What Explains Gladstone's Development from Tory to Peelite to Liberal?

Essay by hollygolightly March 2004

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Many have seen Gladstone's political career as one dominated by contradictions. Gladstone started out as a high Anglican Tory and a strong opponent of reform. During the Tory party split, Gladstone followed Peel to become a Peelite and gradually he became swayed to the liberal end of politics, ending his career as one of the most popular icons of Victorian Liberalism who's great reforming ministry of 1868-74 seemed to oppose everything he had initially stood for.

Gladstone came from a wealthy, religiously strict family who had close links to the Liberal Tories Huskisson and Canning. Many historians see Gladstone's main influences in his early political decisions coming from the Church and his father. Gladstone had wanted to enter Holy Orders, but as Winstanley points out, his father was not enthusiastic about this decision and so Gladstone decided that he could fulfil his religious duties better if he was to serve God in public life, following his father's wishes and turning to politics.

According to Biagini, it was his father who encouraged Gladstone to stand as a Tory candidate, although many of his beliefs at the time matched the Tory's policies. Through the influence of his home background, he did not support free trade, opposed almost as reform which he thought would turn into revolution, and he wanted to uphold the status quo of the church, any reform could possibly have disrupted. This influence was certainly seen when he made his maiden speech and spoke in defence of West Indian slavery, which was something his father was a believer in.

Although Morley neglects this, many are keen to point to Gladstone's religious beliefs as an explanation to his public life. Gladstone himself said that Christianity for him was the 'pole star of my existence'; he had even written a book which...