Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (December 21, 1804 - April 24, 1881) was a British Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and author.
Disraeli's father was literary critic and historian Isaac D'Israeli who, though Jewish, had Benjamin baptised and raised in the Church of England.
Though he initially stood for election, unsuccessfully, as a Whig and Radical, Disraeli was a progressive Tory by the time he won a seat in the House of Commons in 1837 representing the constituency of Maidstone.
Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the middle class helping found the Young England group in 1842 to promote the view that the rich should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by the middle class.
Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel passed over Disraeli when putting together a Cabinet and Disraeli became a sharp critic of Peel's government. In Parliament, Disraeli became known for his defense of the protectionist Corn Laws, in opposition to fellow Conservative Sir Robert Peel's advocacy to repeal the laws, which Disraeli denounced as "laissez-faire capitalism".
Disraeli would lose the fight -- the repeal of the Corn Laws came at great political cost to the split Tory party. But Peel's betrayal of conservative ideology would cost him the ministry, and Disraeli would rise to fill the leadership void Peel's fall left in the Tory party.
In 1852 Lord Derby appointed Disraeli Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in the (in)famous Who? Who? Ministry. Disraeli's duel with William Gladstone over the Budget marked the beginning of thirty years of parliamentary hostility. Derby's government fell after a few months and Disraeli left government. In 1858, Derby returned to the office of the Prime Minister and again appointed Disraeli his Chancellor of the Exchequer and government leader of the House of Commons (as the Prime Minister sat in the House of Lords) with responsibilities to introduce reforms to parliament but his reforms would have disenfranchised some voters in the towns and were opposed by the Liberals and defeated. The ministry fell in 1859 and Disraeli returned to the opposition bench until 1866 when he again became Chancellor of the Exchequer and government leader in the House of Commons.
Under pressure from the Liberals, Disraeli introduced a Reform Act of 1867 which extended the franchise by 1,500,000 by giving the vote to male householders and male lodgers paying at least 10 pounds for rooms and eliminating rotten boroughs with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and granting constituencies to fifteen unrepresented towns and extra representation in parliament to larger towns such as Liverpool and Manchester which had previously been underrepresented in Parliament.
In 1868 Lord Derby resigned and Benjamin Disraeli became the new Prime Minister. However, in the 1868 General Election that followed, William Gladstone and the Liberals were returned to power with a majority of 170. During these times Disraeli and Salisbury were keen supporters of 'Killing Home Rule with Kindness'. In effect this mean that when in power they would grant Ireland anything they wanted except Home Rule. After six years in opposition, Disraeli and the Conservative Party won the 1874 General Election giving the party its first absolute majority in the House of Commons since the 1840s. Disraeli's government introduced various reforms such as the Artisans Dwellings Act (1875), the Public Health Act (1875), the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1875), the Climbing Boys Act (1875), the Education Act (1876). His government also introduced a new Factory Act meant to protect workers, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) to allowed peaceful picketing and the Employers and Workmen Act (1878) which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legal contracts.
Diraeli was a staunch Britain imperialist and helped strengthen the British Empire with his support for the construction of the Suez Canal. He also achieved a diplomatic success at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 in limiting the growing influence of Russia in the Balkans.
He was elevated to the House of Lords in 1876 when Queen Victoria made him Earl of Beaconsfield. He remained Prime Minister until 1880 when the Conservatives were defeated by William Gladstone's Liberals in that year's general election. Disraeli became ill soon after and died in April 1881.
He was Britain's first, and thus far only, Jewish Prime Minister. He was born to a Jewish family and baptized a Christian, but nevertheless continued to think of himself a Jew. Officially, he was a member of the Church of England, as members of other faiths were not allowed to sit in the House of Commons. His Jewish beliefs were an open secret, however. He was once attacked for being Jewish by the Irish nationalist politician Daniel O'Connell, to whom he replied:
- Yes, I am a Jew and when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.
Queen Victoria once asked him, "Mr Disraeli, what is your real religion? You were born a Jew and you forsook your great people. Now you are a member of the Church of England, but no one believes that you are a Christian at heart. Please tell me, who are you and what are you?" To which Disraeli is famously said to have replied, "Your Majesty, I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New."
Disraeli was a staunch supporter of Lionel de Rothschild's right to take a seat when he was elected to the House of Commons but not allowed to serve there. The bar on non-Christians sitting in Parliament was lifted after a long struggle, and Rothschild became the first Jewish member of the House of Commons in 1858, eleven years after first being elected.
Although he had had several notorious affairs, in his youth, Disraeli was ostentatiously faithful and attentive to his wife: Disraeli married, in 1839, the widow of his political colleague. Mary Anne Lewis was some twelve years older than he and a self-proclaimed flibbertigibbet.
Known to his friends as Dizzy, Disraeli himself had a fine, if wry, sense of humor and enjoyed the ambiguities of the English language. When an aspiring writer would send Disraeli an uninteresting manuscript to review, he liked to reply, "Dear Sir: I thank you for sending me a copy of your book, which I shall waste no time in reading." Disraeli's own novels have fallen out of literary fashion, but even those he came to regard as youthful follies are witty, racy chronicles of the age, and the mature works Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) also contain an entertaining exposition in fiction of Disraeli's political philosophy.
Lord Beaconsfield is buried in Hughenden, Buckinghamshire. The anniversary of his death on 19 April is known as Primrose Day.
Works by Disraeli
The works marked with (e-book) are freely available in electronical form from Project Gutenberg; follow the link to retrieve them:
- Vivian Grey (1826; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/9840))
- Popanilla (1828; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7816))
- The Young Duke (1831)
- Contarini Fleming (1832)
- Alroy (1833)
- The Infernal Marriage (1834)
- Ixion in Heaven (1834)
- The Revolutionary Epick (1834)
- The Rise of Iskander (1834; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7842))
- Henrietta Temple (1837)
- Venetia (1837)
- The Tragedy of Count Alarcos (1839); (e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7487))
- Coningsby, or the Younger Generation (1844; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7412))
- Sybil or, The Two Nations (1845; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/3760))
- Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847)
- Lothair (1870; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7835))
- Endymion (1880; e-book (http://www.gutenberg.net/etext/7926))
- Falconet (unfinished 1881)
Biographies of Beaconsfield
Films about Beaconsfield
- Mark Twain claimed that Disraeli originated the phrase, Lies, damned lies, and statistics, but it is unclear if this is actually one of his inventions (it was first popularized in Twain's autobiography, though attributed to Disraeli there); most who try to pin it down do award it to the prime minister.
- Your Majesty, I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.
- (On becoming Prime Minister) I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.
- It would be a tragedy if anybody were to push Mr. Gladstone into the river and a disaster if anybody were to pull him out again.
- A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.
- History of the Jews in England