The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Gladstone, William Ewart (1809-1898)

William Ewart Gladstone was a native of Liverpool of Scottish descent. Between 1868 and 1894, he was four times prime minister of the United Kingdom and four times chancellor of the Exchequer. In office, Gladstone was largely successful in advancing his classical liberal vision of limited government, fiscal discipline, low taxation, free-market economics, free trade, devolution of power, and protection and expansion of political and religious liberties, both at home and overseas. When not in office, he became the most effective spokesman for these causes not least because he was widely and correctly expected to soon return to government. Any serious understanding of Gladstone’s policies, life, and career must take account of his intense lifelong struggle with his deeply held Christian faith, as well as his immersion in Greco–Roman thought.

Gladstone graduated from Christ Church, Oxford, and became a member of important reforming governments, both Tory-Conservative, Whig-Radical, and Liberal. In addition to being chancellor and prime minister, Gladstone held numerous other prestigious positions in and out of government, such as vice president of the Board of Trade, president of the Board of Trade, Colonial Secretary, and Lord Rector of Edinburgh University. As chancellor, Gladstone improved Britain’s financial system beyond recognition, creating the conditions for future prosperity. During his first premiership, free trade reached its apotheosis, and laissez-faire governed the workings of the domestic market. His political career finally came to an end in 1894, when his administration was unable to enact a bill supporting Home Rule for Ireland, which was defeated in the House of Lords.

Gladstone is generally considered to have become more left wing as he grew older, turning from a liberal Tory into a conservative Liberal leader of a Liberal Party that emerged around him. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether his political development from a self-described “out-and-out inequalitarian” into a backer of “the masses against the classes” reflected a fundamental shift in philosophy. Gladstone tended to favor reforms less for their own sake than in response to changing circumstances. He stayed ambivalent about extending the franchise, for example, making it difficult to conclude whether he was the enemy of the aristocracy or their savior, or whether his later populism was sincere.

Moreover, Gladstone continued to praise Aristotle, Augustine, Dante, Bishop Butler, and Burke as his guiding lights throughout the political and religious turmoil of his long life, while he maintained his dislike for the ideas of Bentham and J. S. Mill. Much like Lord Acton—his friend, advisor, and fellow Burkean Liberal—Gladstone believed in natural and divine law, as well as in the historical liberties of Englishmen, while remaining skeptical about abstract rights. Gladstone may have shared practical ends with the Liberal Party without identifying with the philosophical views of the majority of its supporters. “He is, and always was, in everything except essentials, a tremendous Tory,” judged Arthur Balfour.

Colin Matthew, who edited Gladstone’s diaries, also was his best biographer. Roy Jenkins’s life of Gladstone, although much acclaimed, appears at best uninterested in Gladstone’s guiding principles and, at times, condescending about his religious life. Lord Morley, a former member of Gladstone’s cabinet, wrote a memoir of Gladstone that continues to fascinate.

 

Further Readings

Jenkins, Roy, Gladstone. London: Macmillan, 1995.

Matthew, H. C. G. Gladstone 1875–1898. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Morley, John. The Life of William Ewart Gladstone. 3 vols. New York: Macmillan, 1903.

Originally published .