Disraeli, Benjamin

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

DISRAELI, BENJAMIN

parliament
prime minister
bibliography

DISRAELI, BENJAMIN (1804–1881), British writer and statesman.

Benjamin Disraeli was born in London on 21 December 1804, the son of a dilettante antiquarian. His grandfather's death removed his father's last tie with the Jewish religion, and Benjamin was baptized into the Church of England in July 1817. Between 1821 and 1824 he was articled to a solicitor's firm, and later he briefly trained as a barrister. However his enthusiasm for Byron and Romanticism drove him to seek literary fame instead. But his attempt to establish his financial independence by speculating on South American mines ended in disaster, leaving him seriously indebted until the late 1840s. His first novel, Vivian Grey (1826), was also a failure, and its satire of London society damaged his reputation. In reaction to these setbacks, Disraeli suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1820s. But his confidence returned after a trip to the east—particularly Athens, Constantinople, and Jerusalem—in 1830–1831. This helped to fashion his emerging identity as a cosmopolitan figure whose awareness of Eastern racial and religious culture allowed him to see more deeply into the nature and problems of the west. In this way, Disraeli began to come to terms with, and exploit, his Jewishness. Two novels, Contarini Fleming (1832) and The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), reflect his growing interest in these themes and in the problem of how men of genius could reconcile their need for artistic creativity with their quest for political power.

parliament

Stimulated by the political crisis of 1830–1832, Disraeli decided to seek a seat in Parliament, which would also protect him from imprisonment for debt. He stood unsuccessfully four times, at first as an independent radical, but latterly as a Tory, the label under which he was finally elected as member of Parliament (MP) for Maidstone in 1837. After his comember died, Disraeli married his widow, Mary Anne Lewis, in 1839; she settled many of his financial obligations.

Disraeli made a name for himself during the government of Sir Robert Peel, in 1841–1846. He did so first by associating loosely and briefly with a group of romantic backbenchers who came to be known as "Young England" for their idealistic reinterpretation of traditional ideas of social and religious obligation. In 1844 and 1845 he also produced his two best-known novels, Coningsby and Sybil, and criticized Peel for his lack of fidelity to Tory principles in a series of bold independent speeches that demonstrated his self-confidence. Peel's decision to abandon agricultural protection by repealing the Corn Laws then gave him a cause, and his deadly invective against the prime minister in 1846 undoubtedly contributed to the coherence of the protectionist movement and to the party's fatal split in June. Disraeli's main argument for a protection system was its importance for Britain's international power and standing. Beyond that, his assault on Peel's mode of governing reflected his desire for fame but also his anxiety about the unheroic quality of political leadership and the triumph of low commercial ideals in 1840s Britain. Coningsby, Sybil, and his subsequent novel, Tancred (1847), are all concerned to attack the class divisions and materialistic excesses of the decade by improving the vigor and tone of the governing classes. They project a love of English history and an insistence that the aristocracy and the church can, with effort, regain an inspirational presence in society, but, especially in Tancred, they marry this with a more exotic argument that the defense of religion, property, and political leadership would benefit from the assistance of philosophical men who understand Judaism and "the great Asian mystery." Though Disraeli's political importance or prospects should not be exaggerated at this time, the novels can be read as a way of justifying both to himself and to others his desired role as a Conservative Party prophet.

After the defection of the Peelites from the Conservative Party, the protectionists who remained lacked debating talent. Lord George Bentinck (1802–1848), their leader, promoted Disraeli to the front opposition bench in 1847. Helped by Bentinck's influence and family money, he became MP for Buckinghamshire in 1847 and bought the small estate of Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, in 1848. This was a major step because it allowed him to see himself as an English country gentleman defending the long continuum of national history. Bentinck died suddenly in 1848; Disraeli later produced an admiring biography of him. No other Conservative MP could match Disraeli's oratorical talents or industriousness in parliamentary maneuver. Though snobbery and decorum prevented him being accepted as leader for some years, his dominance in the Commons was undeniable by the time the Conservative Party was invited to form a minority government in February 1852, with Lord Derby, Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley (1799–1869), as prime minister. Disraeli became chancellor of the Exchequer and leader of the House of Commons, but the government lasted only ten months.

With the exception of another fourteen-month spell as chancellor in the minority government of 1858–1859, Disraeli spent the next fourteen years leading the Conservative opposition in the Commons. He took an interest in reforming party organization and tried to build up support for the party in the press. He tried some intriguing political strategies: for example, he blamed the Mutiny of 1857 on the excessively Westernizing policy pursued in India since the 1840s. In the early 1860s he sought to build a coalition of Anglican and Irish Catholic MPs in opposition to the Liberals' anticlerical tendencies at home, in Italy, and elsewhere in Europe. In these years Disraeli envisaged an impending clash of philosophies in Europe, between the forces of religion and authority and those of republicanism and unbelief, a theme developed in his last complete novel, Lothair (1870).

Derby came to power as prime minister of a minority Conservative government for the third time in 1866, with Disraeli again chancellor. In order to stay in power, they needed to settle the question of parliamentary reform. They did so by accepting the principle of household franchise in the boroughs (the principle for which radical Liberals cared most), while limiting the significance of this by various restrictions, and defending the Conservatives' interests by making few changes in seat distribution or the county franchise. During the bill's passage through the Commons, the major restrictions were removed by MPs, substantially increasing the borough electorate, but the other conservative elements of the bill mostly survived, and Disraeli won a series of personal tactical victories over his rival William Ewart Gladstone


(1809–1898). The Reform Bill dominated the 1867 session, adding to Disraeli's reputation for intrigue, shoring up the government, and making it almost inevitable that, when Derby retired through ill health in February 1868, Disraeli would succeed him as prime minister.

prime minister

He had little room to maneuver during his first premiership. Unsurprisingly, he failed to realize his idea of an Anglican-Catholic alliance on the Irish question. Then, as expected, his party lost office after the election of November 1868. Once more he faced a long period in opposition, and the death of his wife in 1872 left him desolate as well as tired. Despite a couple of well-publicized speeches, Disraeli contributed little to the powerful middle-class, Anglican, and propertied reaction of the early 1870s against Gladstone's Liberal government. Still, it swept him back into power in February 1874, this time with a majority, the first one enjoyed by the Conservatives since 1841.

As prime minister, Disraeli enjoyed his warm relations with the queen (though privately he sometimes found her "very mad") and liked dispensing patronage. In the relative calm of the 1870s—so different from the atmosphere of the 1840s—there was little urgency in domestic affairs. However he encouraged the emphasis on relatively uncontentious social reform measures proposed by ministers Richard Assheton, first Viscount Cross (1823–1914) and Lord Derby (Edward Henry Smith Stanley, 1826–1893), because it added to the government's reputation for constructive competence and kept Parliament occupied. Nonetheless, the efficiency of his conduct of Commons business was increasingly criticized, and, beset by ill health, he took a peerage in August 1876 as Earl of Beaconsfield, allowing him to lead the ministry from the Lords.

Disraeli's main interest was in foreign policy, where he soon found a mission in asserting British power as his eighteenth-century heroes had done. He saw this as necessary both strategically, in order to check German and Russian domination of Europe, and in terms of raising the tone of domestic politics by counteracting the baleful influence of low-spending commercial isolationist sentiment in the Liberal Party. These goals drove his overseas policy, not the pursuit of imperial territory as such, which he regarded as a secondary concern, to be avoided if it threatened financial or diplomatic difficulties.

His policy proceeded partly by grand gestures of national assertiveness, such as the purchase of a large stake in the Suez Canal Company in 1875, and the bestowal of the title of Empress of India on the queen in 1876. During the Eastern crisis of 1876–1878 he sought to ensure that Britain's views and interests were not ignored by the other powers, though this required a degree of support for Turkey that offended many humanitarians at home. He then urged the cabinet to take a firm anti-Russian line in 1877–1878, even at the risk of war. This approach won the approval of the queen and some popular sentiment, but was extremely controversial, because of anti-Turkish opinion and fear that war in the east would overstretch the navy. On the other hand, many argued that his firm stance made possible a successful international settlement at Berlin in 1878, which was certainly popular at home. However the other powers had also wanted a settlement; moreover, new British commitments to the defense of Turkey sparked fresh domestic criticism, particularly when followed by an expensive and difficult war against Afghanistan, for which the enthusiasm of Disraeli's Indian viceroy Lord Lytton (Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton; 1831–1891) was mainly responsible. In Afghanistan, and in a similarly fraught war in South Africa, Disraeli seemed unable to control the expansionist pressures encouraged by his own rhetoric. The result was heavy military costs and great Liberal criticism of his "imperialism," by which was meant the perceived similarity of his regime to that of Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) in foreign policy and in its disregard for constitutional liberties and fiscal restraint. Income tax tripled from 1874 to 1880, and the Conservatives lost the 1880 election, which was fought in a bad economic depression.

Disraeli died on 19 April 1881, within a year of leaving office. A Disraeli myth soon emerged, the result of the failure of the Liberals' imperial policy after 1880 and the need of the Conservative Party to appeal to the much-enlarged post-1885 electorate. Disraeli's commitment to vigor abroad was naturally one element of this powerful posthumous reinvention, while his attack on laissez-faire in the 1840s and his minor social reforms of the 1870s were also pressed into service to underline the party's willingness to address working-men's interests and to create "One Nation." Disraeli himself is probably best understood by focusing on his Romantic desire for national recognition, his struggles with his Jewish inheritance, the great social crisis of the 1840s, and his perception of the destiny of his generation to respond to that crisis by rebuilding confidence at home and tackling the legacy of insular commercialism in overseas affairs.

See alsoGladstone, William; Great Britain; Imperialism; Romanticism; Tories.

bibliography

Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London, 1966.

Parry, J. P. "Disraeli and England." Historical Journal 43 (2000): 699–728.

Shannon, Richard. The Age of Disraeli, 1868–1881: The Rise of Tory Democracy. London, 1992.

Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Stewart, Robert. The Foundation of the Conservative Party, 1830–1867. London, 1978.

Swartz, Helen M., and Marvin Swartz, eds. Disraeli's Reminiscences. New York, 1975.

Jonathan Parry