as a discourse with many elements that particular groups incorporated
into their own language as the moment suited. If it prospered in urban
settings around 1848, it was also highly compatible with the social and
economic aspirations of peasants and farmers, as Roland Sarti, Alan
Knight and other scholars have demonstrated.118 Indeed, while â€˜the
agrarian question was intimately connected with the rise of parliamentary
democracyâ€™,119 the â€˜independent peasantâ€™ was and remained a hero and a
model citizen for liberals across the world of European culture, from
Thomas Jefferson in the USA in the 1790s to Wilhelm Ropke in Â¨
Germany in the 1950s. In the British Isles it had long been championed
by John Bright, and it was later advocated by both the Irish Nationalists
and the Liberal Unionists.120
The politics of humanitarianism
A. J. P. Taylor has coined the expression â€˜politics of emotionalismâ€™ to
describe the Gladstonian approach to the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876. It
consisted in the rhetorical exploitation of media reports to generate strong
public reactions which could then translate into electoral results.121
Emotionalism became even more prominent in British political debates
from 1877â€“8, in response to the equally emotional Conservative politics of
In 1876 reports of indiscriminate, large-scale massacres of civilians by
irregular Ottoman troops â€“ deployed to repress a nationalist rising among
A. Knight, The Mexican Revolution, vol. I: Porfirians, liberals and peasants (1986); R. Sarti,
Long live the strong: a history of rural society in the Apennine Mountains (1985); V. Wahlin,
â€˜The growth of bourgeois and popular movements in Denmark ca. 1830â€“1870â€™,
Scandinavian Journal of History, 5 (1980), 151â€“83.
A. Hussain and K. Tribe, Marxism and the agrarian question, vol. I (1981), 133.
T. MacKnight, Ulster as it is or twenty-eight years experience as an Irish editor, vol. I (1896),
79â€“82; J. Collings, Land Reform. Occupying ownership, peasant proprietary and rural
A. J. P. Taylor, The trouble makers: dissent over foreign policy, 1792â€“1939 (1957; 1967), 75.
The link between the two is explored in H. Cunningham, â€˜Jingoism in 1877â€“78â€™,
Victorian Studies, 14, 4 (1971), 419â€“53, and W. Fest, â€˜Jingoism and xenophobia in the
electioneering strategies of British ruling elites before 1914â€™, in P. Kennedy and
A. Nicholls (eds.), Nationalist and racialist movements in Britain and Germany before
1914 (1981), 171â€“89. For the emotional nature of Jingoism see J. A. Hobsonâ€™s classical
analysis, The psychology of Jingoism (1901).
Home Rule as a â€˜crisis of public conscienceâ€™ 35
Christian peasants â€“ sparked off an outburst of popular indignation in
Britain. The unashamedly pro-Ottoman stance of Disraeli, the then
Prime Minister, contributed towards the swelling of this outburst into
what Shannon has brilliantly described as a â€˜crisis of public con-
scienceâ€™.123 There was widespread feeling that, as one Preston Liberal
put it, â€˜Disraeli [had] deeply wounded the moral sense of the people.â€™124
The latter â€“ chiefly the Nonconformist people â€“ now â€˜asserted that
conscience rather than official and elite convenience should determine
foreign policy, and that it was the responsibility of each voter to demand
that those in charge of the State behaved in an appropriately Christian
spiritâ€™.125 When Gladstone â€˜adoptedâ€™ the movement â€“ in September,
following the publication of his famous pamphlet (which sold some
200,000 copies) â€“ the protest grew into a popular front of moral outrage.
Those involved in the agitation often stressed moral principles and the
categorical imperatives of the Gospel, rather than debating the national
interest in terms of Realpolitik.126
Rebecca Gill has produced an important revision of the widely accep-
ted view that the origin of the agitation was in a spontaneous groundswell
of indignation. In fact, far from being spontaneous, the agitation was
carefully orchestrated by groups of elite liberal opinion makers (including
W. T. Stead and E. A. Freeman), while the emphasis on natural out-
rage, the result of impulse rather than planning, helped to create the
impression that politics was about â€˜realâ€™ humanitarianism.127 The trick
worked. Perhaps, as Gill writes, the Liberal newspaper coverage was
â€˜Manicheanâ€™ and unbalanced,128 but public opinion and especially the
Dissenters were genuinely shocked by the first media exposure of the
systematic violation of what we now term â€˜human rightsâ€™. The Unitarians
called for the government to take â€˜immediate steps . . . to render the
recurrence of similar atrocities impossibleâ€™.129 Understandably less belli-
cose, the Workmenâ€™s Peace Association argued that â€˜justice demands that
the Turkish Government . . . be called upon to indemnify to the full extent
of their losses, those whom they have so cruelly plundered and
R. T. Shannon, Gladstone and the Bulgarian Agitation, 1876 (1963), 42.
An Admirer from Preston, n.d., Glynneâ€“Gladstone papers, 702.
J. P. Parry, â€˜Liberalism and libertyâ€™, in P. Mandler (ed.), Liberty and authority (2006), 97.
For two examples see W. Lake (a Devonshire farm labourer) to W. E. Gladstone,
24 Sep. 1874, in Glynneâ€“Gladstone MSS 702; and Resolution of the Labour
Representation League, 3 Nov. 1876, R(S. R.)61, Minute Book, f.215, in British
Library of Political and Economic Science.
Gill, â€˜Calculating compassion in warâ€™, 66, 78. 128 Ibid., 80.
Resolution passed by the Executive Committee of the British and Foreign Unitarian
Association, 12 Sep. 1876, NA, FO 78/2551.
36 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
outragedâ€™.130 Although the protest was often couched in â€˜orientalistâ€™
language (contrasting â€˜the fatalism of Turkeyâ€™ with â€˜the progressive
[European] races of her Empireâ€™131), it was not inspired by anti-Islamic
bigotry. Even Gladstone, who did not mince his words, stressed that
â€˜Mahometan . . . does not mean the same as Turkâ€™.132 He wrote that
Islam was a religion which had its noble manifestations, embodied
by â€˜the mild Mahometans of India . . . the chivalrous Saladins of Syria
[and] . . . the cultured Moors of Spainâ€™.133 The â€˜Turkish raceâ€™ was, by
contrast â€˜a tremendous incarnation of military powerâ€™ and â€˜represented
force as opposed to lawâ€™.134 As Patrick Joyce has pointed out, drawing the
distinction was important in order â€˜not to deny the brotherhood of man,
existing under many versions of the Godheadâ€™.135
Such a distinction was even more marked in the popular protest â€“ and
must be borne in mind as an important qualification of the oft-repeated
link between the agitation and anti-Semitism or similar religious/ethnic
animosities. Granted that what singled out the Bulgarians, Serbs and
other rebel communities was their Christian culture (rather than their
â€˜raceâ€™), the petitions routinely criticized not the religious but the secular
authorities of the Ottoman Empire â€“ both the â€˜soldiery and mercenariesâ€™
for what they had perpetrated, and the government for what they had
allowed to happen. They supported the independence of the European
nationalities in the Balkans not because the latter were under a â€˜Turkishâ€™
government, but because that government had proved â€˜cruel and oppres-
siveâ€™.136 While demanding immediate British diplomatic action, the pro-
test meetings also started a relief campaign, collecting â€˜money, and
material of clothing, on behalf of the wounded and suffering in the
What is most remarkable about this episode is the scale of the popular
mobilization, which Saab has explained in terms of the â€˜alienation from
participation in the political processâ€™ felt by â€˜the newly enfranchised
working classesâ€™.138 The â€˜working classesâ€™ is of course a very vague
notion. However, if by it she means the organized labour movement,
Council of the Workmenâ€™s Peace Association to the Right Hon. the Earl of Derby, NA,
W. E. Gladstone, The Bulgarian horrors and the question of the East (1876), 61.
Ibid., 12. 134 Ibid., 14, 15.
P. Joyce, Democratic subjects: the self and the social in nineteenth-century England (1994), 209.
Birmingham Womenâ€™s Liberal Association to the Earl of Derby, n.d., NA, FO 78/2931.
Meeting of the inhabitants of the Borough of Rochdale, convened by the Mayor,
Rochdale, 4 Sep. 1876, NA, FO 78/2551.
A. Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon: Gladstone, Bulgaria and the working classes, 1856â€“1878
Home Rule as a â€˜crisis of public conscienceâ€™ 37
then there was no obvious reason why they should have felt â€˜alienatedâ€™ in
1876, given that they had just won (in 1875) a historic settlement of trade
union rights and employment legislation. In any case, the TUC member-
ship was then quite small and could not account for the agitation â€“ whose
effectiveness depended on â€˜the quantity of people who had been mobil-
ized out-of-doorsâ€™.139 Moreover, at the time the trade unions consisted
almost entirely of the mature and established members of the relevant
trades, while the agitation also involved the younger generation â€“ as Saab
has pointed out. Finally, the agitation was not exclusively or even pre-
dominantly working class: the middle classes were well represented and
arguably comprised the bulk of the demonstrators (although we must
bear in mind that boundaries between â€˜artisansâ€™ and the lower middle
class were somewhat blurred).
With its emotionalism and emphasis on moral imperatives, the agita-
tion was more like a religious revival than a social or political campaign.
The idealism associated with it was one reason for the unusually high
involvement not only of the youth of all social classes, but also of women.
The politics of humanitarianism spanned the gap between the gendersâ€™
â€˜separate spheresâ€™ and evoked strong responses among women of differ-
ent social classes. As Saab has pointed out, â€˜[p]ossibly because of the
prominence of Nonconformists, and certainly because of the human-
itarian focus of the movement, women played a large roleâ€™.140 Indeed,
from an early stage some women were assiduous in goading Gladstone
himself into action.141 Womenâ€™s involvement had always been important
in missionary work and anti-slavery campaigns, spheres within which
their supposedly gender-specific responsiveness to human suffering was
first mustered for purposes which had political, as well as religious and
humanitarian, implications.142 In his 1873 â€˜Lectures to Womenâ€™ the
young Cambridge economist Alfred Marshall had insisted on the speci-
fically feminine calling to moralize and ennoble society, claiming that the
Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon, 125. The largest anti-war meeting took place in Hyde
Park at the end of February 1878 and involved some sixty or seventy thousand people
while the largest petition, also against the war, contained 220,000 signatures (ibid., 181,
188â€“9). In 1884 the TUC had about 379,000 members (H. A. Clegg et al., A history of
British trade unions since 1889, vol. I: 1889â€“1910 (1977), 3).
Pottinger Saab, Reluctant icon, 101, 166, 188.
â€˜Has Mr Gladstone so little to say while Bulgarian women and helpless maidens are
foully [illegible] and children are horribly outraged? Has he lost his voice? Is he afraid of
Disraeli?â€™ Letter to Gladstone, from Birmingham, n.d. but before Sep. 1876,
Glynneâ€“Gladstone Papers, 702.
C. Midgley, Women against slavery: the British campaigns, 1780â€“1870 (1992); S. Thorne,
Congregational missions and the making of an imperial culture in 19th-century England
(1999), 97; C. Hall, Civilising subjects: metropole and colony in the English imagination,
1830â€“1867 (2002), 332â€“3.
38 British Democracy and Irish Nationalism
â€˜newâ€™ women whom he sought to educate and motivate had a role to play
in the â€˜public sphereâ€™.143 This strategy finds parallels in Gladstoneâ€™s
politicized humanitarianism and appeal to women during his 1879
Midlothian campaign. It was to women that he addressed one of the
most famous passages in his speeches, when his indictment of Tory
imperialism culminated in an emotional proclamation of rights â€“ rights
which were established by the Almighty and shared by all human beings,
irrespective of national, religious, gender or race barriers:
Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him. Remember that the happiness
of his humble house, remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of
Afghanistan among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty
God as can be your own. Remember that He who has united you together as
human beings in the same flesh and blood, has bound you by the laws of mutual
love; that that mutual love is not limited by the shores of this island, it is not
limited by the boundaries of Christian civilization; that it passes over the whole
surface of the earth, and embraces the meanest along with the greatest in its
As Patrick Joyce has shown, this was a significant development in
Gladstoneâ€™s rhetorical strategy and, more generally, in the definition of
civic identity, the Liberal â€˜selfâ€™, and the public conscience which needed
to be stirred. Remarkably, in such a notion of the Liberal â€˜selfâ€™, women
â€˜represented the essential principle of . . . human natureâ€™, â€˜the being of
woman . . . testified to humanityâ€™.145 Through their special religious
sensitivity they were supposed to be particularly responsive to a sense of
â€˜humanitarian dutyâ€™ which extended, as Gladstone put it, â€˜beyond our
shoreâ€™.146 There is no reason to doubt his sincerity, but it is likely that, by
trying to mobilize women, he also hoped to tap into a further source of
support, through the influence which wives and daughters were supposed
to wield on their male kinsfolk.147 Whatever the case, his appeal to
women was consistent with what Bebbington has described as
E. F. Biagini, â€˜The Anglican ethic and the spirit of citizenship: the political and social
contextâ€™, in T. Raffaelli , E. Biagini and R. McWilliams Tullberg (eds.), Alfred Marshallâ€™s
1873 lectures to women (1995), 24â€“46.
W. E. Gladstone, Midlothian speeches 1879 (1971), 94.
Joyce, Democratic subjects, 206, 210.
Indeed, for Josephine Butler, in many ways the personification of the feminine
Liberal self, â€˜libertyâ€™ was mainly about â€˜the fulfilment of altruistic and Christian dutyâ€™
(H. Rogers, â€˜Women and libertyâ€™, in Mandler (ed.), Liberty & authority, 132).
This assumption is exemplified by an imaginary dialogue in an 1886 electoral pamphlet:
â€˜We must respect the rights oâ€™ property,â€™ the â€˜owd parsonâ€™ tells a farm labourer, trying to
persuade him to vote Unionist. â€˜Yesâ€™, answers Polly, the labourerâ€™s wife, â€˜and so we must
the happiness and lives oâ€™ men and women. Donâ€™t we know, Joe?â€™ Joe Jenkins on the Great
Crisis. A Labourerâ€™s views on Home Rule (1886), 11 (Bishopsgate Institute).
Home Rule as a â€˜crisis of public conscienceâ€™ 39
Gladstoneâ€™s â€˜Christian liberalismâ€™. The latter comprised three primary
components: individual freedom from unnecessary government interfer-
ence, the claims of â€˜communitiesâ€™ (local, national and international) and
those of humanity, which qualified his nationalism and were central to his
notions of international law and individual human rights.148 These three
primary principles informed also the way he was represented at the time
by some of his supporters. As the veteran labour leader George Potter put
it in 1885, â€˜Mr Gladstoneâ€™s long and energetic labours in the cause of
Suffering and Oppressed Nationalities show that his grand gifts have not
been used exclusively for his own countrymen, but for common
This rhetoric was effective because it appealed to impulses deeply
rooted in the British political tradition. In particular, when in his 1876
Blackheath speech he appealed to â€˜individual dutyâ€™ and â€˜the recognized