Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Mr. Gladstone's Autobiography

Mr. Gladstone has done many characteristic things in the course of his life, but we doubt whether he has ever done anything more characteristic than the publication of a "chapter of autobiography" in the very heat of a contested election, and by way of a contribution to its literature. Though characteristically lengthy, not to say long-winded, the substance of the pamphlet is short enough, and it is this:

It is desirable that public men should be as consistent as possible. It is, however, impossible that any man in these days should retain precisely the same opinions at every stage of his life; but his changes ought to be honest and wise. In 1838 I wrote a book about Church and State, which maintained emphatically that the Irish Church ought to be kept up, and as I now propose that the Irish Church Establishment should be pulled down, I wish to explain the extent and character of the change which has come over my views. I thought in 1838 that it was the duty of the State, which in my opinion had a conscience, to propagate religious truth. I also thought that the creed of the Irish Church was religious truth, for which reason it ought to be upheld by the nation at large for the benefit of the Irish people. As time went on I perceived that public men did not share and would not act on my views as to the duty of the State to propagate religious truth. On the contrary, they endowed Maynooth in 1845. This step was indefensible if my theory was right, and though I was beginning to think that my theory was wrong and my party right, yet I gave up office rather than make a change in my own favour. I acted like a woman who, because the man to whom she is engaged is unfortunate, refuses to break off an engagement of which she repents apart from his misfortunes. I became convinced by the course of events, and especially by the Maynooth grant, that my theory had been wrong, and I felt that the abolition of the Irish Church was a question of time. However, I did not feel called upon to make an attack upon it. I thought it might as well have a chance, or day of grace; but I was so much impressed with my new views, that when I contested Oxford in 1847, I would not pledge myself to stand by the Church. Moreover, in 1851, in the debates on the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, I used language which showed that I had in my mind the principles which have now led to my disestablishment resolutions. In 1865 I made a speech which was regarded by Mr. Whiteside as intended to be fatal to the Church when the opportunity should arise, but my views upon the subject were not then matured. I thought the Irish Bishops would have to be kept in the House of Lords, and I also thought that the question might not arise in my time, as it seemed a long way off. I now think that the time has come for dealing with the subject for reasons often assigned in public.

This is the gist of the pamphlet down to the top of page 46. We have no doubt that it is all true enough, though the story is one which those who are capable of understanding Mr. Gladstone hardly want to hear told, especially at such astonishing length, whilst it is, on the other hand, quite certain that it will not convince political opponents who are determined beforehand not to be convinced. It is much more like the sort of matter which one would expect to find in one of Miss Yonge's novels put into the mouth of an invalid relating the history of his inner life than the utterances of an English statesman about to take the leading part in a great political struggle. In a word, it is soft stuff.

The other eighteen pages are more interesting. They contain Mr. Gladstone’s view of the "general march of affairs" upon these matters since 1838. You may think, says Mr. Gladstone, that my notion that the business of the State was to propagate religious truth was a gross error, but look back to the state of things in 1838. Jews were excluded from Parliament. Roman Catholics and Dissenters had to take oaths and declarations which marked their past inferiority. The Church all but monopolized the direction of what little aid the State gave to public education, and then the Church of England itself was in such an interesting situation. It was in a gush of convalescence and revival. The deep religious lethargy of the eighteenth century was breaking up. The Church had been roused by the repeal of the Test Act, Catholic Emancipation, the Reform Bill, and the Church Temporalities Act, It was moreover being internally reformed, Worship was being made more splendid, the clergy were becoming enthusiastic and devoted. Dr. Pusey, Dr. Newman, and Mr. Keble were in the height of their influence at Oxford. " Much "beyond one-half of the very flower of its youth chose the profession of holy orders, while an impression hardly less deep seemed to be stamped upon a large portion of its lay members." Purity, unity, and energy seemed as three fair sisters, hand in hand to advance together. "Such a state of things was eminently suited to act on impressible and sanguine minds. I, for one, formed a completely false estimate of what was going to happen, and believed that the Church of England" was going to convert the nation. How, asks Mr. Gladstone, could he be expected to see that Dr. Newman and others would become Roman Catholics, and that "a not less convulsive rationalistic movement" would arise in the opposite direction? Besides being mistaken in his enthusiastic estimate of the High Church movement, he underrated the energy of the Dissenters. In short, "the entire miscalculation which I have now endeavoured to describe of the religious state and prospects of the country was combined with a view of the relative position of governors and governed since greatly modified, and the two lay at the root of my error."

This certainly is an abundant explanation of the fact that Mr. Gladstone has had to change his views. When a man tells you that he set out in life with fundamental errors upon the most important parts of the subject to which his life was to be devoted, you certainly want no other explanation of a good deal of vacillation in his subsequent career.

The pamphlet concludes with several pages about Mr. Gladstone’s present views upon Church Establishments. They appear to come to little more than this, that under some circumstances they are good things and under others bad things, and that it is impossible to lay down any general principle from which you may ascertain deductively how States and Churches ought to be related to each other. Lord Macaulay’s theory that government is police is not, Mr. Gladstone thinks, any truer than other theories, and as a matter of historical fact the connection between religion and politics has, been very useful in many ways. This is the substance, as it seems to us, of six or seven rather puffy pages, which contain a good many fine words about the State and Christianity.

The pamphlet, on the whole, appears to us a melancholy exhibition of intellectual weakness and rashness, and an injudicious proceeding in a political point of view. What is the short result of it? You may ask how I ever came to write such a silly book as my "Church and State"? The answer is, I was impressible and sanguine and was carried away by Puseyism, and I have been finding out ever since that it was all a mistake. This is perfectly true, no doubt; but why need a man who is just going to become Prime Minister of England say so? No one doubts Mr. Gladstone’s almost unbounded ability on some points. Give him figures to steady himself by, and he will make financial statements to admiration; but upon moral and religious subjects he got his head filled with nonsense of various kinds early in life, and he has never fairly got it out of his constitution and never will. It is impossible to read his present pamphlet without feeling that he has found out only a very small part of the errors into which he was led by his enthusiastic friends and associates at Oxford. If any one will read his speculations about "Ecce Homo" he will see what we mean. When a very young man, he rashly presumed to write a book about Church and State, which was founded upon what he now sees was the false assumption that it is the duty of the State to propagate religious truth. He has not even yet learned how false was the second assumption involved, that the creed of the Church of England is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth upon the subject of religion. He despises and insults the eighteenth century and its religious condition. It had its faults no doubt, but it had also its merits, and it would be highly interesting to learn upon what grounds, moral and intellectual, Mr. Gladstone went when in 1838 he so decisively rejected the theories of the most eminent writers of that century, and so eagerly embraced the teaching of the religious guides who, as he now sees, misled him so grievously upon points of such vital importance. If Dr. Pusey and Mr. Keble and Dr. Newman were altogether wrong in the application of their theory to the facts of life, was the theory itself a sound one ? A good many people have said and still say the opposite in very emphatic language, and if Mr. Gladstone lives long enough he may very likely find himself obliged to consider more or less from their point of view questions still more fundamental than those on which in his early youth he pronounced such a strong and such an utterly false opinion.

Pall Mall Gazette, November 24, 1868.

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