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Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli

The English statesman Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), supported imperialism while opposing free trade. The leader of the Conservative party, he served as prime minister in 1868 and from 1874 to 1880.

Benjamin Disraeli was born on Dec. 21, 1804, in London, the second child and first son of Isaac D'Israeli, a Sephardic Jew whose father, Benjamin, had come from Cento near Ferrara, Italy. (The family had originally gone to Italy from the Levant.) Disraeli's mother, whom he appears to have disliked, was a Basevi, from a Jewish family that fled Spain after 1492, settling first in Italy and at the end of the 17th century in England. Disraeli's maternal grandfather was president of the Jewish Board of Deputies in London.

Isaac D'Israeli, when elected warden of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, resigned from the congregation rather than pay the fee of £40 entailed upon refusal of office. He had his four children baptized in the Church of England in 1817. Benjamin went first to a Nonconformist, later to a Unitarian school. At 18 he left school and studied for a year at home in his father's excellent library of 25,000 books. His father was a literary man who had published The Curiosities of Literature (1791), a collection of anecdotes and character sketches about writers, with notes and commentary in excellent English. Though the book was published anonymously, its authorship soon became known, and Isaac achieved fame.

In November 1821 Benjamin was articled for 400 guineas by his father for 2 years to a firm of solicitors. He later held this against his father, who, he declared, had "never understood him, neither in early life, when he failed to see his utter unfitness to be a solicitor, nor in latter days when he had got into Parliament." However, Benjamin did not consider he had wasted his time, since working in the solicitor's office "gave me great facility with my pen and no inconsiderable knowledge of human nature."

In 1824, encouraged by John Murray, Disraeli wrote his first novel, the crude and jejune political satire Aylmer Papillon. The same year he started reading for the bar. He also speculated wildly on the stock exchange and lost heavily. He next became involved in a project sponsored by John Murray to publish a daily paper. Its failure was complete. His next novel, Vivian Grey, published anonymously, gave great offense to Murray, who was pilloried in it. Fifty years later this novel was still quoted against Disraeli; although he declared that it described his "active and real ambition," it was full of blunders that clearly showed he did not move in the social circles to which he pretended. It was attacked by the powerful Blackwood's Magazine, and in a later novel, Contarini Fleming (1832), Disraeli wrote, "I was ridiculous. It was time to die." But instead of dying, he had a nervous breakdown and traveled for 3 years (1828-1831).

Political Career

On his return to England in 1832, Disraeli twice contested and lost High Wycombe in parliamentary elections. He also continued writing: The Young Duke (1831), The Present Crisis Examined (1831), and What Is He? (1833). He sent a copy of his Vindication of the British Constitution (1835) to Sir Robert Peel and received an acknowledgment. In 1835 he again ran unsuccessfully for Parliament; that year, however, he told Lord Melbourne that his ambition was to be prime minister. Disraeli at this time was a thin, dark-complexioned young man with long black ringlets; he dressed extravagantly, in black velvet suits with ruffles and black silk stockings with red clocks. His eccentric speeches were received with shouts of derision.

After failing in five elections in 5 years, Disraeli was elected to Parliament in 1837 for Maidstone in Kent, sharing a double seat with Wyndham Lewis. His maiden speech occasioned much laughter in Parliament, but he sat down shouting, "The time will come when you will hear me." In 1837 he published the novels Venetia and Henrietta Temple. In 1839 he spoke on the Chartist petition and declared "the rights of labour" to be "as sacred as the rights of property." The same year he married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, 12 years his senior, his parliamentary colleague's widow.

He often declared jokingly that he had married for money; however, when his wife said he would do it again for love, he agreed. She made him an admirable wife. (Once, when he was on his way to make an important speech and had shut the carriage door on her hand, she never uttered a word until he got out, then she fainted.)

Disraeli was always financially incompetent. In 1840 he bought the estate of Hughenden; a year later he was £40,000 in debt, although his father had paid his debts on three occasions. In 1841 he won Shrewsbury and in 1842 wrote his wife that he found himself "without effort the leader of a party chiefly of youth." This party was called Young England and consisted basically of Disraeli and three of his friends, who openly revolted against Peel.

In 1842 more than 70 Tories voted with Disraeli against Peel, and the government was defeated by 73 votes. Peel resigned 4 days later, and Queen Victoria sent for Lord John Russell. In bringing down Peel, Disraeli nearly wrecked his party and his own career. He was in power for only 6 years out of a parliamentary life of more than 40 and spent longer in opposition than any other great British statesman.

In Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1845), his two great political and social novels, Disraeli attacked Peel. In Tancred (1845), his last novel for 25 years, Disraeli wrote that the Anglican Church was one of the "few great things left in England." These three novels "have a gaiety, a sparkle, a cheerful vivacity" which carry the reader over their "improbabilities and occasional absurdities."

In 1848 Disraeli became leader of the Tories (Conservatives) in the House of Commons. In 1851, on Lord John Russell's resignation, the Queen sent for Lord Derby, who dissolved Parliament and gained 30 seats. In February 1851 Derby offered Disraeli the chancellorship of the Exchequer. Disraeli demurred, stating that the Exchequer was a "branch of which I had not knowledge"; Derby replied, "They give you the figures." Disraeli then accepted. The Cabinet was known as the "Who? Who?" from the deaf old Duke of Wellington's repeated questions to Lord Derby. Disraeli lowered the tax on tea in his 1852 budget and changed the income tax. In December 1852 the government was beaten, and Derby and his Cabinet resigned.

Disraeli commented that the Crimean War (1854-1856) was "a just but unnecessary war." During the outcry over the Indian mutiny (1857) he protested "against meeting atrocities by atrocities" and said, "You can only act upon the opinion of Eastern nations through their imaginations." In February 1858 he voted against the second reading of the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, when Lord Palmerston was defeated and resigned. Disraeli became chancellor of the Exchequer once more, and on March 26 brought in his India Bill, which "laid down the principles on which the great subcontinent was to be governed for 60 years." The following year his Reform Bill, redolent of what John Bright called "fancy franchises," was defeated. Palmerston then came in again for 6 years. In June 1865, however, Lord Derby came back as prime minister, and Disraeli once more became chancellor. When his Reform Bill passed in 1867, he went home to his wife, ate half a pie, and drank a bottle of champagne, paying his wife the compliment, "My dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife."

Prime Minister

In 1868 Lord Derby resigned, and on February 16 the Queen wrote, "Mr. Disraeli is Prime Minister. A proud thing for a man risen from the people." A minority premier, he passed the Corrupt Practices Bill, abolished public executions, and had his wife, who was dying of cancer, made a peeress. But in autumn 1868 the Liberals under William Gladstone came to power, and Disraeli became leader of the opposition. In 1870 he published Lothair. In 1872 his wife died.

In 1874 the Liberals and Home Rulers were defeated by the Conservatives, and "that Jew," as Mrs. Gladstone called him, became prime minister. "Power! It has come to me too late," Disraeli was heard to say. He was patient and formal with his colleagues, did not talk much, was a debater rather than an orator, but seldom relinquished his purpose. He was an intimate of the Queen and called her "the Faery." He became her favorite politician, although she began their association with reservations about his exotic appearance, dress, and style.

Although devoted to Disraeli, Victoria threatened to abdicate over the Eastern question, as she was violently pro-Turk. Constantinople was "the key to India," and Disraeli was determined not to let Russia get there. In 1875 he purchased the Egyptian khedive's interest in the Suez Canal Company and in 1876 made Victoria the empress of India. Disraeli and Salisbury represented England at the Congress of Berlin (1878), from which they returned bringing "peace with honour." (His phrase was used by Neville Chamberlain in another context in 1938.) Among the acts passed during Disraeli's premiership were the 1874 and 1878 Factory Acts and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1878. In 1876 Disraeli became a member of the House of Lords as the 1st (and only) Earl of Beaconsfield.

In 1880 Gladstone and the Liberals returned to power. Disraeli retired to Hughenden, where he wrote Endymion and began another novel, Falconet. He died of bronchitis on April 19, 1881, and was buried next to his wife. His last recorded words were, "I had rather live but am not afraid to die."

Further Reading

The standard biography of Disraeli is William Flavelle Monypenny and George Earle Buckle, The Life of Disraeli (6 vols., 1911-1920; rev. ed., 2 vols., 1929). Robert Blake, Disraeli (1966), is also recommended. Cecil Roth, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1952), covers well the Jewish aspects of his life. B. R. Jerman, The Young Disraeli (1960), is a study of his career until 1837. See also C. C. Somervell, Disraeli and Gladstone (1925). □

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