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The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol. 1 (of 3) - 1809-1859
by John Morley
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PEELITES RESIGN

Graham did not feel disposed to govern without the confidence of the House of Commons, or to be responsible for the granting of a committee which the cabinet had unanimously felt to be unprecedented, unconstitutional, and dangerous. Lord Palmerston met all this by a strong practical clincher. He said that the House of Commons was becoming unruly from the doubts that had gone abroad as to the intentions of the government with respect to the committee; that the House was determined to have it; that if they opposed it they should be beaten by an overwhelming majority; to dissolve upon it would be ruinous; to resign a fortnight after taking office would make them the laughingstock of the country.

Mr. Gladstone, Herbert, and Graham then resigned. Of the Peelite group the Duke of Argyll and Canning remained.

Feb. 22.—After considering various sites, we determined to ask the Manchester school to yield us, at any rate for to-morrow, the old place devoted to ex-ministers.[343] Sir J. Graham expressed his wish to begin the affair, on the proposal of the first name [of the committee].

Cardwell came at 4 to inform me that he had declined to be my successor; and showed me his letter, which gave as his reason disinclination to step into the cabinet over the bodies of his friends. It seems that Palmerston and Lord Lansdowne, who assists him, sent Canning to Lord Aberdeen to invoke his aid with Cardwell and prevail on him to retract. But Lord Aberdeen, though he told Canning that he disapproved (at variance here with what Graham and I considered to be his tone on Monday, but agreeing with a note he wrote in obscure terms the next morning), said he could not make such a request to Cardwell, or again play the peculiar part he had acted a fortnight ago. The cabinet on receiving Cardwell's refusal were at a deadlock. Application was to be made, or had been made, to Sir Francis Baring, but it seems that he is reluctant; he is, however, the best card they have to play.

Feb. 28.—On Sunday, Sir George Lewis called on me, and said my office had been offered him. This was after being refused by Cardwell and Baring. He asked my advice as to accepting it. This I told him I could not give. He asked if I would assist him with information in case of his accepting. I answered that he might command me precisely as if instead of resigning I had only removed to another department. I then went over some of the matters needful to be made known. On Tuesday he came again, acquainted me with his acceptance, and told me he had been mainly influenced by my promise.[344]

This day at a quarter to three I attended at the palace to resign the seals, and had an audience of about twenty minutes. The Queen, in taking them over, was pleased to say that she received them with great pain. I answered that the decision which had required me to surrender them had been the most painful effort of my public life. The Queen said she was afraid on Saturday night [Feb. 17, when he had dined at the palace] from the language I then used that this was about to happen. I answered that we had then already had a discussion in the cabinet which pointed to this result, and that I spoke as I did, because I thought that to have no reserve whatever with H. M. was the first duty of all those who had the honour and happiness of being her servants. I trusted H. M. would believe that we had all been governed by no other desire than to do what was best for the interests of the crown and the country. H. M. expressed her confidence of this, and at no time throughout the conversation did she in any manner indicate an opinion that our decision had been wrong. She spoke of the difficulty of making arrangements for carrying on the government in the present state of things, and I frankly gave my opinion to H. M. that she would have little peace or comfort in these matters, until parliament should have returned to its old organisation in two political parties; that at present we were in a false position, and that both sides of the House were demoralised—the ministerial side overcharged with an excess of official men, and the way stopped up against expectants, which led to subdivision, jealousy, and intrigue; the opposition so weak in persons having experience of affairs as to be scarcely within the chances of office, and consequently made reckless by acting without keeping it in view; yet at the same time, the party continued and must continue to exist, for it embodied one of the great fundamental elements of English society. The experiment of coalition had been tried with remarkable advantage under a man of the remarkable wisdom and powers of conciliation possessed by Lord Aberdeen, one in entire possession too of H. M.'s confidence. They intimated that there were peculiar disadvantages, too, evidently meaning Lord J. Russell. I named him in my answer, and said I thought that even if he had been steady, yet the divisions of the ministerial party would a little later have brought about our overthrow.[345] H. M. seeming to agree in my main position, as did the Prince, asked me: But when will parliament return to that state? I replied I grieved to say that I perceived neither the time when, nor the manner how, that result is to come about; but until it is reached, I fear that Y. M. will pass through a period of instability and weakness as respects the executive. She observed that the prospect is not agreeable. I said, True, madam, but it is a great consolation that all these troubles are upon the surface, and that the throne has for a long time been gaining and not losing stability from year to year. I could see but one danger to the throne, and that was from encroachments by the House of Commons. No other body in the country was strong enough to encroach. This was the consideration which had led my resigning colleagues with myself to abandon office that we might make our stand against what we thought a formidable invasion.... I thought the effect of the resistance was traceable in the good conduct of the House of Commons last night, when another attempt at encroachment was proposed and firmly repelled.... I expressed my comfort at finding that our motives were so graciously appreciated by H. M. and withdrew.

PUBLIC OUTCRY

Loud was the public outcry. All the censure that had been foretold in case they should refuse to join, fell with double force upon them for first joining and then seceding. Lord Clarendon pronounced their conduct to be actually worse and more unpatriotic than Lord John's. The delight at Brooks's Club was uproarious, for to the whigs the Peelites had always been odious, and they had been extremely sorry when Palmerston asked them to join his government.[346] For a time Mr. Gladstone was only a degree less unpopular in the country than Cobden and Bright themselves. The newspapers declared that Gladstone's epitaph over the Aberdeen administration might be applied with peculiar force to his own fate. The short truth seems to be that Graham, Gladstone, and Palmerston were none of them emphatic or explicit enough beforehand on the refusal of the committee when the government was formed, though the intention to refuse was no doubt both stated and understood. Graham admitted afterwards that this omission was a mistake. The world would be astonished if it knew how often in the pressure of great affairs men's sight proves short. After the language used by Mr. Gladstone about the inquiry, we cannot wonder that he should have been slow to acquiesce. The result in time entirely justified his description of the Sebastopol committee.[347] But right as was his judgment on the merits, yet the case was hardly urgent enough to make withdrawal politic or wise. Idle gossip long prevailed, that Graham could not forgive Palmerston for not having (as he thought) helped to defend him in the matter of opening Mazzini's letters; that from the first he was bent on overthrowing the new minister; that he worked on Gladstone; and that the alleged reason why they left was not the real one. All the evidence is the other way; that Graham could not resist the obvious want of the confidence of parliament, and that Gladstone could not bear a futile and perilous inquiry. That they both regretted that they had yielded to over-persuasion in joining, against their own feelings and judgment, is certain. Graham even wrote to Mr. Gladstone in the following summer that his assent to joining Palmerston was perhaps the greatest mistake of his public life. In Mr. Gladstone's case, the transaction gave a rude and protracted shock to his public influence.

LORD PALMERSTON'S REIGN

Lord Palmerston meanwhile sat tight in his saddle. When the crisis first began, Roebuck in energetic language had urged him to sweep the Peelites from his path, and at any rate he now very steadily went on without them. Everybody took for granted that his administration would be temporary. Mr. Gladstone himself gave it a twelvemonth at most. As it happened, Lord Palmerston was in fact, with one brief interruption, installed for a decade. He was seventy-one; he had been nearly forty years in office; he had worked at the admiralty, war department, foreign office, home office; he had served under ten prime ministers—Portland, Perceval, Liverpool, Canning, Goderich, Wellington, Grey, Melbourne, Russell, Aberdeen. He was not more than loosely attached to the whigs, and he had none of the strength of that aristocratic tradition and its organ, the Bedford sect. The landed interest was not with him. The Manchester men detested him. The church in all its denominations was on terms of cool and reciprocated indifference with one who was above all else the man of this world. The press he knew how to manage. In every art of parliamentary sleight of hand he was an expert, and he suited the temper of the times, while old maxims of government and policy were tardily expiring, and the forces of a new era were in their season gathering to a head.

FOOTNOTES:

[337] On Bute's plan of superseding party by prerogative, in the introduction to vol. iii. of the Bedford Correspondence.

[338] See Appendix.

[339] See Chap. x. of Lord Stanmore's Earl of Aberdeen.

[340] 'This suppressio veri is shocking, and one of the very worst things he ever did.'—Greville, iii. i. p. 232.

[341] At Lord Aberdeen's the question seems to have been discussed on the assumption that the offer to Mr. Gladstone and Herbert was meant to be independent of Palmerston's acceptance or refusal, and the impression there was that Mr. Gladstone had been not wholly disinclined to consider the offer.

[342] Malmesbury's Memoirs of an Ex-Minister, i. pp. 8, 37.

[343] On Feb. 23, he writes to Mr. Hayter, the government whip: 'We have arranged to sit in the orthodox ex-ministers' place to-night, i.e. second bench immediately below the gangway. This avoids constructions and comparisons which we could hardly otherwise have escaped; and Bright and his friends agreed to give it us. Might I trust to your kindness to have some cards put in the place for us before prayers?'

[344] While Lewis went to the exchequer, Sir Charles Wood succeeded Graham at the admiralty, Lord John, then on his way to Vienna, agreed to come hack to the cabinet and took the colonial office, which Sir George Grey had left for the home office, where he succeeded Palmerston.

[345] This seems to contradict the proposition in the article on Greville in the Eng. Hist. Rev. of 1887.

[346] Greville, III. i. p. 246.

[347] Mr. Gladstone projected and partly executed some public letters on all this, to be addressed, like the Neapolitan letters, to Lord Aberdeen.



CHAPTER VII

POLITICAL ISOLATION

(1855-1856)

[Greek: ekista gar polemos epi retois chorei]—THUC. i. 122.

War is the last thing in all the world to go according to programme.

Statesmen are invincibly slow to learn the lesson put by Thucydides long centuries ago into the mouth of the Athenian envoys at Sparta, and often repeated in the same immortal pages, that war defies all calculations, and if it be protracted comes to be little more than mere matter of chance, over which the combatants have no control. A thousand times since has history proved this to be true. Policy is mastered by events; unforeseen sequels develop novel pretexts, or grow into startling and hateful necessities; the minister finds that he is fastened to an inexorable chain.

NEW VIEWS OF THE WAR

Mr. Gladstone now had this fatal law of mundane things brought home to him. As time went on, he by rapid intuition gained a truer insight into the leading facts. He realised that Mahometan institutions in the Ottoman empire were decrepit; that the youthful and vigorous elements in European Turkey were crushed under antiquated and worn-out forms and forces unfit for rule. He awoke to the disquieting reflection how the occupation of the Principalities had been discussed, day after day and month after month, entirely as a question of the payment of forty thousand pounds a year to Turkey, or as a violation of her rights as suzerain, but never in reference to the well-being, happiness, freedom, or peace of the inhabitants. He still held that the war in its origin was just, for it had been absolutely necessary, he said, to cut the meshes of the net in which Russia had entangled Turkey. He persisted in condemning the whole tone and policy of Russia in 1854. By the end of 1854, in Mr. Gladstone's eyes, this aggressive spirit had been extinguished, the Czar promising an almost unreserved acceptance of the very points that he had in the previous August angrily rejected. The essential objects of the war were the abolition of Russian rights in the Principalities, and the destruction of Russian claims upon Greek Christians under Ottoman sway. These objects, Mr. Gladstone insisted, were attained in January 1855, when Russia agreed to three out of the Four Points—so the bases of agreement were named—and only demurred upon the plan for carrying out a portion of the fourth. The special object was to cancel the preponderance of Russia in the Black Sea. No fewer than seven different plans were simultaneously or in turn propounded. They were every one of them admitted to be dubious, inefficient, and imperfect. I will spare the reader the mysteries of limitation, of counterpoise, of counterpoise and limitation mixed. Russia preferred counterpoise, the allies were for limitation. Was this preference between two degrees of the imperfect, the deficient, and the ineffective a good ground for prolonging a war that was costing the allies a hundred million pounds a year, and involved to all the parties concerned the loss of a thousand lives a day? Yet, for saying No to this question, Mr. Gladstone was called a traitor, even by men who in 1853 had been willing to content themselves with the Vienna note, and in 1854 had been anxious to make peace on the basis of the Four Points. In face of pleas so wretched for a prolongation of a war to which he had assented on other grounds, was he bound to silence? 'Would it not, on the contrary,' he exclaimed, 'have been the most contemptible effeminacy of character, if a man in my position, who feels that he has been instrumental in bringing his country into this struggle, were to hesitate a single moment when he was firmly convinced in his own mind that the time had arrived when we might with honour escape from it?'

The prospect of reducing Russia to some abstract level of strength, so as to uphold an arbitrary standard of the balance of power—this he regarded as mischief and chimera. Rightly he dreaded the peril of alliances shifting from day to day, like quicksands and sea-shoals—Austria moved by a hundred strong and varying currents, France drawing by unforeseen affinities towards Russia. Every war with alliances, he once said, should be short, sharp, decisive.[348]

As was to be expected, the colleagues from whom he had parted insisted that every one of his arguments told just as logically against the war in all its stages, against the first as legitimately as the last. In fact, we can never say a plain sure aye or no to questions of peace and war, after the sword has once left the scabbard. They are all matter of judgment on the balance of policy between one course and another; and a very slight thing may incline the balance either way, even though mighty affairs should hang on the turn of the scale. Meanwhile, as the months went on, Sebastopol still stood untaken, excitement grew, people forgot the starting point. They ceased to argue, and sheer blatancy, at all times a power, in war-time is supreme. Mr. Gladstone's trenchant dialectic had no more chance than Bright's glowing appeals. Shrewd and not unfriendly onlookers thought that Graham and Gladstone were grievously mistaken in making common cause with the peace party, immediately after quitting a war government, and quitting it, besides, not on the issues of the war. Herbert was vehement in his remonstrances. The whole advantage of co-operation with the Manchester men, he cried, would be derived by them, and all the disrepute reaped by us. 'For the purposes of peace, they were the very men we ought to avoid. As advocates for ending the war, they were out of court, for they were against beginning it.'[349] If Gladstone and Graham had gone slower, their friends said, they might have preached moderation to ministers and given reasonable advice to people out of doors. As it was, they threw the game into the hands of Lord Palmerston. They were stamped as doctrinaires, and what was worse, doctrinaires suspected of a spice of personal animus against old friends. Herbert insisted that the Manchester school 'forgot that the people have flesh and blood, and propounded theories to men swayed by national feeling.' As a matter of fact, this was wholly untrue. Cobden and Bright, as everybody nowadays admits, had a far truer perception of the underlying realities of the Eastern question in 1854, than either the Aberdeen or the Palmerston cabinet, or both of them put together. What was undeniable was that the public, with its habits of rough and ready judgment, did not understand, and could not be expected to understand, the new union of the Peelites with a peace party, in direct opposition to whose strongest views and gravest warnings they had originally begun the war. 'In Gladstone,' Cornewall Lewis said, 'people ascribe to faction, or ambition, or vanity, conduct which I believe to be the result of a conscientious, scrupulous, ingenuous, undecided mind, always looking on each side of a question and magnifying the objections which belong to almost every course of action.'[350]

ADVOCATES OF PEACE

A foreign envoy then resident in England was struck by the general ignorance of facts even among leading politicians. Of the friends of peace, he says, only Lord Grey and Gladstone seemed to have mastered the Vienna protocols: the rest were quite astonished when the extent of the Russian concessions was pointed out to them. The envoy dined with Mr. Gladstone at the table of the Queen, and they talked of Milner Gibson's motion censuring ministers for losing the opportunity of the Vienna conferences to make a sound and satisfactory peace. Mr. Gladstone said to him that he should undertake the grave responsibility of supporting this motion, 'because in his opinion the concessions promised by Russia contain sufficient guarantees. Those very concessions will tear to pieces all the ancient treaties which gave an excuse to Russia for interfering in the internal affairs of Turkey.'[351]

At all times stimulated rather than checked by a difficult situation, Mr. Gladstone argued the case for peace to the House during the session of 1855 in two speeches of extraordinary power of every kind. His position was perfectly tenable, and he defended it with unsurpassed force. For the hour unfortunately his influence was gone. Great newspapers thought themselves safe in describing one of these performances as something between the rant of the fanatic and the trick of the stage actor; a mixture of pious grimace and vindictive howl, of savage curses and dolorous forebodings; the most unpatriotic speech ever heard within the walls of parliament. In sober fact, it was one of the three or four most masterly deliverances evoked by the Crimean war. At the very same time Lord John Russell was still sitting in the cabinet, though he had held the opinion that at the beginning of May the Austrian proposal ought to have ended the war and led to an honourable peace. The scandal of a minister remaining in a government that persisted in a war condemned by him as unnecessary was intolerable, and Lord John resigned (July 16).

The hopes of the speedy fall of Sebastopol brightened in the summer of 1855, but this brought new alarms to Lord Palmerston. 'Our danger,' he said in remarkable words, 'will then begin—a danger of peace and not a danger of war.' To drive the Russians out of the Crimea was to be no more than a preliminary. England would go on by herself, if conditions deemed by her essential were not secured. 'The British nation is unanimous, for I cannot reckon Cobden, Bright, and Co. for anything.'[352] His account of the public mind was indubitably true. Well might Aberdeen recall to his friends that, with a single exception, every treaty concluded at the termination of our great wars had been stigmatised as humiliating and degrading, ignominious, hollow and unsafe. He cited the peace of Utrecht in 1713, the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748, the peace of Paris in 1763, the peace of Versailles in 1783, and the peace of Amiens in 1801. The single exception was the peace of Paris in 1814. It would have been difficult in this case, he said, for patriotism or faction to discover humiliation 'in a treaty dictated at the head of a victorious army in the capital of the enemy.'

AT PENMAENMAWR

While the storm was raging, Mr. Gladstone made his way with his family to Penmaenmawr, whence he writes to Lord Aberdeen (Aug. 9): 'It was a charitable act on your part to write to me. It is hardly possible to believe one is not the greatest scoundrel on earth, when one is assured of it from all sides on such excellent authority.... I am busy reading Homer about the Sebastopol of old time, and all manner of other fine fellows.' In another letter of the same time, written to Sir Walter James, one of the most closely attached of all his friends, he strikes a deeper note:—

Sept. 17.—If I say I care little for such an attack you will perhaps think I make little of sympathy like yours and Lord Hardinge's, but such, I beg you and him to believe, is not the case. Public life is full of snares and dangers, and I think it a fearful thing for a Christian to look forward to closing his life in the midst of its (to me at least) essentially fevered activity. It has, however, some excellent characteristics in regard to mental and even spiritual discipline, and among these in particular it absolutely requires the habits of resisting temper and of suppressing pain. I never allow myself, in regard to my public life, to realise, i.e. to dwell upon, the fact that a thing is painful. Indeed life has no time for such broodings: neither in session nor recess is the year, the day, or the hour long enough for what it brings with it. Nor was there ever a case in which it was so little difficult to pass over and make little of a personal matter: for if indeed it be true, as I fear it is, that we have been committing grave errors, that those errors have cost many thousands of lives and millions of money, and that no glare of success can effectually hide the gloom of thickening complications, the man who can be capable of weighing his own fate and prospects in the midst of such contingencies has need to take a lesson from the private soldier who gives his life to his country at a shilling a day.

'We are on our way back,' he writes at the end of September, 'after a month of sea-bathing and touring among the Welsh mountains. Most of my time is taken up with Homer and Homeric literature, in which I am immersed with great delight up to my ears; perhaps I should say out of my depth.' Mr. Gladstone was one of the men whom the agitations of politics can never submerge. Political interests were what they ought to be, a very serious part of life; but they took their place with other things, and were never suffered, as in narrower natures sometimes happens, to blot out 'stars and orbs of sun and moon' from the spacious firmament above us. He now found a shelter from the intensity of the times in the systematic production of his book on Homer, a striking piece of literature that became the most definite of his pursuits for two years or more. His children observed that he never lounged or strolled upon the shore, but when the morning's labour was over—and nothing was ever allowed to break or mutilate the daily spell of serious work—he would stride forth staff in hand, and vigorously breast the steepest bluffs and hills that he could find. This was only emblematic of a temperament to which the putting forth of power was both necessity and delight. The only rest he ever knew was change of effort.

While he was on the Welsh coast Sebastopol fell, after a siege of three hundred and fifty days. Negotiations for peace were opened tolerably soon afterwards, ending, after many checks and diplomatic difficulties, in the Treaty of Paris (March 30, 1856), as to which I need only remind the reader, with a view to a future incident in Mr. Gladstone's history, that the Black Sea was neutralised, and all warships of every nation excluded from its waters. Three hundred thousand men had perished. Countless treasure had been flung into the abyss. The nation that had won its last victory at Waterloo did not now enhance the glory of its arms, nor the power of its diplomacy, nor the strength of any of its material interests. It was our French ally who profited. The integrity of Turkey was so ill confirmed that even at the Congress of Paris the question of the Danubian Principalities was raised in a form that in a couple of years reduced Turkish rule over six millions of her subjects to the shadow of smoke. Of the confidently promised reform of Mahometan dominion there was never a beginning nor a sign. The vindication of the standing European order proved so ineffectual that the Crimean war was only the sanguinary prelude to a vast subversion of the whole system of European states.

II

WORK ON HOMER

Other interests now came foremost in Mr. Gladstone's mind. The old ground so constantly travelled over since the death of Peel was for three years to come traversed again with fatiguing iteration. In the spring of 1856 Lord Derby repeated the overtures that he had made in specific form in 1851 and in 1855. The government was weak, as Mr. Gladstone had predicted that it would be. Lord Derby told Sir William Heathcote, through whom he and Mr. Gladstone communicated, that as almost any day it might be overturned, and he might be sent for by the Queen, he was bound to see what strength he might rely upon, and he was anxious to know what were Mr. Gladstone's views on the possibility of co-operation. What was the nature of his relations with other members of the Peel government who had also been in the cabinet of Lord Aberdeen? Did they systematically communicate? Were they a party? Did they intend to hold and to act together? These questions were soon answered:—

On the first point, Mr. Gladstone said, you cannot better describe my views for present purposes than by saying that they are much like Lord Derby's own as I understand them—there was nothing in them to prevent a further consideration of the subject, if public affairs should assume such a shape as to recommend it. On the second, I said Graham, Herbert, Cardwell, and I communicated together habitually and confidentially; that we did not seek to act, but rather eschewed acting, as a party; that our habits of communication were founded upon long political association, general agreement, and personal friendship; that they were not, however, a covenant for the future, but a natural growth and result of the past.

Then he proceeds to tell with a new and rather startling conclusion the old story of the Peelite responsibility for the broken and disorganised state of the House of Commons:—

We, the friends of Lord Aberdeen, were a main cause of disunion and weakness in the executive government, and must be so, from whichever side the government were formed, so long as we were not absolutely incorporated into one or the other of the two great parties. For though we had few positively and regularly following us, yet we had indirect relations with others on both sides of the House, which tended to relax, and so far disable, party connections, and our existence as a section encouraged the formation of other sections all working with similar effects. I carried my feeling individually so far upon the subject as even to be ready, if I had to act alone, to surrender my seat in parliament, rather than continue a cause of disturbance to any government to which I might generally wish well.[353]

RELATIONS WITH LORD DERBY

This exchange of views with Lord Derby he fully reported to Graham, Herbert, and Cardwell, whom Lord Aberdeen, at his request, had summoned for the purpose. Herbert doubted the expediency of such communications, and Graham went straight to what was a real point. 'He observed that the question was of the most vital consequence, Who should lead the House of Commons? This he thought must come to me, and could not be with Disraeli. I had said and repeated, that I thought we could not bargain Disraeli out of the saddle; that it must rest with him (so far as we were concerned) to hold the lead if he pleased; that besides my looking to it with doubt and dread, I felt he had this right; and that I took it as one of the data in the case before us upon which we might have to consider the question of political junction, and which might be seriously affected by it.' Of these approaches in the spring of 1856 nothing came. The struggle in Mr. Gladstone's mind went on with growing urgency. He always protested that he never at any time contemplated an isolated return to the conservative ranks, but 'reunion of a body with a body.'

Besides his sense of the vital importance of the reconstruction of the party system, he had two other high related aims. The commanding position that had first been held in the objects of his activity by the church, then, for a considerable space, by the colonies, was now filled by finance. As he put it in a letter to his sympathetic brother Robertson: He saw two cardinal subjects for the present moment in public affairs, a rational and pacific foreign policy, and second, the due reduction in our establishments, economy in administration, and finance to correspond. In 1853 he had, as he believed, given financial pledges to the country. These pledges were by the present ministers in danger of being forgotten. They were incompatible with Palmerston's spirit of foreign policy. His duty, then, was to oppose that policy, and to labour as hard as he could for the redemption of his pledges. Yet isolated as he was, he had little power over either one of these aims or the other. The liberal party was determined to support the reigning foreign policy, and this made financial improvement desperate. Of Lord Derby's friends he was not hopeful, but they were not committed to so dangerous a leader.[354] As he put it to Elwin, the editor of the Quarterly: There is a policy going a begging; the general policy that Sir Robert Peel in 1841 took office to support—the policy of peace abroad, of economy, of financial equilibrium, of steady resistance to abuses, and promotion of practical improvements at home, with a disinclination to questions of reform, gratuitously raised.[355]

His whole mind beset, possessed, and on fire with ideals of this kind, and with sanguine visions of the road by which they might be realised—it was not in the temperament of this born warrior to count the lions in his path. He was only too much in the right, as his tribulations of a later date so amply proved, in his perception that neither Palmerston nor Palmerstonian liberals would take up the broken clue of Peel. The importunate presence of Mr. Disraeli was not any sharper obstacle to a definite junction with conservatives, than was the personality of Lord Palmerston to a junction with liberals. As he had said to Graham in November 1856, 'the pain and strain of public duty is multiplied tenfold by the want of a clear and firm ground from which visibly to act.' In rougher phrase, a man must have a platform and work with a party. This indeed is for sensible men one of the rudiments of practical politics.

Of a certain kind of cant about public life and office Mr. Gladstone was always accustomed to make short work. The repudiation of desire for official power, he at this time and always roundly denounced as 'sentimental and maudlin.' One of the not too many things that he admired in Lord Palmerston was 'the manly frankness of his habitual declarations that office is the natural and proper sphere of a public man's ambition, as that in which he can most freely use his powers for the common advantage of his country.' 'The desire for office,' said Mr. Gladstone, 'is the desire of ardent minds for a larger space and scope within which to serve the country, and for access to the command of that powerful machinery for information and practice, which the public departments supply. He must be a very bad minister indeed, who does not do ten times the good to the country that he would do when out of office, because he has helps and opportunities which multiply twenty fold, as by a system of wheels and pulleys, his power for doing it.' It is true, as the smallest of men may see—and the smaller the man, the more will he make of it—that this sterling good sense may set many a snare for the politician; but then even the consecrated affectations of our public life have their snares too.

The world was not in the secret of the communications with Lord Derby, but the intrinsic probabilities of a case often give to the public a trick of divination. In the middle of December (1856) articles actually appeared in the prints of the day announcing that Mr. Gladstone would at the opening of the next session figure at the head of the opposition. The tories, they said, wanted a leader, Mr. Gladstone wanted a party. They were credulous, he was ingenious. The minority in a party must yield to a majority, and he stood almost by himself. He would be a returned prodigal in the conservative household, for unlike Sir James Graham, he had never merged himself in the ordinary ruck of liberalism. A tory peer writes to assure him that there never was such a chance for the reunion of the party. Even the nobleman who had moved Mr. Gladstone's expulsion from the Carlton said that he supposed reunion must pretty soon come off. A few, perhaps under a score, made a great noise, but if Lord Derby would only form a government, the noisy ones would be as glad as the rest. True—and here the writer came nearer to the central difficulty—'Disraeli ought at first to lead the Commons,' because he had been leader before; second, he had the greater number of followers; third, because on public grounds he must desire to see Mr. Gladstone at the exchequer; and to transfer to him both the great subject of finance and the great prize of leadership would be impossible. So easy do flat impossibilities ever seem to sanguine simpletons in Pall Mall. Another correspondent has been staying at a grand country-house, full of tory company, and the state of parties was much discussed—'There was one unanimous opinion,' he tells Mr. Gladstone, 'that nothing could save the conservative party except electing you for their leader.' The same talk was reported from the clubs. 'The difficulty was Disraeli, not so much for any damage that his hostility could do the party, as because Lord Derby had contracted relations with him which it would perhaps be impossible for him to disown.'

Meanwhile the sagacious man in the tents of the tories, whose course was so neatly chalked out for him by sulky followers not relishing his lead, was, we may be sure, entirely wide-awake, watching currents, gales, and puffs of wind without haste, without rest. Disraeli made a bold stroke for party consolidation by inviting to his official dinner at the opening of the session of 1857, General Peel, the favourite brother of the great minister and his best accredited representative. Peel consulted Mr. Gladstone on the reply to Disraeli's invitation, and found him strongly adverse. The public, said Mr. Gladstone, views with much jealousy every change of political position not founded on previous parliamentary co-operation for some national object. Mr. Gladstone might have put it on the narrower ground that attendance at the dinner would be an explicit condonation of Disraeli's misdeeds ten years before, and a direct acceptance of his leadership henceforth.

Elwin believed that he had the direct sanction of Lord Derby for a message from him to Mr. Gladstone suggesting communication. After much ruminating and consulting, Mr. Gladstone wrote (Dec. 13, 1856) in sufficiently circuitous language to Elwin, that though he should not be justified in communicating with Lord Derby, considered simply as a political leader with whom he was not in relations of party, yet, he proceeds, 'remembering that I was once his colleague, and placing entire reliance on his honour, I am ready to speak to him in confidence and without reserve on the subject of public affairs, should it be his desire.' His three friends, Graham, Aberdeen, and Herbert, still viewed the proceeding with entire disfavour, and no counsels were ever dictated by sincerer affection and solicitude. Your financial scheme, says Graham, is conceived in the very spirit of Peel; it would be most conducive to national welfare; you alone and in high office can carry it; but it must be grafted on a pacific policy and on a moderate scale of public expenditure; it is not under Palmerston that such blessings are to be anticipated; but then are they more probable under Derby and Disraeli? Lord Aberdeen took another line, insisting that to make any sort of approach to Lord Derby, after joining Palmerston only the previous year, would be unjustifiable; the bare apprehension of a vicious policy would be no intelligible ground for changing sides; more tangible reasons would be needed, and they were only too likely soon to arrive from Palmerston's foreign policy. Then a reasonable chance might come. Herbert, in his turn, told Mr. Gladstone that though he might infuse vigour and respectability into a party that stood much in need of both, yet he would always be in a false position. 'Your opinions are essentially progressive, and when the measures of any government mast be liberal and progressive, the country will prefer the men whose antecedents and mottoes are liberal, while the conservatives will always prefer a leader whose prejudices are with themselves.' As Graham put it to him: 'If you were to join the tory party to-morrow, you would have neither their confidence nor their real good will, and they would openly break with you in less than a year.' It all reminds one of the chorus in Greek plays, sagely expostulating with a hero bent on some dread deed of fate.

III

MEDITATIONS

In the autumn of 1856 ecclesiastical questions held a strong place in Mr. Gladstone's interests. The condemnation of Archdeacon Denison for heresy roused him to lively indignation. He had long interviews with the archdeacon, drafted answers for him, and flung his whole soul into the case, though he was made angry by Denison's oscillations and general tone. 'Gladstone tells me,' said Aberdeen, 'that he cannot sleep for it, and writes to me volumes upon volumes. He thinks that Denison ought to have been allowed to show that his doctrine, whether in accordance or not with the articles, is in accordance with scripture. And he thinks the decision ought to have been in his case as it was in Gorham's, that the articles are comprehensive, that they admit Denison's view of the Eucharist as well as that of his opponents.'[356]

His closing entry for the year (1856) depicts an inner mood:—

It appears to me that there are few persons who are so much as I am enclosed in the invisible net of pendent steel. I have never known what tedium was, have always found time full of calls and duties, life charged with every kind of interest. But now when I look calmly around me, I see that these interests are for ever growing and grown too many and powerful, and that were it to please God to call me I might answer with reluctance.... See how I stand. Into politics I am drawn deeper every year; in the growing anxieties and struggles of the church I have no less [interest] than I have heretofore; literature has of late acquired a new and powerful hold upon me; the fortunes of my wife's family, which have had, with all their dry detail, all the most exciting and arduous interest of romance for me now during nine years and more; seven children growing up around us, and each day the object of deeper thoughts and feelings, and of higher hopes to Catherine and me,—what a network is here woven out of all that the heart and all that the mind of man can supply....

FOOTNOTES:

[348] See Appendix.

[349] Herbert to Gladstone, May 27, 1855.

[350] Many Memories, p. 229.

[351] Vitzthum, St. Petersburg and London, i. p. 170. A full account of these parliamentary events from May to July, 1855, is to be found in Martin's Prince Consort, iii. pp. 281-307.

[352] Ashley, ii. pp. 320, 325.

[353] Memo. April 17, 1856.

[354] To Robertson Gladstone, Dec. 16, 1856.

[355] To Mr. Elwin, Dec. 2, 1856.

[356] Simpson's Many Memories, p. 238.



CHAPTER VIII

GENERAL ELECTION—NEW MARRIAGE LAW

(1857)

No wave on the great ocean of Time, when once it has floated past us, can be recalled. All we can do is to watch the new form and motion of the next, and launch upon it to try in the manner our best judgment may suggest our strength and skill.—GLADSTONE.

In spite of wise counsels of circumspection, Mr. Gladstone clung to the chances that might come from personal communication between himself and Lord Derby. Under pressure from his friends, he agreed with Lord Derby to put off an interview until after the debate on the address. Then, after parliament met, they took the plunge. We are now at the beginning of February.

This afternoon at three I called on Lord Derby and remained with him above three hours, in prosecution of the correspondence which had passed between us.

I told him that I deliberately disapproved of the government of Lord Palmerston, and was prepared and desirous to aid in any proper measures which might lead to its displacement. That so strong were my objections that I was content to act thus without inquiring who was to follow, for I was convinced that any one who might follow would govern with less prejudice to the public interests. That in the existing state of public affairs I did not pretend to see far, but thus far I saw clearly. I also told him that I felt the isolated position in which I stood, and indeed in which we who are called Peelites all stand, to be a great evil as tending to prolong and aggravate that parliamentary disorganisation which so much clogs and weakens the working of our government; and I denounced myself as a public nuisance, adding that it would be an advantage if my doctor sent me abroad for the session.

PEELITES AND TORIES

He concurred in the general sentiments which I had expressed, but said it was material for him, as he had friends with and for whom to act, and as I had alluded to the possibility, in the event of a change, of his being invited by the Queen to form a government, to consider beforehand on what strength he could rely. He said he believed his friends were stronger than any other single section, but that they were a minority in both Houses. Weak in 1852, he was weaker now, for it was natural that four years of exclusion from office should thin the ranks of a party, and such had been his case. He described the state of feeling among his friends, and adverted to the offer he had made in 1851 and in 1855. The fact of an overture made and not accepted had led to much bitterness or anger towards us among a portion of his adherents. He considered that in 1855 Lord Palmerston had behaved far from well either to Herbert and me, or to him.[357]

Other interviews followed; resolutions were discussed, amendments, forms of words. They met at discreet dinners. 'Nobody,' Lord Derby tells him, 'except Disraeli knows the length to which our communications have gone.' Nobody, that is to say, excepting also Mr. Gladstone's three personal allies; them he kept accurately informed of all that passed at every stage. On February 13 the government presented their budget. In introducing his plan, Cornewall Lewis rashly quoted, and adopted as his own, the terrible heresy of Arthur Young, that to multiply the number of taxes is a step towards equality of burden, and that a good system of taxation is one that bears lightly on an infinite number of points. The reader will believe how speedily an impious opinion of this sort kindled volcanic flame in Mr. Gladstone's breast. He thought moreover that he espied in the ministerial plan a prospective deficiency a year ahead. To maintain a steady surplus of income over expenditure, he reflected; to lower indirect taxes when excessive in amount, for the relief of the people, and bearing in mind the reproductive power inherent in such operations; to simplify our fiscal system by concentrating its pressure on a few well chosen articles of extended consumption; and to conciliate support to the income-tax by marking its temporary character, and by associating it with beneficial changes in the tariff: these aims have been for fifteen years the labour of our life. By this budget he found them in principle utterly reversed. He told his friends that the shade of Peel would appear to him if he did not oppose such plans with his whole strength. When the time came (Feb. 3), 'the government was fired into from all quarters. Disraeli in front; Gladstone on flank; John Russell in rear. Disraeli and Gladstone rose at same time. Speaker called the former. Both spoke very well. It was a night of triumph for Gladstone.'[358]

There is another note of the proceedings on Lewis's budget:—

Saturday, Feb. 14.—I was engaged to meet Graham, Herbert, and Cardwell at Lord Aberdeen's, and I knew from Lord Derby that he was to see his friends at noon. So I went to him on my way, first to point out the deficit of between five and six millions for 1858-9 which is created by this budget, with the augmentations of it in subsequent years; and secondly, to say that in my opinion it was hopeless to attack the scheme in detail, and that it must be resisted on the ground of deficit as a whole, to give a hope of success. I said that if among the opposition there still lingered a desire to revive and extend indirect taxation, I must allow that the government had bid high for support from those who entertained it; that it was the worst proposition I had ever heard from a minister of finance. At Lord Aberdeen's we examined the figures of the case, and drafted two resolutions which expressed our opinions.

The more serious point, however, was that they all wished me to insist upon taking the motion into my own hands; and announcing this to Lord J. Russell as well as to Lord Derby. As to the second I had no difficulty, could I have acceded to the first. But I did not doubt that Disraeli would still keep hold of so much of his notice of Feb. 3 as had not been set aside by the budget. I said that from motives which I could neither describe nor conquer I was quite unable to undertake to enter into any squabble or competition with him for the possession of a post of prominence. We had much conversation on political prospects: Graham wishing to see me lead the Commons under Lord John as prime minister in the Lords; admitting that the same thing would do under Lord Derby, but for Disraeli, who could not be thrown away like a sucked orange; and I vehemently deploring our position, which I said, and they admitted, was generally condemned by the country.

I again went to Derby, as he had requested, at five; and he told me that he had had with him Malmesbury, Hardwicke, Disraeli, Pakington, Walpole, Lytton. They had all agreed that the best motion would be a resolution (from Disraeli) on Monday, before the Speaker left the chair, which would virtually rest the question on deficit. I made two verbal suggestions on the resolution to improve its form.

CO-OPERATION WITH MR. DISRAELI

Late in the evening Lord Derby writes, enclosing a note received at dinner from Disraeli, 'I hope I may take it for granted that there is now a complete understanding between us as to the move on Monday night.' 'My dear lord,' runs the note, 'I like the resolution as amended. It is improved. Yours ever, D.' When Monday came, the move was duly made, and Gladstone and Disraeli again fought side by side as twin champions of the cause of reduced expenditure. Time had incensed Mr. Gladstone still further, and he conducted a terrific fusillade. He recounted how between 1842 and 1853 two and twenty millions of taxation had been taken off without costing a farthing. 'A man may be glad and thankful to have been an Englishman and a member of the British parliament during these years, bearing his part in so blessed a work. But if it be a blessed work, what are we to say of him who begins the undoing of it?' The proposal of the government showed a gross, a glaring, an increasing deficiency, a deficiency unparalleled in the financial history of a quarter of a century. It was deluding the people and trifling with national interests. It is certain that no financier before or since ever, in Cromwellian phrase, made such a conscience of the matter, or ever found the task more thankless.[359] Great as was the effect of the close and searching argument that accompanied all this invective, even Mr. Gladstone's friends thought it too impassioned and too severe upon Lewis, in whose favour there was consequently a reaction. The cool minister contented himself with quoting Horace's lines upon the artist skilled in reproducing in his bronze fierce nails or flowing hair, yet who fails because he lacks the art to seize the whole.[360]

At the end of February (1857), at a party meeting of 160 members, Lord Derby told his men that the course taken by Mr. Disraeli upon the budget had been concerted with him and had his entire approval; spoke with admiration of Mr. Gladstone; justified political union when produced by men finding themselves drawn to the same lobby by identity of sentiment; and advised them not to decline such accession of strength as would place their party in a position to undertake the government of the country. The newspapers cried out that the long-expected coalition had at length really taken place. In their hearts the conservative managers were not sure that Mr. Gladstone's adhesion would not cost them too dearly. 'He would only benefit us by his talents' (says Lord Malmesbury) 'for we should lose many of our supporters. The Duke of Beaufort, one of our staunchest adherents, told me at Longleat that if we coalesced with the Peelites he would leave the party, and I remember in 1855, when Lord Derby attempted to form a government, and offered places to Gladstone and Herbert, that no less than eighty members of the House of Commons threatened to leave him.'[361] All these schemes and calculations were destined to be rudely interrupted.

II

SPEECH ON THE CHINA WAR

While he was acting with Lord Derby on the one hand, Mr. Gladstone sought counsel from Cobden on the other, having great confidence in his 'firmness and integrity of purpose,' and hoping for support from him in face of a faint-hearted disposition to regard Lord Palmerston as a magician against whom it was vain to struggle. Events were speedily to show that Lord Palmerston had more magic at his disposal than his valiant foe believed. The agent of the British government in the China seas—himself, by the way, a philosophic radical—had forced a war upon the Chinese. The cabinet supported him. On the motion of Cobden, the House censured the proceeding. Mr. Gladstone, whose hatred of high-handed iniquities in China had been stirred in early days,[362] as the reader may recall, made the most powerful speech in a remarkable debate. 'Gladstone rose at half-past nine,' Phillimore says (Mar. 3), 'and delivered for nearly two hours an oration which enthralled the House, and which for argument, dignity, eloquence, and effect is unsurpassed by any of his former achievements. It won several votes. Nobody denies that his speech was the finest delivered in the memory of man in the House of Commons.' Apart from a rigorous examination of circumstance and fact in the special case, as in the famous precedent of Don Pacifico seven years before, he raised the dispute to higher planes and in most striking language. He examined it both by municipal and international law, and on 'the higher ground of natural justice'—'that justice which binds man to man; which is older than Christianity, because it was in the world before Christianity; which is broader than Christianity, because it extends to the world beyond Christianity; and which underlies Christianity, for Christianity itself appeals to it.... War taken at the best is a frightful scourge upon the human race; but because it is so, the wisdom of ages has surrounded it with strict laws and usages, and has required formalities to be observed which shall act as a curb upon the wild passions of man.... You have dispensed with all these precautions. You have turned a consul into a diplomatist, and that metamorphosed consul is forsooth to be at liberty to direct the whole might of England against the lives of a defenceless people.' Disraeli in turn denounced proceedings which began in outrage and ended in ruin, mocked at 'No reform, new taxes, Canton blazing, Persia invaded,' as the programme of the party of progress and civilisation, and reprobated a prime minister who had professed almost every principle, and connected himself with almost every party. Palmerston replied by a stout piece of close argument, spiced by taunts about coalitions, combinations, and eloquent flourishes. But this time in parliament his slender majority failed him.

March 3, '57.—Spoke on Cobden's resolutions, and voted in 263-247—a division doing more honour to the House of Commons than any I ever remember. Home with C. and read Lord Ellesmere's Faust, being excited, which is rare with me. (Diary.)

LORD PALMERSTON'S TRIUMPH

The repulse was transient. The minister appealed to the constituencies, and won a striking triumph. Nearly all the Manchester politicians, with Bright and Cobden at their head, were ruthlessly dismissed, and the election was a glorious ratification not only of the little war among the Chinese junks, but of the great war against the Czar of Russia, and of much besides. This, said Mr. Gladstone, was not an election like that of 1784, when Pitt appealed on the question whether the crown should be the slave of an oligarchic faction; nor like that of 1831, when Grey sought a judgment on reform; nor like that of 1852, when the issue was the expiring controversy of protection. The country was to decide not upon the Canton river, but whether it would or would not have Lord Palmerston for prime minister. 'The insolent barbarian wielding authority at Canton who had violated the British flag' was indeed made to play his part. But the mainspring of the electoral victory was to be sought in the profound public weariness of the party dispersions of the last eleven years; in the determination that the country should be governed by men of intelligible opinions and definite views; in the resolution that the intermediate tints should disappear; in the conviction that Palmerston was the helmsman for the hour. The result was justly compared to the plebiscite taken in France four or five years earlier, whether they would have Louis Napoleon for emperor or not. It was computed that no fewer than one-sixth, or at best one-seventh, of the most conspicuous men in the former House of Commons were thrust out. The Derbyites were sure that the report of the coalition with the Peelites had done them irreparable harm, though their electioneering was independent. At Oxford Mr. Gladstone was returned without opposition. On the other hand, his gallant attempt to save the seat of his brother-in-law in Flintshire failed, his many speeches met much rough interruption, and to his extreme mortification Sir Stephen Glynne was thrown out.

The moral of the general election was undoubtedly a heavy shock to Mr. Gladstone, and he was fully conscious of the new awkwardness of his public position. Painful change seemed imminent even in his intimate relations with cherished friends. Sidney Herbert had written to him that as for Gladstone, Graham, and himself, they were not only broken up as a party, but the country intended to break them up and would resent any attempt at resuscitation; they ought on no account to reappear as a triumvirate on their old bench. Mr. Gladstone's reply discloses in some of its phrases a peculiar warmth of sensibility, of which he was not often wont to make much display:—

To Sidney Herbert.

March 22, 1857.—I did not reply to your letter when it arrived, because it touches principally upon subjects with respect to which I feel that my mind has been wrought into a state of sensitiveness which is excessive and morbid. For the last eleven years, with the exception of only two among them, the pains of political strife have not for us found their usual and proper compensation in the genial and extended sympathies of a great body of comrades, while suspicion, mistrust, and criticism have flanked us on both sides and in unusual measure. Our one comfort has been a concurrence of opinion which has been upon the whole remarkably close, and which has been cemented by the closer bonds of feeling and of friendship. The loss of this one comfort I have no strength to face. Contrary to your supposition, I have nothing with which to replace it; but the attachments, which began with political infancy, and which have lived through so many storms and so many subtler vicissitudes will never be replaced. You will never be able to get away from me as long as I can cling to you, and if at length, urged by your conscience and deliberate judgment, you effect the operation, the result will not be to throw me into the staff of Lord Derby. I shall seek my duty, as well as consult my inclination, first, by absconding from what may be termed general politics, and secondly, by appearing, wherever I must appear, only in the ranks.

I can neither give even the most qualified adhesion to the ministry of Lord Palmerston, nor follow the liberal party in the abandonment of the very principles and pledges which were original and principal bonds of union with it. So, on the other hand, I never have had any hope of conservative reconstruction except (and that slender and remote) such as presupposed the co-operation—I am now speaking for the House of Commons only—of yourself and Graham in particular. By adopting Reform as a watchword of present political action he has certainly inserted a certain amount of gap between himself and me, which may come to be practically material or may not. If you make a gap upon this opportunity, I believe it will be a novelty in political history: it will be the first case on record of separation between two men, all of whose views upon every public question, political, administrative, or financial, are I believe in as exact accordance as under the laws of the human mind is possible....

His leaning towards the conservative party seemed to become more decided rather than less. Lord Aberdeen had written to him as if the amalgamation of Peel's friends with the liberal party had practically taken place. 'If that be true,' Mr. Gladstone replies (April 4, 1857), 'then I have been deceiving both the world and my constituents, and the deception has reached its climax within the last fortnight, during which I have been chosen without opposition to represent Oxford under a belief directly contrary in the minds of the majority of my constituents.' He saw nothing but evil in Lord Palmerston's supremacy. That was his unending refrain. He tells one of his constituents, the state of things 'is likely to end in much political confusion if it is not stopped by the failure of Lord Palmerston's physical force, the only way of stopping it which I could view with regret, for I admire the pluck with which he fights against the infirmities of age, though in political and moral courage I have never seen a minister so deficient.' Cobden asked him in the course of the first session of the new parliament, to take up some position adverse to the ministers. 'I should not knowingly,' Mr. Gladstone replies (June 16, 1857), 'allow any disgust with the state of public affairs to restrain me from the discharge of a public duty; but I arrived some time ago at the conclusion, which has guided my conduct since the dissolution, that the House of Commons would sooner and more healthily return to a sense of its own dignity and of its proper functions, if let alone by a person who had so thoroughly worried both it and the country as myself.'

III

DIVORCE BILL

This stern resolve to hold aloof did not last. Towards the end of the session a subject was brought before parliament that stirred him to the very depths of heart and conscience. It marked one more stage of the history of English laws in that immense process of the secularisation of the state, against which, in his book of 1888, Mr. Gladstone had drawn up, with so much weight of reading and thought, a case so wholly unavailing. The legal doctrine of marriage had been established against the theological doctrine by Lord Hardwicke's famous act of 1753, for that measure made the observance of certain requirements then set up by law essential to a good marriage. A further fundamental change had begun with the legislation of civil marriage in 1836. The conception of marriage underlying such a change obviously removed it from sacrament, or anything like a sacrament, to the bleak and frigid zone of civil contract; it was antagonistic, therefore, to the whole ecclesiastical theory of divorce.[363]

A royal commission issued a report in 1853, setting forth the case against the existing system of dissolving marriage, and recommending radical changes. In the following year the cabinet of which Mr. Gladstone was a member framed and introduced a bill substantially conforming to these recommendations. For one reason or another it did not become law, nor did a bill of similar scope in 1856. In the interval of leisure that followed, Mr. Gladstone was pressed, perhaps by Bishop Wilberforce, thoroughly to consider the matter. With his prepossessions, there could be little doubt that he would incline to that view of marriage, and the terms and legal effects of loosening the marriage tie, that the Council of Trent had succeeded in making the general marriage law of catholic Europe. The subject was one peculiarly calculated to interest and excite him. Religion and the church were involved. It raised at our own hearths the eternal question of rendering to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to the church what belongs to the church. It was wrapped up with topics of history and of learning. It could not be discussed without that admixture of legality and ethics which delights a casuistic intellect. Above all, it went to the root both of that deepest of human relations, and of that particular branch of morals, in which Mr. Gladstone always felt the vividest concern. So, in short, being once called upon for a practical purpose to consider divorce and the many connected questions of re-marriage, he was inevitably roused to a fervour on one side, not any less heated and intense than the fervour of the mighty Milton on the other side two centuries before. He began operations by an elaborate article in the Quarterly Review.[364] Here he flings himself upon the well-worn texts in the Bible familiar to the readers of Tetrachordon,—if, indeed, Tetrachordon have any readers,—with a dialectical acuteness and force that only make one wonder the more how a mind so powerful as Mr. Gladstone's could dream that, at that age of the world, men would suffer one of the most far-reaching of all our social problems, whatever be the right or wrong social solution, to be in the slightest degree affected by a Greek word or two of utterly disputable and unfixed significance.

INTEREST IN LAW OF DIVORCE

I may note in passing that in another department of supposed Levitical prohibition—the case of the wife's sister—he had in 1849 strongly argued against relaxation, mainly on the ground that it would involve an alteration of the law and doctrines of the church of England, and therefore of the law of Christianity.[365] Experience and time revolutionised his point of view, and in 1869, in supporting a bill legalising these marriages, he took the secular and utilitarian line, and said that twelve or fourteen years earlier (about the time on which we are now engaged) he formed the opinion that it was the mass of the community to which we must look in dealing with such a question, and that the fairest course would be to legalise the marriage contracts in question, and legitimise their issue, leaving to each religious community the question of attaching to such marriages a religious character.[366]

The Divorce bill of 1857 was introduced in the Lords, and passed by them without effective resistance. It was supported by the Archbishop of Canterbury and nine other prelates. Authorities no less exalted than Bishop Wilberforce were violently hostile, even at one stage carrying amendments (ultimately rejected), not only for prohibiting the inter-marriage of the guilty parties, but actually imposing a fine or imprisonment on either of them. This, I fancy, is the high-water mark of the ecclesiastical theory in the century.[367] Lord Mahon in a letter to Mr. Gladstone at this date pictures Macaulay's New Zealander being taken to the House of Lords and hearing learned lords and reverend prelates lay down the canon that marriage is indissoluble by the law of England and by the law of the church. But who, he might have asked, are those two gentlemen listening so intently? Oh, these are two gentlemen whose marriages were dissolved last year. And that other man? Oh, he was divorced last week. And those three ladies? Oh, their marriages may in all probability be dissolved in another year or two. Still this view of the absurdity of existing practice did not make a convert.

As soon as the bill came down to the House of Commons Mr. Gladstone hastened up to London in the dog-days. 'A companion in the railway carriage,' he wrote to Mrs. Gladstone, 'more genial than congenial, offered me his Times, and then brandy! This was followed by a proposal to smoke, so that he had disabled me from objecting on personal grounds.' Tobacco, brandy at odd hours, and the newspaper made a triple abomination in a single dose, for none of the three was ever a favourite article of his consumption. In London he found the counsels of his friends by no means encouraging for the great fight on which he was intent. They deprecated anything that would bring him into direct collision with Lord Palmerston. They urged that violent opposition now would be contrasted with his past silence, and with his own cabinet responsibility for the very same proposal. Nothing would be intelligible to the public, Lord Aberdeen said, beyond a 'carefully moderated course.' But a carefully moderated course was the very last thing possible to Mr. Gladstone when the flame was once kindled, and he fought the bill with a holy wrath as vehement as the more worldly fury with which Henry Fox, from very different motives, had fought the marriage bill of 1753. The thought that stirred him was indicated in a phrase or two to his wife at Hawarden: 'July 31.—Parliamentary affairs are very black; the poor church gets deeper and deeper into the mire. I am to speak to-night; it will do no good; and the fear grows upon me from year to year that when I finally leave parliament, I shall not leave the great question of state and church better, but perhaps even worse, than I found it.'

VEHEMENT OPPOSITION

The discussion of the bill in the Commons occupied no fewer than eighteen sittings, more than one of them, according to the standard of those primitive times, inordinately long. In the hundred encounters between Mr. Gladstone and Bethell, polished phrase barely hid unchristian desire to retaliate and provoke. Bethell boldly taunted Mr. Gladstone with insincerity. Mr. Gladstone, with a vivacity very like downright anger, reproached Bethell with being a mere hewer of wood and drawer of water to the cabinet who forced the bill into his charge; with being disorderly and abusing the privileges of speech by accusations of insincerity, 'which have not only proceeded from his mouth but gleamed from those eloquent eyes of his, which have been continuously turned on me for the last ten minutes, instead of being addressed to the chair.' On every division those who affirmed the principle of the bill were at least two to one. 'All we can do,' Mr. Gladstone wrote to his wife, 'is to put shoulder to shoulder, and this, please God, we will do. Graham is with us, much to my delight, and much too, let me add, to my surprise. I am as thankful to be in parliament for this (almost) as I was for the China vote.... Yesterday ten and a-half hours, rather angry; to-day with pacification, but still tough and prolonged.' An unfriendly but not wholly unveracious chronicler says of this ten hours' sitting (August 14) on a single clause: 'Including questions, explanations, and interlocutory suggestions, Mr. Gladstone made nine-and-twenty speeches, some of them of considerable length. Sometimes he was argumentative, frequently ingenious and critical, often personal, and not less often indignant at the alleged personality of others.'

He made no pretence of thinking the principle of divorce a vinculo anything but an immense evil, but he still held himself free, if that view were repudiated, to consider the legislative question of dissolubility and its conditions. He resorted abundantly to what Palmerston called 'the old standard set-up form of objecting to any improvement, to say that it does not carry out all the improvements of which the matter in hand is susceptible.' One of the complaints of which he made most was the inequality in the bill between the respective rights of husband and wife. 'It is the special and peculiar doctrines of the Gospel,' he said, 'respecting the personal relation of every Christian, whether man or woman, to the person of Christ, that form the firm, the broad, the indestructible basis of the equality of the sexes under the Christian law.' Again, 'in the vast majority of instances where the woman falls into sin, she does so from motives less impure and ignoble than those of the man.' He attacks with just vigour the limitation of legal cruelty in this case to the cruelty of mere force importing danger to life, limb, or health, though he was shocked in after years, as well he might be, at the grotesque excess to which the doctrine of 'mental cruelty' has been carried in some States of the American Union. In this branch of the great controversy, at any rate, he speaks in a nobler and humaner temper than Milton, who writes with a tyrannical Jewish belief in the inferiority of women to men, and wives to husbands, that was in Mr. Gladstone's middle life slowly beginning to melt away in English public opinion. His second complaint, and in his eyes much the more urgent of the two, was the right conferred by the government bill upon divorced persons to claim marriage by a clergyman in a church, and still more bitterly did he resent the obligation imposed by the bill upon clergymen to perform such marriages. Here the fight was not wholly unsuccessful, and modifications were secured as the fruit of his efforts, narrowing and abating, though not removing, his grounds of objection.[368]

IV

DEATH OF LADY LYTTELTON

Before the battle was over, he was torn away from the scene by a painful bereavement. Mrs. Gladstone was at Hagley nursing her beloved sister, Lady Lyttelton. He wrote to his wife in the fiercest hours of the fight (11 Carlton House Terrace, Aug. 15): 'I read too plainly in your letter of yesterday that your heart is heavy, and mine too is heavy along with yours. I have been in many minds about my duty to-day; and I am all but ready to break the bands even of the high obligations that have kept me here with reference to the marriage bill. You have only to speak the word by telegraph or otherwise, showing that I can help to give any of the support you need, and I come to you. As matters stand I am wanted in the House to-day, and am wanted for the Divorce bill again on Monday.' Before Monday came, Lady Lyttelton was no more. Four days after her death, Mr. Gladstone wrote to Mr. Arthur Gordon from Hagley:—

The loss suffered here is a dreadful one, but it is borne in the way which robs death and all evil of its sting. My deceased sister-in-law was so united with my wife; they so drew from their very earliest years, and not less since marriage than before it, their breath so to speak in common, that the relation I bore to her conveys little even of what I have lost; but that again is little compared to my wife's bereavement; and far above all to that of Lyttelton, who now stands lonely among his twelve children. But the retrospect from first to last is singularly bright and pure. She seemed to be one of those rare spirits who do not need affliction to draw them to their Lord, and from first to last there was scarce a shade of it in her life. When she was told she was to die, her pulse did not change; the last communion appeared wholly to sever her from the world, but she smiled upon her husband within a minute of the time when the spirit fled.

FOOTNOTES:

[357] See above pp. 525-8.

[358] Phillimore's Diary.

[359] The reader will find a candid statement of the controversy in Northcote, Financial Policy, pp. 306-329.

[360] Ars Poetica, 32-5.

[361] Malmesbury, Memoirs, ii. pp. 56-7. See above, p. 536.

[362] See above, p. 225.

[363] It is a striking indication of the tenacity of custom against logic that in France, though civil marriage was made not merely permissive, as with us, but compulsory in 1792, divorce was banished from French law from 1816 down to 1884.

[364] July 1857. Reprinted in Gleanings, vi. p. 47.

[365] House of Commons, June 20, 1849.

[366] Ibid., July 20, 1869. See also Gleanings, vi. p. 50.

[367] It may be said that the exaction of damages comes to the same thing.

[368] In republishing in 1878 his article from the Quarterly (Gleanings, vi. p. 106), he says his arguments have been too sadly illustrated by the mischievous effects of the measure. The judicial statistics, however, hardly support this view, that petitions for divorce were constantly increasing, and at an accelerating rate of progression. In England the proportion of divorce petitions to marriages and the proportion of divorce decrees to population are both of them lower than they were a few years ago. Mr. Gladstone used to desire the prohibition of publicity in these proceedings, until he learned the strong view of the president of the Court that the hideous glare of this publicity acts probably as no inconsiderable deterrent.



CHAPTER IX

THE SECOND DERBY GOVERNMENT

(1858)

Extravagance and exaggeration of ideas are not the essential characteristic of either political party in this country. Both of them are composed in the main of men with English hearts and English feelings. Each of them comprises within itself far greater diversities of political principles and tendencies, than can be noted as dividing the more moderate portion of the one from the more moderate portion of the other.... But while the great English parties differ no more in their general outlines than by a somewhat varied distribution of the same elements in each, they are liable to be favourably or unfavourably affected and their essential characteristics unduly exaggerated, by circumstances of the order that would be termed accidental.—GLADSTONE.

The turn of the political wheel is constantly producing strange results, but none has ever been more strikingly dramatic than when, on February 20, Bright and Milner Gibson, who had been ignominiously thrown out at Manchester the year before, had the satisfaction of walking to the table of the House of Commons as victorious tellers in the division on the Conspiracy to Murder bill that overthrew Lord Palmerston. A plot to slay the French Emperor had been organised by a band of Italian refugees in London. The bombs were manufactured in England. Orsini's design miscarried, but feeling in France was greatly excited, and the French government formally drew attention at St. James's to the fact that bodies of assassins abused our right of asylum. They hinted further that the amity of the crown called for stronger law. Palmerston very sensibly did not answer the French despatch, but introduced a bill with new powers against conspiracy. He in an instant became the most unpopular man in the country, and the idol of the year before was now hooted in the Park.

LORD PALMERSTON DEFEATED

Mr. Gladstone was at first doubtful, but soon made up his mind. To Mrs. Gladstone he writes (Feb. 17):—

As respects the Conspiracy bill, you may depend upon our having plenty of fight; the result is doubtful; but if the bill gets into the House of Lords it will pass. Lord Aberdeen is strong against it. From him I went to-day to Lord Lyndhurst, and I found Lord Brougham with him. A most interesting conversation followed with these two wonderful old men at 80 and 86 (coming next birthday) respectively, both in the fullest possession of their faculties, Brougham vehement, impulsive, full of gesticulation, and not a little rambling, the other calm and clear as a deep pool upon rock. Lord Lyndhurst is decidedly against the bill, Brougham somewhat inclines to it; being, as Lord Lyndhurst says, half a Frenchman. [Lord Lyndhurst expounded the matter in a most luminous way from his point of view. Brougham went into raptures and used these words: 'I tell you what, Lyndhurst, I wish I could make an exchange with you. I would give you some of my walking power, and you should give me some of your brains.' I have often told the story with this brief commentary, that the compliment was the highest I have ever known to be paid by one human being to another.][369]

The debate showed a curious inversion of the parts usually played by eminent men. Palmerston vainly explained that he was doing no more than international comity required, and doing no worse than placing the foreign refugee on the same footing in respect of certain offences as the British subject. Mr. Gladstone (Feb. 19), on the other hand, 'as one who has perhaps too often made it his business to call attention to the failings of his countrymen,' contended that if national honour was not henceforth to be a shadow and a name, it was the paramount, absolute, and imperative duty of Her Majesty's ministers to protest against the imputation upon us of favour for assassination, 'a plant which is congenial neither to our soil nor to the climate in which we live.'[370] One of the truest things said in the debate was Disraeli's incidental observation that 'the House should remember that in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, when there is a quarrel between two states, it is generally occasioned by some blunder of a ministry.' Mr. Disraeli perhaps consoled himself by the pithy saying of Baron Brunnow, that if no one made any blunders, there would be no politics. The blood of the civis Romanus, however, was up, and Palmerston, defeated by a majority of nineteen, at once resigned.

CORRESPONDENCE WITH LORD DERBY

Lord Derby, whose heart had failed him three years earlier, now formed his second administration, and made one more attempt to bring Mr. Gladstone over to the conservative ranks. Lord Lansdowne had told the Queen that no other government was possible, and an hour after he had kissed hands the new prime minister applied to Mr. Gladstone. The decisions taken by him in answer to this and another application three months later, mark one more of the curious turning points in his career and in the fate of his party.

Feb. 20, 1858.—Dined at Herbert's with Graham. We sat till 121/2, but did not talk quite through the crisis. Palmerston has resigned. He is down. I must now cease to denounce him. 21.—St. James's morning, and holy communion. Westminster Abbey in evening, when I sat by Sir George Grey. From St. James's I went to Lord Aberdeen's. There Derby's letter reached me. We sent for Herbert and I wrote an answer. Graham arrived and heard it; with slight modifications it went. The case though grave was not doubtful. Made two copies and went off before 6 with S. Herbert. We separated for the evening with the fervent wish that in public life we might never part.

Two or three letters exhibit the situation:—

Lord Derby to Mr. Gladstone.

St. James's Square, Feb. 21, 1858.—In consequence of the adverse vote of the other night, in which you took so prominent and distinguished a part, the government, as you know, has resigned; and I have been entrusted by the Queen with the difficult task, which I have felt it my duty not to decline, of forming an administration. In doing so, I am very desirous, if possible, of obtaining the co-operation of men of eminence, who are not at this moment fettered by other ties, and whose principles are not incompatible with my own. Believing that you stand in this position, it would afford me very great satisfaction if I could obtain your valuable aid in forming my proposed cabinet; and if I should be so fortunate as to do so, I am sure there would be on all hands a sincere desire to consult your wishes, as far as possible, as to the distribution of offices. I would willingly include Sidney Herbert in this offer; but I fear he is too intimately associated with John Russell to make it possible for him to accept.

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