Mr. Gladstone — Part I
W. T. Stead (The Review of Reviews, vol. V, April, 1892) pp. 345-362
So much has been written about Mr. Gladstone that it was with some sinking of heart I ventured to select him as a subject for my next character sketch. But I took heart of grace when I remembered that the object of these sketches is to describe their subject as he appears to himself at his best, and not as he appears to his enemies at his worst. So I surrender myself to the full luxury of painting what may be described as the heroic Mr. Gladstone, the Mr. Gladstone who for a quarter of a century has excited the almost idolatrous devotion of millions of his countrymen. There are plenty of other people ready to fill in the shadows. This paper is merely an attempt to catch, as it were, the outline of the heroic figure which has dominated English politics for the lifetime of this generation, and thereby to explain something of the fascination which his personality has exercised and still exercises over the men and women of his time. If his enemies, and they are many, say that I have idealised a wily old opportunist out of all recognition, I answer that to the majority of his fellow subjects my portrait is not over drawn. The real Gladstone may be other than this, but this is probably more like the Gladstone for whom the electors believe they are voting than a picture of Gladstone “warts and all ” would be. And when I am abused, as I know I shall be, for printing such a sketch, I shall reply that there is at least one thing to be said in its favour. To those who know him best in his own household, and to those who only know him as a great name in history, my sketch will only appear faulty because it does not do full justice to the character and the genius of this extraordinary man.
I.—THE GRAND OLD MAN.
Mr. Gladstone appeals to the men of to-day from the vantage-point of extreme old age. Age is so frequently dotage, that when a veteran appears who preserves the heart of a boy and the happy audacity of youth under the “lyart haffets wearing thin and bare” of aged manhood, it seems as if there is something supernatural about it, and all men feel the fascination and the charm. Mr. Gladstone, as he gleefully remarked the other day, has broken the record. He has outlived Lord Palmerston, who died when eighty-one; and Thiers, who only lived to be eighty. The blind old Dandolo in Byron’s familiar verso—
The octogenarian chief,
Byzantium’s conquering foe
had not more energy than the Liberal leader, who now in his eighty-third year has more verve, and spring, and go, than any of his lieutenants, not excluding the youngest recruit. There is something imposing and oven sublime in the long procession of years which bridge as with eighty-two arches the abyss of past time, and carry us back to the days of Canning, and of Castlereagh, of Napoleon, and of Wellington. His parliamentary career extends over sixty years—the lifetime of two generations. He is the custodian of all the traditions, the hero of the experience of successive administrations, from a time dating back longer than most of his colleagues ean remember. For nearly forty years he has had a leading part in making or in unmaking Cabinets, he has served his Queen and his country in almost every capacity in office and in opposition, and yet to-day, despite his prolonged sojourn in the malaria of political wirepulling, his heart seems to be as the heart of a little child. If some who remember “the old Parliamentary hand” should whisper that the innocence of the dove is sometimes compatible with the wisdom of the serpent, I make no dissent. It is easy to be a dove, and to be as silly as a dove. It is easy to be as wise as a serpent, and as wicked, let us say, as Mr. Governor Hill or Lord Beaconsfield. But it is the combination that is difficult, and in Mr. Gladstone the combination is almost ideally complete.
HIS PERENNIAL YOUTH.
Mr. Gladstone is old enough to be the grandfather of the younger race of politicians, but his courage, his faith, and his versatility, put the youngest of them to shame. It is this ebullience of youthful energy, this inexhaustible vitality, which is the admiration and the despair of his contemporaries. Surely when a schoolboy at Eton he must somewhere have discovered the elixir of life or have been bathed by some beneficent fairy in the well of perpetual youth. Gladly would many a man of fifty exchange physique with this hale and hearty octogenarian. Only in one respect does he show any trace of advancing years. His hearing is not quite so good as it was, but still it is far better than that of Cardinal Manning, who became very deaf in the closing years. Otherwise Mr. Gladstone is hale and hearty. His eye is not dim, neither is his natural force abated. A splendid physical frame, carefully preserved, gives every promise of a continuance of his green old age.
HIS PRESENT PROSPECT OF LIFE.
His political opponents, who began this Parliament by confidently calculating upon his death before the dissolution, are now beginning to admit that it is by no means improbable that Mr. Gladstone may survive the century Nor was it quite so fantastic as it appears at first sight, when an ingenious disciple told him the other day that by the fittest of things he ought to live for twenty years yet. “For,” said this political arithmatician, “you have been twenty six years a Tory, twenty-six years a Whig Liberal, and you have been only six years a Radical Home Ruler. To make the balance even you have twenty years still to serve.”
Sir Provo Wallis, the Admiral of the Fleet, who died the other day at the age of one hundred, had not a better constitution than Mr. Gladstone, nor had it been more carefully preserved in the rough and tumble of our naval war. If the man who smelt powder in the famous fight between the Chesapeake and the Shannon lived to read the reports of the preparations for the great exhibition at Chicago, it is not so incredible that Mr. Gladstone may at least be in the foretop of the State at the dawn of the twentieth century.
The thought is enough to turn the Tories green with sickening despair, that the chances of his life from a life insurance office point of view are probably much better than Lord Salisbury’s. But that is one of the attributes of Mr. Gladstone which endear him so much to his party. He is always making his enemies sick with despairing jealousy. He is the great political evergreen, who seems even in his political life to have borrowed something of immortality from the fame which he has won. He has long been the Grand Old Man, if he lives much longer he bids fair to be known as the immortal old man in more senses than one.
ADMIRABLE CRICHTON REDIVIVUS
Of him, as of Cleopatra, it may be said that age cannot wither nor custom stale his infinite variety. He is, no doubt, at present absorbed in Home Rule. He is and always has been, in one sense, a man of one idea. But while he is seemingly absorbed in the pursuit of one object, he is all the while making a diligent understudy of other questions, with which he will ere long astonish the world with his familiarity. He could probably amaze Mr. Sidney Webb at this moment by his familiarity with the eight hours’ question, and could give the London County Council invaluable hints as to the best method of replenishing its impoverished exchequer. Even when apparently consumed by his preoccupation about Ireland or Bulgaria, he snatches time to review “Ecce Homo,” to discourse on the Olympian gods, or to write essays about Marie Bashkirtseff. He is a wonderfully all-round man. No one can stand up to him in a fair fight and not be rolled over in the first or second round. He is the veritable Launcelot of the Parliamentary arena and before his unerring lance every crest goes down. He may not do everything he puts his hand to better than any other man who makes that special thing the sole study of a lifetime, but he does more things better than any other living man. And some things he does supremely well, as well as if he had spent his whole life in acquiring mastery of the art. As a financier and as a popular orator he stands unrivalled.
HIS PLUCK AND STAYING POWER.
Another great secret of his popularity is his marvellous courage, resource, and indomitable resolution. The British public likes pluck in public men, and Mr. Gladstone has pluck enough to supply a couple of Cabinets. “There is no man living,” remarked a naval officer some time ago, “who woul;d hyave made so splendid an admiral of the old type as Mr. Gladstone if he had only been in the navy. Once let him be convinced of the righteousness of his cause, and he would fight against any odds, nail his colours to the mast, and blow up the powder magazine rather than surrender.” Sir Henry Maine has remarked with much truth that much of the interest which Englishmen take in politics is the sporting interest. Politics are to them a great game, and they have their favourites for place and power, as they have favourites for the Derby or St. Leger. They look upon the debates in St. Stephen very much as their ancestors used to look upon a cock fight; and there is no doubt that much of the enthusiasm with which Mr. Gladstone is regarded by combative Englishmen of the lower orders is due to the fact that in the great Imperial Cockpit there is no gamer bird than he. The “Old ‘un” always comes up to time, and displays more vigour and spirit than any combatant in the lists.
He is at once the envy and despair of his collegues and opponents. The more difficultes there are to be overcome the more pleased he seems to be. His spirit rises with each obstacle, and he literally revels in the sudden discovery of a host of unexpected barriers which must be cleared before he reaches the goal. All this, displayed time after time, under the most diverse circumstances, has made the public confident that Mr. Gladstone is never so sure to excel himself as when he is confronted with difficulties that would utterly crush a weaker man.
THE IDEAL GLADSTONE.
But it is not as an Admirable Crichton of the Nineteenth Century that he commands the homage of his countrymen. The English and Scotch seldom are enthusiastic about mere intellectual versatility in the smartest mental gymnast. We are at bottom a profoundly religious race, and those who would arouse the enthusiasm of our people must touch the heart rather than the head of the nation. Mr. Gladstone is great in Parliamentary cut and thrust and parry. He is wonderful in a great debate, and beyond all rivalry as a platform orator; but the great secret of his hold upon the popular heart is the prevailing conviction that he is at bottom not a mere old Parliamentary hand or cunning lecturer, but a knight and a hero who can always be relied upon to act like a knight and a hero whenever there is any knightly and heroic task to be done. “It is all humbug,” says the enemy, “he is a self-seeker like the rest of us.” But that is just what the mass of men will not believe. To them Mr. Gladstone is the one man left in politics now that Mr. Bright is dead, who is capable of self-sacrifice. If a gulf opened in our Forum and the cry went forth for an English Quintus Curtius, it is from Hawarden that most people would expect the answer to come. He represents the element of the ideal in our political strife. He is the statesman of aspiration and of enthusiasm; he is the man of faith, the leader of the forlorn hope, the heaven-sent champion of the desolate and the oppressed. Many of us for years needed no other watchword than “Gladstone” to nerve us for the fray—
Press where you see my white plume shine amid the ranks of war,
And be your oriflamme to-day, the helmet of Navarre,
always recurs to my mind when thinking over the most famous of those dashing, headlong charges which Mr Gladstone led against the serried ranks of the supporters of the oppressor.
THE SECRET OF HIS POWER.
The great secret of Mr. Gladstone’s hold upon the nation’s heart is the belief which has become a fixed conviction with the masses of the voters that he is animated by a supreme regard for the welfare of the common people, and an all-constraining conviction of his obligation to God. Mr. Gladstone is far and away the most conspicious Christian in the popular estimation now left amongst us. Formerly he would have divided the honours with Lord Shaftesbury, Mr. Spurgeon, Mr. Bright, and Cardinal Manning. Now he stands alone; nor is there a bishop or an arch-bishop among them all who can so much as touch the hem of his garment so far as the popular feeling goes. Mr. Gladstone is far and away the greatest pillar and prop of English orthodoxy left amongst us. To the ordinary voter here and beyond the seas it is more important that Mr. Gladstone is unshaken in his assent to what he regards as the eternal verities than that all the bishops in all the Churches should unhesitatingly affirm their faith in the creed of Athanasius. He is a man whose intellect they respect, even if they do not understand. “He is a capable man, a practical man, a ripe scholar, and an experienced statesman; if it is good enough for him, it is good enough for us.” So reason many men more or less logically, and so the services in Hawarden Parish Church, where Mr. Gladstone reads the lessons, much more than any cathedral service, have come to have a religious importance that is felt throughout the empire.
THE EPIC STRAIN IN POLITICS.
Men see what they bring. They find what they seek. Mr. Gladstone is to many a mirror in which they see but the reflection of their own faces. The wirepuller sees in him but a glorified image of himself—a Brocken spectral magnification of the electioneerer. The wily, wary diplomat discovers that Mr. Gladstone is as wily and as wary as himself, masking behind apparent open-hearted guilelessness the rusé acuteness of the cleverest fox that ever baffled hounds. But those who worship him do not see those elements in his character. They see in him the realisation of their highest ideal of chivalry and self-sacrifice. What Lowell said of Lamartine represents what most of those who believe in Mr. Gladstone think of him:—
No fitting mete wand hath To-day
For measuring spirits of thy stature—
Only the Future can reach up to lay
The laurel on that lofty nature—
Bard who with some diviner art
Has touched the bard’s true lyre, a nation’s heart
THE HIGHER NOTE.
The great moments in our recent history, when Englishmen felt that it was worth while to live, have most of them been associated with his name. The epic strain is not frequent in our politics, but wherever it has occurred of recent years, we owe it to Mr. Gladstone. He has touched, and he alone, with the exception of Mr. Bright, the higher nature of man. His appeal, as Emerson would say, is always to the over-soul. Said one of his colleagues recently, “If I were asked what was the distinguishing characteristic of Mr. Gladstone’s power, I should say that he never for a moment forgets or allows his hearers to forget that he regards man as a moral being. He does not forget that they are soldiers, voters, toilers, merchants, but over and above all there is constantly present to his mind the fact that they are moral beings.” It is this higher note, distinctly audible above all the dust and din of the party fight, which constitutes the secret of his charm.
THE KNIGHT ERRANT OF LIBERTY.
To those who know him best and to those who know him least he is ever the Knight Errant of the World, ever ready to ride off on some feat of high emprise at the summons of distressful innocence or outraged justice. The man whose voice, clear as a silver trumpet, rang through Europe in denunciation of the horrors of Neapolitan dungeons and the atrocities of the Turks in Bulgaria, needs no other title to enduring fame. His two pamphlets paved the way for the liberation of two peninsulars. Italy free and indivisible rose from the grave of ages at his kindling summons; and Bulgaria free, but not yet undivided, is the living monument of the vivifying might of his spoken word. He was in both the Italian and the Balkan peninsular Heaven’s Herald of the Dawn. Like Prometheus he became—
A name to fright all tyrants with, a light
Unsetting as the Pole star; a great voice
Heard in the breathless pauses of the fight
By truth and freedom ever waged with wrong.
Nor can it be ignored even by the most fanatical Unionist that his devotion to the cause of Ireland has been marked by the same passionate enthusiasm which, if it had been displayed in relation to other lands, would have excited their highest admira-tion. As the Knight of Liberty sworn to the cause of the oppressed, Mr. Gladstone has done inestimable service to the men of this generation.
HIS MORAL GREATNESS.
In the midst of the banalities and pettinesses which often degrade politics to the low level of a butler’s Pantry, he has towered aloft, majestic even when mistaken, serving the good cause even when he opposed it better than many of those who tendered it their support from sordid motives or the mean calculations of the political huckster. He towers before us like one of his own Olympian deities, and if like these ancients he occasionally descends to the haunts of mortal men, and condescends like Jove to very human frailties, he is still of Olympus, Olympian. If Mr. Gladstone were decreed by the fates to do the meanest of actions he could not accomplish his destiny until he had surrounded the hateful deed with a very nimbus of supernatural splendour. Until he has convinced himself that a thing is noble and righteous, and altogether excellent either in itself or because it is the destined means to a supremely righteous end, he will not hear of it. Hence although there may be somewhat unreal about this, it is real enough to him. If it is theatrical, he has been so long on the stage that he feels naked and forlorn without his moral buskins.
THE POLITICAL ENGINEER.
But it is not theatrical — save in its mere fringes and corners. The main warp and woof of his life’s work has been simply honestly sincere. This is obscured from many by Gordon and Home Rule. But there was no insincerity in his dealings with Gordon. Mistakes there were no doubt, many and grievous, but they were mistakes of honest conviction based on imperfect acquaintance with facts. As to Home Rule, the suddenness of his declaration in favour of an Irish Parliament, when Mr, Parnell acquired the balance-weight in the House of Commons, was no more proof of his insincerity than the porting of the helm when the wind suddenly shifts proves that the helmsman is a dishonest rogue. Mr. Gladstone is a rare combination of an idealist and a man of affairs. He is a dreamer of dreams, no doubt, but he dreams them only as a civil engineer draws up his plans and specifications with a view to having them carried out. They are on paper to-day, only in order that they may be in brick and concrete and stone to-morrow. He may have his preferences for brick or concrete or stone in constructing a bridge, but that is a detail. His supreme object is to make a bridge. He may advertise for brick, believing that to be the best, and if brick is to be had he will build with it. But if after doing his best, there is not a brick nor half a brick to be bought in the whole of the market, then promptly without much lamentation over the missing bricks he will toke the stone or rubble that lies ready to hand and make his bridge of that. The great thing is to get the bridge built, and the moment it is absolutely certain that no brick is to be had, is the moment when it is time to decide in favour of the next best material which can be obtained. Every one recognises this in the building of bridges. But in politics it is considered needful that a certain period of lamentation over the dearth of bricks should intervene before the order is given for the stone. Mr. Gladstone acts in politics as an engineer in the building of bridges. He does not waste time in vain conventionalities, and when it was quite clear that the Irish had made up their minds never to be content without Home Rule, and had shown it by the practical and constitutional method of returning an overwhelming majority of Home Rulers to Westminster, Mr. Gladstone bowed to the inevitable, and cut his coat according to his cloth.
THE QUIXOTE OF CONSCIENCE.
It is ridiculous to pretend, with Mr. Gladstone’s career before us, that his course has been swayed by calculating self-interest. He has been the very madman of politics from the point of view of Mr. Worldly-Wiseman. “No man,” said he, the other day, “has ever committed suicide so often as I,” and that witness is true. The first and perhaps most typical of all his many suicides was his resignation of his seat in Sir Robert Peel’s Cabinet, not because he disapproved of the Maynooth Grant, but because, as he had at one time written against it, he was determined that his advocacy of it should be purged of the least taint of self-interest. As Mr. George Russell rightly remarks, “This was, an act of Parliamentary Quixotism too eccentric to be intelligible. It argued a fastidious sensitiveness of conscience, and a nice sense of political propriety so opposed to the sordid selfish-ness and unblushing tergiversation of the ordinary place – hunter as to be almost offensive.” But as Mr. Gladstone was then, so he has been all his life—the very Quixote of Conscience. Judged by every standard of human probability, he has ruined himself over and over and over again. He is always ruining himself, and always rising, like the pheonix, in renewed youth from the ashes of his funeral pyre. As was said in homely phrase some years ago he always keeps bobbing up again. What is the secret of this wonderful capacity for revival? How is it that Mr Gladstone seems to find even his blunders help him, and the affirmation of principles that seem to be destructive to all chance of the success of his policy absolutely helps him to its realisation?
From a merely human standpoint it is inexplicable. But
If right or wrong on this God’s world of ours
Be leagued with higher Powers,
then the mystery is not so insoluble. He believed in the higher Powers. He never shrank from putting his faith to the test, and on the whole, who can deny that for his country and for himself he has reason to rejoice in the verification of his working hypothesis?
WALKING BY FAITH, NOT BY SIGHT.
“We walk by faith and not by sight,” he said once; and by no one so much as by those who are in politics this necessary.” It is the evidence of things not seen, the eternal principles, the great invisible moral sanctions that men are wont to call the laws of God, which alone supply a safe guide through this mortal wildemess.
Men of a thousand shifts and wiles, look here!
See one straightforward conscience put in pawn
To win a world: see the obedient sphere
By bravery’s simple gravitation drawn!
Shall we not heed the lesson taught of old,
And by the Present’s lips repeated still?
In our own single manhood to be bold,
Fortressed in conscience and impregnable
Mr. Gladstone has never hesitated to counter at sharp right angle the passion and the fury of the day. Those who represent him as ever strong upon the stronger side wilfully shut their eyes to half his history. He challenged Lord Palmerston over the Bon Pacifico question, when the doctrine of Civis Romanus Sum was in the first freshness of its glory, and was believed to have wrecked himself almost as completely as when in 1876 he countered even more resolutely the fantastic Jingoism of Lord Beaconsfield. It is easy for those who come after, and enter into the spoils gained by sacrifices of which they themselves were incapable, to describe the Bulgarian agitation as an astute party move. The party did not think so. Its leaders did not think so. Some of those who now halloo loud enough behind Mr. Gladstone were then bitter enough in their complaint that he had wrecked his party. One at least, who was constrained to say the other thing in public, made up for it by bitter and contemptuous cavillings in private. Now it is easy to see that Lord Beaeonsfield was mistaken and that Mr. Gladstone held the winning card all along. But no one knew it at the time when the card had to be played, certainly not Mr. Gladstone himself. He simply saw his duty a dead sure thing, and, like Jim Bludso on the burning boat, “He went for it there and then.” It turned up trumps, but no one knew how heavy were the odds against it save those who went through the stress and the strain of that testing and trying time by his side.
ATHANASIUS CONTRA MUNDUM.
Mr. Gladstone has no doubt been often and marvellously successful. But sometimes, when he has been most right, he has been most hopelessly beaten. He was, by universal consent, right in opposing the absurd Ecclesiastical Titles Bill; he was also right in opposing the puerile Bill to put down Ritualism; but on both occasions he was powerless against the popular frenzy. It might have been the same in his warfare against Jingoism. The certainty of failure did not daunt him in his strenuous struggle, carried at times to the length of positive obstruction, against the Divorce Bill.
In these matters Mr. Gladstone does not calculate. When he sees clearly what ought to be done, he does it; and it is this habit of walking according to the light that is given him, turing neither to the right hand nor the left, that has given him his unique hold upon the minds and the imagination of his countrymen.
THE MIGHT OF HIS CONVICTIONS.
Mr. Gladstone speaks with all the authority of a Pope who fully believes in his own infallibility. He possesses the first of all qualifications for inspiring faith in others—an implicit faith in his own cause. The intense consciousness of the absolute rectitude of his motives has its drawbacks, no doubt; it occasionally leads, for instance, to the implied assumption that all men who differ from him must, without doubt, perish everlastingly, not because of any wrath or indignation on his part, but merely because to oppose the will of one so supremely right approximates to the nature of the unpardonable sin, and reveals an innate depravity which merits the everlasting burnings. When newspapers and politicians oppose him he is not vexed; he is only moved that such good men should go so far astray and sincerely hopes for the day when the light will dawn upon their souls and they will understand how great a mistake they have made in opposing the schemes which he has devised for the alleviation of the sufferings of his race.
In the August of 1853, Lord Aberdeen said:—
Gladstone intends to be Prime Minister. He has as great qualifications, but some serious defects: the chief, that when he has convinced himself, perhaps by abstract reasoning, of some view, he thinks that every one else ought to see it at once as he does, and can make no allowance for differences of opinion.
This, however, was not peculiar to Mr. Gladstone, as the following story shows:—
A CHARACTERISTIC STORY.
Mr. Frank Holl, who painted Mr. Gladstone, also painted a portrait of Mr. Bright. “When Mr. Bright was sitting for his portrait, so Mr. Holl told the story, he hazarded the remark:—’ It must be a very painful thing for you, Mr. Bright, that after all these years you should have found cause to sever your connection?’ ‘Indeed it is,’ responded Mr. Bright, with a sigh; ‘to think that after we have trodden the same path together, shoulder to shoulder and hand in hand, we should be forced apart in the evening of our lives! And by what? By a bogey that has risen up within him, and is beckoning him away from duty and sense, by his own Frankenstein’s monster. Do you know, Mr Holl, I seriously fear that my dear old friend’s mind has really become radically undermined.’ When I was painting Mr Gladstone, the subject of Mr Bright’s portrait cropped up. ‘Ah!’ said Mr Gladstone, with much interest, ‘and how did you find him?’ ‘Fairly well; and he spoke very affectionately of you, Mr Gladstone.’ ‘Did he indeed?’ replied he, sorrowfully, ‘did he indeed? Ah; that was a cruel blow. That after a lifetime of mutual esteem and of good work carried through together we should be divided on so clear a question! Tell me, Mr Holl’—and here his mouth twitched and his voice shook with great emotion—’tell me, did you observe anything in the manner of my old friend which would lead you to believe that his reason was becoming in any way unhinged?'”
One point in which Mr Gladstone is subject to much misapprehension is the result of his exceeding conscientiousness. He is so over-accurate that he often seems not to be accurate at all. He is so careful to make the finest distinctions, to convey to a hair’s breadth his exact meaning, that sometimes he seems to be refining and quibbling, and creating loopholes for escape at some future time. In reality, he always tells the truth exactly as he sees it; but he sees it so clearly and with such mathematical accuracy that to the ordinary man who never sees anything as it is, but only as it appears the difference between what Mr. Gladstone sees and what Mr. Gladstone says he sees is often quite inexplicable.
Not, indeed, for naught and in vain has this great life been lived openly before all men, an object lesson unequalled in our time, of loftiness of aim, of integrity of purpose, and of unfaltering faith in God and trust in man. He has taught us that it is the high-souled man who has the greatest power, even over the poorest and most ignorant of the toilers of the world; that supreme capacity in Parliament is compatible with the most simple-hearted devotion: and that the most adroit and capable of statesmen can be at the same time as chivalric and heroic as any of the knights of Arthur’s Table Round. Amid the crowd of contemporary statesmen, he towers like a son of Anak above all his compeers.
In mind, in heart, in soul, in everything, excepting physique, he is a giant. Beside him there is not any who can even be considered as a rival, and after him there cometh, as yet, no one with shoulders broad enough to bear his mantle. As Canon Liddon said to me as we drove one summer morning round the slopes of Benvoirlich, whose distant summit was hidden from our eyes by our nearness to its base, “That mountain reminds me of Mr. Gladstone. We shall never know how great he is while we are with him. After he is gone we shall begin to discover how vastly he towers over all the men of his generation.”
II.—THE OLD MAN ELOQUENT.
First impressions are deepest, freshest, and most permanent. Never shall I forget the first time I ever saw Mr. Gladstone: it was also the first time I heard the stirring strains of his impassioned eloquence. It was a memorable day, standing out foremost among many such—the day when Mr. Gladstone, who had retired the previous year from the leadership of the party in order to carry out his views as to the best method of spending the closing years of his life, emerged from his retirement in order to lead the national outburst against the Turkish Alliance. As I came up from Darlington, which had honourably distinguished itself by the promptitude and vigour of its protest long before Mr. Gladstone had spoken, I watched the sun rise over the Eastern fens and thought that I had seen a day dawn destined to be for ever memorable in the annals of human freedom. A strange new sense of the reality of the romance of history came to me, a feeling that I was that day to take, however humble, a part in a meeting that linked the prosaic present to the great days of old. Mr. Gladstone seemed but the last of a long line of national heroes, stretching through the Lion Heart and Hereward and Harold and Alfred to the purple haze of Arthurian romance. I was only twenty-seven, and it was the first occasion I had ever been at the centre of things. The sun that rose in splendour was soon obscured with rain clouds, and the muster at Blackheath assembled under the most depressing circumstances. But nothing, not even the drip from a thousand umbrellas, could abate the enthusiasm of the immense concourse which assembled to greet Mr. Gladstone.
Looking back over the account I wrote of that famous gathering, I find the following description of Mr. Gladstone as I first saw him when he launched the country into the Atrocity agitation which revolutionised English policy in the East, and paved the way for the liberation of the Christian East:—
“Mr. Gladstone is not tall, neither is he stout. He is the contrary—spare and somewhat wiry. But it was difficult to think of his body when looking at his face. Such a marvellously expressive face I do not ever remember to have seen. Every muscle seemed alive, every inch of it seemed to speak. It was in perpetual motion. Now it rippled over with a genial smile, then the smile disappeared, and the horror expressed by his words reflected on his countenance, and then again, his high-wrougt feeling gleamed out from his flashing eye, and the listener might have imagined he was hearing the outpourings one of the prophets who brought the message of Jehovah to Israel. A benevolent face, too, it was; one from which the kindliness enthroned in the heart looks out upon you through the eyes, and leavens every feature with such mildness and sweetness that it is difficult to conceive that he whose face rivals the tenderness of that of a woman has proved himself the best man upon the field not upon one occasion, but upon hundreds, whenever in the halls of St. Stephen’s the signal has been given for battle.”
HIS BLACKHEATH SPEECH.
Much has been written of Mr. Gladstone as an orator, and only those who have been under the spell of the magician can rightly understand the hold which he exercises over his audience. I don’t think I can do better than reproduce here what I wrote then. I have never heard Mr. Gladstone to greater advantage, nor has any other single speech of his left so deep a dent in history. After describing the opening of his speech at Blackheath, I went on as follows:—
When at length drawing his proofs to a close, he declared that the Government of Turkey was as deeply dyed in blood, band and arm, as the vilest of mercenaries, the tremendous energy of the speaker was reflected by his audience, and a roar went up from the whole of the great throng—a roar which might justly be regarded as the inarticulate condemnation which Democracy was pronouncing upon the Ottomans, the emphatic attestation by the English people of the guilt of the Turks. Mr. Gladstone only occasionally rose to the height of fervid expression. He did so when he declared that all the massacres and outrages which form the worst pages of English history concentrated into one blot would not be worthy to appear upon one of the pages which hereafter will consign to eternal infamy the proceedings of the Turks in Bulgaria. The man’s soul seemed to go out of him in the extraordinary earnestness with which he hurled his anathemas at the heads of the devastators of Bulgaria. A remarkable instance of this was afforded his hearers in the concentrated scorn and indignation, indescribable by us, with which in replying to the excuse that it was only a few irregulars who had committed these atrocities, he pronounced the words, “Irregulars and regulars they are all alike.” It is but a simple sentence, but falling as it did red hot from Mr. Gladstone’s lips upon an immense multitude all fully aroused to the immense importance of the occasion, it had a marvellous effect. The wonderful compass of his voice, the withering emphasis with which he pronounced each syllable, will never leave the memory of those who heard it. But the most sustained, and perhaps the finest portion of his speech, was that in which he explained the terms on which he would allow the Turks. As if he were addressing the Ottomans, he paused, and then drawing himself up to his full height, he began with a measured solemn cadence, sentence slowly following sentence: “You shall receive your regular tribute, retain your titular sovereignty, your empire shall not be invaded but” then Mr. Gladstone’s eye kindled, and lifting his clenched hand on high, he proceeded in tones which rang clear as a clarion on every ear, “but never again as the years roll in their course, so far as it is in our power to determine, never again shall the hand of violence be raised by you, never again shall the flood-gate of lust be open to you, never again shall the dire refinements of cruelty be devised by you for the sake of making mankind miserable.”
Here the pent-up feeling of the multitude found vent in a tremendous roar of applause, in which the end of the sentence was entirely lost. There was a rhythm almost as of a chant in the way in which Mr. Gladstone pronounced these solemn words, and carried awe into every heart. It was as if the High Priest of Humanity were pronouncing the doom which was impending over the guilty empire. In different style, but quite as emphatic, was his abrupt and decisive declaration that if these outrages reported as taking place in Servia were facts, they ought to be stopped James Russell Lowell, speaking of Theodore Parker , described the secret of his oratory in words which may well be applied to Mr. Gladstone:—
“Every word that he speaks has been fiercely furnaced
In the blast of a life that has struggled in earnest
…His periods fall on you stroke after stroke,
Like the blows of a lumberer felling an oak.”
Mr. Gladstone seems to deliver himself of the conclusion of some of his periods as the hunter hurls the spear at his victim, with muscles quivering and the whole energy of the man concentrated into the single act. Nor should we omit another notable characteristic of his oratory—the solemnity with which the foremost statesman of our land appealed to the consciousness of his hearers, that in England suffered her wretched jealousies to thwart the freeing of these peoples she had nothing to anticipate but a just judgment at the hands of the Almighty. The address was throughout permeated by a religious spirit. In its lofty appeal to man’s better nature, in its earnest pleading the cause of the oppressed, in its constant recognition of the superintendence and government of the Almighty, it was much more a religious address than many a score of sermons that were preached on the following Sunday. In eloquence in lofty spirituality, in keen sagacity, and in earnest sympathy, Mr Gladstone’s speech at Blackheath reveals the marvellous combination of qualities which have made Mr. Gladstone the idol of the popular heart, the heaven-sent leader of Englishmen whenever they have any serious work to do that must be done.
Mr. Gladstone sat down amidst a tempest of applause. A vote of thanks to the chairman was moved and seconded, and not over well received. And then rose a strange cry, a blending of cries, from thousands of voices. It was difficult to make out anything distinctly. Some were calling for Granville, others for Carrington, but over and above all these voices was one vast plaintive, semi-articulate cry—a cry that was also a prayer, an outburst from the popular hearts—was “Lead us!” “Lead us!” “Lead us!” It was the call which the nation addressed to Mr. Gladstone. He was not deaf to that, nor was he deaf to the appeal.
Mr. Gladstone in the House of Commons has a different style from that which he employed in Blackheath or in Midlothian. His voice is a wonderful organ. Like a Cremona violin it seems to improve with age. But the voice alone, wide as is its compass, and wonderful its penetrating faculty, would fail to produce the effect that Mr. Gladstone commands, were it not supplemented by the flashing fire of his eyes. Mr. Thaddeus, who painted a well-known portrait of Mr. Gladstone, told me that he had never painted such an eye in his life. It is the eye of an eagle that gazes untroubled at the sun. A good man in the west country who once met Mr. Gladstone on the platform at a wayside railway station, wrote afterwards to Hawarden, “You may not recollect me,but I remember you. You looked at me, and oh that eye went right through me.” That eye has been right through many others, besides that westcountryman. It is right to say eye rather than eyes, for it is only one eye that has that extraordinary piercing power. No-one on whom it has been turned in wrath or even in quick inquiry can forget it.
HIS GIFTS OF EXPOSITION. .
Like all great orators Mr. Gladstone’s personality is more or less suffused among his hearers. It is a hypnotism to which an audience temporarily succumbs. In the House of Commons, except when concluding a great debate, that peculiar magnetic power is less plainly manifest than when he is swaying at will the fierce democracy. But for argumentative cogency and sledge hammer cogency, some of his great Parliamentary performances are unrivalled.
As an expositor of an intricate and involved subject Mr Gladstone is a veritable genius. In his Budget speeches he made financial figures as fascinating as a fairy tale and he could make even a speech on tho Irish Land question interesting. As a sophist no one can beat him among living men. The marvellous subtlety of his intellect enables him to make whatever cause he undertakes to defend appear for the time the only possible cause that a decent man could espouse. “He is plausible,” wrote a critic in 1838, “even when most inerror,” a characteristic which he has never lost; and equally true is another observation of the same critic that, “when it suits himself or his party, he can apply himself with the strictest closeness to tho real point at issue; when to evade the point is deemed most politic, no man can wander from it more widely.” Mr. Russell recalls that when an eminent man once asked Mr. Gladstone, “Do you ever feel nervous in public speaking?” he replied, “In opening a subject often, in reply never.” Some of his replies were masterpieces of vigorous argumentand decisive logic, and many of them were improvised without a moment for preparation. One was that famous oration in which he demolished Mr. Disraeli’s Budget in December, 1852; another was that in which he replied to Lord Palmerston on the Don Pacifico question; but perhaps the most famous of all was that in which he summed up the debate on the Franchise in reply to Mr. Lowe, in the memorable speech in which he warned his opponents, “You cannot fight against the future. Time is on our side.”
HIS DRAMATIC POWER.
As an orator Mr. Gladstone has every grace but one. He has never cultivated the virtue of brevity. But in him this is no defect, for so sweet and silvern is his speech that his hearers regret when the stream ceases to flow. One quality which he possesses in eminent degree has hardly been sufficiently recognised as contributing to his success as an orator. He is a born actor. I have already referred to the marvellous flexibility of his features. He has indeed a speaking face. But it is not only in his countenance that you see his dramatic gift. He acts as he speaks. Not that he ventures into the region where southern orators alone are at ease, but within the restricted limits of gesture and action allowed to an English speaker he is facile princeps. From the highest tragedy to the lightest comedy, and sometimes even to the broadest farce, Mr. Gladstone is everywhere at home.
The mere physical endurance entailed by some of his great speeches is in itself wonderful. Mr. Gladstone has repeatedly spoken three hours at the close of a long and exciting debate, which came on the heels of a day full of arduous and exhausting ministerial work. When he made the great Budget speech of 1853, which established his reputation as a financier, he spoke five hours and what is perhaps even more remarkable, his hearers followed him with unabated interest even to the end.
III.—RETROSPECT AND FORECAST.
When I began to write this sketch I asked Mr Gladstone if I might talk some points over with him, and in answer received a kind and characteristic reply. I naturally availed myself of this permission, and although our conversation was in no sense an interview, I may without indiscretion incorporate into this sketch some of the frequent observations which fell from Mr. Gladstone’s lips on that occasion. The previous evening he had been in the House pounding away with all his ancient vigour about the Mombasa Railway, but there was no trace of fatigue, nor did he seem to have aged much since I last met him by appointment on the eve of my departure for Rome. He was alert, vigorous, and full of his old fire and animation, confident as to the future, and full of complacency as to the past—with the customary and inevitable reserves and limitations.
THE KEY TO HIS POLITICAL DEVELOPMENT
I told him that I had been trying to make a diagram of his career in the shape of a gradually rising tide which submerged first one and then another peak, but that I had considerable difficulty in drawing the plan, for the church and finance had so many peaks. In some cases the dividing of the ways had been clearly traced as, for instance, in the Irish Church and in Home Rule, but how could we mark the watersheds of different phases of thought through which he had passed?
“They are numberless,” he said, “and all differ one from the other according to the subject. It is inevitable that this should be so. But there is one great fact which, as I often say, is the key to all these changes I was educated to regard liberty as an evil; I have learned to regard it as a good. That is a formula which sufficiently explains all the changes of my political convictions. Excepting in that particular, I am not conscious of having changed much. I love antiquity, for instance, quite as much as I used to do. I have never been a lover of change, nor do I regard it as a good in itself; liberty, however, is a good in itself, and the growing recognition of that is the key to all these changes of which you speak.”
PROGRESS? THE CARDINAL.
It is always most interesting to know what a veteran thinks of the net results of his life’s campaign. As I write I recall conversations with Mr. Carlyle and Cardinal Manning, octogenarians like Mr. Gladstone, who looked at life from very different standpoints. The Cardinal was buoyed up by an inextinguishable faith in progress. “We are like passengers,” he said, “upon one of the P. and O. steamers. We meet each other day by day on deck and see very little difference in our position or in the sea or the sky. But every day we are nearer our destined port. So it is with human society. We may not appear to be making much progress, but depend upon it we are ceaselessly forging ahead.” Another deep-rooted faith of his was powerfully reinforced in the last years of his life by the work of the Salvation Army and its social scheme. When he finished reading “Darkest England,” he told me he felt as if the far-off and distant vision of the Christianising of England upon which he had ever fed his heart in days of adversity and of gloom had come appreciably nearer, and with renewed confidence and more joyful faith he trod the rest of his mortal pilgrimage.
PROGRESS? MR. GLADSTONE.
Mr. Gladstone’s views on the progress of the race were written out at length in the Nineteenth Century, when Tennyson published his second “Locksley Hall.” But it is always most interesting to hear from the lips of the speaker what he thinks, and I asked Mr. Gladstone whether on the whole he was satisfied with the results of the reforming activity of the last sixty years. He replied:—
In political affairs I think progress has been almost wholly good. But I am not an optimist, amd I am convinced that the duties of government will always be more or less imperfectly performed. As society becomes more complex, the work of the government will become more and more difficult. Still political progress has been good and almost wholly good. In Free Trade, for instance, it has been entirely good. I look upon that with the most perfect complacency. They speak sometimes of the greed of competition, but the greed of competition is not to be compared with the greed of the monopolist. The greedy competitor at least shares his gains with the public; but the greed of the monopolist is the greed of the robber. But as I often tell my juniors, we older men had a comparatively easy time these last fifty years—a much easier time than they will have to go through. I am very glad sometimes to think that it will not be for me to face the problems which are coming on for solution. The explanation of this is that all the questions with which we have to deal were capable of being resolved into a very simple principle. If you look at it you will see that, with some exceptions, such as the Factory Act, and one or two other minor matters, the great work of the last half-century has been that of emancipation. We have been Emancipating, Emancipating—that is all. To emancipate is comparatively easy. It is simple to remove restrictions, to allow natural forces free play. Now that that work has been almost completed, and we have to face the other problem of constructive legislation, we shall find it much more difficult.
PROGRESS? MR. CARLYLE.
As Mr. Gladstone uttered the words “Emancipating, Emancipating,” there rose up before me the image of Mr. Carlyle as he sat in his long, grey, red-trimmed dressing-gown one bright wintry day in his study in Cheyne Row, at Chelsea, discoursing grimly upon the catastrophe towards which all mundane matters seemed fast hastening. He, too, had recognised that simple principle of Emancipation, and had resolved into it all the legislative achievements since the Reform Act of 1832. But I had better quote from Mr. Carlyle’s own words, as he wrote them out in “Shooting Niagara: And After?” one of the wisest and most practically suggestive of all his political writings:—
All the millenniums I ever heard of heretofore were to be preceded by the chaining of the Devil for a thousand years—laying him up, tied neck and heels, and put beyond stirring as the preliminary. You, too, have been taking preliminary steps with more and more ardour, for a thirty years back, but they seem to be all in the opposite direction; a cutting asunder of straps and ties, wherever you might find them, pretty indiscriminate of choice in the matter; a general repeal of old regulations, fetters, and restrictions (restrictions on the Devil originally, I believe, for the most part, but now fallen slack and ineffectual), which had become unpleasant to many of you,—with loud shouting from, the multitude as strap after strap was cut, “Glory, glory, another strap is gone!”— this, I think, has mainly been the sublime legislative industry of Parliament, since it became “Reform Parliament “; victoriously successful and thought sublime, and beneficent by some. So that now hardly any limb of the Devil has a thrum or tatter of rope or leather left upon it. There needs almost superhuman heroism in you to “whip” a garrotter; no Fenian taken with the reddest hand is to be meddled with under penalties; hardly a murderer, never so detestable and hideous, but you find him “insane,” and board him at the public expense—a very peculiar British pytaneum of these days! And in fact the Devil (he, verily, if you will consider the sense of the words) is likewise become an emancipated gentleman; lithe of limb, as in Adam and Eve’s time, and scarcely a toe or a finger of him tied any more. And you, my astonishing friends, you are certainly getting into a millennium such as never was before—hardly even in the dreams of Bedlam.
I ventured to suggest that the repeal of archaic obsolete laws, which nominally chained down a more or less phantasmagorial fiend, but left the real author of evil free course to roam abroad seeking whom he might devour, might be an indispensable preliminary to the chaining up of the Great Red Dragon, but the pessimist philosopher refused to be comforted. He was a true child of the Sagas, was Mr. Carlyle, and his system of the universe was rigidly modelled in some respect upon the mythology of the Eddas. Always before him, he saw the terrible Ragnarok or the twilight of the gods in which the universe of things would be consumed, after which righteous and well-minded men shall abide in peace in the golden halls, and another earth pleasant and verdant shall arise. But between us and that fair future lies
A storm ago, a wolf age,
and then the earth shall meet its doom.
MR. CARLYLE AND MR. GLADSTONE.
Mr. Carlyle had small love for Mr. Gladstone, but his criticisms were apt to be based upon somewhat scanty materials. Of this I had an amusing illustration in 1877. Carlyle and Gladstone were then the two gods of my idolatry, and it grieved me to hear the way in which the Chelsea philosopher went on about the Liberal leader. “There is that Gladstone,” growled Mr. Carlyle,” who is running up and down the country talking and talking, filling whole acres of the papers with his speech, and never, so far as I can see, a single wise word in the whole of it.” “Really, Mr. Carlyle,” I ventured to say, “I should have thought you would have been delighted with one of his recent speeches in which he expressed in his own way the same ideas as those you have been pressing on me. Do you not remember? The speech was made only a week or two since.” “Remember,” said Mr. Carlyle with disgust, “why, do you think I ever read his speeches. I have never read a word of them!” Mr. Carlyle was not the first nor is he the first to condemn Mr. Gladstone unheard. Mr. Carlyle was more felicitous in his sarcastic comparison between Disraeli and Mr. Gladstone.
“I have often been amused,” said Mr. Carlyle, “at thinking of the contrast between the two men. There is Beaconsfield—he hasn’t got a conscience at all, and he knows he hasn’t got a conscience, and very well pleased he is that it should be so; but as for that other one—that Gladstone—eh, mon, what a conscience he has! There never was such a conscience as his. He bows down to it, and obeys it as if it were the very voice of God Himself. But, eh, sir, he has the most marvellous faculty in the world for making that conscience exactly what he wants.”
THE BLACK SPOT ON THE SUN.
But to return to our subject. Mr. Gladstone, although fairly well satisfied concerning political progress, is troubled and sore at heart about one matter. He entertains in all their ancient rigour his objections to Divorce. It is now past a quarter of a century since the Divorce Bill was carried in the face of his most resolute opposition. Mr. Russell, from whose admirable monograph on Mr. Gladstone I am constantly quoting, thus summarises the story:— “He spoke more than seventy times on the various stages of the Bill, endeavouring first to defeat it on the clear ground of principle, then to postpone it for more mature consideration, and when beaten in these attempts to purge it of its most glaringly offensive features.” I found that after a quarter of a century’s experience he was of the same opinion still, only if possible more so. “I hold to my old posituion,” he said; “but,” he added with great emphasis, “although I admit, as we must admit, the enormous difficulties of the question, marriage seems to me a great mystery. It is one of the most wonderful things in the whole world, and when I think of it I always feel that we must fall back on the old saying, that marriages are made in heaven. Marriage is to me the most wonderful thing in the whole world. But,” he went on, becoming very grave, “I must say that of late years in the upper circles of society, so far as I have been able to observe the facts, and so far as I have been able to check them by the opinion of competent and impartial observers, there has been a very widespread change for the worse in this matter. That is to say, the number of marriages which obviously turn out bad is greater now— much greater—than it was before, I do not say that this is entirely due to the Divorce Act. I recognise with gratitude that there has not been that great multiplication of divorce which we at one time anticipated, but the fact seems to me indisputable that, taking the higher classes, marriages are not made on such high principles as they used to be. Take from 1832 to 1857, a quarter of a century, compare it with the following quarter of a century and you will find that the number of conspicuously unhappy marriages has very considerably increased. It is a melancholy fact which I fear cannot be denied. I speak, of course, only of the society with which I am personally acquainted.”
This, of course, if Mr. Gladstone is correct is so serious as to counterbalance the gains in the political sphere, and it is the more remarkable inasmuch as this depravation of matrimony had gone on side by side with an unmistakable revival of spiritual religion in the Church.
THE FUTURE OF ENGLAND.
Mr. Gladstone has all his lifelong been so sedulous an opponent of swashbucklerism in all its moods and tenses that some of us have felt that he underestimated the providential mission of Britain in the affairs of the world. Whether or not Lord Salisbury believes in England as the old Elizabethans believed in England, there are very few even of the most devoted disciples of Mr. Gladstone who feel that he shares the lift and inspiration that come from a contemplation of the great role which we have played, and are playing, in the history of the world. He made his debut in that sphere by his great speech against Lord Palmerston’s Civis Romanus Sum doctrine, and he has stuck to his text ever since. Somewhere, drowned in the great ocean of his speeches, there may be a passage in which Mr. Gladstone indulges in the proud swell of soul which every patriot must experience when contemplating the position accorded to his country in the peopling, in the governing, and in the civilising of the world, but it does not recur to the memory. Mr. Gladstone is usually so bent upon mortifying the Old Adam of national pride, that he has hardly time to devote a sentence to the expression of the awe and gratitude with which he recognises the immense vocation of Britain in the outer world. “Well, you know,” he said, good humouredly, “if you have a son who is somewhat forward and is too self-complacent, and you have frequently to chide him for that, you do not like to increase his complacency by sounding his praises too much. You may allow it as a treat, but it ought not to be his daily bread. It is a mistake to think that this idea is exclusively Conservative. It was quite the reverse. Lord Palmerston was almost alone in asserting it, while the Duke of Wellington, Sir Robert Peel, and Lord Aberdeen were anti-Jingo to an extent almost inconceivable to-day. But I fully recognise that we have a great mission. The work of England has been great in the past, but it will be still greater in the future. This is true, I believe, in its broadest sense of the English-speaking world. I believe it is also true of England herself. I think that the part which England has to play, and the influence of England in the world will be even vaster in future than it is to-day. England will be greater than she has ever been.”
“THE TOO GREAT ORB OF OUR FATE ”
Mr. Gladstone has always seemed to be too much awed by the responsibilities ever to have a thought for the glories of Empire. I remember in 1878 he had remarked to Mr. Baldwin Brown that one of the reasons that led him to deprecate any inordinate extension of the Empire was because he thought he saw a falling-off in the morale of the Indian Civil Service, that we did not nowadays breed such men as the Laurences and others who had built up the fabric of our Eastern Empire, and had sustained it by their single-souled devotion to the welfare of India. He did not remember this when I recalled it to him, but he said, “whatever may be the case with the development of morale, I do not see the necessary development of brain power to enable us to cope with the vaster problems. I sometimes say,” he added, “that I do not see that progress in the development of the brain power which we ought to expect on the principles of orthodox Darwinism. Development, no doubt, is a slow process, but I do not see it at all. I do not think we are stronger but weaker than the men of the middle ages. I would take it as low down as the men of the sixteenth century. The men of the sixteenth century were strong men, stronger in brain power than our men. Of course, I except Napoleon. There was a brain the strongest and most marvellous that was ever in a human skull. His intellect was colossal, I know none more powerful or immense.”
It is curious to find how persistent Mr. Gladstone’s ideas are even in minor matters of detail. In this foreboding about the inadequate brain power of the race, he is exactly where he was fifty years ago. How true this is no one knows better than the present Government. What they do not see is that the only solution is to be found in decentralisation—in other words, in such Home Rule as will relieve the central authorities of that “bewildering multiplication of details” which at present almost absolutely precludes the taking of any wide outlook or the making of any statesmanlike provision for the problems and necessities of the future.
THE MAJORITY FOR HOME RULE.
Mr. Gladstone has of course no doubt whatever as to the issue of the next general election. Let it come soon or late, and the result will be the same. Nor does he fear that, however large his majority may be, it will be too large. “Only once,” he remarked, “have we had too large-a majority. That was in 1833, immediately after the Reform Act. But even if we had as large a majority now, it would not fall to pieces of its own weight. The issue is now so clearly and sharply defined that there would be no danger of disintegration, excepting, of course, from causes which would be equally potent if the majority were smaller.” After that—well, that question did not come under the category of facts, but it is evident that Mr. Gladstone is keenly alive to the coming questions.
THE REFORM OF THE DEATH DITTIES.
There is, for example, the question which each recurring death of a millionaire forces upon the public attention. Mr. Gladstone was the man who reformed the succession duties —a piece of work which Bishop Wilberberforce rightly characterised as most Conservative, but which brought down upon his head the hatred and denunciation of the landed interest. The work he did on the succession duties was, from a parliamentary point of view, the heaviest he ever had to do. He had to get up and master the whole of the law on the subject. It is therefore possible that he might shrink from grappling with the death duties. But he laid such stress upon the subject in his Midlothian addresses that it would not surprise me if it figured conspicuously in his manifesto to the nation on the eve of the General Election. If he does deal with it, it is to be hoped that he will put the whole question on a plain uniform footing. There is obviously no final solution but one to sweep away the difference between duties levied on real and personal estate and also on different degrees of consanguinity. The State could then simply, on the mere fact of death, levy a tax of a certain percentage upon all estates without any regard to the nearness of kin of the persons inheriting to the person who has died, or to the question whether or not it is real or personal property.
A MUNICIPAL DEATH DUTY?
It is doubtful whether Mr. Gladstone will give much encouragement to Mr. Sidney Webb’s scheme for levying a municipal death duty. He strongly condemns what he regards as the most objectionable way in which a beginning has been made in handing over this money to the local authorities. He doubts whether death duties should go to the rates. The rates are levied without raising political questions. With the Imperial taxes it is another matter. He of course looks at the subject from the point of view natural to one who is the custodian of the National Exchequer. If you tell him the ratepayer is poor, he replies—
“But the taxpayer is also poor. The local authorities may be very hungry, but the way in which the money has been given to the local authorities by the Conservatives has been a direct incentive to extravagance. If we had to establish the system of giving grants from the State they ought to have been made for the encouragement of economy, and not for the encouragement of extravagance. It has been a direct premium on wastefulness, as for instance the withholding of the grant from communities which would not raise the number of their police to a certain number. If they had doubled the number of the police, they would have received a grant which is almost equivalent to the cost of the extra number of constables. This is almost like holding out a direct bribe by the State to encourage extra expenditure.”
THE CHURCH AND THE CLERGY.
Shortly before calling upon Mr. Gladstone I had asked a statesman who knew him well what questions upon matter of fact he would ask if he sought for a key to this many-sided character. Instantly he replied, “Two questions would satisfy me. First, how does Mr. Gladstone reconcile it with his conscience to support marriage with a deceased wife’s sister after having declared it to be contrary to the law of God for three thousand years and more? and, secondly, how he can vote for Disestablishment in Wales?” I did not put these questions to Mr. Gladstone. Had I done so Mr. Gladstone would not have had the least difficulty in explaining and justifying his change of front, for he never changes front until he has first laboriously satisfied himself that it is his bounden duty so to do. The deceased wife’s sister did not enter into our conversation. On that subject Mr. Gladstone’s views are unaltered, only he would no longer enforce them upon non-Churchmen. Mr. Gladstone referred repeatedly to the change that had come over the spirit of the Church of England. He said “that the Church had become entirely metamorphosed and its whole spirit transformed so that it was a newer church than fifty years ago. It is not merely in details, but the clergy and the laity who think with the clergy look at everything from an entirely different standpoint from what they did. As a result the Church was immeasurably stronger and more vigorous than it was in times past.” I asked him whether he was not of opinion that this being the case Disestablishment, even in Wales, might be averted if the rural clergy, like their more rational clerical brethren in the towns, would but doff their silly “side” and consent to be primus inter pares with their Nonconformist brethren? Mr. Gladstone would not venture an opinion. His experience of the rural clergy was limited, being in fact confined to the parish of Hawarden, where an idyllic state of things prevails, and where even Disestablishment seems to he regarded with indifference, if not with complacency.
A PLEA FOR SEARCHING PREACHING.
“But one thing,” he said, suddenly becoming grave, “I have against the clergy both in country and in the towns,” he said, “I do not know whether the reproach applies to ministers of other congregations; I think they are not severe enough on their congregations. They do not sufficiently lay upon the souls and the consciences of their hearers their moral obligations, and probe their hearts, and bring up their whole lives and action to the bar of conscience. The class of sermons which I think are most needed are of the class one of which so offended Lord Melbourne long ago. Lord Melbourne was one day seen coming from church in the country in a mighty fume. Finding a friend, he exclaimed, ‘It is too bad. I have always been a supporter of the Church, and I have always upheld the clergy. But it is really too bad to have to listen to a sermon like that we have had this morning. Why, the preacher actually insisted upon applying religion to a man’s private life!’ But that is the kind of preaching which I like best, the kind of preaching which men need most, but it is also the kind of which they get least. The clergy are afraid of dealing faithfully with their hearers. And,” he added, “I fear, although I have not the same data for forming an opinion, that this is equally true of the Nonconformist ministers. Mr. Spurgeon, I admit, was not so. He was a good and brave man, an my remark does not apply to him. But there is not enough of such searching preaching in any of our pulpits.”
THE GREAT HOPE FOR THE FUTURE.
Before I rose to go I asked Mr. Gladstone what he regarded as the greatest hope for the future. He paused for a time, not rightly understanding the question. Then he said, gravely, “I should say we must look for that to the maintenance of faith in the Invisible. That is the great hope of the future; it is the mainstay of civilisation. And by that I mean a living faith in a personal God. I do not hold with “streams of tendency.” After sixty years of public life I hold more strongly than ever this conviction, deepened and strengthened by long experience of the reality, and the nearness, and the personality of God.”
Mr. Gladstone has at least had full scope for verifying this working hypothesis. It is something, nay, is it not perhaps the greatest of all the things we have to learn from him, to trust in God in all our work for man, knowing that there is a hand in the darkness ever near, which, if we but assent, will lead us in a sure path, although by a strange road, out of darkness into light, and in the midst of the storm and turmoil of life will keep us in perfect peace. (To be continued.)