The mind of Gladstone: religion, Homer, and politics, Oxford University Press, 2004|
Reviewed by PATRICK McNAMARA.
William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), 4 times Prime Minister of Great Britain during the
height of Britain’s influence and imperial power, was an extraordinary leader and individual
who repays close study. His life, like that of Queen Victoria herself, spanned most of the
19th century. He was perhaps the most eminent of the British Victorians. One can compare
him only to Darwin in the extent to which he influenced the culture and lives of his
countrymen during that century. He was fourth son of Sir John Gladstone, a wealthy merchant
in Liverpool who attained his riches at least partially via his holdings in the slave-worked Carribean cotton and sugar plantations. Like many of the sons of the rich in England during the early Victorian period, William was educated at Eton and Christ College, Oxford. It was at Oxford apparently where the future prime Minister awoke to his three greatest passions: religion, politics and Homer.
Gladstone’s intellectual struggles with those three passions are very ably summarized in Babbington’s book on Gladstone’s intellectual development. It speaks well of Gladstone that he took seriously the question of how religion and politics, or church and state ought to be related both culturally and institutionally/legally. Gladstone really did grapple mightily with the issue and his labors did produce fruit it seems to me. In some ways Gladstone was the ideal man to pursue the question of Church and State. He was an able politician and administrator in a country where Church and State issues had been life or death matters for centuries. He was also a deeply religious man who read voraciously in theology and spirituality and who all his life engaged in regular prayer and ministry. On the other hand, though he was a very successful politician he was not a profound political thinker. He did not have the same deep grounding in either theology or in political philosophy that many of his contemporaries had. He knew enough, however, to know that he did not know and thus he very wisely sought counsel from the experts. Although he was an almost fanatical High Anglican churchman, he eagerly sought counsel from three Roman Catholics: the German theologian Dollinger, the convert John Henry Newman and the political historian Lord Acton. Three of these men, Gladstone, Acton and Dollinger, were lifelong friends who corresponded and met regularly over several decades. Newman corresponded with the 3 but was limited in his travel and meetings during to his clerical life and duties. Gladstone, Acton and Dollinger, nevertheless, held Newman in highest regard, though Gladstone always regretted Newman’s conversion to Roman Catholicism.
Gladstone’s position on Church-state relations evolved along with his political views over the many years he spent in public life. When he graduated from Oxford in 1832, his father convinced the Duke of Newcastle to sponsor his son for the Newark constituency and thus Gladstone entered politics in a fateful year for Britain and for Gladstone. In that year the great Reform Act of 1832 had been passed which substantially increased the franchise. Gladstone would be at the center of further increases in the franchise throughout the 19th century.
Gladstone distinguished himself with fine oratorical skills in his maiden speeches in parliament. He was very conservative and opposed the extension of the franchise and loosening up the tight Church-state relationship. He very quickly developed the view that the strength of a polity depended on the strength and respect given to the Church. His deep religious sense also allowed him to sometimes place the interests of the state in service to the interests of the Church. This makes sense if you view the interests of the population as the same as or coterminous with the interests of religion. If the people need religion in order to flourish then the job of the State is to protect and nurture religious institutions and power. To do so would be to increase the power of the people.
He parliamentary speeches got him noticed by Peel, the prime Minister, who appointed him to a post in the Treasury. He quickly evidenced unusual administrative ability and the following year he was promoted to under-secretary for the colonies. Before he could distinguish himself in this new post he lost office when Peel resigned in 1835. He reasonably quickly returned to the government, however, when the Whigs were forced out of power in 1841. He now began to display extraordinary political and administrative skills. In 1844 he put together the Railway Bill that obliged railway companies to transport third-class travelers for fares that did not exceed a penny a mile. This bill reduced the unpopularity of his party among ordinary Britons.
In1847 Gladstone was elected the conservative member of parliament (MP) for Oxford University. This is a significant fact as Oxford at that time was a bastion of High Church, conservative thought which held that the State ought to support, financially, legally and in general promote an established religion, namely the High Church form of Anglicanism. Gladstone believed that Anglicanism had discovered the right form of state-church relations with the two entities roughly co-equal influence in the larger culture and each competent in its own domain. The state could not and should not undertake any actions that would undermine the influence of the Church and vice versa. Gladstone opposed Roman Catholicism insofar as it yielded where religious questions were concerned to a power outside of the local nationality. He also opposed low church and protestant manifestations of religion in England as disordered in their relations to the state: either they were hostile to the state and too subservient to state powers (e.g. the Puritans under Cromwell). All his life Gladstone was quite critical, even fanatically so, of the Roman Catholic Papacy—this despite his intense and life-long friendships with devout Roman Catholics. His own sister had converted to Roman Catholicism. Yet he saw the papacy as illiberal and operating to instill superstious subservience in the life of the faithful. When the First Vatican Council created the dogma of papal infallibility Gladstone only felt confirmed in his estimate of the backwardness of the Papacy. He never learned to see that the Papacy represented a cultural force that could be appealed to over and beyond the state. It represented a check on state power… but Gladstone never understood that. Indeed, it is now generally believed by many competent historians that democracy emerged first in the West precisely because the Papacy always constituted an extra-local, extra-national, spiritual, legal and institutional authority that could trump the local sovereign in several important cultural and economic domains that affected the lives of ordinary people nominally under the jurisdiction of the local Sovereign. Such was not the case in the Eastern Orthodox tradition where Church (in the form of the Metropolitan and Patriarchate) was subordinated to the Emperor and Czar. Thus it is not Christianity per se that yields liberty and democracy but the Latin rite which does so.
When Lord Palmerston, the leader of the Whigs, became Prime Minister in1859, he made Gladstone the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer. Again Gladstone proved an extraordinarily able Administrator: He abolished the paper duty which enabled publishers to produce cheap newspapers. He, bucked the tide in his own party and supported another reform Bill which would have enfranchised large sections of the working class (but this was defeated). His support for reform cost him his seat as representative from Oxford University. He now moved away from the conservative party. Lord Russell, the new Prime Minister, asked Gladstone to become leader of the House of Commons as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Gladstone again introduced a reform bill and again was defeated and Russell's administration resigned.
Lord Derby, leader of the conservatives now became Prime Minister with the unscrupulous Benjamin Disraeli acting as leader of the House of Commons. To steal the thunder from Gladstone and the liberals, Disraeli proposed (in 1867) a new Reform (enfranchisement) Act. Unlike Disraeli himself who had earlier blocked Gladstone’s efforts on the same measure, Gladstone took a principaled stand, pointed out that he had practically written the bill himself (Disraeli being too stupid to undertake the task), supported the bill and the measure was passed.
The new reform act gave the vote to every male adult householder living in a borough constituency, approximately1,500,000 new voters. Who would get the new voters? Interestingly, the new voters were not decieved by Disraeli’s machinations. In the general election of December 1868, the conservatives were defeated and Gladstone, leader of the liberal party, became Prime Minister. Now Gladstone acted with astonishing energy. He wrote and passed the education act (1870) and quickly moved to consolidate his party’s base by passing the Ballot Act (1872). This made voting anonymous. Until then voters had to mount a platform and announce their choice of candidate to the officer who then recorded it in the poll book. Employers and local landlords therefore knew how people voted and could punish them if they did not support their preferred candidate.
In the 1874 general election, however, the conservatives squeaked out a bare majority and Disraeli now became Prime Minister. Gladstone led the opposition. At this point he began his lifelong habit of intense scholarly and religious research when out of office. Amazingly enough in less than two years he wrote and published (all while leading the opposition in Parliament!) his book An Inquiry into the Time and Place of Homer in History (1876). It is difficult to describe the work as it contained some very big ideas (Greek culture as part of the Christian revelation—not merely foreshadowing the revelation) and some extraordinary minutiae only scholars could find interesting (e.g. an enumeration of styles, descriptions and functions of doorways in Homer…such info later helped helped anthropologists excavating ruins of Mycanae and Troy).
On a side note: While Disraeli gained the favor of Queen Victoria, Gladstone incurred her wrath. This it turns out was due to the fact that Gladstone was constantly trying to get her to play a role in the religious and political affairs of state (while Disraeli preferred a more tame royalty)—yet she would not budge from the Palaces after the death of Prince Albert. Disraeli’s inactivity on the domestic front and bungling of foreign crises led to the dissolution of Parliament in 1880, and the general election resulted in a overwhelming Liberal victory and Gladstone’s return to the Prime Minister-ship. Once again he acted energetically, introducing two new measures concerning parliamentary reform. The corrupt practices act reigned in some of the buying and selling of candidates and offices that proliferated under the Disraeli regime. The 1884 reform act gave the counties the same franchise as the boroughs and added about six million to the total number of new voters. Not surprisingly Gladstone and the liberals won the 1886 general election.
He now began another unpopular crusade: Gladstone now attempted to convince Parliament to accept Irish Home Rule. At this time the master Irish politician Parnell was using brilliant parliamentary tactics to bring the issue before Parliament. When Gladstone finally introduced a home rule bill the proposal split his own party and Parliament rejected the measure. He nevertheless tried again but this time Parnell became embroiled in a personal scandal (He had a mistress whom he apparently passionately loved and later married). Without Parnell’s leadership in the House of Commons the bill suffered and again went down to defeat. Gladstone was defeated in the polls in the 1886 elections but was once again returned to office for the final time in 1892. He tried once more. The following year the Irish home rule bill was defeated in the house of lords. William Gladstone resigned from office in March 1894 and died at Hawarden on 19th May, 1898.