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William Ewart Gladstone - British Prime Minister and Political Reformer

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William Ewart Gladstone

William Ewart Gladstone

Library of Congress

William Ewart Gladstone, Leading Statesman of the Victorian Era:

William Ewart Gladstone was a dominant and controversial figure in Victorian England and the leading British statesman of the 19th century. He served in the British government from the 1830s to the 1890s, and as Prime Minister of Britain on four occasions he reformed both British government and society.

Gladstone is often viewed as the moral and political voice of the Victorian era, yet he was famously disliked by Queen Victoria.

One of Gladstone's lifelong obsessions was the "rescuing" of English prostitutes, and his activities in that regard made some question his motivations and even his sanity.

Early Life of Gladstone:

William Ewart Gladstone was born on December 29, 1809 in Liverpool. His family was of Scottish descent, and his father, Sir John Gladstone, became a wealthy merchant in the port city of Liverpool and had investments in slave plantations in the West Indies.

After being educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, Gladstone took a trip to Italy and then returned to Britain and was elected to Parliament. Though he would become the leader of the Liberal Party, he was first elected as a Tory. His first address in Parliament was a defense of slave owners in the West Indies, in which he used his father as an example.

Gladstone's Politics Shifted from Conservative to Liberal:

In the British government Gladstone was at first aligned with Sir Robert Peel, but throughout the 1840s Gladstone’s politics evolved until he began taking positions more in line with the Liberal party. A trip to Naples in the early 1850s, where he witnessed extreme poverty, may have helped drive him away from Tory orthodoxy.

In the 1850s Gladstone served as chancellor of the exchequer, the chief financial officer of the British government, and was influential in passing financial reforms, including the abolition of many taxes and tariffs.

William Ewart Gladstone Led the Liberal Party:

In the late 1850s Gladstone gravitated toward a newly formulated Liberal party and became its leader.

Gladstone's party won an overwhelming majority in the elections of 1868, and he became prime minister. He focused on reforms, which were often targeted at reducing the influence of privilege and making British institutions, such as civil service and the military, open to those beyond the privileged classes.

Gladstone and the Issue of Irish Home Rule:

Gladstone served four terms as prime minister:

  • 1868-1874
  • 1880-1885
  • 1886
  • 1892-94

During his first term as prime minister Gladstone pushed reforms intended to improve the lot of the Irish peasantry. In fact, Gladstone became intensely interested in the "Irish question," and many of his ideas for reform were focused on Britain's administration of Ireland.

Gladstone, throughout the late 1800s, often advocated "home rule" for Ireland. While it wasn't a call for outright Irish independence, it was considered by many a radical position.

Gladstone Had a Lengthy and Bitter Rivalry With Benjamin Disraeli:

The other leading political player in Victorian Britain was Benjamin Disraeli, who, like Gladstone, held a variety of government posts and served as Prime Minister. For decades Gladstone and Disraeli were rivals, and it is known that they detested each other.

The two men came from very opposite backgrounds, and while they were both highly intelligent, they often battled on opposite sides of an issue. And they also had different relationships with Queen Victoria, who liked Disraeli and complained bitterly of Gladstone's attitude toward her.

Gladstone's Attacks on Disraeli Were Effective:

Gladstone was opposed to Britain's imperial foreign policy. And in the late 1870s, while out of power, he published a controversial pamphlet attacking the foreign policy of Benjamin Disraeli, who was the current prime minister.

The title of the pamphlet, "Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East" seems utterly obscure today, but Britain's policy in the near-east was a huge topic of debate at the time.

Disraeli's policy supported Turkey, and Gladstone, horrified by Turkish atrocities in the Balkans, denounced it. Gladstone's appeal to the voters brought him back as prime minister in 1880.

Gladstone's Personality was Controversial:

Gladstone was renowned for his intellect and his oratory, but he often clashed with Queen Victoria, and his hatred of Disraeli was legendary. When Disraeli died, Gladstone refused to attend his funeral.

While disliked by some in power, Gladstone remained popular with the public over a span of decades.

Gladstone had married Catherine Glynne in 1839. His marriage was happy and he and Catherine had eight children.

Gladstone found himself in failing health and resigned his final term as prime minister at the age of 85. He died in 1898, at the age of 89.

Gladstone's Obsessions:

Gladstone was obsessed with physical fitness, and one of his hobbies was felling large trees with an axe.

He was also dedicated to the rescue and rehabilitation of London prostitutes. For many years, even while serving as prime minister, he would walk the streets at night, approach prostitutes, and offer to give them shelter and a way to a respectable life.

This activity may may have stemmed from a deep religious conviction. Yet it raised eyebrows in British society, and has engendered speculation to the present day.

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