Life of Gladstone - M. B. Synge

At Oxford

"You have life, therefore you have a law of life. To develop yourselves, to act and live according to your law of life, is your first, or rather your sole duty."—MAZZINI.

Young Gladstone carried with him a reputation for industry, and a name for being at once very high-principled and religious. Wherever he went, people were conscious that a rare personality was among them, and young men were ready to follow his lead, relying on his superior strength.

In these days, great stress was laid, at the university, on a knowledge of the Bible. This suited the young scholar's serious bent of mind, and he determined to throw aside the study of mathematics altogether.

He wrote to his father telling him of his decision. His father wrote back that he had received this news with much grief; for his own part, he did not think a man was a man unless he knew mathematics. Young Gladstone had a great idea of obedience to parents: he gave up his own plan, and set to work on mathematics, in which he greatly distinguished himself. And he used to say, in after years, that he would never have been Chancellor of the Exchequer, if it had not been for his studying mathematics to please his father.

Christ Church, Oxford


At this time, too, theology attracted him powerfully, and he had a great wish to go into the church. But here, again, he was strongly opposed by his father, who wished to see him a politician. Again Gladstone reluctantly but loyally obeyed. And thus, yielding his own wishes to those of his father, he became a leader of the House of Commons, even Prime Minister.

His industry at Oxford was proverbial. He never allowed anything to interfere with his mornings reading—a rule which, in those lax days at the universities, required some courage to carry out. He read for four hours, and then usually took a walk his chosen friends Being mostly of an industrious bent like himself. He was greatly laughed at for mixing with a set of men only fit to live with maiden aunts and keep tame rabbits."

But Gladstone knew what he was about: he turned a deaf ear to ridicule, and went straight forward.

His perseverance sometimes bothered even his best friends. He would start for a walk to some place eight miles or so distant, and make up his mind to go "at least more than half-way." Rain might fall in torrents—a serious matter in those days when no undergraduate ever carried an umbrella—but this would not shake him from his purpose; until he had passed his fourth mile-post, no power on earth would turn him back.

It was this dogged perseverance that enabled him to carry through so much reform, despite all obstacles, later in life.

In his second term he joined the Oxford Union. On February 11, 1880, he made his maiden speech. A reputation for eloquence and brilliance was at once established by the young undergraduate. He was afterwards made secretary, and ultimately president, of the Union, and as such he made his famous speech against the Reform Bill then before the House of Commons.

"When Mr. Gladstone sat down, we all felt that an epoch in our lives had occurred. It certainly was the finest speech of his that I ever heard," said one enthusiastic member; while others predicted that the young Christ Church undergraduate would one day rise to be Prime Minister of England!

Thus passed away his three years at Oxford. He crowned his career by taking a double first-class.

He left behind him a name for high living and an example of temperance. He lived at a time when wine was drunk very freely among undergraduates, more than was good either for them or for their purses. Young Gladstone was very moderate in his use of wine; even at Eton he was known to have turned his glass down rather than drink to a coarsely-suggested toast. And it is said that undergraduates at Oxford were more sober and careful in the "forties" because Gladstone had set an example in the "thirties."

And so he passed out to a larger world, where his undoubted abilities should have a wider scope, and the high qualities which were developing so rapidly should be appreciated by his countrymen, who know full well how to appreciate the elements of greatness.