons

Mr. Gladstone passed many other laws for doing away with injustices and abuses. One of these was a reform by which officers in the army were no longer obliged to purchase their offices from those who went before them, thus making it easier for a poor man to secure promotion. Another was a law by which voting in elections was made secret, by ballot, instead of being done openly as before; thus poor men could vote for whom they pleased, without fear of their employer, landlord, or anybody. He also opened the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to Dissenters, Catholics, and Jews, who formerly were prevented, by religious tests, from being graduated there.

These reforms followed one another so rapidly that they quite took the breath away from many people. As a result, Gladstone's government began to lose its hold on the country. Disraeli, the leader of the Conservatives, jokingly described the Liberal ministers, in Parliament, as "a row of extinct volcanoes," and of Mr. Gladstone he said:

"You have now had four years of it. You have despoiled churches. You have examined into everybody's affairs. You have criticized every profession and vexed every trade. No one is certain of his property, and nobody knows what duties he may have to perform tomorrow. I believe that the people of this country have had enough of the policy of confiscation."

And so it seemed, for when the elections were held in 1874 the Liberals were defeated, and Disraeli and the Conservatives came into office.

Gladstone was now sixty-five years old, and he decided to retire from the leadership of his party, while continuing to sit in the House of Commons. As it proved, events were too strong for him. Disraeli and his party showed such favor to the Turkish Empire, where Christians were being greatly abused, that Mr. Gladstone attacked their policy; and when Disraeli (now Earl of Beaconsfield) was forced to resign his position as Prime Minister, Mr. Gladstone was for a second time (1880-1885) called to that office. And, during this term as Prime Minister, he became so much interested in attempting to settle the questions relating to Ireland that he continued to lead the Liberal party even after his second fall from office. So, for twenty years after 1874, he was one of the most important persons in British politics, and was Prime Minister—not merely for a second time—but for a third and a fourth time also. It was in this period especially that he came to be known all the world over as England's "Grand Old Man."

But, as the measures with which he was now concerned dealt mainly with Ireland, it will be well to consider them separately, in another chapter.


  1. Read an account of the boyhood and school life of Gladstone.
  2. Compare Gladstone and Disraeli as men and as statesmen.
  3. Compare the changes made by the reform of Parliament in 1832 with those made in 1867.
  4. With what sort of reforms was Gladstone occupied in his first Prime Ministership? With what was he chiefly occupied in his later ministries?