Historians have traditionally emphasized Gladstone's support for liberalnationalist movements, especially in Europe. His great biographer, John Morley, saw him as being captivated by the new doctrine of “nationality” after one of his frequent visits to Italy. Philip Magnus described him as an enthusiastic champion of freedom; and Paul Knaplund made an extraordinary fuss over his gospel of “freedom and voluntaryism.” Even G. E. Buckle, who must be considered a hostile witness, conceded that Gladstone was much more sympathetic to national movements than his famous rival, Disraeli. Gladstone is generally depicted in Victorian historiography as the outstanding champion of liberal and national ideas, especially in Italy, Ireland, Greece, and the Danubian principalities. There survives a vivid picture of the Grand Old Man fighting to the end to save the hapless Armenians from the butchery of the Turks. This image of an unusually devout Christian striving against overwhelming odds to promote the cause of liberty, justice, and humanity is still an integral part of the Victorian mythology.
Yet, as long ago as 1961, Derek Beales did his best to show that Gladstone's approach to the Italian question was, at best, ambivalent. Even before that, S. Gopal had suggested that Gladstone's contribution to Italian unification was inferior to that of Palmerston, Russell or Sir James Hudson. Two Polish sympathizers have drawn attention to Gladstone's failure to promote the Polish cause. A. J. P. Taylor, for all his wit and wisdom, failed to put more than a minor dent in Gladstone's reputation when, in 1957, he dissected that statesman's foreign policy only to find incompatible elements of Cobdenism and Palmerstonianism. Modern scholars, like C. J. Lowe and D. M. Schreuder, have also argued that Gladstone's attitude towards nationalism was suspiciously flexible. But, in curious defiance of all this scholarship, the Gladstonian myth persists. It is the purpose of this article to put this myth to rest by demonstrating that Gladstone was cautiously conservative in his attitude toward nationalist movements and that he put much more store on order and stability than on national liberty.