Just seven miles north of Escanaba in Michigan's Upper Peninsula sits a little town with a very big name. More than a hundred years after the death of British Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone, the town's namesake, it's unlikely that many of Gladstone, Michigan's 5,000 residents could tell you much about the man. But he is widely considered to be one of the greatest statesmen of the 19th century.
The town of Gladstone was originally christened "Minnewasca," the Sioux Indian word for "white water," in 1887. But local businessman William D. Washburn pushed to rename the town after Gladstone because a nearby railroad was partially funded by British capital. Area residents wanted to show their appreciation for the resulting economic development.
Just what kind of man was William Ewart Gladstone? We are told that he read 20,000 books in his lifetime and could speak Greek, Latin, Italian, and French as well as English. Biographer Philip Magnus wrote that "at the time of his death [in 1898] he was . . . the most venerated and influential statesman in the world." Another biographer, who currently sits in Britain's House of Lords, Roy Jenkins, declares that Gladstone "stamped the Victorian age even more than did [Queen] Victoria herself, and represented it almost as much."
No individual in history had a longer or more distinguished career in the British government. Gladstone served 62 years in the House of Commons, was in charge of the nation's finances as Chancellor of the Exchequer for 14 budgets in four administrations, and was also leader of a major political party for almost 40 years. Four times he was elected prime minister, serving in this capacity for a total of 12 years. He was 84 when he retired as prime minister in 1894, the oldest prime minister in British history. Hailed affectionately as the "Grand Old Man" for his influence and stature, Gladstone also was known as "England's Great Commoner" because he had not a drop of royal blood and refused to accept any titles of nobility. When he died, a quarter of a million citizens attended his funeral.
What made this son of Scottish parents both great and memorable, however, was not simply a long career in government. Indeed, as a devoutly religious man he always put service to God ahead of service to country and felt that what he did as a politician should be unequivocally faithful to both. What made Gladstone great and memorable was what he actually accomplished while he served in government. Biographer Magnus says Gladstone "achieved unparalleled success in his policy of setting the individual free from a multitude of obsolete restrictions."
Today, when a citizen is elected with a mandate to cut the government down to size, but ends up moderating his positions while in power, conventional wisdom credits him with having "grown in office." Gladstone "grew" but in precisely the opposite direction. When he entered Parliament at age 22 in 1832, Gladstone was a protectionist on trade, a defender of the state-subsidized Church of England, an opponent of reform and a protector of the status quo. By 1850, he had become an ardent advocate of free trade and by 1890 had reduced Britain's tariffs from 1,200 to just 12.
Gladstone slashed government spending, taxes, and regulations. He ended state subsidies for the Church of England in Ireland. He pushed through reforms that allowed Jews and Catholics to serve in Parliament and that extended the vote to millions of taxpaying workers who had previously been denied the franchise. He extolled the virtues of self-help and private charity. And he lived what he preached. Even as prime minister, Gladstone was so moved by the degraded plight of London prostitutes that he would search the streets of London to talk them out of their destructive occupation.
Gladstone even urged the British people to look to the ideas of America's Founding Fathers for inspiration. "I was brought up to distrust and dislike liberty; I learned to believe in it," he told a friend in 1891.
Today, a portrait of Gladstone hangs in the town's city hall. The residents there should be proud that their town pays tribute to the Grand Old Man.
(Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliation are cited.)