Lecky dip? Gladstone's reading of Irish history

A note on Gladstone's use of academic writing on Irish history as part of his campaign for Home Rule.

There is some reason to doubt Roy Foster's conclusion that Gladstone's reading of Irish history had a "cataclysmic" effect upon him, and impelled him to take up Home Rule.[1] Gladstone's diaries suggest that he read Goldwin Smith's general survey of Irish history (Irish History and Irish Character) once, at the time of its publication in 1861, although he did refer to "G[oldwin] Smith on Ireland" in June 1885.[2] He read Lecky on only a handful of occasions, none of them close to 1886. The first edition of Lecky's Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland appeared in 1861, and sold a magnificent 30 copies before being pulped by its despairing publisher. A reissue in 1871 "made no considerable impression", although Gladstone did read it in 1872.[3] However, Lecky's eight-volume History of England in the Eighteenth Century contained much about Ireland. In 1878, Gladstone read Lecky on the fall of Walpole in 1742, and in 1882 he tackled volume 3, which covered 1756-1780, the period of the Seven Years War and its aftermath.[4] There is no diary record to indicate that he read Lecky on the all-important period from 1778. Gladstone  returned to Lecky during the Home Rule debates in April 1886, i.e. in search of information, after adopting the policy.[5] Lecky himself noted that Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland received "a sudden and most unexpected popularity" when Gladstone and "other conspicuous members of his Government" cited it in their pro-Home Rule speeches. Lecky later resented the implication that he agreed with their interpretation: "it was surely somewhat extravagant to argue that a writer who condemned the Union in 1800 was necessarily favourable to its repeal eighty years later". In any case, there could be no analogy between the legislature of property owners swept away in 1800 and the "Land League Parliament" that would have been created in 1886.

Wherever Gladstone picked up his outrage against the Act of Union, it does not seem to have been from the academic historians. Possibly he was briefed by his daughter Mary, who had noted in 1880 that she was "writhing under Lecky's Irish chapters in his 18th Century, the most terrible story surely of injustice and misgovernment that ever happened in any civilised corner of the world". If so, this would have been unusual, since his daughter, and indeed women generally, exercised little influence upon Gladstone's political opinions.[6] In October 1885, Gladstone told Derby that he had been "reading old debates" from the period of the Union, "and he was not satisfied with the argument in its favour. He had come to the conclusion that the Union was a mistake, and that no adequate justification had been shown for taking away the national life of Ireland." On 13 January 1886, Derby reported another "interesting conversation which lasted nearly an hour. He spoke the whole time, except a word or two that I put in now and then." Gladstone now denounced the Union (at some length) as a "frightful and absurd mistake".[7] His agitation was perhaps connected with the fact that The Times that morning had published a long anti-Home Rule letter from Lecky. Although Lecky acknowledged that his early historical writing did not take "the wholly unfavourable view of the Irish Parliament in the 18th century, which is common in England", he professed himself unable to understand why his revisionism pointed to Home Rule in 1886. "Whether it was a wise thing to abolish such a body may be a matter of controversy. It is certain that it can never be restored."[8]

Gladstone's subsequent appeals to Lecky's writings may have been in reaction to the historian's hostility to his policies. He does not seem to have quoted Lecky during the Home Rule debates of 1886. In a thoughtful discussion of Gladstone's use of Irish history, James Loughlin focused on his 1887 essay, "Lessons of Irish History in the Eighteenth Century", in which Gladstone certainly did cite Lecky. Loughlin argued that Gladstone back-projected his nineteenth-century concept of nationality, derived from the Italians and the Bulgarians, on to the Ireland of Grattan's Parliament. Most historians would accept that there was an element of nationalism in eighteenth-century Ireland, but would regard its most obvious manifestations as attempts by a colonial minority to arrogate to themselves an exclusive sense of Irish identity. However, Gladstone coupled this relatively reasonable interpretation with the much more debatable assumption that the Parliament on College Green was on track towards remedying its own defects and about to solve the problems of the island as a whole. He emphasised its resistance to the fall of the most innovative of the British viceroys, Lord Fitzwilliam, in 1795: "this diminutive and tainted Irish Parliament, with a chivalry rare even in the noblest histories, made what can hardly be called less than a bold attempt to arrest the policy of retrogression adopted by the Government in London".[9]

The approach represented a characteristic Gladstonian strategy, the adoption of an elevated perspective based on a discernment of the spirit of an era that only he could divine. It enabled him to soar above the objection posed by Lord Brabourne that it was "unjust to condemn the statesmen of the earlier period without a full consideration of the circumstances in which they were placed". As Gladstone's disillusioned friend, Sir Francis Doyle, put it: "we were … engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain the existence of England. Now, if you have to prevent a terrible fire from spreading, you must extinguish it as best you can, and all scruples must be put aside. Mr Pitt was neither a corrupt nor a profligate minister, and if he resorted to questionable means in bringing about the Union, it was because he had no choice open to him."[10]  By depicting the Union as the violent interruption of a steady march towards gradual amelioration within Ireland itself, Gladstone could use the longer perspective to turn Lecky the historian against Lecky the polemicist. He could also sidestep the argument that Pitt's policy was the understandable product of a fight for national survival against France. "I have long suspected the Union of 1800," he wrote in September 1885, as his ideas about Home Rule began to take shape. "There was a case for doing something:  but this was like Pitt's Revolutionary war, a gigantic though excusable mistake."[11] He would soon abandon any attempt at empathy.

The writings of Goldwin Smith gave little support to Gladstone's condemnation of the way the Union was carried. True, he had accepted in 1861 that there could be "no doubt that the Union was carried through the Irish Parliament partly by corrupt means", but Smith's usually rigid sense of outrage was not much troubled by the charge. "The consent of the Irish Parliament was necessary in order to carry a measure of vital importance to both nations; and as the Irish Parliament were venal, it was necessary to purchase their consent." By the standards of the time, it hardly "reckoned among the most unpardonable instances of corruption", especially since the Ireland of Grattan's Parliament, although "nominally independent, was, in fact, a dependency governed by corruption and intrigue". Smith believed that the Irish people generally acquiesced in the Union at the time and, six decades later, it could be said that the end justified the means. "The benefits of the measure to the present generation are not in any degree tainted by the means employed in removing an obstruction from its path sixty years ago."[12] In 1904, he scaled down the condemnation still further: "there was no serious bribery of a pecuniary kind. The indemnities for owners of pocket boroughs were paid ... alike to those who had voted for the Union and to those who had voted against it". The "scramble" for honours that accompanied the Union "was probably inevitable in those days".[13]

It is also worth taking account of Gladstone's very long career. For Goldwin Smith in 1861, six decades constituted a longue durée, a period of time that conferred legitimacy upon the Union, however murky its origins. But when Gladstone first became aware of political issues, the eighteenth century was still relatively recent. He had sat in Peel's cabinet alongside the Duke of Wellington, who had been a member of the old Irish Parliament. His first year at Oxford had been dominated by the fall-out from the County Clare election. Even the college staff at Christ Church were "in a great fright" over Catholic Emancipation, with Gladstone's own bedmaker asking "whether it would not be a very good thing if we were to give them [the Irish] a king and a parliament of their own, and so to have no more to do with them".[14] His ministerial career began at the time of O'Connell's Repeal campaign, a further reminder that the dictated settlement of 1800 had not closed the door on Irish yearnings for separate status. Although he set foot in the country only twice – the first time in his late sixties and the second as a stopover during a coastal cruise – Gladstone surely absorbed a great deal of Irish history, or at least of its mythology, during the crisis of his early career over Maynooth in 1844-5, and through his campaigns to settle Church and land issues from the eighteen-sixties. It is no surprise that, like many another amateur historical researcher, he turned to the scholarly authorities to find confirmation of beliefs already formed. And if Gladstone did little to dispel English ignorance of Ireland's past, at least his appeals to that country's leading historian did something to boost Lecky's sales.

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).


 [1] R. F. Foster, "History and the Irish Question", Transactions of the Royal Historical Society , xxxiii (1983), 169-192, esp. 181.

[2] Gladstone Diaries, vi, 69; xi, 365.

[3] Lecky's account of the fate of his book, W.E.H. Lecky, Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland  (2 vols, London, 1912 ed.) i, vi-xiii; Gladstone Diaries, viii, 107.

[4] Gladstone Diaries, ix, 309; x, 305.

[5] Gladstone Diaries, xi, 540.

[6] L. Masterman, ed., Mary  Gladstone (Mrs Drew) ... (London, 1930), 212-13.

[7] J. Vincent, ed., The Diaries of Edward Henry Stanley, 15th Earl of Derby … between 1878 and 1893 (Oxford, 2003),  815 (1 October 1885); 826 (13 January 1886).

[8]  The Times, 13 January 1886. Lecky's letter to The Times was referred to by Chamberlain in the Commons debate of 9 April 1886; Redmond quoted Lecky's condemnation of the Union on 13 May. Hansard, ccciv, 1228; cccv, 962.

[9]  W.E. Gladstone, "Lessons of Irish History in the Eighteenth Century" in Gladstone, Special Aspects of the Irish Question ... (London, 1892), 109-34, esp. 131; J .Loughlin, Gladstone, Home Rule and the Ulster Question, 1882-93 (Dublin, 1986), 172-96. Gladstone's confidence in the lost potential of Grattan's Parliament echoed Parnell's lecture on Irish history at Cork in 1885, in which he had asserted that the legislature had the capacity to reform itself.

[10]  Brabourne's 1887 article in Blackwood's Magazine is quoted by Loughlin, Gladstone, Home Rule and the Ulster Question, 1882-93, 194;  F.H. Doyle, Reminiscences and Opinions (New York, 1887), 407.

[11] Gladstone Diaries, xi, 403 (19 September 1885).

[12] Goldwin Smith, Irish History and Irish Character (London, 1861), pp. 162, 177-8.

[13] Goldwin Smith, My Memory of Gladstone (London, 1904), 73.

[14] J. Morley, The Life of William Ewart Gladstone (3 vols, London, 1903), i, 53-4.