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Who was William Ewart Gladstone?

Updated on December 3, 2016

William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898), British statesman, Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Party, was born at Liverpool, the son of a wealthy Scottish merchant. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he almost entered the Church, but decided upon a political career and first entered Parliament as a Tory in 1832. He became Colonial Secretary and followed Peel in supporting Free Trade and repeal of the Corn Laws.

Under Lord Aberdeen (1852-55) he made his reputation as Chancellor of the Exchequer and in 1859, decided to serve under Palmerston, partly because he agreed with his pro-Italian policy and partly because of his own intense rivalry with Disraeli. This was the vital move that was to make him leader of the Liberal Party.

In 1868 he became Prime Minister for the first time, holding office until 1874, a period which saw his disestablishment of the Irish Church, the Irish Land Act, the 1870 Education Act, Cardwell's Army reforms and the Ballot Act to make voting secret. In foreign affairs, he kept out of the Franco-Prussian War, took no action when Russia introduced warships into the Black Sea and accepted the International Court's ruling against Britain in the Alabama Dispute. In spite of many reforms, his measures provoked much opposition and his rival Disraeli returned to office in 1874.

Gladstone retired to his religious studies, but reemerged to arouse the nation with his denunciation of the Bulgarian Atrocities (1876) by the Turks. In the famous Midlothian Campaign he passionately attacked Disraeli's foreign policy with such success that he became Prime Minister for the second time in 1880. During the next five years he had to wrestle with problems in Ireland, where disorder compelled him unwillingly to adopt stern measures, in Egypt, where he was blamed for not sending troops in time to save General Gordon, and in South Africa, where he gave the Boers independence in the Transvaal.

1886 saw him Prime Minister for the third time and he now introduced his cherished measure to promote Irish Home Rule. It split the Liberal Party, some of whom voted with the Conservatives to defeat the Bill in the House of Commons. Gladstone resigned, but in 1892 the 'Grand Old Man', as he was called, now in his eighty-third year, became Prime Minister once again, determined to solve the problem of Ireland. His second Home Rule Bill passed the Commons but was decisively rejected by the Lords, causing him effectively to retire from politics. Even at the end of his life he showed his old vigor in criticizing naval expenditure and denouncing the Armenian Massacres (1896) in Asia Minor.

Gladstone was the greatest Liberal politician of his century. Stern, self-righteous and deeply religious, he was a thunderous orator, whose duels with Disraeli fascinated Parliament and the country.

He was an outstanding Chancellor of the Exchequer and a reformer whose measures earned him the name of 'the People's William'. In his sympathy for oppressed peoples like the Irish and the Bulgarians he was ahead of his time, so that his liberal ideas and moral attitude aroused much opposition.

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