The Magazine

The Grand Old Man

What Gladstone thought about church, state, and Victorian Britain.

Feb 27, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 23 • By EDWARD SHORT
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The Mind of Gladstone

Religion, Homer, and Politics

by David Bebbington

Oxford University, 352 pp., $95

IN HIS FIRST BOOK, The State in Its Relations with the Church (1838), written when he was still the Conservative MP for Newark, William Gladstone argued that the English state was morally obliged to uphold Anglicanism because it was "that form of belief which contains the largest portion of the elements of truth with the smallest admixture of error."

This was an especially quixotic contention at a time when the liberal Whigs had effectively appropriated the Established Church to foil their Tory opponents, who were the traditional advocates of the prerogatives of the Church. Nevertheless, Gladstone was genuinely solicitous about the spiritual well-being of his compatriots, and always insisted that politics serve religion. Writing to his father when he was 24, he defended the dignity of ministerial office on the grounds that "nothing could compete with the grandeur of its end or of its means, the restoration of man to that image of his Maker which is now throughout the world so lamentably defaced."

Macaulay reviewed Gladstone's theoretical paean to the Church of England in the quintessentially liberal Edinburgh Review, and saw only an apology for "roasting dissenters at slow fires."

If the propagation of religious truth be a principal end of government . . . if it be the duty of a government to employ for that end its constitutional power . . . if the constitutional power of government extends . . . to the making of laws for burning of heretics . . . if burning be . . . in most cases, a most effectual mode of suppressing opinions; why should we not burn?

After this merciless reductio ad absurdum, Macaulay relented and expressed the hope that young Gladstone would "not suffer political avocations so entirely to engross him, as to leave him no leisure for literature and philosophy." He needn't have bothered. Gladstone sat in the House of Commons for over 60 years, and led four governments as prime minister, but he always found "leisure for literature and philosophy." James Joyce no doubt had this aspect of the man in mind when he referred to him as "like a portly butler who has gone to night school."

Gladstone wrote over 30 books and scores of articles. In The Mind of Gladstone, David Bebbington delves into these neglected materials "to uncover the structure and development" of Gladstone's ideas. The result is a lively, deeply researched book that should coax readers to look again at that most peculiar concoction, Gladstonian liberalism. Earlier Gladstone scholars from John Morley to H.C.G. Matthew chose to ignore these materials to concentrate on the political career. Bebbington shows that the statesman's political interests were "intertwined" with his religious and intellectual interests, and cannot be understood apart from them.

St. Augustine, one of Gladstone's heroes, once said that "no one should give up entirely his delight in learning, for the sweetness he once knew may be lost and the burden he bears overwhelm him." Gladstone's voluminous diaries prove that no burden--whether it was the threat of insurrection in Ireland or the menace of the Mahdi in Egypt or the debacle of Majuba Hill in South Africa--ever kept Gladstone from gratifying his "delight in learning." Entry after entry records the inveteracy with which this indefatigable statesman devoured books. Whether his reading enabled him to bear his political burdens with any more fortitude is doubtful: He complained ceaselessly about what he considered the slavery of public life. Reading certainly did not enable him to conduct his foreign policy with any more skill or success.

One frequently hears complaints of the philistinism of politicians. Gladstone's career illustrates how philistinism, far from hampering, might actually discipline a statesman. No one can look dispassionately at Gladstone's career without agreeing with Walter Bagehot that it is not the intellectual who makes the best statesman but the capable man of business. For Bagehot, the man who most fit this pragmatic bill was Sir Robert Peel, who repealed the protectionist Corn Laws, and gave the English their first metropolitan police force.

"In common life," Bagehot argued, "we continually see some men as it were scarcely separable from their pursuits. . . . It is so with Sir Robert Peel. So long as constitutional statesmanship is what it is now, so long as its function is the recording of views of a confused nation, so long as success in it is confined to minds plastic, changeful, administrative--we must hope for no better man. You have excluded the profound thinker; you must be content with what you can obtain--the business gentleman."