Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2640
Article abstract: Disraeli overcame social and political prejudice in nineteenth century Great Britain to become leader of the Conservative Party, served twice as prime minister, and formulated a “Tory Radicalism” distinctively free from the prevalent Whig-Liberal philosophy of Utilitarianism.
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Benjamin Disraeli was born in London on December 21, 1804, the oldest son of Isaac D’Israeli, an antiquarian, literary scholar, and writer, and his wife, Maria Basevi. The child was the namesake and grandson of Benjamin D’Israeli, an Italian-Jewish immigrant and successful businessman. Isaac’s dispute with the synagogue of Bevis Marks led to the four D’Israeli children’s baptism as Christians in 1817, a step which later made it possible for Disraeli to have a career in the House of Commons, from which Jews were excluded until 1858. Benjamin’s family relations with his father and older sister Sarah were especially close. The younger generation simplified the family name by dropping the apostrophe. As a youngster, Benjamin attended school at Blackheath near London and Higham Hall at Epping Forest. In 1821, Benjamin—now a man of medium height, slender build, and pale, aquiline features, with a high forehead, black, wavy hair, and an intellectual countenance—began legal training in the office of a London solicitor.
Bored with the law and hoping to attain fame and fortune quickly, Disraeli in 1824 plunged into stock-market speculation, lost money beyond his resources, and was forced to borrow at interest rates so ruinous that his debts became too great for him to pay until he was past middle age. In 1825, Disraeli organized a political and literary newspaper, The Representative, which quickly foundered amid more debts and the ill feeling of such influential associates as John Murray and John Gibson Lockhart. In an anonymous roman à clef, Vivian Grey (1826-1827), Disraeli caricatured these and other figures in the world of literature and politics, gaining notoriety, but at some cost to his reputation.
From 1827 to 1830, Disraeli retreated into minor writings and ill health, producing The Young Duke (1831), a hack novel “delightfully adapted to the most corrupt taste,” to help finance a sixteen-month (1830-1831) trip to Europe, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, the Levant, Palestine, and Egypt. This experience of the atmosphere and reality of “the East” was an influence on his later novels and perhaps on his statecraft. The year 1832 found him frequently invited to London parties as both a foppishly dressed raconteur on exotic lands and an author of the amusing “society” novels which were his main, if insufficient, source of income. During Disraeli’s travels the long dominance of the Tories had ended, and the new Whig government’s proposals for extending voting rights to more of the middle class were nearing enactment as the Reform Bill of 1832. Disraeli decided to seek a seat in the House of Commons to participate in this new political era.
Disraeli made three unsuccessful attempts at parliamentary election as a Radical, a role which gave him maximum independence but no significant financial or political support. In 1835, he joined the Tory Party and, after contesting a hopeless seat, was in 1837 elected as the junior member for Maidstone. His first speech in the House of Commons was howled down by Irish and Whig members, but he soon established himself as an effective speaker among the Tory-Conservative opposition led by Sir Robert Peel. In 1839, Disraeli abandoned his previous well-publicized love affairs and married Mrs. Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis, a widow possessed of a generous income for life from the estate of her first husband. She was twelve years older than Disraeli and noticeably tactless in her conversation, but affectionate and admiring in her nature. The union was largely one of mutual devotion until her death from cancer in 1872.
Disraeli was given no part in the Conservative administration which Peel formed after the election of 1841. He lacked influence and did not represent any large interest. Peel had his pick of older Tories, close political associates, important ex-Whigs such as Edward Stanley (later the fourteenth Earl of Derby), and rising young men of promise such as William Ewart Gladstone. There was no compelling reason for him to include in the ministry an outsider of conspicuously independent views and noticeably restless ambition, and indeed there was no prospect that Peel would ever want Disraeli as a colleague in government.
Disraeli’s rejection by Peel prolonged the former’s leisure for developing further his own political ideas. In the pamphlet of 1833 “What Is He?” he had presented himself as both a Radical and a Tory, and in his “Vindication of the English Constitution” in 1835, he pointed out that the Utilitarian maxim of “the greatest good for the greatest number” depended very much on who judged what was good. The history of political change in England had been termed “progress” by the bourgeoisie, which gained wealth and power through the changes, and by 1832, with the Reform Bill’s redistribution of seats, the Whig merchants and manufacturers had begun to overbalance the parliamentary representation of Tory landlords. Peel’s new “Conservatism” appeared to accept the proposition that the Whigs were entitled to determine who had the right to vote and that henceforth the Conservatives could promise only to preserve the status-quo interests of the “middle class.” Disraeli argued that since the aristocratic principle had collapsed, the Tory Party should now appeal to the democratic principle of government.
The Young England movement of George Smythe, Lord John Manners, Alexander Baillie Cochrane, and Henry Hope provided for a time Disraeli’s only House of Commons allies, and his best-known political novels reflected this connection in Coningsby: Or, The New Generation (1844) and Sybil: Or, The Two Nations (1845). These novels gave a realistic picture of the distress of the poor and criticized the indifference of Peel and his Conservatives to these victims of the Industrial Revolution and the Whigs’ New Poor Law of 1834. Disraeli’s argument, clearly, was for a Tory economic and social policy to meet the plight of the people, and for a radical departure from the laissez-faire doctrines of Manchester economics embraced by the Whigs.
Disraeli’s opportunity to challenge Peel’s leadership came with the latter’s 1846 proposal to repeal the Corn Laws. This abolition of the protective tariff on grain and conversion to free trade would not afford any quick relief for the immediate Irish famine resulting from the 1845 potato blight, and the cabinet had already split over what the “backwoods” Tories saw as a betrayal of British farm interests mostly beneficial to British factory owners. A party revolt of some magnitude was inevitable, but Disraeli acted on his own in leading off the debate for the protectionists, scathingly recounting the inconsistencies of Peel’s political record and pouring scorn on his appeals for party loyalty. Having already charged that Peel “found the Whigs bathing and walked off with their clothes,” Disraeli now termed him a “burglar” of other men’s ideas and denounced “this huckstering tyranny of the Treasury bench . . . these political pedlars that bought their party in the cheapest market and sold us in the dearest.” No other spokesman for the landed Tories could equal Disraeli for the brilliant invective which now expressed the feelings of a majority of the Tory Party.
Repeal of the Corn Laws passed with Whig votes, but the Conservative Party, divided and defeated on an Irish “coercion bill,” was split between the Peelites (including the first Marquess of Aberdeen and Gladstone) and the more numerous protectionists, headed by Edward Stanley, soon fourteenth Earl of Derby, with Disraeli gradually winning acceptance as protectionist leader in the House of Commons. When, in 1852, Lord Derby was asked to form a minority government, he and Disraeli revived the “Conservative” label for the party. Their efforts to reconcile Peel’s followers (Peel died in 1850), however, were unsuccessful. Disraeli served as Leader of the Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer for the 1852 government. His budget and the administration were doomed by the opposing coalition even before Gladstone, in the budget debate, made the bitter personal attack on Disraeli which began the open hostility of these two political rivals.
The coalition of Whigs, Liberals, and Radicals split in 1858 over Lord Palmerston’s foreign policy, and Derby and Disraeli again headed a minority government, from 1858 to 1859. This time they succeeded in passing the Removal of Jewish Disabilities (1858), hitherto blocked by the House of Lords. Disraeli proposed in 1859 an extension of the vote based on profession, government or bank savings, government pensions, or residential qualifications. This was defeated by the Whigs, Liberals, and Radicals as they reunited to restore Palmerston to office.
In 1866, Derby and Disraeli formed a third minority government after Lord John Russell and Gladstone were defeated on a franchise bill. The Tories introduced their own franchise reform bill in 1867. Disraeli made extension of voting rights in the boroughs according to residence qualifications the main thrust of the bill and accepted several Radical amendments, while persuading the House to reject Gladstone’s attempt to control the terms of the bill, describing him as “a candidate for power” who “has had his innings.” Despite the coalition majority, Disraeli’s bill passed. Lord Derby retired in 1868, and Disraeli became prime minister, a fulfillment which he described in the sardonic expression, “at last I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” In the 1868 election, however, Gladstone made disestablishing the Anglican church in Ireland the issue on which he gained enough votes from the “Celtic fringe” in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales to give the Liberals a majority.
From 1868 to 1874, Disraeli fought off challenges to his leadership, rebuilt party organization and finance, sustained a personal loss in his wife’s death on December 15, 1872, and also expanded his political creed to include more emphasis on pride in the British Empire. The popular notion, however, then and since, of Disraeli as an imperialist and Gladstone as a “Little Englander” more accurately described their speeches than their policies in office. The Gladstone ministry meanwhile outlived the early years of its reforms, had no remedy for the hard times following 1872, and justified Disraeli’s description of the Treasury bench as “a row of exhausted volcanoes.” The election of 1874 gave the Tories a majority in the Commons, and Disraeli finally became prime minister of a workable government.
In his administration of 1874 to 1880, Disraeli promoted “social reform” in terms of the working and living conditions of the laboring class. The Artisans’ and Laborers’ Dwelling Act of 1875 was a pioneering step in the field of slum clearance and public housing, while the 1875 Public Health Act began a systematic and codified approach to this problem. The Factory Acts of 1874 and 1878 applied the same systematic approach to work safety regulations and also gave trade unions organizing, bargaining, and picketing rights, the so-called Magna Carta of Labor. The Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 owed more to Samuel Plimsoll than to the political leaders, but Disraeli gave government support to this reform of marine safety and insurance. This broad social welfare approach to industrial problems was very different in form from the rural society ideas of Coningsby and Sybil, but the principle of Tory reforms to help the working poor was essentially the same.
In foreign and colonial affairs, Disraeli conducted a generally successful policy. His 1875 purchase from the Khedive of Egypt of about forty-five percent of the shares in the Suez Canal was a bargain investment for Great Britain financially, an important improvement of the British route to India and the Orient, and a significant expansion of British military, economic, and political presence in the Middle East for the next eighty years. The creation of a new title for the queen, “Empress of India,” in 1876, was a more debatable accomplishment, and Disraeli’s attempt in 1876 to conserve his failing health by becoming Earl of Beaconsfield naturally weakened his influence in the Commons.
The 1878 Congress of Berlin on Balkan problems raised by the Bulgarian Revolt of 1876 and the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 saw Disraeli successfully combining British, Turkish, Austrian, and Italian interests and policies to check the expansion of Russian influence in Southeastern Europe. Upon his triumphant return to London, Disraeli described the Berlin settlement as “peace with honor.” The last years of Disraeli’s ministry were, however, clouded by military problems in Afghanistan and Zululand and by the Depression of 1873, which still gripped Great Britain. In the general election of 1880, the disorganized Conservative Party was defeated. For almost a year, Disraeli continued as the active leader of the Tory opposition to Gladstone’s second administration, but in March of 1881, his health began to fail rapidly. He died on April 19, 1881, at his London house, and was buried beside his wife at their Hughenden estate.
The legacy of Benjamin Disraeli was in great part the courage and determined perseverance of his career from outsider to prime minister and in some part the romantic extravagance and wit with which he dramatized his own legend. His writings, however, and his later legislation established a rationale and a record of rejecting a status-quo conservatism limited to accepting only past changes, and the later leaders of his party have accepted Disraeli’s teaching that only by continuing to propose basic changes to meet the needs of the whole nation can Toryism succeed as a political faith.
Blake, Robert. Disraeli. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1966. Accepted as the most useful one-volume biography available, this work skillfully incorporates the scholarship of Monypenny and Buckle (below), adds several matters which they omitted, and makes good use of letters which came to light between 1920 and 1967. In the area of politics, the book is comprehensive; Lord Blake’s account is readable and enjoyable as well as scholarly.
Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. New York: Stein and Day, 1983. An important supplement to Monypenny and Buckle and to Blake. Easily the best account and analysis so far of Disraeli’s personal life. The author draws on previously unpublished letters which show Disraeli and Mary Anne in several “storms” in the first decade of their generally happy marriage; on the whole, the book gives a good sense of the emotional side of Disraeli’s character. The best source on his private life.
Disraeli, Benjamin. Benjamin Disraeli: Letters. Edited by J. A. Gunn et al. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982. A major and ongoing international enterprise, the Disraeli Project aims at a virtually complete edition of Disraeli’s letters. Earlier collections of Disraeli’s letters have been well mined by Monypenny and Buckle and by Blake.
Eldridge, C. C. England’s Mission. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Press, 1973. The author reviews several historians’ arguments about nineteenth century British imperialism and offers his own analysis of “the Empire of Disraeli’s Dreams.” Well documented.
Feuchtwanger, E. J. Disraeli, Democracy, and the Tory Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968. Only election and party organization buffs will fully appreciate this detailed and scholarly work. The appendices include a useful “glossary” of the secondary figures involved in Tory Party organization from 1867 to 1885.
Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1960. Brief, general, scholarly, and readable. Covers the period to 1837.
Levine, Richard A. Benjamin Disraeli. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968. A useful and appreciative evaluation of Disraeli’s place in literature.
Monypenny, William Flavelle, and George Earl Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. 6 vols. London: Macmillan, 1910-1920. Rev. ed. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1929. Reprint. 4 vols. New York: Russell and Russell, 1968. Volumes 1 and 2 were written by Monypenny, and after his death the work was completed by Buckle. This work, although dated in some respects, remains the definitive and indispensable biography for scholars or serious readers, or for reference purposes. Much of the work consists of extensive quotations from Disraeli’s writings, letters, and speeches. The authors let their subject speak for himself, and Disraeli’s rhetoric has a personality which communicates the man to the reader with a force for which ordinary biography is no substitute.
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