William Ewart Gladstone: A Decades-Long Defense of Liberty

Real Heroes: William Ewart Gladstone

Westminster Abbey, nearly a thousand years old, is my favorite stop in London, which I’ve visited so many times now that I’ve lost count. Each time I walk through the main entrance, my eyes are drawn immediately to the left because of the imposing statue of a man I deeply admire: William Ewart Gladstone, a devoted friend of both British and American liberty and the greatest of all British prime ministers.

Today, the name Gladstone adorns towns, parks, schools, and many buildings all across both Great Britain and the United States — and deservedly so. The principles that he eloquently defended are perhaps best expressed in this excerpt from a speech he delivered in Scotland in 1879:

There should be a sympathy with freedom, a desire to give it scope, founded not upon visionary ideas, but upon the long experience of many generations within the shores of this happy isle — that in freedom you lay the firmest foundations both of loyalty and order; the firmest foundations for the development of individual character; and the best provision for the happiness of the nation at large.

The Grand Old Man of Classical Liberalism

The son of Scottish parents, Gladstone could speak Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as well as English, and he read 20,000 books in his lifetime. Biographer Philip Magnus wrote that “at the time of his death he was … the most venerated and influential statesman in the world.” Another biographer and House of Lords member, Roy Jenkins, declared that Gladstone “stamped the Victorian age even more than did [Queen] Victoria herself, and represented it almost as much.”

"I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it."  — William Ewart Gladstone

No individual in history had a longer or more distinguished career in the British government: 62 years in the House of Commons. He was in charge of the nation’s finances as chancellor of the exchequer for 14 budgets in four administrations. He led a major political party (the Liberals) for almost 40 years. He was prime minister for four terms (more than anyone else in British history), for a total of 12 years. When he retired in 1894, he was 84 years old, the oldest prime minister the country has ever known.

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 in 1898, a quarter million citizens attended his funeral, one of the largest the country ever witnessed.

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. Magnus says that Gladstone “achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions.”

Improving in Office

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 in precisely the opposite direction — from a hodgepodge of statist notions to principled application of 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 a 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 could look back proudly and take a substantial share of the credit for reducing Britain’s tariffs from 1,200 to just 12. It was as president of the Board of Trade in the ministry of Sir Robert Peel in the 1840s that a young Gladstone first 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.

Miserly with Public Money

“Economy is the first and great article in my financial creed,” he wrote in 1859. During his four ministries, he slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He was attacked by statists for being miserly with the public’s money, but he loved pinching pence. Any official not willing to save something even on “candle-ends and cheese-parings” was, he once said, “not worth his salt.” He opposed the introduction of the income tax when it was first proposed in the 1840s and later tried to eliminate it when he was prime minister; in that noble effort, he was unsuccessful, but he prevented the tax from becoming “progressive” and beat the rate down from a high of 10 percent to well under 2 percent.

Gladstone played a key role in the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the very structure that housed it, the famed Crystal Palace. When London’s Hyde Park was chosen for the site, the Royal Commission solicited proposals for a building to house the exhibition during the expected six months it would be open to the public. The project was in danger of foundering amid designs deemed too costly, when entrepreneur Joseph Paxton came forth with plans for a monster edifice made entirely of glass panes (nearly a quarter million of them) and the supporting iron framework. Thanks to the repeal in 1845 of Britain’s longstanding and onerous “window tax,” the price of glass had fallen by 80 percent, making Paxton’s design affordable. Who engineered the abolition of the window tax and thereby made it possible for Paxton to build the Crystal Palace? None other than the tax-cutting William Ewart Gladstone.

Against the Prevailing Orthodoxy

"The rule of our policy is that nothing should be done by the state which can be better or as well done by voluntary effort."  — William Ewart Gladstone

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 (with no security detail) to find prostitutes to bring back to Number 10 Downing so he and his wife Catherine could talk them out of their unseemly occupation.

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.

Liberty and Peace at Home and Abroad

In foreign policy, with a painful exception or two that he mostly later regretted, Gladstone practiced nonintervention. He spoke against the Opium War with China as early as 1840. Decades later, he opposed the imperialist policies of his archrival Benjamin Disraeli, saying that he preferred the Golden Rule over adventurism and empire. He once opined, “Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home.”

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 Giuseppe Garibaldi to credit the British parliamentarian with having “sounded the first trumpet call of Italian liberty.”

Historian Jim Powell writes,

Gladstone believed the cost of war should be a deterrent to militarism. He insisted on a policy of financing war exclusively by taxation. He opposed borrowing money for war, since this would make it easier, and future generations would be unfairly burdened.

What a contrast to present times, when governments think nothing of spending more for programs at home at the same time they ratchet up military spending for wars abroad, then pile up the debt to cover it all in the short term.

Gladstone firmly believed that prospects for peace improve when the lust for power recedes. “We look forward to the time,” he once declared, “when the power of love will replace the love of power. Then will our world know the blessings of peace.”

Hard-Won Lessons

Though he towered over everyone else in government in his day, including other classical liberals, Gladstone wasn’t perfect. Powell touches on one area where he fell short:

Having matured in an era when his government had limited power and committed a few horrors, Gladstone figured it could do some good. For instance, he approved taxes for government schools. But part of the problem was that government revenues soared as Gladstone cut tariffs and other taxes, and political pressure became overwhelming for government to spend some of the loot.

If the Grand Old Man could see where government involvement in education would lead, he might not have yielded on the matter. In my view, this is the only blemish on an otherwise sterling, decades-long career in defense of liberty. He may have sensed his error when he wrote in 1885,

The rule of our policy is that nothing should be done by the state which can be better or as well done by voluntary effort; and I am not aware that, either in its moral or even its literary aspects, the work of the state for education has as yet proved its superiority to the work of the religious bodies or of philanthropic individuals.

Gladstone is remembered well in Ireland to this day because of his early efforts to grant more liberty to the Irish and to reform the vestiges of feudalism. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He fought hard but failed to secure home rule for the Irish; had Parliament been as wise as he on that issue, Ireland today might still be a part of the United Kingdom.

Intellectual Gold Standard

In February 1893, in his 83rd year, he delivered what one biographer terms “a lucid and brilliant speech” that upheld the sanctity of sound money and the gold standard. Honest men and honest governments don’t steal from the people by debasing the currency.

"Here is my first principle of foreign policy: good government at home." — William Ewart Gladstone

Gladstone urged the British people to look to the ideas of America’s Founding Fathers for inspiration. The more he reflected on the wisdom of men like Madison and Jefferson, the more he saw them as political and intellectual giants.

In warning against the temptations to grow the size and scope of the state, Gladstone was positively prophetic:

But let the working man be on his guard against another danger. We live at a time when there is a disposition to think that the Government ought to do this and that and that the Government ought to do everything. There are things which the Government ought to do, I have no doubt. In former periods the Government have neglected much, and possibly even now they neglect something; but there is a danger on the other side. If the Government takes into its hands that which the man ought to do for himself it will inflict upon him greater mischiefs than all the benefits he will have received or all the advantages that would accrue from them.

This was a man who embraced activist government in his youth but learned quickly what a snare and a delusion it could be, then set himself on a course to fight it.

“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 said. “Whatever influence I possess will be used in the direction of stopping it.”

We who love liberty often think poorly of politicians. William Ewart Gladstone, however, was one whom we can embrace as a champion.

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