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Monday, December 28, 2009

The Man Who Didn’t “Grow” in Office


Seven miles north of Escanaba in Michigan's Upper Peninsula sits a little town with a very big name.  More than a hundred years after the death of the town's namesake, it's unlikely that many of today's 5,000 residents of Gladstone could tell you much about him.  But in his day and for a long time thereafter, he was widely considered to be one of the greatest statesmen of the 19th Century.
Gladstone, Mich., wasn't always so named.  It was originally christened “Minnewasca,” the Sioux Indian word for “White Water,” in 1887.  Shortly thereafter, a local businessman pushed to rename the town after British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone.  A nearby railroad was partially funded by British capital and area residents appreciated the resulting economic development.  Today, the name “Gladstone” adorns towns, parks, schools, and even restaurants all across both the United States and Great Britain.
Just who was this son of Scottish parents who read 20,000 books in his lifetime and could speak Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as well as English?  Biographer Philip Magnus wrote that “at the time of his death [1898] he was . . . the most venerated and influential statesman in the world.”  Another biographer who currently sits in Britain's House of Lords, Roy Jenkins, declares that Gladstone “stamped the Victorian age even more than did [Queen] Victoria herself, and represented it almost as much.” 
No individual in history had a longer or more distinguished career in the British government.  Sixty-two years in the House of Commons.   In charge of the nation's finances as Chancellor of the Exchequer for fourteen budgets in four administrations.  Leader of a major political party (the Liberals) for almost 40 years.  Four times Prime Minister, for a total of twelve years.  He was 84 years of age when he retired as P.M. in 1894, the oldest Prime Minister in British history.  He was hailed as the “Grand Old Man” for his leadership and stature and as “England's Great Commoner” because he was not of royal blood and refused to accept any titles of nobility.  When he died, a quarter million citizens attended his funeral, one of the largest the country ever saw.
What made Gladstone both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government.  Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to the country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both.  What made him great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government.  Biographer Magnus says that Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”
Today, when a citizen gets elected to make government smaller but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having “grown in office.”  Gladstone's philosophy evolved, but in precisely the opposite direction—from a hodgepodge of statist notions to principled liberty.  He entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832 as a protectionist, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and protector of the status quo.  The eminent British historian Thomas Babington Macauley described him as “the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories.”
By 1850, he had become an ardent free trader and by 1890 he was largely responsible for reducing Britain's tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.  He slashed government spending, taxes and regulations.  He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland.  He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied it.  He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity.  Even as Prime Minister, he often walked the streets of London to find prostitutes to talk them out of their unseemly occupation. 
He was attacked by statists for being miserly with the public's money, but he loved pinching pences.  Any official not willing to save something even on “candle-ends and cheese-parings” was, he once said, “not worth his salt.”
It wasn't the instruction he received while a student at Oxford that converted Gladstone to the liberation of the individual.  Indeed, he offered this observation in later years:  “I trace in the education of Oxford of my own time one great defect.  Perhaps it was my own fault; but I must admit that I did not learn when at Oxford that which I have learned since—namely, to set a due value on the imperishable and inestimable principles of human liberty.  The temper which, I think, too much prevailed in academic circles was to regard liberty with jealousy.”  Anyone familiar with the prevailing orthodoxy of today's academia would have to conclude that in this respect, the more things have changed the more they've stayed the same.
It was as President of the Board of Trade in the ministry of Sir Robert Peel in the 1840s that a young Gladstone came to champion free trade.  The disastrous Irish potato famine was a powerful argument against laws forbidding the importation of grain for a starving populace.  Gladstone befriended the Anti-Corn Law League's John Bright, became convinced of the logic of free trade, and secured the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws over the objections of many in his own Conservative or “Tory” Party.   The measure split the Conservatives, which paved the way for Gladstone and others a decade later to give birth to the Liberal Party.
Gladstone's conversion to free trade made him a big name in liberal circles in Britain and a rising star abroad as well.  His international reputation soared in 1851 when, after a visit to Naples, he revealed to the world the appalling conditions in Neapolitan prisons.  Reformers there were being locked up for speaking out on behalf of freedom.  Gladstone's vigorous denunciation reverberated around the globe and later prompted the Italian patriot Garibaldi to credit the British parliamentarian with having “sounded the first trumpet call of Italian liberty.”
In foreign policy, with a painful exception or two that he mostly later regretted, Gladstone practiced retrenchment.  He opposed the imperialist policies of his archrival Benjamin Disraeli.  He said he preferred the Golden Rule over intervention.  He fought hard but failed to secure Home Rule for Ireland; if Parliament had been as wise as he on that issue, Ireland today might still be a part of the United Kingdom.
In February 1893, in his eighty-third year, he delivered what one biographer terms “a lucid and brilliant speech” that upheld the sanctity of sound money and the gold standard.
Gladstone often urged the British people to look to the ideas of America's Founding Fathers for inspiration.  “I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it,” he told a friend in 1891.  “I view with the greatest alarm the progress of socialism at the present day,” he opined.  “Whatever influence I possess will be used in the direction of stopping it.”
Today, in little Gladstone, Mich., a portrait of the Grand Old Man hangs in City Hall.  The residents there can and should be very proud that their town's name didn't stay “Minnewasca” for long.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is