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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Gladstone Speaking

By George Makepeace Towle (1841–1893)

[Born in Washington, D.C., 1841. Died in Brookline, Mass., 1893. Certain Men of Mark. 1880.]

IT was in the lobby of the Commons that, some fifteen years ago, I first saw Mr. Gladstone. He was then in the full prime of life, being about fifty-five years of age. He had already won a degree of political renown only less than the highest. At that time he was Chancellor of the Exchequer in Lord Palmerston’s cabinet; and, next to Lord Palmerston, was the most distinguished member of the popular House. He had been a member of Parliament thirty-three years; and his career there, at least as far as reputation was concerned, had been a triumphal progress, ever and steadily advancing. No one doubted that at some day not far distant Mr. Gladstone would be summoned to assume the post of Prime Minister.

A glance sufficed to recognize him. His photographs peered at the passer-by from every book-store and print-shop in London; and no one could have seen them without taking note of the very remarkable, expressive, intense features they discovered. But there was something about Mr. Gladstone as he stood there, gravely talking with two gentlemen who listened to him with every outward sign of respect, which the photographs had not disclosed. There was a certain plainness, almost rusticity, of dress and external appearance; a thick-set, farmer-like body, far from graceful; a certain negligence of attire and toilet and manner, and simple gravity of bearing, which one had not expected to see in the brilliant and eloquent scholar who had so often thrilled the House, and, through the medium of the press, the world. But after the first superficial glance, when you raised your eyes to the face and head, and observed the features, you soon found the man’s character reflected there. The not very large, but brilliant, earnest, burning eyes; the retreating, but nobly shaped forehead; the very un-English swarthy complexion; the firm, thin mouth, to which every line lent new expressiveness; the square-set jaw, and bold straight nose; the spirit and warmth that glowed in the whole countenance betokened a mind and soul alike lofty, zealous, and intense.

Never once did the slightest smile cross those almost grim features; and the contrast between this grimness of expression and the sweet, silvery voice, the tones of which now and then reached my ear, was very striking. Mr. Gladstone’s smiles, indeed, are very few and slight. He has always been too dead-in-earnest; and dead-in-earnestness has stamped itself on his face, as it has throughout the record of his public career….

When the orator rose from the front government bench, drew himself up, holding a small slip of paper in his hand, and quietly looked around on the multitude whose single gaze was upon him, he seemed younger and more imposing than he had done when standing chatting in the lobby. You recognized at once, by his mere expression and motion, that he was already warm and proud with the ardor of forensic conflict; that he loved this arena on which he stood, and that his whole soul was in the task before him. In his first few simple sentences one already felt the sweet and persuasive power of a voice which, even in his age, has perhaps no equal in any assembly on earth. There were the soul and life of intense earnestness in its very first tones, as the commonplace opening of the speech was uttered; now subdued, to be sure, but soon to burn out and glow with all the fire of the man’s warm intellectual nature. The next thing observed was the contrast between this smooth, steady flow of words, this rising fluency of language, pouring out long and involved sentences without a pause, a hitch, an instant’s loss of the right word, and the halting and hesitating oratory of most English public men. After listening to the stammering of Lord John Russell, the humming and hawing of the genial Palmerston, and the studied abruptness of Disraeli, this rapid, steady, limpid quality of Mr. Gladstone’s eloquence was charming. To his wonderful fluency, the flexibility and strength as well as sweetness of his voice added striking effect; for it has depth, volume, and wide range of tone, and quickly adapts itself to the rhetorical need of the moment.

His style of speaking was easy and simple. As he proceeded, he played with a piece of paper in his hand, which soon proved to contain the few notes he had prepared; and every now and then he stroked the thin hair above his forehead with his forefinger or thumb, as if to encourage the idea to come out into expression. The gestures were at first few, the clenched hand occasionally suddenly sawing the air for a moment, then falling as suddenly prone at his side. As he advanced, he often straightened himself up from a colloquial to a declamatory posture, with his head thrown back, his sunken dark eyes glistening from beneath the heavy brows, and the strong jaw seeming to set, as for a serious purpose; and then, as he passed to another branch of the subject, he would relapse into the conversational attitude again. The movements, it could be easily seen, were quite unstudied; the impulse of the moment guided the action of head or hand, or the expression of the speaking features. As he warmed to his subject, his action became more excited, and his gestures more frequent. Now his head was almost every moment high in air, his hands would be clasped as if in appeal, he turned often to the right and to the left, or bent over the table in front of him. Every attitude was at once ungraceful and strong. The spontaneity, the earnestness, made even the orator’s occasional awkwardness eloquent; while the continual, unhesitating, liquid flow of the words and sentences, and the solid chain of thought, most often diverted the listener’s mind from the gestures altogether.

You recognized at once that this was not an extempore speech, in the sense of being delivered off-hand and without preparation. Every point had been thought over carefully, every series of figures conned, the array of the general current of the argument duly and methodically arranged in the mind. But the words, the sentences, the few telling figures of speech, came with voluble spontaneity. The opening deceived you somehow into the idea that the flow of the harangue would be sweet and serene throughout. But before Mr. Gladstone had been speaking fifteen minutes he seemed, as Sydney Smith said of Webster, “a steam-engine in trousers.” No orator was ever more susceptible to the warming-up process, caused by the very act of speaking, than he. No orator ever became more wrapt, more absorbed, in the task before him. You felt profoundly that he was speaking from the most firmly rooted convictions; that the cause he advocated was buried deep in his heart, and was the outcome alike of conscience and intellectual self-persuasion. The dominant idea with him was, not to make a great display, not to produce a refined and polished-off bit of eloquence, but to persuade and to convince. He produced that powerful effect upon his hearer, which is one of the highest triumphs of oratory, that made you feel ashamed and perverse not to agree with him and be persuaded. I cannot imagine even a stolid Tory squire listening to such appeals without feeling some dull qualm at his own silent resistance to the persuasive argument. There was, too, a proud consciousness of his own powers betrayed in every motion and utterance; not vain self-conceit was this, but the pride that assured him that these powers might be and should be used to attain the unselfish public end he had in view. “He stands up,” as a shrewd observer once said of him, “in the spirit of an apostle with a message to deliver, certain of its truth, and certain that he, and not some other man, is appointed to deliver it.” That is just the impression which Mr. Gladstone has always produced, and still produces, on those who hear him speak; and this apostolic earnestness is, indeed, the chief source of his forensic power.