MR. GLADSTONE'S POLITICAL HUMILITY.
11/111. GLADSTONE is often reproached by the Standard and IVA_ that sort of journal, with being insufferably proud and arrogant. Our own view is, that his greatest political weakness is due to a very genuine humility, which he expresses very simply, very earnestly, and very frequently, and of which his recantation published on Saturday (though written a year and a half ago) of his misreading of the American Civil War in 1862, furnishes us with a good example. In that letter he apologizes for his mistake in supposing in August, 1862, that. Mr. Jefferson Davis had welded the Slave States into a nation, on grounds which seem to us to show that his political interpretation of the whole war and the cause of war had been utterly at fault. He says that at that time he had not only miscalculated the relative strength of the two combatants, but misunderstood the true issue for which they were fighting. The North had not yet identified itself with the cause of abolition, and he mistakenly believed the cause of the Union to be almost necessarily the cause also of Slavery, because he sup= posed that the whole power of the Union was mortgaged to sustaining slavery in the South ; while he held that as soon as the Union should be fairly divided, the slaves would prove themselves too strong for the whites of the Southern States taken alone, since the latter would have been no longer backed by an executive of the United States bound to enforce a fugitive Slave law. Surely such an. interpretation of the facts of the case would not have bees, possible to a man of Mr. Gladstone's political bias and genius,. but for a very strong previous prepossession for the "peculiar institution" of the South,—due, it may be, partly to the local West India traditions of Liverpool,—due, we imagine, in no small degree to that ecclesiastical spirit of patience with, and even tenderness towards, institutions enforcing pupillage on a childish race, which it has always been in harmony with the genius of an authoritative Church to regard complacently, if not to inculcate. For Mr. Gladstone could not have been ignorant that it was to the determination of the Republican party in 1859 to limit slavery rigidly to its then limits, and refuse it that elbow-room for expansion which was its first condition of existence, that the revolt of the South was due, and that the first article in the creed of the revolted States was the assertion of the right to extend, consolidate, and buttress slavery by every supplementary device political genius could invent, some of the most notable of the leaders even leaning to the theory that white labourers should also become the property of the capitalists who maintained them. That in spite of this propaganda of servitude on the one side, and the stern declaration of Mr. Lincoln and his friends that slavery should be hemmed-in rigidly within its then existing limits, and compelled to waste itself out on the soils which it had impoverished, Mr. Gladstone should have been able to believe that the victory of the South would kill slavery sooner than the victory of the North, is, we do not hesitate to say, explicable only on the ground of a strong antecedent prepossession in favour of a political pupillage for a childish race. That his keen humanity would have been as horrified by a personal visit to the Slave States as it was by a personal visit to the prisons of Naples, we do not doubt for a single moment. But in the meantime, while it was far from his field of vision, and he saw what it was only in theory, he had, we suspect, a half-feeling that the Negro was in the position " into which it had pleased God to call him,"—that humility, of the sort which St. Paul enjoined on Onesimus in sending him back to his master Philemon, could still be exercised by the negroes with great advantage to themselves,—that they might gain more by non-resistance and patient endurance of their tribulations, than they could gain by any violent revolution; in a word, that theirs were agonies and miseries that could be better cured by humble submission, than by organized defiance or authoritative interference from outside. Mr. Gladstone hated the Civil War as he always hates war; referred it, in a great measure truly, to the imperial feeling of the North rather than to its outraged morality ; palliated the fanaticism of the South, on the ground that technically at least it was the invaded and not the invader, and perhaps also on the ground that, after all, its social feeling for the negro was less cold, unfriendly, and contemptuous than the feeling of the North. It was, we may fairly admit, the humbler view of the crisis to assume that the North was attacking Slavery only from proud motives of imperial ambition, and the South defending a social institution which, however evil in more advanced states of society, has a " providential " aspect in the wider and undeveloped stages of many a race. If Mr. Gladstone could have been born a slave, we can quite imagine his opposing bitterly, and even contentiously, any violent attempt among his brethren to overturn the existing order in order to achieve their liberty. The Church theory he adopts is utterly opposed to violent revolt ; he himself, though he has many confident opinions, has no opinion more confident than that he is very liable to error, and bound to be content in his own station of life,— which happens fortunately to be a very high one ; especially is he in the habit of thinking that if an evil can only be uprooted by war, there is a very strong ground to a Christian mind for the presumption that the time for its downfall is not fully come. It was in great measure, we do not doubt, Mr. Gladstone's sympathy with the political attitude of patience and humility towards powers that be, which induced him to look unfavourably at first on the war for the Union, though it had the extirpation of slavery for its secondary aim. Mr. Bright is as much a peace man in general as Mr. Gladstone ; but humility is not his forte, and political humility is utterly foreign to him. Consequently, he felt no inclination at all to doubt that the war for the Union and against slavery was not an arrogant interference with Providential arrangements, but rather a holy crusade.
Mr. Gladstone's political, or perhaps we should say, in principle at least, his ecclesiastical humility, misled him as to the great issue in the United States, no doubt warping his sympathies and thereby his judgment. But on the question of the interest which England had in the matter,—on which poor Mr. Roebuck went politically mad from patriotic bumptiousness,—the same political humility led him into a wise, cautious, and accurate judgment. "As far as regards the special or separate interest of England in the matter, I, differing from many others, had always contended that it was best for our interest that the Union should be kept entire ;" and Mr. Gladstone held the same view, and eloquently expressed it, in 1866, with regard to the union of the various fragments of Germany into one coherent whole. We have no doubt that here what we have ventured to call his political humility,—his real moral distrust of any political conceit or domineering,—his sincere conviction that a nation like an individual may be all the better for feeling its own comparative insignificance, and may be seriously injured by any overweening sense of its importance,—tended to keep his judgment straight, just as in the former case it tended to distort it. He distrusted the ambitious moral enterprise of the Abolitionist party, he distrusted the high imperial instinct of the Northern Unionism, partly, we think, from the feeling that both of them were fighting audaciously for the sudden destruction of a,—temporary, no doubt, but still for the moment necessary,—Providential arrangement in which it would have been better moral taste to acquiesce. He distrusted Mr. Roebuck's desire to see the Union broken up that England might not be overridden by it, for the same reason. Might it not be for our good to live in the presence of a still greater Anglo-Saxon power than ourselves? Would it not, at any rate, involve far less political temptation than the opportunity of intriguing for the support of one section of America against the other ? That is how we interpret the undercurrent of moral feeling in Mr. Gladstone's mind. It is, if we are right, in curious contrast to the mental condition of his great antagonist, Mr. Disraeli, on the same question. We all know how cautious Mr. Disraeli was in indicating any bias on the American Civil War in favour of either party,—much more cautious than Mr. Gladstone. But once he did expound what he understood as the political philosophy of the war. He said it was inevitable that that should some day take place on the American Continent which had long ago taken place on the European, the organization of the different local habits, customs, and feelings into a variety of independent States, with different and, inmany respects, inconsistent views, which would engender there all that competitive political life, of the record of which European history really consists. He saw in the Civil War only the incipient stage of the political decomposition which was to end in establishing this permanent competition of various national characters and tendencies within the limits of the new world. That was a very clever and ambitious philosophical apercu, though, as it turned out, a mistaken reading of the facts and tendencies of the case, and it indicates an error as characteristic of Mr. Disraeli as was Mr. Gladstone's of Mr. Gladstone. Mr. Disraeli ignored altogether the moral causes of the war, while Mr. Gladstone probably misinterpreted them into painful ordinations of Providence. Mr. Disraeli classed those moral causes simply as specimens of heterogeneous tendencies which could not but break out in some place or other. He had a 'view' ready to account for the facts,—a prophetic view which deferred as much to the signs of the future,—as he conceived them,—as Mr. Gladstone's did to the 'providential' lessons of the past. The Conservative minister had an unconquerable belief in vast coming changes ; the Liberal minister had a devout reverence for the established order as it was : —such is the irony of political life !
If Mr. Gladstone's political humility,—or rather, perhaps, the ecclesiastical humility from which it springs,—sometimes misleads him in making him distrust heartily all violent interference with what he conceives to be the natural course of events, it is in one point of view a pure gain to political life,— we mean in the new simplicity, the new realism of which it sets the example to statesmen. There has been hitherto too much of a silly mannerism of omniscience about statesmen, and a dread of saying naturally, well, I knew no more of this than anybody else, and as it turned out, I knew less than some, for I was certainly wrong,' which Mr. Gladstone's naturalness of manner should tend to do away with. There is a notion in the world that great statesmen's opinions on politics are something more than opinions, whether they be formed on subjects with which they are really familiar or not. Mr. Gladstone's manner of saying, both with regard to the Irish Church, and the American War, and many other matters, really the public gives me credit for being much wiser than I am, I made a great though a very natural mistake, which I am quite willing to admit,' should do a good deal to make the public feel its own responsibility, and that even their greatest statesmen can never be more than a trifle in advance of themselves. If the public at large wholly misinterpret and misconceive great events, depend upon it that most even of the wisest of our statesmen must do so too. This is a very wholesome lesson for all of us, and one which statesmen have usually been too pompous to teach us. They too often retract opinions with great rhetorical flourishes intended to disguise the fact that they have made great blunders, and are sorry for it. Mr. Gladstone does not do so. He says quite naturally what he feels,—that he possesses no superhuman insight into political affairs, that his admirers are pleased to give him credit for more than he has, that he recognizes some very great errors that he has made ; and directly he recognizes is willing to admit them. This alone is a great gain for the truth of politics ; and humility of this sort, if still somewhat of an ecclesiastical virtue, is one of which we want a great deal more in political life.