Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st earl of Beaconsfield

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Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st earl of Beaconsfield (1804–81). Conservative statesman, novelist, and exotic. Of a Christianized Jewish upper middle-class family (his father a distinguished man of letters), Disraeli led an early life that handicapped the political career for which he came to yearn. Egotistical, raffish, self-publicizing, he combined recklessness in financial and sexual matters with a talent for scrambling up available lifelines. Helped by his patron Lyndhurst, Disraeli, despite radical flirtations, was a Conservative MP from 1837. Desperate for office, he lacked standing and was ignored by Peel in 1841. More notice was gained by his novels, which he wrote partly for money (debt long remained a problem) but which also developed, eclectically rather than consistently, social and political ideas then current. Coningsby (1844) explored the nature of aristocratic party politics and Sybil (1845), a ‘condition of England’ novel, deplored the gulf between the ‘Two Nations’ of rich and poor: Tancred (1847) completed the trilogy. Disraeli had belonged to the otherwise aristocratic Young England group of political romantics and his growing hostility to Peel, signalled in the novels, expressed itself in the House over Maynooth and the Corn Laws in 1845–6. Though the Conservative revolt and split required the weight of Stanley and Bentinck, Disraeli's coruscating mockery of Peel gave him prominence for the first time. Nearly all the Conservative office-holders having followed Peel, the shortage of talent, particularly after Bentinck's death, on the protectionist front bench made Disraeli indispensable and by 1849 Stanley (the future earl of Derby) had resigned himself to having this improbable figure as his subordinate leader in the Commons, a position held until Derby himself retired in 1868. Initially a handicap to his party in that his position made reunion with the Peelites harder, Disraeli gained in experience and weight through the long service; he also benefited from the discipline brought by his marriage in 1839 to the wealthy and older Mary Anne, widow of a Conservative MP and determined on political eminence for her new husband. Never a protectionist on principle (his case against Peel had been his contempt for party commitments and loyalty), Disraeli had to be restrained by Derby in his wish to jettison protectionism swiftly (it was abandoned after the 1852 defeat) and in some of his subsequent and wilder flights of political creativity. Hungry for office, he deplored Derby's rejections of opportunities in 1851 and 1855; he was also readier to cultivate the press than Derby was and briefly sustained a newspaper of his own. His biography Lord George Bentinck (1852) repaid a considerable personal debt; the Bentincks also provided the money to set Disraeli up as a country gentleman at Hughenden in Buckinghamshire.

Disraeli served as chancellor of the Exchequer (a somewhat improbable role) and leader of the Commons in the three Derby minority ministries of 1852, 1858–9, and 1866–8, though a major triumph came only in 1867 when his skilful and cynically ruthless handling of the details of the government's Reform Bill divided the Liberals and enabled the Conservatives to cling to office long enough to pass a measure. Scarcely ‘democratic’ in intention, it at least minimized the damage a Liberal measure would have done to Conservative interests. Disraeli succeeded Derby as premier in 1868 (‘I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole’) and, in opposition after electoral defeat, survived party discontent, helped by the self-doubt of the younger Derby for the leadership. At this stage he took some interest in party organization and established central office in 1870. By 1872, when he made major speeches at Manchester and Crystal Palace proclaiming a supposedly distinctive Conservative philosophy, Gladstone's Liberal government was disintegrating and the tide was flowing the Conservative way. The election victory of 1874, the party's first since 1841, owed more to Gladstone than Disraeli, but it gave the latter and his followers the prolonged period of office they sought. Disraeli's platform in 1874—stability and quiet at home and the patriotic assertion of national interests abroad—was pure Palmerston and a mirror image of what Gladstonian government had apparently provided. Much of Disraeli's policy in his final decade was geared to attracting disenchanted Palmerstonians over from the Liberal side.

Disraeli's name rests mainly upon his ministry of 1874–80. Its social legislation was mainly the work of Richard Cross at the Home Office and had no obvious link with the social theorizing of the premier's Young England past or even with vague references to social reform in the 1872 speeches, though it may have had an element of response to the extent of working-class (and largely anti-Irish) Toryism now evident in Lancashire. Only the trade union legislation of 1875, on which Disraeli backed Cross against cabinet hostility, went markedly beyond what any government might have passed. This phase was over by the time an ageing Disraeli moved to the Lords as earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. More significant than domestic policy was his forwardness in foreign and colonial matters. Disraeli seized the chance to buy a controlling interest in the Suez canal, he sent the flamboyant Lytton to India as viceroy, and his 1876 Royal Titles Act proclaimed Victoria empress of India. Over the Eastern Question, the struggle between Russia and Turkey in the Balkans, an equally dramatic confrontation developed between Beaconsfield and the former Liberal leader Gladstone (their mutual antipathy was long established); after much hesitation and at the expense of cabinet resignations, including the foreign secretary Derby, the government decided to intervene to sustain Turkey and found backing in outbreaks of popular patriotism (‘jingoism’) in some cities. Beaconsfield's reward was a personal triumph at the Congress of Berlin, a Balkan settlement that suited Britain (‘Peace with Honour’), and the cession of Cyprus by Turkey. But colonial wars in Afghanistan and southern Africa went less well and gave Gladstone the chance to attack ‘Beaconsfieldism’ in his Midlothian campaigns. A new nationalist mood in Ireland and economic (including severe agricultural) depression also contributed, alongside Tory divisions, to the heavy electoral defeat of 1880, which put Gladstone back in office. Though not retiring as party leader, Disraeli was depressed by developments, including the Liberals' Irish land legislation, and his death in 1881 came at a low ebb of party fortunes and morale.

Soon Randolph Churchill and the Primrose League were active in cultivating a mythology of Disraelian ‘Tory Democracy’ and his name was on the way to its 20th-cent. status as a codeword for a leftish and social reforming Conservativism. In fact the substance of Disraeli's politics was far more orthodox than later romance suggested: a matter of upholding the ‘aristocratic constitution’, the monarchy (his closeness to Victoria, something he exploited politically, helped to draw her back into public life), the Union with Ireland, property rights, and social stability. His foreign policy in the 1870s certainly took Palmerstonism to the point of riskiness and he helped to claim the patriotic and imperial identity for the Conservative Party, though Gladstone made his task easier. In religious matters he upheld established churches as much as he could and had a protestant bent which found both Roman catholicism and Puseyite ritualism within the Church of England distasteful; he backed the 1874 Public Worship Regulation Act to penalize ritualism. But none of this matched the exoticism in rhetoric, wit, and phrase-making that Disraeli brought to politics; he was far more interesting as a political performer than in underlying intentions. What distinguished him most perhaps was his immense stamina and dedication over a long career in party leadership, his great loyalty to the Conservative Party, and his unquenchable thirst for office, power, and patronage. He was a great arriviste.

Bruce Coleman


Blake, R. , Disraeli (1966);
Coleman, B. , Conservatism and the Conservative Party in Nineteenth-Century Britain (1988);
Weintraub, S. , Disraeli (1993).

Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield

views updated May 09 2018

Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (1804–81) British statesman and novelist, prime minister (1868, 1874–80). Disraeli was elected to Parliament in 1837. His brand of Toryism is expressed in the trilogy of novels Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1846), and Tancred (1847). Following the split in the Tory Party over the repeal of the Corn Laws (1846), Disraeli became leader of the land-owning faction. His opposition to Robert Peel was rewarded when he became chancellor of the exchequer (1852, 1858–59, 1866–68) under Lord Derby. Disraeli succeeded Derby as prime minister, but was soon ousted by William Gladstone. His second term coincided with the greatest expansion of the second British empire. In 1876, Queen Victoria was proclaimed empress of India. Disraeli led Britain into the Zulu War (1879), the second Afghan War (1878–79), and sought to diminish the strength of Russia. In 1875 Britain purchased the Suez Canal from Egypt. In 1880 Disraeli was defeated for a second time by Gladstone.


D'Israeli, Isaac

views updated Jun 11 2018


D'ISRAELI, ISAAC (1766–1848), English writer; father of Benjamin *Disraeli. In 1748 his father, a Sephardi Jew, settled in London, where Isaac was born. D'Israeli entered commerce, although he was financially independent. His Curiosities of Literature (1791, and often reprinted), which made him famous, reveals a remarkable acquaintance with the by-ways of English literature. His Amenities of Literature was completed in 1840, after he had become blind. Although he was a free-thinker, D'Israeli maintained a formal connection with the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in London. However, as a result of a dispute over a fine of £40 imposed on him by the Sephardi elders, he formally withdrew from that community in 1817 and had his children, including the future Earl of Beaconsfield, baptized as members of the Church of England. Although he did not become a Christian, his Genius of Judaism (1833), as well as some incidental remarks in his novel Vaurien (1797), testify to his estrangement from Judaism. D'Israeli's view of English history was pro-Tory. He defended the Stuart kings against the Whigs in a way which might well have influenced the outlook of his celebrated son. In his lifetime, D'Israeli was already a well-known and much admired name, a point which is often ignored by those who regard Benjamin Disraeli as a complete outsider.


J. Ogden, Isaac D'Israeli (Eng., 1969); S. Kopstein, Isaac D'Israeli (Ger., 1939); W.F. Monypenny and G.E. Buckle, The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield, 1 (1910), 1–27; C. Roth, Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1952), 10–19; R. Blake, Disraeli (Eng., 1966). add. bibliography: Katz, England, 330–34; odnb online.

[Harold Harel Fisch /

William D. Rubinstein (2nd ed.)]

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