Benjamin Disraeli Biography
DISRAELI, Benjamin, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804–81). An English author and statesman. He was born in London, Dec. 21, 1804, the son of Isaac D'Israeli, author of Curiosities of Literature, who belonged to a Jewish family. His education was carefully superintended by his father. In 1821 he was articled to a solicitor with a view to a government office, but, finding the study of the law uncongenial, he withdrew his name from Lincoln's Inn in 1831. He had meanwhile become famous as an author, having published his book Vivian Grey in 1826. He continued his literary career and spent three years (1828–31) traveling in Spain, Italy, and the Levant. He was, however, more ambitious for political than for literary celebrity, and, after two unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament as a Radical, he succeeded in entering as a Tory from Maidstone in 1837. Before this time his political pamphlets, especially his Vindication of the British Constitution, which Peel commended, had attracted wide attention. In the House his maiden speech was so much in the grand style and delivered with so many extravagant gestures that it excited ridicule. Much disconcerted, Disraeli stopped abruptly, making, however, the prophetic remark, "I shall sit down now, but the time is coming when you will hear me." From this time on he studied carefully the style of successful parliamentary orators and propagated his political tenets in his novels, Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847). Looking towards the Stuart monarchy for inspiration, he held that the government from 1688 to 1832 had been a Whig oligarchy, but that now the crown, released by the Reform Bill, might regain some of its powers, thereby solving many modern political and social problems. This idea, plus his Semitic ideals, was a tenet of the Young English party, of which he became the leader. In 1843 the landed aristocracy and country gentry found in him a spokesman for the dissatisfaction with which they regarded the threatened relaxation of the protective system. In 1846 he made a most bitter attack on Peel in the debate on the repeal of the Corn Laws, and on the death of Bentinck, in 1848, he became the acknowledged leader of the Protectionist party in the Commons. He bore generous testimony to the worth of his predecessor in his Lord George Bentinck: A Biography (1852). The same year the Earl of Derby offered him the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position which he held with honor and credit. Seeing that the nation now desired free trade, he coolly discarded protection. His second budget was, however, rejected by the Commons, and the cabinet resigned in December, 1852. Disraeli did not resume his position until the second Derby ministry (1858). One of his greatest disappointments was Derby's refusal to form a ministry with the aid of the Peelites in 1857, as Disraeli thought the country ready for his favorite reforms. There was but a scanty majority for the ministry of 1858, and in 1859 Disraeli's reform measure, the weak "Franchise" Bill, was rejected.
During the seven years of Liberal rule that followed Disraeli had to contend not only against the popularity of Lord Palmerston, but against suspicion and dissatisfaction in his own party. His talents, spirit, and persistency were so great during this trying time that he won admiration from all, even from his opponents. When Derby returned to power in 1866, Disraeli again became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and the most influential member of the new ministry. It was owing to him that the Conservatives now passed the famous Reform Act of 1867, which offered a far wider franchise than any previous law. In this way Disraeli hoped to outbid the Liberals, and seemingly he triumphed, succeeding Derby as Premier in 1868, only to be turned out of office one year later by a general election.
In 1874 he returned to power with a safe Conservative majority for the first time in his career. Although his ministry assured many useful reforms, like the different factory acts, the poor-law amendment, and the artisans' dwelling acts, it became famous chiefly through its foreign policy, conducted by the strong hand of Disraeli himself. His policy was aggressive and essentially imperial. He acquired control of the Suez Canal, interfered in Afghanistan to thwart Russia, and in 1877 proclaimed the Queen of England Empress of India. He called a halt to the Russian advance upon Constantinople in 1878, sending a British fleet to the Dardanelles and a division of the India army to Malta, and proudly declared on his return after making the Treaty of Berlin that he brought peace with honor. In Africa the Transvaal was annexed and the power of the Zulus broken. In 1880, however, his ministry was overthrown. His health had ere this required him to withdraw from the leadership of the House of Commons, and in 1878 he had entered the House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield. On April 19, 1881, he died in London.
From whatever standpoint we view Beacons-field's career, we cannot but be struck with wonder. That a Jewish novelist should become the acknowledged champion of the British aristocracy seems past all belief. His statesmanship was of a high order. The Empire, the constitution—these were the watchwords of his policy. His foreign policy was the continuation and development of that of Chatham, Pitt, Canning, and Palmerston, essentially aggressive and imperialist. His domestic policy was far ahead of his party's, yet he managed, unlike Peel and Gladstone, who disrupted the party organization, to lead it to concessions of which it had not thought—to "educate it," as he himself said. He found the Conservatives a party of obstruction, reactionary, and out of touch with the times; he left them in line with modern development and in a position to inaugurate reforms. A Tory in theory, he was liberal in practice. What else could be said of a man who at the outset of his career advocated the establishment of the Roman church in Ireland, the enfranchisement of the British peasantry, the reform of the provincial administration?
Disraeli's triumphs in the House of Commons were largely due to his great skill as an orator and a debater. His skill lay in a clear and dignified presentation of facts and, above all, in his marvelous use of wit and satire. This remark holds also for his literary works, the chief flavor of which lies in the witty introduction of contemporary celebrities. They often contain beautiful descriptions, but excel in the portrayal of what we call society. He writes best in the language of the salons and clubrooms. Among his best works are: Henrietta Temple (1837); Coningsby (1844), a vindication of the Jewish race; Sybil (1845); Tancred (1847), abounding in Oriental descriptions; Lothair (1870), a story of a weak-minded nobleman, with incidental descriptions of the life of very exalted personages in British society (1880). Endymion is well known and characteristic, but far inferior to Coningsby and Sybil.
Personally he was affable, constant in friendship, and prompt to discover and aid merit. In his youth he was eccentric in dress and manners, but this he outgrew; he was always theatrical and fond of attracting attention. His private life was above reproach. He married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, a rich widow much older than himself, in 1839. He found in her "the perfect wife," and when she died in 1868 he felt "that he had no longer a home."
The New International Encyclopaedia, Vol. VI (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1920) 77-78.