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William Ewart Gladstone

From 1809
 to 1898

William Ewart Gladstone, British statesman and prime minister, was perhaps the most eminent of eminent Victorians. During his studies at Oxford he felt strongly drawn to the ministry, and had his father not insisted he enter the political arena, Gladstone would have sought a lifelong position as a church leader. He instead entered Parliament in 1832, but always felt that his political career was second best to a church vocation.

Gladstone's profound piety, manifest in his daily study of the Bible and regular church attendance, was central to his approach to politics. Over the course of his career, he came to understand that liberty, understood in the context of Christian orthodoxy, was the central political principle. He shared this conviction with House member and close friend Lord John Acton, who saw in Gladstone a statesman inspired by the principle of liberty.

In 1867 he became leader of the Liberal Party, and soon after served his first term as prime minister. Gladstonian Liberalism was a coherent ideology deeply influenced by and consistent with a Christian world view. He advocated a minimalist view of the state, always insisting that government expenditures be pared to the bone, and he opposed measures to create additional public agencies. In this way taxes could be cut and money left in people's pockets. Furthermore, he argued that the needy should be helped by individuals and voluntary organizations, not the state, for state help to the poor would only sap their self-reliance.

Gladstone's view of political economy was also influenced by his faith. The market, in his view, was part of the providential law governing human affairs, and as such ought not be restricted. Instead, he advocated a laissez-faire approach to economics tempered with Christian charity that would provide the opportunity for people to become prosperous.

Sources: William Ewart Gladstone by David W. Bebbington (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993), and Gladstone: 1875-1898 by H. C. G. Matthew (Clarendon Press, 1995).