The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 83. Gladstone

On the other hand, the main transactions and interests of two generations of the national history seem to gather themselves into the threescore years of the public career of William Ewart Gladstone, and into the oratory which gives expression to every stage and aspect of it; though it is only the earlier portion of that career on which we can here dwell. Brought up, as he said, in his native Liverpool under the shadow of the name of Canning, welcomed at the outset of his parliamentary life by Peel, the most talented member of Aberdeen’s new ministry of all the talents, wooed by the tories and indispensable to the whigs, and head of four successive administrations, he ended as the chosen chief of the democracy which he had helped to call into life. To very few other great statesmen of any age has it been given so indissolubly to unite with his name and fame as a statesman those of the orator who expounded, commended and placed on record the chief undertakings of his political genius—unless, indeed, it be thought fit to compare him to the master-spirit who of old both perfected and controlled the Attic democracy. In the year before Gladstone’s death, he made the remark that, as to politics, the basis of his mind was laid principally in finance and in philanthropy—no very strange combination if, by the side of some of the most brilliant triumphs of his oratory, the series of budget speeches, be placed his ardent efforts on behalf of the suffering Christian subjects of the Turk. But the saying cannot be accepted as adequately indicating either his chief intellectual interests or all the most vitalising elements of his inexhaustible eloquence. On the threshold of manhood, the bent of his mind had been towards the clerical profession; and for some time he continued to contemplate secular affairs “chiefly as a means of being useful in church affairs.” When, six years after entering parliament, he produced his celebrated book entitled The State in its Relations with the Church (1838), he took his stand on the principle that the state must have one religion, and that must, of course, be the religion which it had recognised as the true. From this view, he gradually passed to the acceptance of freedom of religious opinion, coupled with the conviction that the preservation of truth may be left in other hands than ours, and thus fulfilled Sheil’s prophecy that the champion of free trade would become the advocate of the most unrestricted liberty of thought. But, even after he had ceased to stand forth as the champion of the church he loved, religious feeling continued to be the woof that crossed the warp of his noblest and most stirring eloquence.

Nor, again, is it possible, in considering the characteristics of his oratory, to mistake the extraordinary fineness of its texture, or to refuse to attribute this, in part, to the congenial dialectical training of a singularly subtle mind. Gladstone was a classical scholar, whose imagination delighted to feed on Homer, and whom a stronger intellectual affinity had familiarised with the pearls of Vergilian diction; while, among modern literatures, he loved the Italian with a fervency that inspired in him his earliest incursion into the domain of foreign affairs and his first endeavours on behalf of oppressed national aspirations. But he could not be called either a man of letters, or thoroughly trained in the methods of scholarship. On the other hand, he was, as a logician, trained in the use of the whole armoury of the schools, and employed it habitually and without effort. It was a humorous criticism which, in the days of his still incomplete economic conversion, described one of his speeches as consisting of arguments for free trade and of parentheses in favour of protection; but, in his later, as well as in his earlier, days, he thoroughly understood, and applied with consummate skill, the defensive side of the science of debate, including the use of reservation. No doubt he had what may be described as the excesses of some of his qualities, and there was point in the advice of his intimate friend Sir Thomas Acland that, in speaking on the Jewish emancipation question (1847), he should be as little as possible like Maurice, and more like the duke of Wellington.

Those who think of Gladstone as an impassioned orator are apt to overlook the fact that, in the earlier part of his career, he very rarely gave occasion for being thus described; indeed, his platform triumphs belong almost exclusively to his later life, and his ascendancy in the house of commons had not been gained by carrying it away, but by convincing it—at times, as it were, in spite of itself. The gifts of voice and personality remained with him almost to the last—the magic voice of which, after his great budget speech of 1860, he was admonished to take care not to destroy the colour, and the personality which disdained all the small animosities of political conflict. And, with these, he retained the lucidity of arrangement and exposition which rendered his most complicated statements of facts and figures not only intelligible but enjoyable—a gift which had been the most notable quality of his middle period. To these, had, in his latter days, been added, in fullest measure, the animating influence of indignation and the prophetic note of aspirations for the future. Of few great political orators of modern times has there been preserved so luxuriant a store of recorded eloquence.

Gladstone, whose title to be regarded as the foremost political orator of his century few will be disposed to dispute, was, also, in this country, at all events, the most effective of political pamphleteers. Thrice, above all, in the course of his life he intervened in this way in the course of European politics—for his two Letters to the Earl of Aberdeen (on the state prosecutions of the Neapolitan government, 1851); his Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance (1874), with its sequel Vaticanism (1875), and his Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East (1876), followed by Lessons in Massacre (1877), sensibly affected the development of some of the most important political problems of the times. Nor were these the only occasions on which it seemed to him expedient to address a wider public than could be reached by the actual accents of his voice or the reports of his speeches; and, even after the greatest catastrophe of his political life, the defeat of the Irish Home Rule bill of 1886, and the ratification of this result by an adverse general election, he sat down to compose a double-barrelled pamphlet on the Irish question. Gladstone’s pamphlets do not stand alone as memorable expressions of opinion put forth by noted British politicians in the nineteenth century. To those dating from the period which may be held to close with the deaths of Cobbett and Godwin (1835 and 1836), there is no necessity for returning here. The following period had its new themes, in addition to the old, connected with political reform, religious freedom and economic progress, and with the support of the expanding struggle for the claims of nationalities. So early as 1836, Cobden published the earliest pair of a long series of pamphlets, of which the second, provoked by the “indiscretions” of David Urquhart, brought to a head in a pamphlet by that truculent ex-diplomatist, ably combated any attempt at armed intervention against the eastern policy of Russia. Cobden’s pamphlets deserve a notable place in our political literature, and, among the large number of publications of this kind produced by the French invasion panic of 1852–3, his 1792 and 1853 was a protest of much more than passing significance. Bright was capable of writing vigorous public letters; but his pen was not a favourite weapon with him as it was with Cobden and with W. J. Fox. Bright’s chief adversary in the battle of franchise, Lowe, was born and bred a pamphleteer. He had taken up arms against the famous tract which brought to a close the most notable series of religious pamphlets known to our literature; and, during his sojourn in Australia, he contributed to the discussion of the land question in that continent a luminous address which went to the very root of the problem (1847). But, on his return to England, his political activity as a pamphleteer soon merged into that of a journalist.

And such (to conclude this brief note) might seem, with exceptions which almost prove the rule, to be the inevitable tendency in this later age of political writing designed to produce an immediate effect. Journalism has not destroyed the pamphlet; but the greater part of its activity has for some time seemed to be absorbed by an organised form of publication which provides both writers and readers with opportunities that are at once more rapid, more facile and more commanding. The future only can show whether the irrepressible desire of individual opinion to find wholly independent expression, together with the recurrence of great crises in which every voice capable of making itself heard finds solace and encouragement in accomplishing this, will suffice to keep alive a form associated with many great names in our literature as well as with many important or interesting epochs of our history.