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."

A notable exception was the Marquess of Salisbury, the Conservative prime minister about whom Andrew Roberts has written so memorably, who demonstrated not only exceptional perspicacity--he wrote brilliant political journalism for the Saturday Review--but also consistently sound political judgment, which Gladstone so glaringly lacked.

David Bebbington, professor of history at the University of Stirling and an authority on 19th-century British evangelicalism, would doubtless disagree. His Gladstone is not only a profound thinker but a prophetic politician. Bebbington defends these highly arguable claims by pointing out that Gladstone's thinking influenced the communitarian thinking of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor, and that his insistence on the community of nations inspired the opponents of Stalin and Hitler. Woodrow Wilson, who had a photograph of the great man hanging over his desk when he was hatching the Fourteen Points, was also a fan. (Theodore Roosevelt spoke for critics of both Gladstone and Wilson when he said that "a milk-and-water righteousness unbacked by force is . . . as wicked as and even more mischievous than force divorced from righteousness.")

Bebbington might have also cited the historian J.L. Hammond, who heaped extravagant praise on Gladstone in his Gladstone and the Irish Nation (1938), observing of Gladstone's readiness to champion Irish home rule when it was neither popular nor profitable: "In a world where armed strength was becoming more and more the undisputed master, a great statesman was asking one of the leading peoples to make its undoubted power obey the unarmed voice of justice. It is difficult to believe that Europe would not have had a nobler history if there had been a Gladstone in each of the great States moving so steadily towards war."

The idea of a Europe full of Gladstones is rather dizzying. In any case, it is questionable whether Gladstone would have been effective against Hitler, given his well-known aversion to force, which needlessly cost General Gordon his life at Khartoum.

The most balanced chapter of the book reexamines Gladstone's highly eccentric brand of liberalism, to which he converted in 1850 after going to Naples and witnessing how the Neapolitan government was persecuting the liberal minister Carlo Poerio and his followers for their support of the constitution of 1848. Gladstone attended Poerio's trial and was present when the government sentenced him to 24 years' hard labor in chains. He even managed to gain admittance to the dungeon where Poerio and thousands of other hapless political prisoners were being left to languish.

There Gladstone discovered a truth about European conservatism that he never forgot. As he wrote to Lord Aberdeen, the foreign secretary:

It is the wholesale persecution of virtue. . . . It is the awful profanation of public religion. . . . It is the perfect prostitution of the judicial office. . . . It is the savage and cowardly system of moral as well as physical torture. . . . This is the negation of God erected into a system of government.

After this revelation, Gladstonian liberalism was born. What it was, exactly, is not easy to say. The historian John Vincent says that "it was an intelligent way of making the best of a weak international position." Where Benjamin Disraeli might have sought to create the illusion of state strength, Gladstone worked to create the illusion of state morality. G.M. Young says it consisted of "a horror of all coercive powers, great or small--Empires, Papacies, Parliaments, Sultans, Colonial Offices, Trade Unions--which do not rest their authority on consent, habitual or expressed." For H.C.G. Matthew, the editor of Gladstone's diaries, it was "fiscal probity." Bebbington sees it as having been less liberal than communitarian, embodying Gladstone's conviction that "sectional selfishness, at whatever level, must give way to the common good."

Whatever it was, it had nothing to do with our own liberalism. In a speech he gave in 1877, he confirmed one of his most fundamental political convictions:

The best thing a government can do for the people is to help them to help themselves--that is, to remove the obstacles which are in the way of their so helping themselves. I have no faith in any system of Government which strikes at the root of human freedom; and if any Government pretends that it teaches men how to live, that it will undertake the finding for them of what as citizens and fathers of families they ought to find for themselves, the Government, be its intentions good or bad, is not conferring a benefit, but inflicting an injury on the people.

As Bebbington remarks, "So much for the nanny state." Gladstone was equally illiberal--in our own terms--when it came to the study of the past. The seminaries of self-loathing and grievance into which our liberal elites have turned universities in both America and Great Britain would have appalled Gladstone. In 1885, he put up the money to replace Edinburgh's market cross, and in an eloquent speech reaffirmed his Burkean commitment to the past:

It is in my judgment a great misfortune to any country when it finds itself or thinks itself under the necessity of breaking the ancient traditions. It is a degradation to men to be reduced to the life of the present; and never will he cast forth his hopes, and his views, and his efforts towards the future with due effect and energy, unless at the same time he prizes and holds fondly clasped to his heart the recollections of the past.

Readers of John Henry Newman will be interested to see what Bebbington makes of Newman's influence on the Grand Old Man. Bebbington is right that Gladstone agreed with Newman that evangelicals laid too much stress on self-contemplation. What G.M. Young called "the intense introversion of Evangelicalism" was something to which Gladstone was prone all his life. His diary exhibits the anguish this caused him. When he read Newman recommending that we "shun the contemplation of our own feelings, emotions, frame and state of mind," and concentrate instead on the Lord, he must have responded with a certain relief. Then, too, Gladstone's experience of the rise of unbelief could only have verified the accuracy of Newman's claim that self-contemplation imparted principles that would "destroy all positive doctrine, all ordinances, all good works . . . foster pride, invite hypocrisy, discourage the weak, and deceive most fatally, while they profess to be the especial antidotes to self-deception."

Where Gladstone differed with Newman was in seeing self-deception not in Anglo-Catholicism, which Newman came to see as a "mere theory and illusion, a paper theology that facts contradict," but in Roman Catholicism, about which Gladstone gave out that "no one can become her convert without renouncing his moral and mental freedom."

Bebbington is wrong to suggest that, by embracing Newman's critique of evangelicalism, Gladstone was embracing Tractarianism. In his conclusion, Bebbington admits as much himself when he says that Gladstone, after his conversion to liberalism, turned away from Tractarianism, which, after all, had been responsible not only for his two best friends, James Hope-Scott and Henry Manning, but also his sister, Helen, converting to Roman Catholicism. Worst of all, from Gladstone's standpoint, was the effect that Tractarianism had on Newman, from whose desertion, Disraeli predicted, the English Church would never recover. It was to distance himself from Tractarianism that Gladstone adopted the positions of Broad Churchmanship.

Later, it is true, he embraced what Bebbington refers to as "the liberal Catholicism of Charles Gore and his Lux Mundi circle that blended high ecclesiastical claims with wide intellectual and social sympathies," but this was something rather different from Tractarianism. And incidentally, Gore was not a liberal Catholic; he was a liberal High Church Anglican. For Bebbington, this later affiliation aligns Gladstone with the future because, as he says, these were the ideas that would "dominate the Church of England into the middle years of the 20th century"--which is a comical non-sequitur. So many of the ideas that the Church of England held "in the middle years of the 20th century" it has since blithely repudiated.

In refuting the mandarin agnosticism of the biologist T.H. Huxley and Fitzjames Stephen, a lawyer, who spoke frequently against revealed religion at meetings of the Metaphysical Society, Gladstone had recourse to St. Augustine's famous dictum securus judicat orbis terrarum: The whole world judges rightly. For Gladstone, Bebbington observes, "Lawyers possessed no monopoly of reasoning skills; nor did the agnostics have a privileged avenue to truth. As in the national debate over the Eastern Question that was raging at the time, the mass of the people rather than the knot of so-called specialists seemed to Gladstone to have right on their side. The general consent of civilized humanity was preferable to the sectional opinion of an intellectual aristocracy."

As this shows, Bebbington can be a judicious commentator. Certainly he is right to recognize that in Gladstone's greatest debate, the debate over the Vatican Decrees, "There can be little doubt that Newman showed Gladstone's fears about the loyalties of the Catholic community to be alarmist fantasies."

Despite its inconsistencies, Bebbington's book is worth reading. He tackles a difficult subject that merits more attention. Perry Butler's monograph Gladstone: Church, State and Tractarianism: A Study of His Religious Ideas and Attitudes, 1809-1859 (1982) is the only other useful study in the field. He provides astute analysis of the religious underpinnings of Gladstonian liberalism. He gives an excellent account of Gladstone's combative response to the rise of unbelief. On this topic, Richard Shannon, Gladstone's best biographer, recounts an amusing exchange between Gladstone and Mrs. Humphry Ward regarding her novel Robert Elsmere (1888), the hero of which jettisons his faith to pursue philanthropy. Mrs. Ward asked the old bibliophile if he had not read "the new lines of criticism," to which Gladstone fired back: "I don't believe in any new systems. . . . I cling to the old. . . . I believe in the degeneracy of man, in the Fall--in sin--in the entirety and virulence of sin, & sin is the great fact of the world."

Edward Short is at work on a book about John Henry Newman and his contemporaries.

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