The Historiography of Gladstone and Disraeli

The Historiography of Gladstone and Disraeli

by Ian St John

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This book traces the often sharply differing perspectives historians have formed with regard to the key incidents in the careers of the two foremost politicians of the Victorian age – Gladstone and Disraeli. Following the parallel careers of both men, it focuses upon a series of contentious questions, ranging from why Disraeli opposed Corn Law repeal in 1846 and Gladstone abandoned his High Tory politics for Peelism, to whether Disraeli was ever an Imperialist and why Gladstone took up the cause of Irish Home Rule. By juxtaposing the contrasting interpretations advocated by historians, it brings home to students how history is a continually evolving subject in which every generation poses new questions, or reformulates answers to old ones – encouraging those studying the subject to realise that history is an ongoing dialogue to which they are called upon to contribute.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783085309
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 08/03/2016
Series: Anthem Perspectives in History
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 402
File size: 759 KB

About the Author

Ian St John studied at the Universities of York and Oxford, and currently teaches History at Haberdashers’ Aske’s School. He has previously published biographical studies of both Gladstone and Disraeli.

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Outline of Events

The opening of the 1840s saw William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli sitting together on the Tory benches and anticipating the fall of Lord Melbourne's Whig government. It was a brief moment of convergence. Their journeys to Westminster could not have been more different. Where Gladstone had left his mercantile home in Liverpool to attend Eton in 1821, proceeding from there to Oxford and then the House of Commons in 1833 at the age of 23, Disraeli, the baptized son of a literary Jew, had attended neither public school nor university, and had to struggle with debts and public disdain before finally securing a seat in 1837, at the age of 33. From 1841 their careers diverged again. While Gladstone became vice president of the Board of Trade in Robert Peel's Conservative administration, Disraeli languished sulkily on the backbenches. Momentous consequences followed from this. Gladstone, who in the 1830s had made his name as a High Church Anglican bent on raising the Christian tone of political life, now metamorphosed into an accomplished administrator, working closely with Peel to make Britain a land of free trade. Disraeli, by contrast, moved into a position of ever-more barbed criticism of Peelite Conservatism, which he branded an 'organised hypocrisy'. In 1845 these divergent trajectories collided with a crash that reverberated through the nineteenth century. As famine consumed Ireland, Peel decided to break with established Tory policy and scrap the duty on imported corn – the Corn Laws. Where Gladstone rallied to Peel's side, Disraeli launched a series of scathing attacks from the backbenches that have never been equalled in effectiveness. In 1846 Peel pushed through Corn Law repeal, but in so doing broke the unity of the Conservative Party. Peel, together with around one hundred Members of Parliament (MPs) (including Gladstone) who had supported Corn Law repeal, now broke away from the Conservatives, leaving Disraeli as a prominent figure in the Protectionist Conservative rump. Never again would Gladstone and Disraeli serve in the same party. Here two controversies are considered: why did Gladstone abandon his inflexible High Tory politics for Peel's liberal reformism; and why did Disraeli denounce Peel so vehemently and champion opposition to Corn Law repeal?

1.1 Why Did Gladstone Go from High Tory to Reforming Peelite?

When it comes to Gladstone's early Toryism, nearly all historians take their lead from the characterization of him by his Whig opponent, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, as 'the rising hope of those stern unbending Tories'. What distinguished Gladstone from his fellow Tories was the alacrity with which he articulated his conservative vision through a body of doctrine concerning the theology of politics so abstract as to be unique among British politicians. In his 1838 The State in Its Relations with the Church, Gladstone argued that the individual found the meaning of his life according to the place into which he was born in the God-ordained structure of society. He entered the world not with a set of rights or freedoms, but with a set of duties. The morality of British society was guaranteed by the teachings of the Church of England, and it was the government's duty to follow the guidance of the Church in its actions and privilege its members over those following other religious denominations and none.

But was Gladstone really as stern and unbending a Tory as it suited Macaulay to allege? Colin Matthew, the editor of Gladstone's diaries and, at the time of his death in 1999, the foremost interpreter of Gladstone's career, cautioned against making Gladstone 'too Tory'. He had always supported the right of Roman Catholics to become Members of Parliament, and he advocated strengthening institutions through moderate reform. A bolder reassessment is provided by David Bebbington, a notable scholar both of Gladstone and the history of evangelicalism, who points out that besides obedience, Gladstone acknowledged self-government as a leading principle of the state, and that it only required 'a slight shift in the balance between self-government and obedience [...] to alter his political allegiance. Already the intellectual path was remarkably clear towards Liberalism'. Such a path to Liberalism may have been apparent to Bebbington in 2004; however, the mere suggestion of it would have offended Gladstone and astonished contemporaries in 1838.

Whatever the initial rigidity of Gladstone's thinking, from the early 1840s he embarked upon a process of political re-evaluation that had led him, by 1851, to substitute for his formative High Toryism a style of politics that was more pragmatic, more reformist and more attuned to the doctrines of political economy than to the formulas of the Church Fathers. Indeed for some, such as John Lawrence Hammond and Michael Richard Foot, he was already on his way toward Liberalism. Debate has centred upon the motives that led Gladstone to reconfigure his fundamental approach to politics. There are two main perspectives: first, that Gladstone abandoned his early views because of contradictions within his original theocratic position, and second, that what was important was Gladstone's experience of being confronted by realities his earlier ideas simply had not allowed for.

Church and state contradictions

Three problems associated with Gladstone's original project have been emphasized. First, there is the view that what primarily caused Gladstone to rethink his politics was the reaction to his book, which ran, even among Conservatives, from lukewarm to openly hostile. This was the reason stated by Gladstone himself, and endorsed in John Morley's official biography of the Liberal leader in 1903. Gladstone's State and Church book, writes John Morley, 'though exciting lively interest, was evidently destined to make no converts in theory and to be pretty promptly cast aside in practice'. Erich Eyck, the German-liberal émigré historian, followed this interpretation in his 1938 Gladstone: 'shortly after the publication of his book, he had realized that he was a voice crying in the wilderness, "the last man on a sinking ship" [Gladstone] and that there was not a single politician who dreamed of making his axiom of the conscience of the State, and its duty of presenting the truth – the basis of a practical policy'. Sydney Checkland similarly argues that the chief factor causing Gladstone to shift his political priorities was the unfavourable response to his book, including the disapproval of Peel. 'William's acceptance of the public reaction to his State and Church was the turning-point of his life. Rationality and a sense of the nature of the real world, after a devastating struggle, overcame the system of thought that his emotional needs had imposed upon him.'

However the idea that unfavourable responses to his book broke Gladstone's commitment to its doctrines is rejected by Perry Butler, whose Gladstone: Church, State, and Tractarianism (1982) is the most systematic investigation of the theological roots of Gladstone's early politics. According to Butler, in 1841 'the ecclesiastical bias of Gladstone's politics remained paramount [...] His response to criticism of his book had not been to retract his opinions nor modify the argument, but rather to publish, in April 1841, a revised and expanded edition'. At that time, notes Butler, he opposed a motion to allow Jews to hold government office and spoke in his diary of the importance of upholding 'the principle of National Religion (a principle, which is my bond to Parliamentary life)'. Yet later in the same work Butler edges back to the more traditional Gladstone–Morley interpretation:

The crisis of Gladstone's life was the fate of his book published in 1838. It was the realization that his ideal was no longer possible which, with the disintegration of the Tory party, forced him to seek a modus vivendi between the catholic tradition and the liberal principles of the nineteenth century.

However the two most influential recent interpreters of Gladstone's career, Matthew and Richard Shannon, agree that it was not the reaction to the Church and State book that was decisive, but the discovery by Gladstone from 1841 that Conservative governments were unwilling to pursue theocratic dogmas, being as pragmatic in their politics as any Whig administration. The sustainability of Gladstone's system, believes Matthew, was heavily dependent upon the conduct of the Conservatives:

The role of the Tory party was [...] crucial to the Gladstonian conception of State-Church politics [...] for if the Tories failed live up to their role, he would have to reconsider his own position and function in politics [...] The success of political Tractarianism had depended on infiltration and control of the Tory party. But it was soon clear that the Tory party in office [...] would fall far short of the high role accorded it by Gladstone.

By 1842 he was recognizing that it was no longer possible to bring the action of the state into conformity with the laws of the Church, a point made by Shannon, who observes that Gladstone was brought to accept that the forces animating government were not those of the Christian spirit. Butler argues that, once within the Cabinet, Gladstone realized that

the defence of the Church, was obviously neither properly understood nor even central to his colleagues' concerns. For a young man who had seen his political vocation in terms of "rescuing, rectifying and securing the institutions of the country" so that they could once more become the means of christianizing the social order, the whole drift of politics in the 1840s seemed alarming.

A third development seen as compromising Gladstone's theocratic politics was the implosion of the Oxford Movement in the 1840s. Although Gladstone was never a Tractarian, and his book taught a doctrine at odds with the separation between Church and State Tractarians called for, the revitalization of Anglican doctrine initiated by John Henry Newman, Edward Pusey and John Keble at Oxford appeared to support Gladstone's ideas for it suggested that Anglican thinking was still a vital force, attracting the allegiance of the most talented young men of the universities and shaping the religious life of the nation. Hence Newman's 1845 conversion to Catholicism, followed by that of Gladstone's friends Henry Manning and James Hope, was a terrible challenge to Gladstone's vision of the future. Morley notes that the crisis of Peel's government coincided with that of the Oxford Movement.

The fall of Peel and the break-up of his party in the state coincided pretty nearly with a hardly less memorable rupture in that rising party in the church, with which Mr. Gladstone had more or less associated himself almost from the beginning [...] two events so far-reaching as the secession of Newman and the fall of Sir Robert [...] brought Gladstone to an epoch in his life of extreme perturbation.

Matthew concurs with the importance of this association: with the collapse of the Oxford Movement there 'could be no expectation of [...] that great burst of progress in English religion to which Gladstone looked to make his theory possible'. Butler agrees. 'The events of the early 1840s, culminating in Newman's conversion, were to shatter Gladstone's hope of a gradual and inevitable permeation of "Church Principles" and the creation of a national Catholic Church.'

In fact, a number of writers including Butler, Bebbington, Peter Stansky, Jonathan Parry, and Checkland, regard the controversy generated by the Oxford Movement and the Gorham Judgement of 1851, when the Privy Council declared that it was permissible for members of the Church of England to deny the doctrine of baptismal regeneration (a central tenet of Gladstone's High Churchmanship), as being the precipitator of Gladstone's long-term evolution from Conservative to Liberal. If the state could not be relied upon to sustain authentic Church doctrine, then it was, contends Parry, better that the Church have the 'freedom to follow its teaching and its missionary work free from state interference. And if to secure this freedom it must relinquish its privileges, then it was right that it should do so.' Gladstone began, says Stansky, to recognize the crucial importance of liberty of conscience. Once he recognized that the perfect union of Church and State could not be achieved, then 'there was no legitimate basis for discrimination: Catholics, Jews, Nonconformists - all were entitled to the aid and sustenance of the State.' By 1847 he was voting to admit Jews to parliament. Gladstone 'made a fast but thorough transformation from a man who was practically a religious bigot to a man of tolerance'. Butler calls this Gladstone's 'High Anglican road' to Liberalism:

His Liberalism didn't emerge out of utilitarianism or secularism; it emerged out of a belief that the Church must be free from state interference so that it might preserve the purity of its doctrine and have the liberty to use its energies in its work. And if the Anglican Church was to have this freedom, all other religious denominations required it also.

If, continues Butler, there was no longer a conscience in the state, there remained the conscience of the individual, and it was therefore vital that this be sustained.

But this was impossible without liberty, religious liberty to choose Catholic truth, liberty in a more general sense to enhance the consciousness of moral duty [...] If this was the kernel of 'Gladstonian Liberalism' then in a real sense its origin lay in the intellectual and religious crisis that followed the fate of his book.

'There can be little doubt', writes Checkland, 'that the way in which religious argument was then conducted helped to push William toward political liberalism.' This idea, that the concept of individual liberty that Gladstone always argued was central to his transition from Tory to Liberal lay in his re-evaluation of the importance of individual faith, is articulated by Bebbington:

The politician may have learned the practice of economic liberalism from Peel, but the groundwork of his constitutional liberalism was laid in reflection on the best way to structure the church so as to stand up to the state. The value of freedom, the power of public opinion, and the need to extend the principle of participation all emerged from this phase in his thinking.

The crucible of experience

Most historians have attributed Gladstone's changed political stance not to theological issues, but to his experiences as a politician in the 1840s. Crucial, it is argued, was his appointment to the Board of Trade in 1841 and his subsequent work with Peel in overhauling Britain's tariff system in the direction of free trade.

To begin with, it is suggested that only once he entered government did Gladstone confront a series of issues for which the speculations of Aristotle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (whose reflections upon the ideal state had formed the staple of his reading in the 1830s) had little real relevance and it was now that his evolution into liberalism began. To quote Checkland,

[a]t the Board of Trade he discovered how serious were the economic problems that now confronted Britain. Very quickly he came to the conclusion that the only way out was to continue the work of Huskisson, removing the remaining restraints on trade and industry imposed by the State and letting a further release of individual initiative relieve the nation's economic difficulties [...] By the later 1840s William [...] was moving strongly in a liberal direction.

Butler, although focusing upon Gladstone's religious dilemmas, acknowledges that a significant factor undermining his early approach to politics was 'the down to earth business of government he encountered at the Board of Trade'. Though he regretted the curtailment of religious devotions that his work involved, 'he came to regard it as a necessary part of his vocation and in no way unworthy or second best'. Above all, he became 'aware of the complexity of the social and political order. His analysis of the basis and function of government in the early 1830s had been, as he saw now, unrealistic and naive'. For Euginio Biagini, the Board of Trade provided 'an effective antidote to Gladstone's theocratic dreams and archaic Anglican idealism'. T. A. Jenkins encapsulates the view that it was this induction into the problems of governance that was chiefly responsible for the abandonment of his Church and State vision:

Experience as a minister in Peel's government soon demonstrated [...] that this theory was inapplicable to the complex reality of British society [...] and Gladstone was compelled to recognise that adaptability was a necessary part of the politician's craft. This liberation from the intellectual strait-jacket of his early years marked the beginning of that process of 'growth', which John Morley identified many years ago as the principal feature of Gladstone's political career.


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Table of Contents

Preface; 1. Gladstone and Disraeli to 1846; 2. Gladstone and Disraeli to 1865; 3. Why Did Disraeli Oversee the Passage of such a Radical Reform Act in 1867?; 4. Gladstone In and Out of Power 1868-1874; 5. Gladstone versus Disraeli 1874-80; 6. Gladstone Alone 1880-1885; 7. Gladstone and Ireland; 8. Gladstone and Disraeli: Ideological Perspectives

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