Narrative Summary of The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, Vol. 1 (of 3)

Overview: This biography chronicles the early life of William Ewart Gladstone, a prominent figure in British politics during the 19th century. The first volume delves into his childhood, shaped by a strong Scottish heritage and a family steeped in the world of commerce. His education at Eton and Oxford reveals his early religious fervor and intellectual development, as well as the formative influences of figures like Canning and Arthur Hallam. We see his initial steps in public life, entering Parliament in 1832, where he quickly gains a reputation for eloquence and intellectual prowess. The volume explores his early political beliefs, his transition from Tory to Peelite, and his first experiences with government office. It also discusses the rise of the Tractarian movement, the impact of the abolition of slavery, and Gladstone’s growing interest in the Church and its role in society.

Main parts:

  • Childhood: The text begins with a first-hand account of Gladstone’s childhood, marked by family travel, his father’s success in commerce, and the family’s involvement in the West Indies slave trade. This section highlights the influence of his parents, especially his mother’s deep religiosity, and his own early struggles with self-discipline and a lack of devotional inclination.
  • Eton: This section delves into Gladstone’s time at Eton, where he develops friendships that shape his intellectual and political development. It highlights the influence of Dr. Keate, the formidable headmaster, and the role of the debating society and the Eton Miscellany in his early explorations of politics and writing.
  • Oxford: Here we see Gladstone’s academic success, his double first-class degree, and his deepening commitment to evangelical Christianity. This period sees the beginnings of his involvement in political activism, notably his impassioned speech against the Reform Bill at the Oxford Union.
  • Enters Parliament: The text covers Gladstone’s initial years as MP for Newark, his first speeches on slavery and his father’s controversial involvement in the West Indies, his early forays into the House of Commons, and his first taste of government office under Sir Robert Peel.
  • The New Conservatism and Office: The text discusses Gladstone’s early political life as a Canningite, his transition to a more conservative stance, and his first experiences with government office under Peel. We see his early work at the Colonial Office, his first major speech on slavery, and his involvement in the Canadian and Jamaica issues.
  • Progress in Public Life: This section explores Gladstone’s evolving views on the Church, his first book “The State in its Relations with the Church”, his engagement with the Tractarian movement, and his growing awareness of the tension between religious and secular spheres.
  • Close of Apprenticeship: Gladstone’s further political development is explored, including his support for Peel’s economic reforms, his early forays into the complex world of industrial and financial affairs, and his first experiences of party strife and coalition.
  • Peel’s Government: This section details Gladstone’s involvement in the Peel government, focusing on his role in shaping economic policy, his work at the Board of Trade, and the gradual shift in his views on free trade.
  • Maynooth: The text recounts the Maynooth controversy, highlighting Gladstone’s internal struggle with the policy of increasing funding for the Catholic seminary. This leads to his first significant conflict with Peel and his eventual resignation from the government.
  • Triumph of Policy and Fall of the Minister: This section recounts the repeal of the Corn Laws and the political turmoil that followed. It discusses Peel’s decision to resign, the rise of the protectionist movement, and Gladstone’s continued commitment to free trade.
  • The Tractarian Catastrophe: The text details the evolution of the Tractarian movement, highlighting Gladstone’s shifting views and the impact of Newman’s secession from the Anglican Church. It discusses Gladstone’s growing unease with the movement’s direction, his role in the controversy surrounding William George Ward, and his strong stance against the Gorham judgement.
  • Member for Oxford: This section describes Gladstone’s election to Parliament as the representative of Oxford University. The election is marked by passionate debate over his religious views and his support for the admission of Jews to Parliament.
  • The Hawarden Estate: The text addresses the financial difficulties faced by the Gladstone family due to the Oak Farm venture. It details Gladstone’s long struggle to rescue the family estate and his commitment to maintaining the estate for future generations.
  • Party Evolution – New Colonial Policy: This section explores Gladstone’s early views on colonial policy, highlighting his support for local freedom and self-governance, as well as his belief that the colonies should be financially independent from the mother country.
  • Religious Tornado – Peelite Difficulties: This section discusses the deep divisions within the Church, the impact of the Gorham judgment, and the eventual secession of Manning and Hope-Scott from the Anglican Church.
  • Naples: Gladstone’s journey to Naples in 1850 exposes him to the harsh realities of Bourbon absolutism. This experience significantly shapes his views on tyranny and injustice. He witnesses the plight of political prisoners and the corruption of the judicial system. This section marks the beginning of his engagement with the Italian Question.
  • Death of Sir Robert Peel: This section describes the death of Sir Robert Peel and the resulting political turmoil. It discusses the emergence of Lord Palmerston as a major political figure, his clashes with Gladstone over foreign policy, and the subsequent Don Pacifico debate.
  • Gorham Case – Secession of Friends: The section examines the Gorham judgment and its impact on the Church of England. It highlights Gladstone’s growing concern about the erosion of church authority and his strong opposition to the judgment. He also grapples with the loss of his friends, Manning and Hope-Scott, to the Catholic Church.
  • Oxford Reform – Open Civil Service: This section chronicles the movement for reform at Oxford University. Gladstone’s involvement in the process, his advocacy for open competition for college positions, and his role in the eventual passage of the Oxford University Act in 1854 are detailed. The section also explores the parallel movement for civil service reform, highlighting Gladstone’s strong support for the principle of open competition.
  • War Finance – Tax or Loan: The section discusses Gladstone’s role as Chancellor of the Exchequer during the Crimean War. It highlights his efforts to manage the nation’s finances, his opposition to war loans, and his strong advocacy for financing the war through taxation.
  • Crisis of 1855 and Break-up of the Peelites: The text recounts the crisis that brought down the Aberdeen coalition government. It focuses on Gladstone’s opposition to the Roebuck committee, his decision to join Palmerston’s government, and his subsequent resignation from that government, marking the end of the Peelite party.
  • Political Isolation: The section discusses Gladstone’s period of political isolation after leaving Palmerston’s government. It highlights his growing criticism of Palmerston’s foreign policy, his commitment to peace and his involvement in the peace movement.
  • General Election – New Marriage Law: The section details the 1857 election and Gladstone’s re-election for Oxford University. It describes his continued unease with Palmerston’s leadership and his involvement in the debate over the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes Act, where he vehemently opposes the bill while advocating for a more balanced approach.
  • The Second Derby Government: This section chronicles Gladstone’s renewed engagement with the Conservative Party. He is offered a position in Derby’s government but declines due to his lingering disagreements with the party’s direction.
  • The Ionian Islands: This section explores Gladstone’s mission to the Ionian Islands in 1858. It details the islands’ troubled political and economic state, his efforts to implement reforms, and the eventual decision to transfer the islands to Greece.
  • Junction with the Liberals: This section marks Gladstone’s decision to join Palmerston’s Liberal government in 1859. It explores his reasons for accepting office and the political and personal considerations behind this decision.

View on Life:

  • Religious Conviction: Gladstone is driven by a deep and abiding faith, seeing a connection between religious principles and the ethical conduct of both individuals and nations. This conviction often fuels his moral outrage against injustice, oppression, and war.
  • Duty: Gladstone prioritizes duty over personal gain, evidenced by his dedication to public service and his willingness to take on difficult tasks, even when they are unpopular or against his own interests. He has a strong sense of responsibility for his actions and a desire to act with integrity.
  • Opposition to Extremes: Gladstone generally avoids political extremes, favoring moderation and careful consideration of all sides of an issue. He is wary of reckless action and believes in the importance of reasoned discourse and compromise.
  • Social Justice: As he matures, Gladstone’s understanding of social justice evolves. He becomes increasingly critical of the inequalities of the existing system, particularly those that affect the working class and the poor.


  • The West Indies Slave Trade: Gladstone’s family’s involvement in the slave trade significantly shapes his early political thinking. His first speech in Parliament defends the planters against charges of cruelty while arguing for the eventual abolition of slavery.
  • The Catholic Question: Gladstone’s early career is marked by the ongoing debate over Catholic emancipation. He initially opposes it but eventually comes to support it. The issue of the Maynooth grant causes a deep conflict with Peel and his resignation from the government.
  • The Reform Bill: Gladstone’s passionate opposition to the Reform Bill of 1831 marks his first foray into political activism. He later comes to see the bill as a necessary step toward a more just and representative system of government.
  • The Crimean War: The Crimean War poses a significant challenge to Gladstone’s political beliefs. He initially supports the war based on the need to contain Russian aggression but ultimately becomes a vocal advocate for peace, arguing against the expansion of the war’s goals.
  • The Ionian Islands: Gladstone’s mission to the Ionian Islands tests his political skills. He is charged with reforming the islands’ government but encounters deep-seated resistance from the Ionians themselves, as well as from the British government.


  • Balancing Church and State: Gladstone wrestles with the tension between his deep commitment to the Church and his growing belief in the separation of church and state. This internal conflict plays out in his writings and speeches, especially regarding the Church in Ireland and the role of the state in education.
  • Reconciling Principles and Expediency: Gladstone often finds himself at odds with the demands of practical politics, where expediency and compromise frequently clash with his ideals of justice and principle. This is evident in his actions regarding the Maynooth grant, the Corn Laws, and the Crimean War.
  • Party Affiliations: Gladstone struggles to find a political home, moving from Tory to Peelite and eventually aligning himself with the Liberal Party. His shifting allegiances often bring criticism and suspicion, as he grapples with finding a party that aligns with his evolving views.
  • Maintaining Integrity in the Face of Conflict: Gladstone’s strong moral compass and sense of duty often lead him into difficult situations. He faces relentless attacks for his stances on issues like slavery, the Irish Church, and the Crimean War, but he consistently defends his principles and actions, even when it costs him popularity or political advantage.


  • Church vs. State: This conflict is a recurring theme throughout Gladstone’s career. He believes in the Church’s vital role in society, but he also recognizes the state’s need for autonomy. He is constantly trying to find a balance between the two institutions.
  • Theological vs. Secular: Gladstone grapples with the tension between his religious beliefs and the demands of secular government. This struggle is evident in his response to the Tractarian movement, his opposition to the Maynooth grant, and his debates over the role of the Church in society.
  • Free Trade vs. Protection: Gladstone’s views on free trade evolve over time, moving from support for protection to a strong commitment to free trade. He faces significant conflict within the Conservative Party, leading to his eventual move to the Liberal Party.
  • War vs. Peace: The Crimean War presents Gladstone with a major moral and political challenge. He initially supports the war but becomes a vocal advocate for peace, arguing against the expansion of the war’s goals and the continued conflict.


  • The Rise of a Statesman: The narrative follows Gladstone’s journey from his early days as a devout young man with a passion for learning to a rising figure in British politics.
  • The Formation of a Peelite: We see Gladstone’s break with the Tory party as he aligns himself with the Peelites and their principles of free trade and limited government.
  • The Maynooth Crisis: Gladstone’s resignation from Peel’s government over the Maynooth grant is a pivotal turning point.
  • The Great Emancipator: Gladstone’s role in the abolition of slavery is highlighted, demonstrating his growing commitment to social justice.
  • The Crimean War and Its Aftermath: The text details Gladstone’s initial support for the war, his later advocacy for peace, and the political turmoil that followed. His actions during this period demonstrate his growing independence from party politics.
  • The Church and its Role in Society: Gladstone’s deep concern for the Church is a recurring theme. He grapples with the Church’s changing relationship with the state and the challenge of maintaining its moral authority in a secularizing world.
  • The Italian Question: Gladstone’s journey to Naples exposes him to the evils of Bourbon rule and ignites his passion for Italian unification and freedom.

Point of view:

  • The Committed Christian: Gladstone’s perspective is shaped by his strong religious convictions. He sees the world through a lens of faith, applying Christian principles to his political views and social commentary.
  • The Conservative Reformer: Gladstone begins as a conservative but evolves into a liberal reformer. He supports traditional institutions like the monarchy and the Church, but he also champions individual freedom and social progress.
  • The Advocate for the Oppressed: Gladstone is driven by a deep sympathy for the downtrodden. He champions the cause of the poor, the enslaved, and those oppressed by tyranny. His actions on slavery, the Irish Church, and Neapolitan rule demonstrate his unwavering commitment to social justice.

How it’s written:

The text is written in a formal and scholarly tone, drawing on a wide range of historical sources and personal accounts. The author, John Morley, aims to present a comprehensive and balanced portrait of Gladstone, while acknowledging his own perspective as a friend and admirer. Examples of this style include Gladstone’s own introspective diary entries, which reveal his inner thoughts and struggles, and Morley’s detailed descriptions of parliamentary debates, which capture the intensity and drama of the political scene.


The tone is generally respectful and objective, reflecting a deep appreciation for Gladstone’s intellect and character. However, the text does not shy away from highlighting Gladstone’s flaws and contradictions, presenting a nuanced and human portrait.

Life choices:

  • Politics vs. Religion: Gladstone initially considers dedicating his life to the ministry but ultimately chooses a career in politics, driven by a desire to serve his country and a belief that he can make a greater difference in the political arena.
  • Tory vs. Liberal: Gladstone’s allegiance shifts from the Tory party to the Peelites and eventually the Liberal Party, driven by a changing world and his evolving views on social justice, free trade, and the role of the state.
  • Serving the Crown vs. Serving Principles: Gladstone struggles with the tension between loyalty to the Crown and the pursuit of his own principles. He often finds himself at odds with the government’s policies, leading to resignations and periods of political isolation.


  • The Power of Conviction: Gladstone’s unwavering conviction in his principles inspires him to fight for what he believes in, even when it is unpopular or costs him politically. He demonstrates that integrity and a strong moral compass are essential qualities for leaders.
  • The Importance of Growth and Change: Gladstone’s career illustrates the value of intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to evolve one’s views in response to changing circumstances. He demonstrates the importance of not clinging to outdated ideas or clinging to political affiliations simply for the sake of belonging.
  • The Responsibility of Power: Gladstone consistently emphasizes the responsibility of those in power to serve the common good and advocate for social justice. He demonstrates that leadership requires courage, compassion, and a willingness to confront injustice, even when it is difficult or inconvenient.
  • The Struggle for a More Just World: Gladstone’s life is a testament to the ongoing struggle for a more just and equitable world. He engages in passionate debates about slavery, the Irish Church, the Italian Question, and the rights of minorities, demonstrating the power of individual action and the importance of never giving up on the pursuit of a better future.


  • William Ewart Gladstone: Born into a wealthy Scottish family, Gladstone is a brilliant and devout man, driven by a strong moral compass and a desire to serve his country. He is a gifted orator, a skilled politician, and a dedicated scholar, but he often grapples with the complexities of public life and the conflict between his principles and the demands of political expediency.
  • John Gladstone: Gladstone’s father, a successful merchant and a strong political figure in his time. He is a demanding but loving father, deeply committed to his family and to the Conservative cause.
  • Anne Gladstone: Gladstone’s elder sister, a devout and influential figure in his early life.
  • Arthur Hallam: Gladstone’s close friend at Eton, a brilliant and precocious young man, whose early death deeply affects Gladstone.
  • Sir Robert Peel: A towering figure in British politics, Peel is Gladstone’s mentor and political leader. Peel’s influence is profound, but Gladstone eventually breaks with his party on issues such as the Maynooth grant and the repeal of the Corn Laws.
  • Lord Palmerston: A dominant figure in British politics, Palmerston is Gladstone’s rival and frequent adversary. Their clashes over foreign policy are particularly notable, leading to Gladstone’s alienation from the Liberal Party.
  • Lord John Russell: Another prominent figure in British politics, Russell is a leading liberal reformer. He becomes a key figure in the formation of the coalition government with the Peelites and later becomes Gladstone’s partner in enacting significant reforms, such as the Oxford University Act.
  • Catherine Gladstone: Gladstone’s wife, a strong and supportive figure, who provides him with love and stability throughout his long and turbulent career.
  • James Hope-Scott: Gladstone’s close friend and confidante, who plays an important role in shaping his theological views. His conversion to Catholicism deeply affects Gladstone.
  • Henry Edward Manning: A prominent figure in the Tractarian movement, Manning’s conversion to Catholicism is another major blow to Gladstone’s belief in the Church of England. He becomes a respected and influential figure in the Catholic Church.
  • Dr. Döllinger: A German Catholic theologian, whose views challenge Gladstone’s understanding of Catholicism and solidify his commitment to the Anglican Church.


  • The Nature of Faith and the Role of the Church: The text explores Gladstone’s complex relationship with the Church, his initial commitment to evangelical Christianity, his deepening interest in Anglo-Catholic theology, and his growing concern for the Church’s future in a secularizing world.
  • The Importance of Principle: Gladstone’s career is marked by his strong belief in the power of principle. He is willing to sacrifice personal gain and political advantage to defend what he believes is right.
  • The Evolution of Political Ideas: The text illustrates the changing political landscape of 19th-century Britain, from the struggles over Catholic emancipation and the Reform Bill to the rise of free trade and the Crimean War. We see how Gladstone’s views evolve as he grapples with new challenges and responds to the changing social and political realities.
  • The Role of the Statesman: Gladstone’s life demonstrates the complexity of the statesman’s role. He is a brilliant orator, a skilled politician, and a dedicated public servant, but he is also a man of strong convictions, who often finds himself torn between his personal beliefs and the demands of political expediency.
  • The Challenge of Governing a Nation: The text underscores the difficulty of governing a nation with diverse interests and rapidly changing views. We see how Gladstone and other leaders struggle with issues of class, religion, and international relations.


  • The Importance of Religious Values in Public Life: Gladstone believes that Christian principles should inform the conduct of nations, arguing for the moral responsibility of governments and a rejection of brute power and self-interest.
  • The Need for a Just and Equitable Society: Gladstone is committed to addressing social injustice, championing the cause of the poor and advocating for reforms that promote equality.
  • The Virtues of Moderation and Compromise: Gladstone often cautions against ideological extremes, favoring a balanced approach to political and social issues. He believes that compromise and a willingness to consider opposing views are crucial for effective governance.
  • The Value of Freedom and Self-Government: While initially wary of democratic reforms, Gladstone becomes a staunch advocate for individual liberties and the importance of self-government, both in Britain and its colonies.

Intentions of the characters in the text or the reader of the text:

  • William Ewart Gladstone: Driven by a desire to serve his country, Gladstone seeks to improve the lives of his fellow citizens, to uphold religious values, and to promote justice and reform in the world. His actions are often motivated by a desire to act with integrity and to champion what he believes is right.
  • The Reader: The reader is likely seeking to gain a deeper understanding of Gladstone’s life, his political beliefs, and his influence on British history. They may be interested in the challenges of leadership, the evolution of political thought, and the relationship between religion, morality, and public affairs.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • “Laissez-faire and laissez-aller”: This French phrase, meaning “let do” or “let go,” is often used by Gladstone to criticize policies based on unfettered free markets and a limited role for government intervention.
  • **“The State in its Relations with the Church”: ** This phrase is used to describe the central theme of Gladstone’s first book, which argues for the state’s responsibility to support and protect the Church.
  • “The Turk”: This term refers to the Ottoman Empire and its rulers. Gladstone often uses the term to express his concern about the Ottoman government’s treatment of its Christian subjects.
  • “The Sick Man of Europe”: This term, used to describe the Ottoman Empire during this period, reflects the declining power and instability of the Turkish state. It underscores the growing tension between Ottoman rule and the aspirations of the Christian peoples within the empire.
  • “The Public Law of Europe”: This phrase refers to the principles of international law and diplomacy that guide relations between European states. Gladstone sees the Crimean War as a violation of this law.


  • The Story of John Smith: This anecdote, concerning a missionary wrongly convicted and executed in Demerara, is used to illustrate the horrors of slavery and the moral imperative to abolish it.
  • The Encounter with Dr. Keate: This humorous anecdote depicts Gladstone’s unexpected encounter with his former headmaster at Eton, Dr. Keate, who is now a member of a crowded congregation at a service led by Edward Irving.
  • The Meeting with Dr. Döllinger: This meeting with a leading German Catholic theologian, who expresses admiration for Gladstone’s views on the Church of England, reveals a surprising aspect of the intellectual climate of the time.


  • The Christian State: Gladstone argues that the British state has a moral obligation to uphold Christian values, particularly in its dealings with other nations and in its policies regarding the Church.
  • The Importance of Principle in Politics: He believes that statesmen should be guided by principle and not solely by expediency or personal ambition. He advocates for a just and equitable society, a rejection of unchecked power, and a commitment to peace and international cooperation.
  • The Evolution of Liberalism: His political views evolve over time, moving from a conservative perspective to a more liberal one. He embraces the principles of free trade, social reform, and individual liberty.

Facts and findings:

  • The Impact of Free Trade: Gladstone details the positive economic effects of Peel’s reforms, highlighting the growth of British trade and the reduction of poverty.
  • The Misery of the Ionian Islands: Gladstone’s firsthand observations of the Islands expose the failings of British rule, revealing the corruption, poverty, and political instability under the British protectorate.
  • The Horrors of Neapolitan Tyranny: His journey to Naples brings him face to face with the brutality of the Bourbon monarchy, the repression of political dissent, and the appalling conditions of the Neapolitan prisons.


  • The cost of the Crimean War: Gladstone underscores the immense financial burden of the war, noting the cost of one hundred million pounds annually.
  • The cost of Colonial Administration: He highlights the substantial expenditure required to maintain British control over the colonies, arguing that the cost is excessive and that a more independent system of governance is both more efficient and more just.
  • The Size of the Ionian Population: He notes that the population of the Ionian Islands is only 250,000, highlighting the disproportionate amount of attention and resources that the British government has devoted to this small group of islands.

Points of view:

  • The Perspective of a Committed Christian: Gladstone’s religious faith profoundly shapes his political views. He sees the world through a moral lens and often expresses his beliefs in strong moral terms.
  • The Conservative-Liberal: While embracing traditional values and institutions, Gladstone is also a strong advocate for reform and social progress. This duality is evident in his support for free trade, his commitment to the Church, and his fierce opposition to tyranny.
  • The Advocate for Peace: Gladstone is deeply opposed to war and often expresses strong criticisms of military interventions. He sees the Crimean War as a tragic example of the folly of military adventurism.


  • The Historian’s Perspective: Morley, the author, presents a balanced and insightful perspective on Gladstone’s life and career, drawing on a wealth of sources and offering his own nuanced observations.
  • The Internal Struggle: The text provides a glimpse into Gladstone’s inner world, revealing his struggles with self-doubt, his wrestling with complex issues, and his ongoing efforts to reconcile his ideals with the realities of political life.
  • The Shifting Sands of Politics: The text highlights the volatility and instability of British politics, with parties constantly forming, breaking up, and reforming. We see how Gladstone navigates these shifting sands, struggling to find a place and a purpose in the midst of continuous turmoil.

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