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W. E. Gladstone

(1809—1898) prime minister and author


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(1809–98).

Statesman and author. Gladstone was in office every decade from the 1830s to the 1890s, starting as a Tory, ending as a Liberal‐radical. Born in Liverpool on 29 December 1809, the son of John Gladstone, a merchant from Scotland, Gladstone was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. Intensely religious, he at first felt drawn to ordination in the Church of England, but not sufficiently to go against his father's objections. While president of the Oxford Union, he strongly opposed the Whigs' proposals for parliamentary reform and was elected to the Commons as a Tory in December 1832. Influenced by both Coleridge and the Oxford movement, he published The State in its Relations with the Church (1838) and Church Principles (1840) arguing that the Church of England should be the moral conscience of the state; Macaulay, in a savage refutation, called him ‘the rising hope of those stern and unbending tories’. In Peel's government 1841–5 he was vice‐president and then president of the Board of Trade. He resigned in 1845 over the Maynooth grant, returning in 1846 to be briefly colonial secretary and to support repeal of the Corn Laws.

In 1852, as a member of the Aberdeen coalition, he began the first of his four terms as chancellor of the Exchequer (the others were 1859–66, 1873–4, and 1880–2); his greatest budgets were those of 1853 and 1860. Gladstonian finance emphasized a balanced budget, minimum government spending, the abolition of protective tariffs, and a fair balance between direct and indirect taxes. In his 1853 budget he repealed about 140 duties; in 1860 he repealed duties on 371 articles, many of them as a consequence of the treaty with France which he planned and Richard Cobden negotiated.

In the 1850s and 1860s Gladstone emerged as a politician of national standing with a reputation for oratory. Though MP for Oxford University from 1847 to 1866, he began to take increasingly radical positions, especially on questions like parliamentary reform. However, the modest Reform Bill proposed by Gladstone and Russell in 1866 led to the temporary disintegration of the Liberal Party and the resignation of the government. Gladstone responded with increasingly radical demands on other questions, such as the abolition of compulsory church rates and disestablishment of the Irish church. He led the Liberals to win the 1868 election and became prime minister in December 1868: on receiving the queen's telegram of summons, ‘My mission is to pacify Ireland.’ In his first government, one of the greatest of British reforming administrations, he disestablished the Irish church (1869), passed an important Irish Land Bill (1870), but failed with his Irish University Bill (1873, when the government resigned, only for Disraeli to refuse to take office). His government also abolished purchase of commissions in the army and religious tests in the universities; it established the secret ballot and, for the first time, a national education system in England, Wales, and Scotland (1870–2). Gladstone called and lost a snap general election in January 1874. He then announced his retirement from the party leadership.

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Subjects: British History.


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