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.
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...
(The entire section is 2640 words.)