Gladstone, William Ewart
William Ewart Gladstone, 1809–98, British statesman, the dominant personality of the Liberal party from 1868 until 1894. A great orator and a master of finance, he was deeply religious and brought a highly moralistic tone to politics. To many he represented the best qualities of Victorian England, but he was also passionately disliked, most notably by his sovereign, Queen Victoria, and by his chief political rival, Benjamin Disraeli.
Entering Parliament (1833) as a Tory, he became a protégé of Sir Robert Peel, who made him undersecretary for war and the colonies (1835). In Peel's second ministry, he became vice president (1841) and president (1843) of the Board of Trade, introducing the first government regulation of the railroads, and then (1845) colonial secretary. A supporter of free trade, he resigned (1846) with Peel in the party split that followed repeal of the corn laws and gradually aligned himself more and more with the Liberals. As chancellor of the exchequer (1852–55, 1859–66), he eloquently proposed and secured measures for economic retrenchment and free trade. He also espoused the cause of parliamentary reform (see Reform Acts).
Gladstone served as prime minister four times (1868–74, 1880–85, 1886, and 1892–94). In his first ministry the Church of Ireland was disestablished (1869) to free Roman Catholics from the necessity of paying tithes to support the Anglican church, and an Irish land act was passed (see Irish Land Question) to protect the peasantry. He achieved important reforms—competitive admission to the civil service, the vote by secret ballot, abolition of the sale of commissions in the army, educational expansion, and court reorganization. Conservative reaction to reforms and a weak foreign policy defeated him in 1874.
In 1876, Gladstone published a pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Questions of the East, attacking the Disraeli government for its indifference to the brutal repression by the Turks of the Bulgarian rebellion. His renewed attack on Disraeli's pro-Turkish and generally aggressively imperialist policies in the Midlothian campaign of 1879–80 brought the Liberals back to power in 1880. During Gladstone's second ministry, a more effective Irish land act was passed (1881), and two parliamentary reform bills (1884, 1885) further extended the franchise and redistributed the seats in the House of Commons. The army's failure to relieve Charles George Gordon at Khartoum helped to bring this ministry to an end (1885).
Gladstone's advocacy of Home Rule for Ireland was a notable recognition of Irish demands, but wrecked his third ministry (1886) after a few months. Many anti–Home Rule Liberals allied themselves with the Conservatives, and the slow decline of the Liberal party may be traced from this date. Gladstone also split with the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell because of the divorce case in which Parnell was involved. Gladstone's last ministry followed the election of 1892 and continued the fight for Irish Home Rule. He retired in 1894 after the House of Lords defeated (1893) his bill.
Many of Gladstone's speeches and letters have been collected. See biographies by J. Morley (3 vol., 1903, repr. 1968), P. Stansky (1981), R. Shannon (1984), H. C. Matthew (1989), and R. Jenkins (1997).