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Benjamin Disraeli

statesman, novelist, Conservative Party leader, Prime Minister

Benjamin Disraeli

Early Life

Benjamin Disraeli was born in Bloomsbury, London, England, on December 21, 1804, the eldest son and second child of Isaac D’Israeli and Maria Basevi. A dispute with local synagogue leaders led Isaac D'Israeli to sever his connections with the Jewish community and have his children baptised as Christians in 1817, a then-cavalier decision that ultimately allowed Benjamin to achieve political success (as laws in place until 1858 effectively prevented Jews from sitting in Parliament).

D'Israeli was articled to a firm of solicitors at the age of 17, and changed his surname to Disraeli a year later. Although he did pursue a law career for a short time, and even studied to become a barrister, Disraeli was more interested in making a name for himself in a much more adventurous manner. His first efforts were disastrous, however. In 1824 he speculated recklessly in South American mining shares, and, when he lost all a year later, he was left so badly in debt that he did not recover until well past middle age. Earlier he had persuaded the publisher John Murray, a friend of his father, to launch a daily newspaper, the Representative. It was a complete failure and Disraeli, unable to pay his promised share of the capital, openly quarreled with Murray and others.

Early Writing Career

Desperate for money, Disraeli decided to try his hand at writing. His first novel, Vivian Grey, published anonymously in four volumes in 1826-27, was essentially a fictionalized accounting of his failure with the newspaper venture. The book sold well, but its story line too easily unmasked Disraeli as its author and he ended up being lambasted by literary critics, thanks primarily to Murray and his friends, who were not at all happy with the way Disraeli depicted them. The criticism, combined with the previous financial failures, caused Disraeli to suffer from a nervous breakdown that lasted almost four years.

In 1830, Disraeli embarked on a 16-month tour of the Mediterranean and Middle East. These travels furnished him with material for Oriental descriptions he used in later novels, and also influenced his attitude in foreign relations with India, Egypt, and Turkey in the 1870's. The trip was partially financed wwith money earned from his second novel, The Young Duke, which was published 1831. Contarini Fleming was published in 1832, followed by The Wondrous Tale of Alroy in 1833, but by then Disraeli had already begun dabbling in politics.

Political Career

Disraeli's political career began as poorly as had his business career, with four failed attempts to win a seat in Parliament (in 1831, 1832, and twice in 1835). He finally succeeded in 1837, becoming a Tory (Conservative) MP for Maidstone. Elaborate metaphors, affected mannerisms, and foppish dress led to his being shouted down during his maiden speech, but he refused to be silenced and concluded his speech by declaring “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.” His words proved prophetic, as he soon established himself as a compelling speaker and his political career took off. He established his social position by marrying Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, a widow with a life interest in a London house and £4,000 a year pension, in 1839.

Peel Government

Despite the substantial income derived from his marriage, Disraeli found the financial demands of his Maidstone seat too much to bear and in 1841 ran for and won one of Shrewsbury's two seats in the House of Commons. The general elections of that year gave the Conservatives a majority in Parliament, and Sir Robert Peel became Prime Minister.

. Although he was denied a position in the new government, Disraeli initially supported Peel in Parliament, where he established himself as an expert on foreign affairs and international trade. It was his stance on trade that put him at odds with Peel, and that opposition came to a head when Peel asked Parliament to repeal the "Corn Laws," the protective duties on foreign grain. Disraeli consolidated the opposition to Peel in a series of brilliant speeches, and his invective greatly embittered the battle and created lasting resentment among Peel’s followers. Although Peel ultimately won the battle in Parliament, he lost the support of many Conservatives and ended up resigning in June 1846.

Leader of the Opposition

Although the Conservatives still had the majority in Parliament, Queen Victoria asked Whig leader Lord John Russell to form a new government. The Conservatives maintained their majority with the 1847 general elections, but their continued split allowed Russell to maintain his position as Prime Minister. Meanwhile, Disraeli's election to Parliament as member for Buckinghamshire in 1847 and purchase of Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, in 1848 fortified his social and political power. His finances, however, remained shaky. The sudden death of Lord George Bentinck in 1848 made Disraeli the de facto Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, but his opponents in the Conservative Party refused to recognize him as overall leader of the party.

Derby Government

In March 1851, Russell resigned as Prime Minister after a bill to equalize the county and borough franchises was defeated in Parliament. The Queen asked Edward Smith-Stanley to form a new government, but Stanley declined because he believed that a minority government would be ineffective; Russell, therefore, remained as Prime Minister. Another parliamentary rift led Russell to resign again in February 1852, and this time Stanley, now the 14th Earl of Derby, accepted the Queen's request that he form a new government. Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer in Derby's government, and as such became responsible for preparing a budget for the government, and for presenting that budget to Parliament. Derby resigned after the budget was defeated in December, and was succeeded by George Hamilton-Gordon, 4th Earl of Aberdeen; Disraeli once again became leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons.

Aberdeen and Palmerston Governments

Although Disraeli opposed Aberdeen's government on almost every issue, he supported its decision to ally with France against Russia during the Crimean War. The British military efforts were marked by a great number of major blunders, however, and in 1854 Parliament voted against Aberdeen's conduct of the war. Aberdeen resigned, and the Queen once again turned to Derby. Derby declined to take the helm, however, and the Queen next turned to Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, who accepted. Disraeli's only real "bone of contention" during Palmerston's administration was Palmerston's call for direct rule of India by the Crown. Many of Disraeli's fellow Conservatives refused to echo Disraeli's opposition, and the enabling act passed easily.

Second Derby Government

Palmerston's government fell in 1858, and Derby agreed to return as Prime Minister. Disraeli once again became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in this capacity was able to get both houses of Parliament to, grudgingly, to pass bills allowing members to take their seats without having to swear allegiance to Christianity. The Conservatives'inability to get a Reform Bill passed in 1859 led Derby to dissolve Parliament, and the ensuing general elections resulted in the Conservatives still failing to have majority control of the House of Commons. Derby stepped down soon after the elections, and Palmerston once again became Prime Minister.

Palmerston, Russell, and Third Derby Governments

Conservative opposition was fairly muted during most of Palmerston's administration, and both Disraeli and Derby began to think that the Liberals would hold power for quite some time. The Liberals' hold began to wane, however, with the death of Palmerston in 1865. Lord Russell once again became Prime Minister, but he caused a split in his party over the Reform Bill of 1866 and his government fell in June 1866. Derby thus took office as Prime Minister for the third time, and Disraeli once again became Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli's greatest accomplishment during his third term as Chancellor was negotiating passage of the Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise by giving the vote to male householders and male lodgers paying at least £10 for rooms, eliminatied boroughs with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants, and granted constituencies to 15 unrepresented towns, with extra representation to large municipalities such as Liverpool and Manchester.

First Term as Prime Minister

When Parliament began its session in February 1868, Derby was confined to his bed by illness. Told by his doctors that he would never recover unless he retired from politics, Derby obtained a written promise that Disraeli was prepared to assume the Prime Minister's office before writing a letter of resignation to the Queen and recommending that she name Disraeli to take his place. Having already a good relationship with Disraeli during his terms as Chancellor of the Exchequer (he always made it a point to keep the Queen informed as to the affairs of government), the Queen accepted both resignation and recommendation without hesitation.

With general elections already scheduled for December, Disraeli only made two changes to the Cabinet and avoided pushing for politically sensitive legislation. The only major debate in Parliament concerned the Church of Ireland, an issue which strengthened the Liberals and divided the Conservatives. The Liberals won a majority in the general alections, and Disraeli set a precedent by resigning as Prime Minister before Parliament met. Although Disraeli avoided divisive issues during his time in office, his government ended public executions, authorized an early version of nationalization by having the Post Office buy up the telegraph companies, and succeeded in getting railway laws and school law amendments passed.

Gladstone Government

The Liberal victory put William Ewart Gladstone in office and returned Disraeli to the House of Commons as Leader of the Opposition. With the Liberals having a dominant majority in the House of Commons, Disraeli could only protest when the government presented legislation contrary to the Conservatives' ideals. He took advantage of the "free time" to write Lothair, which was published in three volumes in 1870 and became a best seller.

By 1872 Conservatives were getting "antsy" over Disraeli's reluctance to directly challenge the Liberals. His wife died of cancer, after many months of illness, that same year, and her fortune passed to cousins. Disraeli's health was also fragile, but he chose to deal with everything by regaining full control over his party and clearly defining how the Conservatives and Liberals differed on key issues.

Gladstone’s ministry was defeated in 1873, but when Gladstone resigned Disraeli refused to take office, pleading there was too much uncompleted business to dissolve Parliament, and that a minority government could only damage his party’s prospects. Gladstone reluctantly returned to office, but within a year he dissolved the Parliament himself. Conservatives won a resounding victory in 1874.

Second Term as Prime Minister

With a clear Conservative majority in the House of Commons, Disraeli approached his second term as Prime Minister with much more vigor than he had in 1868. Domestically, he concentrated on social reform, with the most important legislation being: the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act of 1875, which decriminalized the work of trade unions and allowed peaceful picketing; the Public Health Act of 1875, which improved sanitation and filthy living conditions in urban areas; the 1875 Climbing Boys Act, which reinforced the ban on employing juvenile chimney sweeps; the 1875 Artisans Dwelling Act, which allowed local authorities to destroy slums, though this was voluntary, and provided housing for the poor; and the Public Health Act of 1875, which provided sanitation such as running water and refuse disposal.

Disraeli's first foreign policy success came in 1875, when he purchased the Khedive of Egypt's shares in the Suez Canal Company, without consulting Parliament. The Queen was thrilled with the purchase, as were the British people, and Parliament ratified the transaction with little debate. His next major victory came in 1876, when he pushed a bill conferring on Queen Victoria the title Empress of India. The Queen subsequently elevated Disraeli to the House of Lords as Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden. During the next two years,Disraeli and Gladstone clashed over issues surrounding the Bulgarian Revolt and the Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), but Disraeli emerged as the "winner" when he represented British interests in the 1878 Congress of Berlin, which brought peace as well as Cyprus under the British flag.

Disraeli's success at Berlin was still fresh in British minds when in January 1879 a Zulu army ambushed and destroyed a British encampment in South Africa. Over a thousand British troops and colonial troops were killed. In September the entire staff of the British mission in Kabul, Afghanistan, was killed by rebelling Afghan soldiers. Both of the massacres had been spurred by actions undertaken by colonial authorities, and Disraeli's refusal to remove any of them from office brought criticism from both sides. The combination of colonial policy failures, poor harvests, and an industrial slump resulted in the Conservatives being heavily defeated in the general election of 1880, and Disraeli submitted his resignation on April 21.

Final Months

After leaving office, Disraeli resumed work on Endymion, which he had begun in 1872 and laid aside prior to the 1874 election. Quickly finished, it was published in three volumes in November 1880. When Parliament met in January 1881, he served as Conservative leader in the House of Lords, in an attempt to serve as a moderating influence on Gladstone's legislation. Already suffering from asthma and gout, he was stricken with bronchitis in March, and was confined to bed from that time on. He died in London on April 19, 1881; a few days after his burial in the family vault at Hughenden, Queen Victoria came to lay a wreath upon the tomb of her favorite Prime Minister.


Encyclopędia Britannica

See Also

Conservative and Unionist Party
Queen Victoria
William Ewart Gladstone

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The Robinson Library >> England >> Victorian Era

This page was last updated on December 21, 2018.