Benjamin Disraeli, 1804 -1881
Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, as well as a novelist in his own right.
He played a central role in the creation of the modern Conservative Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal Party leader William Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or “Tory democracy”. He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire during the second half of the 19th Century.
He is the only UK Prime Minister to have been of Jewish birth, Disraeli was born on 21 December 1804 in Bloomsbury, London, to Isaac and Maria D’Israeli a literary critic and historian. The family was of Sephardic Jewish Italian mercantile background. Disraeli’s surviving siblings were Sarah (1802), Ralph (1809), and James (“Jem”) (1813). He was close to his sister, and on affectionate, but more distant terms with his two brothers. At six he was a day boy at a dame school in Islington and two years later, he was sent as a boarder to St Piran’s school at Blackheath. While he was there, his father renounced Judaism and had the four children baptised into the Church of England in 1817.
Then it is not clear why Isaac D’Israeli chose to send his eldest son to school at Higham Hill in Walthamstow, when his two brother s went to Winchester.
Shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Disraeli was articled as a clerk to a firm of solicitors, but after trying to become a barrister he was advised to try a literary career. He had made a tentative start, but turned most of his attention to speculative dealing on the stock exchange. The bursting of the mining bubble of the time was ruinous for Disraeli and he could not pay off the last of his debts until 1849. So he turned to writing, motivated by his desperate need for money. There was a vogue for what was called “silver-fork fiction”—novels depicting aristocratic life, usually by anonymous authors and read avidly by the aspirational middle classes. Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey, published anonymously in four volumes in 1826–27, sold well, but caused much offence in influential circles when his authorship was discovered. Disraeli, then just 23 years old, did not move in high society and reviewers were sharply critical of both the author and the book. But undeterred, he continued writing fifteen novels for publication over his life time, usually depicting the society of the time and romantic stories –some based on his own experiences. He published his last completed novel, Endymion, shortly before he died at the age of 76.
In the 1830’s Disraeli became interested in the great political debates of the time, such as the 1832 Reform Bill and he contributed several politically opinionated pamphlets.
Disraeli’s politics at the time were influenced both by his rebellious streak and by his desire to make his mark and his political views embraced certain radical policies, particularly democratic reform of the electoral system, but also some Tory ones, including protectionism. After fighting in elections and by- elections unsuccessfully as a radical , Disraeli moved firmly into the Tory camp., When the young Queen Victoria, ascended the throne, in the general election of 1837, Disraeli won a Tory seat in the House of Commons for Maidstone. Then, in 1841, he won a Conservative seat for Shrewsbury.
In 1839 Disraeli had married Mary Anne Lewis, the widow of Wyndham Lewis. Twelve years Disraeli’s senior, Mary Lewis had a substantial income of £5,000 a year. His motives were generally assumed to be mercenary, but the couple came to cherish one another, remaining close until she died more than three decades later. “Dizzy married me for my money”, his wife said later, “But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.” She died in 1872 and they had no children.
Though he had been a strong supporter of the PM Sir Robert Peel , in 1846 Sir Robert had split the party over his proposal to repeal the Corn Laws which involved ending the tariff on imported grain. Disraeli opposed this and clashed with Peel, thus becoming a major figure in the divided party.
Isaac D’Israeli, Disraeli’s father, had bought Hughenden Manor in Berkshire in 1847. At the time, Disraeli was leader of the Conservative Party and it was essential for him to represent a county and county members had to be landowners. Taking ownership of the manor on the death of his father in 1848, Disraeli and his wife Mary Anne, alternated between Hughenden and several homes in London. He had the house completely remodelled over several years by a then fashionable Victorian architect.
When Lord Derby, the party leader, formed three governments in the 1850s and 1860s, Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.
Upon Derby’s retirement in 1868, Disraeli became Prime Minister briefly, before losing that year’s general election. He returned to the Opposition, before leading the party to winning a majority in the 1874 . He developed and maintained a close friendship with Queen Victoria who at first had disliked him. In 1876 the Queen appointed him Earl of Beaconsfield.
Disraeli’s second term was dominated by the Eastern Question—the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of other European powers, such as Russia, to gain at its expense.. In 1878, faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to obtain peace in the Balkans and by a diplomatic victory over Russia, established himself as one of Europe’s leading statesmen. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase a major interest in the Suez Canal Company in 1878 in order to consolidate the British hold on the route by which a 80% of the ships using the canal were British.
World events thereafter moved against the Conservatives. Controversial wars in Afghanistan and South Africa undermined his public support. He angered British farmers by refusing to reinstitute the Corn Laws in response to poor harvests and cheap imported grain. With Gladstone conducting a massive speaking campaign, his Liberals bested Disraeli’s Conservatives at the 1880 general election. In his final months, Disraeli led the Conservatives in Opposition.
Returning to Hughenden, Disraeli brooded over his electoral dismissal, but also resumed work on ‘Endymion’, which he had begun in 1872 and the work was rapidly completed and published in November 1880.
Suffering from asthma and gout, Disraeli went out as little as possible and In March, he fell ill with bronchitis, and emerged from bed only for a meeting with Salisbury and other Conservative leaders. As it became clear that this might be his final sickness, friends and opponents alike came to call.
Disraeli’s last confirmed words before dying at his home on 19 Curzon Street in the early morning of 19 April were “I had rather live but I am not afraid to die”.
Disraeli is buried with his wife in a vault beneath the Church of St Michael and All Angels which stands in the grounds of his home, Hughenden Manor, accessed from the churchyard.
Disraeli has a memorial in Westminster Abbey.