The most well-known paradox of liberal and conservative temperaments is that humanitarians tend to be moved by mankind in the abstract but callous or even cruel to individual men, while many reactionaries and misanthropes are noted for their private generosity.

Other such paradoxes include the tendency of avowed multiculturalists to be incurious about actual foreign cultures, choosing instead to assume that other people can’t be that different from themselves, whereas tribalists respect foreign cultures enough to study them properly and are apt to do things like become fluent in Sanskrit (Enoch Powell is the obvious example). Earnest liberals who treat politics as a grand and serious business can be small and petty in their actual dealings, while politicians inclined to treat their calling frivolously are surprisingly capable of professional magnanimity and self-sacrifice.

That last paradox is the one I am concerned with today, because I am concerned with Disraeli and Gladstone. (I am reading John Morley’s Life  of the latter.) I have to be careful in presenting the following example, because it involves reading between the lines and, if I am not careful, I will put the most honorable construction on Disraeli’s letter and read unnecessary sarcasm into Gladstone’s. And, needless to say, I am not an expert in Victorian parliamentary politics, so I would be grateful for guidance from the better-informed.

I won’t reprint Disraeli’s letter, which can be found here , but the main point of it is that Gladstone’s party affiliation was in a state of flux between his conservative and liberal periods, and Disraeli was trying to convince him to rejoin the conservatives so they could form a government. It was generally believed that Gladstone’s personal dislike of Disraeli was the main obstacle to his joining such a regime, which he would otherwise have been inclined to do. (This is the pettiness I mentioned.) Disraeli explains—with what honesty I could not say—that he bears Gladstone no ill will and is eager for reconciliation.

Gladstone’s response, in full:

The letter you have been so kind as to address to me will enable me, I trust, to remove from your mind some impressions with which you will not be sorry to part.

You have given me a narrative of your conduct since 1850 with reference to your position as leader of your party. But I have never thought your retention of that office matter of reproach to you, and on Saturday last I acknowledge to Mr. Walpole the handsomeness of your conduct in offering to resign it to Sir James Graham.

You consider that the relations between yourself and me have proved the main difficulty in the way of certain political arrangements. Will you allow me to assure you that I have never in my life taken a decision which turned upon those relations?

You assure me that I have ever been mistaken in failing to place you among my friends or admirers. Again I pray you to let me say that I have never known you penurious in admiration towards any one who had the slightest claim to it, and that at no period of my life, not even during the limited one when we were in sharp political conflict, have iIeither felt any enmity towards you, or believed that you felt any towards me.

At the present moment I am awaiting counsel which at Lord Derby’s wish I have sought. But the difficulties which he wishes me to find means of overcoming, are broader than you may have supposed. Were I at this time to join any government I could not do it in virtue of party connections. I must consider then what are the conditions which make harmonious and effective co-operation in cabinet possible—how largely old habits enter into them—what connections can be formed with public approval—and what change would be requisite in the constitution of the present government, in order to make any change worth a trial.

I state these points fearlessly and without reserve, for you have yourself well reminded me that there is a Power beyond us that disposes of what we are and do, and I find the limits of choice in public life to be very narrow. I remain, etc.
In the first bolded remark, is Gladstone calling Disraeli an insignificance beneath his consideration? In the second, is he calling him a flatterer? I am not finished collecting anecdotes of Gladstone being a bastard, and I am wondering if this letter can be added to the list. It would be nice to have, even though I have an abundance already. Spreading gossip—as late as 1890—that Lord Salisbury was not his father’s biological son? To think that people still admire him.

A GLADSTONE BONUS:  I have always treasured this footnote from Robert Blake’s The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill :
Gladstone, though agreeing with Maynooth Bill, resigned [from Peel’s cabinet in 1845] because its principle was inconsistent with the doctrine of a book which he had written some years earlier but in which he now no longer believed. His behavior was widely regarded as incomprehensible.

Articles by Helen Rittelmeyer


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