"He is plausible even when most in error": Gladstone as parliamentarian, 1838

This sketch of Gladstone as a parliamentary performer by James Grant in 1838 provides evidence of his emerging reputation in public life, although it is also noteworthy for its small misunderstandings and omissions.

Gladstone's biographers have not been much interested in assessing his political standing in the late eighteen-thirties. What might be called the standard narrative takes account of Peel's resolve to push him forward into office in 1834-5, and notes in passing that he was drawn into the inner counsels of the Conservative party during the Canada crisis of 1837-8. However, the major topics for the period are his failed courtships, his successful wooing of Catherine Glynn, whom he married in 1839, and his advocacy that same year of Anglican supremacy in The State in its Relations with the Church, which he was writing at the time Grant was penning his profile. The sketch is in some respects superficial, but it also fills a gap.[1]

Born in Scotland in 1802, James Grant became a journalist in his home town of Elgin before moving to London, probably in his late twenties.[2] He was employed by the Standard as a parliamentary reporter, and the press gallery gave him a ringside seat to observe personal confrontations and assess the characters of politicians.[3] Grant was a fluent writer, who published a series of books of light sketches describing the London scene. His offering of 1838, The British Senate, was explicitly marketed as a Second Series of Random Recollections of the Lords and Commons, which had appeared two years earlier, for which Grant claimed a "very extraordinary success … a success which he believes to be altogether unexampled in modern times".[4] It is possible that his impressive output may be explained by the recycling of feature articles from the Standard, but I have not traced any previous description of Gladstone. The use of the quasi-poetic term "British Senate" for Parliament indicated that Grant intended to downplay partisan conflict in his cameos of Westminster, portraying its oratorical gladiators as disinterested worthies in the Roman tradition. In his preface, he declared himself "most anxious to guard against anything like ill-natured remark":[5] indeed, he abandoned his original intention to include a chapter on "Unpopular Members", although a few of them proved too attractive to omit altogether. Grant's intention, then, was to create the impression that he wished to depict his subjects mostly in a favourable light, perhaps in the hope of earning goodwill and boosting sales. Notably, he described the notorious episode of Disraeli's disastrous maiden speech in sympathetic terms, criticising the conduct of MPs who shouted him down as "unbecoming, if not actually indecent".[6]  Even so, Grant's "perfect impartiality" permitted the negative verdict that Gladstone was unlikely to "acquire the reputation of a great statesman". Perhaps to balance this, he insisted that the young MP had demonstrated his efficiency while serving as Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office in 1835: in fact, he had held office too briefly to make much impact.[7]

The British Senate was something of a mish-mash. Some chapters described the rituals of the two chambers, others focused upon "scenes", clashes of the titans, such as Brougham, Lyndhurst and Melbourne in the Lords, or O'Connell, Peel and Russell in the Commons. But the core of the book consisted of pen portraits drawn from what might best be called the second tier of parliamentarians, 23 peers and sixty members of the lower house. With 658 MPs in the Reformed Parliament, there was roughly a one-in-eleven chance of immortalisation by Grant. Hence the first point to note about the inclusion of Gladstone is that he made the cut, even though he was one of the youngest active members of the House of Commons.

Grant was primarily interested in the legislature that emerged from the general election of 1837.[8] Parliament had assembled on 15 November of that year; his preface was dated 7 May 1838. A short paragraph praising Gladstone's speech on Apprenticeship, the transitional form of slavery in the West Indies, delivered on 30 March, looks like a late interpolation. Indeed, his portrayal of the member for Newark as one of the Conservative party's readily mobilised, all-purpose speakers reflected a very recent development. Richard Shannon noted "the extraordinary feebleness of Gladstone's participation in the debates of the 1836 session", which he unkindly attributed to the "emotional distemper" of an unhappy love life.[9] Morley concluded that he was "first taken into the confidential consultations of the leaders of his party" in December 1837 when Peel needed his oratorical skills to blame the Whigs for the rebellions that had broken out in Canada.[10] Grant praised Gladstone as a sharp debater, ready to pounce on perceived inconsistencies in an opponent's arguments, but he also detected talents of obfuscation: "when to evade that point is deemed most politic, no man can wander from it more widely". While this quality would mark much of the Grand Old Man's later oratory, Grant may have based his judgement on a single speech, Gladstone's contribution to the debate of 7 March 1838 on Sir William Molesworth's motion of censure against the Colonial Secretary, Lord Glenelg.[11] The Conservative opposition naturally wished to widen the gap between the Whig cabinet and its radical critics, while steering the question towards the more general issue of collective ministerial responsibility. This was certainly an occasion on which Gladstone ranged broadly, and in allusive fashion, but it was perhaps not typical of his contributions to parliamentary discussion – not yet, at any rate. Grant's picture of Gladstone as a rising parliamentarian was real enough in 1838, but it is worth bearing in mind that he had only recently emerged  as a party spokesman, and Grant was building upon a mere handful of orations.

Even where James Grant got his subject wrong, the errors are instructive. Gladstone was not 35 years of age, but a spritely 28: the affection of premature gravitas evidently had its effect. It was technically incorrect to describe him as "an extensive West India planter", but Grant's assumption was a measure of the extent to which the young Gladstone was seen as an apologist for slavery (in the form of its transitional successor, Apprenticeship) and for slave-owners. It really made very little difference that the family plantations belonged to his father, for they were the source of Gladstone's own income. Indeed, soon after, in 1839-40, John Gladstone transferred or sold off most of his Caribbean property for the direct benefit of his sons.[12] Most notably, Grant failed to detect that Gladstone's Toryism was driven by a particular commitment to the supremacy of the Anglican Church in England and Ireland. True, in parliamentary terms, Gladstone had spoken relatively little on religious topics. He had delivered an obtuse and obscurantist defence of Ireland's Protestant established Church in 1835 and 1836,[13] and a legalistic oration on the propriety of Church rates in 1837.[14] Grant was a Presbyterian who, in later years, became known for the fervour of his Calvinism. It is likely that he assumed that Gladstone's speeches on Church matters were part of his general Conservatism, since the opinions that he expressed formed part of the fundamental tenets of his party.[15] He could not know that the young MP was in the process of penning The State in its Relations with the Church, an explosive work that would appear early the following year.

In the longer term, it was not so much his controversial book that would tag the young Gladstone, as the sizzling phrase in Macaulay's review that labelled him as "the rising hope" of the "stern, unbending Tories".[16] Morley contended that the comment was "a happy afterthought" that Macaulay had incorporated at the last minute.[17] Is it possible to imagine the Whig polemicist dissecting the arguments in Gladstone's tome, seeking some humanising detail from Grant's parliamentary sketches, and adapting his opening phrase that hailed "one of the most rising young men on the Tory side of the house"? If so, Macaulay massively distorted and totally blanketed the cameo of The British Senate. "His party expect great things from him", Grant had written, but Macaulay chose to categorise the young member for Newark as the figurehead for a disloyal faction. In the pages of the Edinburgh Review, Gladstone became "a young man of unblemished character, and of distinguished parliamentary talents" – thus far compatible with an echo of Grant – but specifically identified him as "the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories, who follow, reluctantly and mutinously, a leader, whose experience and eloquence are indispensable to them, but whose cautious temper and moderate opinions they abhor."[18] The implication that the author of The State in its Relations with the Church was somehow engaged in an intrigue against Peel – who had proved and would continue to be a generous mentor – was a travesty. In the circumstances, Gladstone's decision to thank his assailant for the compliment of taking his book seriously was a remarkably generous gesture. Looking back in 1892, he acknowledged that Macaulay "was justified (though he put in exaggeration) in treating me as belonging to the ultra section of Tories, had he limited himself to ecclesiastical questions".[19] The attack was not entirely fair, but it would be Macaulay's narrow characterisation of Gladstone as the symbol of a reactionary faction that would shoulder aside Grant's cameo of a promising young party team-player. The irony was that the subsequent decade would prove Grant right and Macaulay hopelessly off-beam. Gladstone became a useful all-round member of Peel's government. True, he resigned rather than share ministerial responsibility for increasing the Maynooth grant. Sir Robert Inglis, the archetypal unbending Tory – although a kindly man in personal dealings – begged him to lead the opposition to the proposal, but, paradoxically in the eyes of most contemporaries, Gladstone supported it in the House of Commons. Peel's detractors were even more suspicious of their leader's alleged tendency towards free trade, but when crisis in Ireland forced the Corn Laws to the top of the political agenda, Gladstone returned from the wilderness to support his chief's fight for Repeal – even though the sacrifice of his seat at Newark in deference to the Protectionist beliefs of his patron the Duke of Newcastle, meant that his debating talents were not available.[20]

It is unlikely that James Grant intended his ephemeral publications to have a long shelf-life. However, in 1884, it seems that his sketch of Gladstone was unearthed by some enterprising journalist, and syndicated around the world as a space-filler. The Guernsey Evening Star praised it as "a pretty accurate forecast of his character today".[21] In 1887, the extract also featured in the Jubilee number of the popular London illustrated magazine, the Graphic, as part of an evocation of the early days of Queen Victoria's reign.[22] The British Senate was also quoted at some length by A.F. Robbins, in his 1894 study of Gladstone's early career, a useful but forgotten work.[23] In his authorised biography of 1903, John Morley merely summarised a few of Grant's comments, concentrating on the superficial allusions to Gladstone's body language when speaking in the House and his fine head of hair.[24] Most subsequent Gladstone biographers have taken Morley as their starting point, and James Grant's assessment has been forgotten. It is disinterred here to present the Gladstone of the late eighteen-thirties as an emerging political middleweight, in good standing with the Conservative party, whose upward trajectory was about to be disrupted, but not permanently damaged, by an ill-judged theoretical assertion of Anglican supremacy.


Mr Gladstone, the member for Newark, is one of the most rising young men on the Tory side of the house. His party expect great things from him; and, certainly, when it is remembered that his age is only thirty-five, the success of the parliamentary efforts he has already made justifies their expectations. He is well informed on most of the subjects which usually occupy the attention of the legislature; and he is happy in turning his information to a good account.
He is ready on all occasions which he deems fitting ones, with a speech in favour of the policy advocated by the party with whom he acts. His extemporaneous resources are ample. Few men in the house can improvisate better.[25] It does not appear to cost him an effort; to speak. He is a man of very considerable talent, but has nothing approaching to genius. His abilities are much more the result of an excellent education, and of mature study, than of any prodigality on the part of Nature in the distribution of her mental gifts.  I have no idea that he will ever acquire the reputation of a great statesman. His views are not sufficiently profound or enlarged for that; his celebrity in the House of Commons will chiefly depend on his readiness and dexterity as a debater, in conjunction with the excellence of his elocution, and the gracefulness of his manner when speaking. His style is polished, but has no appearance of the effect of previous preparation. He displays considerable acuteness in replying to an opponent: he is quick in his perception of anything vulnerable in the speech to which he replies, and happy in laying the weak point bare to the gaze of the House. He now and then indulges in sarcasm, which is, in most cases, very felicitous. He is plausible even when most in error. When it suits himself or his party, he can apply himself with the strictest closeness to the real point at issue; when to evade that point is deemed most politic, no man can wander from it more widely.
The ablest speech he ever made in the house, and by far the ablest on the same side of the question, was when opposing, on the 30th March last, Sir George Strickland's motion for the abolition of the negro apprenticeship system on the 1st of August next. Mr Gladstone, I should here observe, is himself an extensive West India planter.
Mr Gladstone's appearance and manners are much in his favour. He is a fine-looking man. He is about the usual height, and of good figure. His countenance is mild and pleasant, and has a highly intellectual expression. His eyes are clear and quick. His eyebrows are dark and rather prominent. There is not a dandy in the house but envies what Truefit would call his "fine head of jet-black hair."[26] It is always carefully parted from the crown downwards to his brow, where it is tastefully shaded. His features are small and regular, and his complexion must be a very unworthy witness, if he does not possess an abundant stock of health.[27]
Mr Gladstone's gesture is varied, but not violent. When he rises, he generally puts both his hands behind his back, and having there suffered them to embrace each other for a short time, he unclasps them, and allows them to drop on either side. They are not permitted to remain long in that locality, before you see them again closed together and hanging down before him. Their reunion is not suffered to last for any length of time. Again a separation takes place, and now the right hand is seen moving up and down before him. Having thus exercised it a little, he thrusts it into the pocket of his coat, and then orders the left hand to follow its example. Having granted them a momentary repose; there, they are again put into gentle motion; and in a few seconds they are seen reposing vis-à-vis on his breast. He moves his face and body from one direction to another, not forgetting to bestow a liberal share of his attention on his own party. He is always listened to with much attention by the House, and appears to be highly respected by men of all parties. He is a man of good business habits: of this he furnished abundant proof when Under-Secretary for the Colonies, during the short-lived administration of Sir Robert Peel.[28]

For a list of material relating to W.E. Gladstone on this website, see "Gladstone on www.gedmartin.net" (https://www.gedmartin.net/martinalia-mainmenu-3/370-gladstone-on-ged-martin-s-website).

ENDNOTES My debt to Dr Andrew Jones in the preparation of this note will be obvious, and is gratefully acknowledged. 

[1] The extract is taken from [James Grant], The British Senate; or, a Second Series of Random Recollections of Lords and Commons (2 vols, E.L. Carey & A. Hart, Philadelphia 1838), ii, 54-6, via https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433075895130&view=1up&seq=9&skin=2021. The Philadelphia edition was probably pirated from the publication by Henry Colburn of London, which the British Library catalogue records as [James Grant], The British Senate in 1838; forming a Second Series of Random Recollections of the Lords and Commons. Carey & Hart presumably omitted the date as they ran their version close to the end of the year. Vol. 2 is available via Google Books: https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=eTQQAAAAYAAJ&pg=GBS.PP8&printsec=frontcover.

[2] D.M. Griffiths, "Grant, James (1802-1879)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, describes Grant as editor of the Elgin Courier until 1833. However, Griffiths also states that Grant joined "the newly launched Standard", which was founded in 1827. (Perhaps to cover his own tracks and dissociate his anonymous authorship from so partisan a publication, Grant referred to "the usual spirit of exaggeration which characterizes that able and honest journal" (The British Senate, i, 201). His Random Recollections of the Houses of Lords and Commons, published in 1836, included descriptions of parliamentary "scenes" that he had witnessed going back to 1830. Grant worked for various newspapers, and in 1850 was appointed editor of the Morning Advertiser, the journal of the Licensed Victuallers' Association, a post that he held for 20 years. In 1858, he became the first London editor to use the services of Reuters News Agency: D. Read, The Power of News... (Oxford, 1992), 21-2. Curiously, there is no indication from the Gladstone Diaries that there was ever any contact between them. In the preface to his Portraits of Public Characters (2 vols, London, 1841), Grant portentously announced that "in order that he might write with greater freedom, fairness, and fidelity, he has had no intercourse, while preparing the work, with any of the subjects of his Sketches". Since Prince Albert was the subject of his first pen portrait, this was perhaps not surprising.

[3] Dr Andrew Jones points out that the 1834 fire in the old Houses of Parliament had the incidental effect of greatly improving the working conditions of parliamentary reporters, since the Commons moved into temporary accommodation which had space for a dedicated press gallery. This may have encouraged political sketch-writing.

[4] The British Senate, i, iii-iv.

[5] The British Senate, i, iii. The phrase "ill-natured remark" was presented in an abstract form, without any indirect article.

[6] The British Senate, ii, 208-12, in which the MP for Maidstone was called "D'Israeli"; R. Blake, Disraeli (London, 1966), 147-8, who noted that Grant was apparently alone in reporting that Peel attempted to encourage his flamboyant follower with loud cheers. Although squeezed in near the very end of the second volume, Disraeli received slightly longer coverage than Gladstone. Disraeli had attempted to deliver his maiden speech on 7 December 1837, about 8 months before the publication of The British Senate.

[7] Despite his apparent leaning towards even-handedness, Grant was capable of entertaining character assassination, especially when the target was Irish. His sketch of Edward Ruthven, the member for Dublin, in Random Recollections of the House of Commons ... (2nd ed., London, 1836), 326-9 is memorable. It was unlucky that Ruthven died at about the time the book appeared.

[8] Grant included a handful of members who had lost their seats in 1837. His description of William Hughes Hughes, member for Oxford City, was notably venomous. Elected as a Liberal at a by-election in 1833, Hughes Hughes had crossed the floor to join the Conservatives, which made him a marked man. The British Senate, i, 196-9.

[9] R. Shannon, Gladstone, i: 1809-1865 (London, 1984 ed., cf. 1st ed. 1982), 63.

[10] J. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (3 vols, London, 1903), i, 144.

[11] Hansard, xli, 7 March 1838, 626-34.

[12] The nature of this transaction is not entirely clear. S.G. Checkland, following Philip Magnus, reported it as a transfer of the actual properties to his sons, but called the process "obscure"; Shannon regarded it as a trust fund financed by sales. Initially, at least, Gladstone himself understood that the ownership of the plantations was to be handed over. S.G. Checkland, The Gladstones … (Cambridge, 1971), 295; P. Magnus, Gladstone… (3rd ed., London, 1963, cf. 1st ed. 1954), 47; Shannon, Gladstone, i: 1809-1865, 98-9; Gladstone Diaries, ii, 629-30 (30 August 1839).

[13] Hansard, xxvii, 31 March 1835, 507-14; xxxiii, 1 June 1836, 1310-1321. In 1835, Gladstone insisted that there was no evidence that the Church of Ireland had any surplus revenues, and argued that its disestablishment would lead to demands for the Repeal of the Union. In 1836, he claimed that "the far larger proportion of all the congregations in the Irish Church are increasing, even – I do not hesitate to use the expression – amidst the fires of persecution", by which he meant Catholic resistance to the payment of tithes. He claimed that "we wish to see the Establishment in Ireland upheld, not for the sake of the Protestants, but of the people at large, that her ministers may be enabled to use the influences of their station, of kindly offices and neighbourhood, of the various occasions which the daily intercourse and habits of social life present; aye, and I do not hesitate to add, of persuasion itself, applied by a zeal tempered with knowledge and discretion, in the propagation of that which is true, and which, being true, is good, as well for those who as yet have it not, as for those who have it." This combined a highly idealised view of Church of Ireland clergy (many of whom were non-resident) with a sectarian and intolerant definition of religious truth.

[14] Hansard, xxxvii, 15 March 1837, 489-502. Gladstone scorned the view that Dissenters could purchase property and then claim that their consciences forbade them to discharge the obligations associated with it. "Was it a scruple of conscience to depart from an obligation which had been voluntarily undertaken, when the property was purchased under that obligation? Did not the scruple of conscience rather command them to fulfil it?"

[15] Chapter xvi of his Random Recollections sketched 10 "Religious Members" active between 1830 and 1835. Gladstone was not included.

[16] Edinburgh Review, lxix, April 1839, 231.

[17] Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, i, 245n.

[18] Edinburgh Review, lxix, April 1839, 231.

[19] J. Brooke and M. Sorensen, eds, The Prime Ministers' Papers: W.E. Gladstone, i: Autobiographica (London, 1971), 41, slightly different version in Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, i, 182.

[20]  H. C. G. Matthew, Gladstone, 1809-1874 (Oxford, 1988), 68-70; Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, i, 278-9.

[21] Guernsey Evening Star (St Peter Port), 19 June 1884. The extract from Grant also appeared in the Cumberland Mercury (Parramatta, New South Wales) on 23 August 1884.

[22] Graphic, 20 June 1887.

[23] A.F. Robbins, The Early Public Life of William Ewart Gladstone ... (London, 1894), 394-6.

[24] Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, i, 194.

[25] The Oxford English Dictionary accepts "improvisate", but describes it as obsolete; in the United States, Webster described it as rare. Like the more durable "improvise", it appears to have evolved from the French "improviser". The earliest traced example (in adjectival form) is the mention of a lost work, Medea: an Improvisated Tragedy, in The Times, 29 March 1817.  Its very occasional appearances may have formed part of a consciously ornate literary style, e.g.: "it was easy to improvisate a paroxysm of royal rapture", from Toby Allspy's serial story (it seems never to have been published as a novel), Royal Marriages: or, A Partner for Life in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, iv, 1837, 453. Such language was condemned by a reviewer of a later novel, Avondale of Avondale, by the unidentified and almost certainly pseudonymous Uttere Barre: "'depicture' and 'improvisate' are not words that fall pleasantly on the ear". (Athenaeum (London), quoted Dundee Evening Courier, 16 June 1877). A rare example of everyday use comes from John Henry Newman, who was "obliged to improvisate a padlock" when the buckle on his carpet bag fractured during the first stage of his journey to Malta in 1832: A. Mozley, ed., Letters and Correspondence of John Henry Newman ... (2 vols. London, 1890), i, 250. "Improvisate" does not appear either in Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) or in Chambers Scots Dictionary (1911). Although I have not traced other examples in a sample search of Grant's books, 7 examples of "improvisate" in the Standard between 1831 and 1843 (plus one instance of "improvisated" in 1845) may suggest that he was an isolated champion of the word's use. In Canada, the Toronto Globe – vigorous in style and Scots in management – used the word occasionally, in such diverse contexts as the settlement of Kansas (9 August 1856) and the works of Shelley (30 March 1857). In Australia, "improvisate" appears as an adjective (an even rarer phenomenon) in the Australasian (Melbourne), 24 January 1874, and as a verb in the Kyneton Observer, a small-town paper in Victoria, on 16 April 1892. I can find no New Zealand examples.

[26] The allusion is to William Francis Truefitt, who established a gentlemen's barber shop in London's St James's in 1805. Now Truefitt & Hill, it is claimed to be the oldest such establishment in the world. The generous bibliophile, Dr Andrew Jones, informs me that the spelling error occurred also in the original London edition.

[27] Gladstone suffered from various illnesses, from scarlet fever in childhood to diarrhoea in later life, but – by contemporary standards – his health was generally good. Grant was perhaps generous in omitting to note the prominence of Gladstone's nose, a feature not neglected by subsequent cartoonists.

[28] Gladstone was Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office from 26 January to 18 April 1835. In appointing him, Peel said "I give you my word that I do not know six offices which are at this moment of greater importance than that to which is attached the representation of the colonial department in the House of Commons, at a period when so many questions of importance are in agitation". Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone, i, 123. However, Gladstone made only one substantial speech from the front bench, introducing amending legislation to the Passenger Acts, which in the event did not proceed, plus three brief contributions, one evading a question about the provision of education in the West Indies and the others interventions deploring an attack on a Colonial Office official and discouraging an opposition member from raising the issue of Canadian grievances. While there were no disasters on Gladstone's House of Commons watch, Grant politely exaggerated in perceiving "abundant proof" of his efficiency.