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Gladstone was the fourth son of Sir John Gladstone, 1st Baronet (1764-1851) and was born in Liverpool, though his family had strong Scottish ties. The Gladstones were a rich family, with a fortune built on the corn and tobacco trade and West Indian sugar plantations which employed some 2,500 enslaved Africans in 1833. John Gladstone had strong political ambitions for his youngest son, who was provided with a first-class education at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford. On graduation, he briefly considered a career in the church or the law.
In 1832, at the request of the 4th Duke of Newcastle under Lyne, father of Gladstone’s close friend the Earl of Lincoln, Gladstone stood as member of parliament for Newark. He faced significant opposition during the campaign, as the nominee of a Tory aristocrat and the son of a prominent slaveowner. Gladstone opposed the 1832 Reform Act and defended his father’s support for slavery, arguing for a system of apprenticeship rather than immediate emancipation. After a fierce election contest, Gladstone was returned at the top of the poll. He fell out with his election committee over the publicans’ bills run-up during the contest, and in his maiden speech in parliament in 1833 supported compensation for slave-owners. Gladstone’s father subsequently received over £100,000, under the terms of the act which abolished slavery throughout the British empire.
Gladstone went on to become a popular constituency MP and was returned for Newark in 1835, 1837, and 1841. Macaulay described Gladstone as 'the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories'. His early political career was marked by Tory Anglicanism and he published a number of books which defended the connection between Church and State. He was quickly appointed to government office, under Sir Robert Peel, holding junior positions in the 1830s and serving in the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade (1843-5) and Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (1846). In 1846, he retired as MP for Newark, after supporting the Repeal of the Corn Laws, which was opposed by the Duke of Newcastle. Gladstone was subsequently returned as MP for the University of Oxford (1847), before transferring to South Lancashire (1865), Greenwich (1868), and Midlothian (1880).
By the 1850s, Gladstone was revising many of his earlier Tory views – including his opposition to parliamentary reform and defence of slavery. He followed the Peelites into opposition in 1846, served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Aberdeen’s coalition government (1852-5), and returned to the Exchequer in 1859 under Lord Palmerston, holding the position until 1866. During the American Civil War (1861-5), he praised the southern Confederacy for its resistance to the North but argued that Europe should seek the mitigation or removal of slavery. In domestic politics, Gladstone was associated with political Liberalism and radicalism. In 1864, he declared that there was no reason in principle why all able men could not be given the vote. After the defeat of the Liberal Reform Bill in 1866, Gladstone became the Liberal Party’s opposition leader in the House of Commons. By 1868, he was Prime Minister.
Gladstone served as Liberal Prime Minister four times (1868-74, 1880-5, 1886, 1892-4). His radicalism was disliked by Queen Victoria, who described him as ‘that half-mad firebrand’. In 1886, he split the Liberal Party by supporting Home Rule for Ireland, and, after the defeat of the Home Rule Bill in 1893, he argued for the reform of the House of Lords in order to pass it. He died on 19 May 1898 and was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. Reflecting on the changes in his political beliefs, towards the end of his life, Gladstone observed, ‘I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it’.
Professor Richard A. Gaunt