William Ewart Gladstone was a British politician and true classical liberal. He was an ardent supporter of free markets, fiscal discipline, low taxes, and peaceful relations between nations.
His political career spanned many decades, starting in Parliament, serving as Chancellor of the Exchequer (roughly equivalent to Secretary of the Treasury) twice for a total of roughly ten years, and serving as Prime Minister four times for a total of roughly thirteen years. (Having a career public servant serve as Secretary of the Treasury is certainly not the pattern the United States has followed for the last few decades, as these are in general picked from the financial world, rather than the public sector.)
One of his early aims as Prime Minister was to abolish the income tax. An early strategy to this end was to expand the income tax to lower income brackets, thinking that this would provoke such a popular uproar that the income tax would no doubt be abolished. Unfortunately, in this naive perspective he was disappointed, as though it was an unpopular move, it never lead to a complete abolishment of the income tax. In fact, during times of crisis or military conflict, he temporarily raised the income tax in the name of fiscal discipline and balancing the budget. One of his great statements, uttered during the Crimean conflict in the 1850s is this: “The expenses of a war are the moral check which it has pleased the Almighty to impose on the ambition and the lust of conquest that are inherent in so many nations.” Note, for one, the direct and shameless reference to God. Also note the emphasis on fiscal discipline; at approximately the same time, the United States of America inflated and borrowed to finance the Civil War.
He was a powerful orator, an impressive communicator, even when discussing tame subjects such as the budget. His career had many small accomplishments such as outlawing a centuries-long practice of flogging citizens during times of peace, as well as large and significant moves which aimed at improving relations between the British Empire and other countries such as Ireland and France.
Late in life, while serving as Prime Minister, he stood in opposition to the members of the Cabinet, all of whom favored an increase in Navy expenses. He believed that this ran counter to his entire career, and more importantly, the principles of freedom. In January 1894 Gladstone wrote that he would not “break to pieces the continuous action of my political life, nor trample on the tradition received from every colleague who has ever been my teacher” by supporting naval rearmament.
Like John Lilburne and many others, William Ewart Gladstone is a titanic historical liberal figure that modern-day liberals (and conservatives and libertarians and those of all stripes) would do well to look to.