Portraits of Benjamin Disraeli: Left: Wood engraving fromThe Illustrated London News. Middle left: Caricature from Punch. Middle right: Pen and ink drawing by Philip H. Tree (fl. 1860-1908). Right: Statue in Parliament Square by Mario Razzi. [Click on thumbnails for larger images.]
Benjamin Disraeli served twice as Prime Minister, the first time from 27 February to 1 December 1868 and the second, 20 February 1874 to 21 April 1880. Disraeli was born on 21 December 1804 at Bedford Row, London, the eldest son and second of five children born to Isaac D'Israeli and his wife Maria Basevi. Although the family was Jewish, Benjamin was baptised at St. Andrew's Anglican church in 1817. He was educated at Miss Roper's school in Islington and then went to Higham Hall School in Walthamstow between 1817 and 1821. In 1824 he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn but he withdrew in 1831. After that Disraeli travelled throughout Europe and the Near East; whilst on his travels he contracted venereal disease and was subjected to the mercury treatment on his return to England. Since gonorrhoea causes sterility in males, this may explain why he remained childless. On his return he abandoned a career in Law to pursue one in writing.
In 1825 the daily newspaper The Representative appeared: it was founded by Disraeli and John Murray but it lasted only a few months. However, his first novel, Vivien Grey was published in April 1826, earning him £200. His first foray into political life was when he stood as a candidate for Wycombe in June 1832 but was not elected. He stood three times for Wycombe as an Independent Radical so in 1835 he committed himself to the Tory Party after Lyndhurst, the Lord Chancellor, became his political patron. Disraeli lost the Taunton by-election in April 1835 but by then he was an 'official' Tory candidate thanks to the efforts of Sir Francis Bonham and the Carlton Club. Disraeli had been conducting an affair with Lady Henrietta Sykes since 1833; it seems that her husband was aware of the liaison that continued for three years. They parted in the autumn of 1836.
In 1835 Disraeli and Daniel O'Connell quarrelled publicly over press reports that O'Connell had been called a 'traitor and incendiary' by Disraeli. The pair were to fight a duel but the police intervened and Disraeli was bound over to keep the peace. This was the first of their confrontations. In a heated debate in parliament, O'Connell referred to Disraeli's Jewish ancestry in disparaging terms to which Disraeli responded:
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.
By 1835 he had a number of publications to his name: The Voyage of Captain Popanilla (1828);The Young Duke (1831); Contarini Fleming (1832); The Wondrous Tale of Alroy and the Rise of the Iskander (1833); A Year at Hartlebury (1834) and the political pamphlet A Vindication of the English Constitution in a Letter to a Noble and Learned Lord by Disraeli the Younger (1835). He also attacked the Municipal Corporations Bill in fourteen anonymous articles in the Morning Post. In 1836 he produced a series of nineteen letters in The Times under the pseudonym 'Runnymede' that poked fun at identifiable members Melbourne's government. This did nothing to endear him to his contemporaries, especially after he entered parliament as MP for Maidstone in July 1837 during the general election, along with Wyndham Lewis. His maiden speech on the subject of Irish elections was something of a disaster: he was shouted down but ended it by saying, 'I sit down now but the time will come when you will hear me'. His second speech, delivered two weeks later, was deliberately dull and was received with more attention. In 1844 and prior to the start of the Famine, he summarised the "Irish question" in the following terms
... you have a starving population, an absentee aristocracy, and an alien church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world. That is the Irish Question.
In August 1839 Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis (the widow of Wyndham Lewis) and Disraeli were married. She was twelve years older than her new husband and at the time there was a great deal of gossip that he had married her for her money-which lasted only for her lifetime. There was no doubt that they were devoted to each other and in later years he teased her by saying that he had only married her for her money: her reply invariably was 'but if you had to do it again, you'd do it for love'. That year saw the first manifestation of Chartism; in a parliamentary debate on the Poor Law he expressed support for the Chartists and in June 1840 was one of only five MPs who protested at the harsh punishment meted out to the Chartist leaders.
On the resignation of Lord Melbourne in 1841, Peel was appointed as PM following the general election; Disraeli became the MP for Shrewsbury. He wrote to Peel asking for government office but was not made a member of the government. Consequently he attached himself to 'Young England', a group of young aristocrats who first entered parliament that year and were led by George Smythe. Other members were Lord John Manners and Alexander Baillie-Cochrane. They expressed a desire to return to the 'golden age' of agricultural society where paternalism and deference ensured that society worked for the benefit of all and the aristocracy ruled the land in justice and peace. By the end of 1844 the group had disintegrated.
In a speech in the House of Commons on 28 February 1845 Disraeli attacked Peel for disregarding the views of the Conservatives in parliament who opposed the alteration of the Corn Laws:
The Right Honourable Gentleman caught the Whigs bathing and walked away with their clothes. He has left them in the full enjoyment of their liberal position, and he is himself a strict conservative of their garments.
Disraeli also commented that 'a conservative government is an organised hypocrisy'. As it became increasingly obvious that Peel was likely to move for a repeal of the Corn Laws, a 'protectionist' group was established early in 1846 to oppose the PM from within his own party: the leaders of this group were Disraeli, Bentinck and Stafford O'Brien who spear-headed the parliamentary attacks on Peel. In May, Disraeli made a vicious attack on Peel in the Corn Law debates. Peel accused him of touting for office in 1841: Disraeli denied that he had done so, relying on the hope that Peel could not produce the letter. Although Peel managed to push the repeal of the Corn Laws through parliament he resigned over the Irish Coercion Act in June and was succeeded as PM by a Whig ministry led by Lord John Russell. Disraeli supported the Whig attempt to remove the civil disabilities still imposed on Jews and continued to do so for the next ten years until the legislation was successful.
Hughenden Manor, Buckinghamshire. Disraeli bought the house in 1847
When Russell resigned in 1852, the Earl of Derby formed his first ministry and Disraeli became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the so-called "Who? Who?" ministry. He spoke for five hours when presenting his first Budget but was answered by Gladstone, thus marking the opening of the parliamentary conflict between the two men. The Bill was defeated and the government resigned, giving way to Aberdeen's ministry that plunged the country into the Crimean War. Gladstone took over as Chancellor of the Exchequer in this ministry and an argument broke out between Gladstone and Disraeli over the furniture in No. 11 Downing Street and the Chancellor's robe that Disraeli refused to surrender. Aberdeen's ministry fell over the mis-handling of the war and was succeeded by that of Palmerston. In February 1858 Derby formed his second ministry and Disraeli again took the post of Chancellor of the Exchequer but the ministry lasted only for eighteen months; during that time, the government introduced a Reform Bill that was defeated by the Liberals. On his third appointment to the Treasury in 1866, Disraeli was responsible for putting the second Reform Bill to parliament: it was an attempt to broaden support for the Tory party. The Bill received royal assent in 1867 and Disraeli formed his first ministry in 1868 on the resignation of Derby on the grounds of ill health. His comment was 'I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole'. Once the new electoral register was ready a general election was held: the Liberals won a resounding victory and Gladstone formed his first administration. Queen Victoria created Mary Anne Disraeli the Countess of Beaconsfield. Mary Anne died in December 1872 leaving Disraeli devastated and reliant upon his private secretary, Monty Corry. In the 1874 general election the Tories were victorious and Disraeli formed his second ministry which saw the passing of a number of pieces of legislation including, in 1875
- two Trade Unions Acts
- Public Health Act
- Artisans' Dwelling Act
- Agricultural Holdings Act
- Factory Act
- Sale of Food and Drugs Act
- Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act
In 1878 Disraeli was elevated to the House of Lords as the Earl of Beaconsfield; his administration was attacked by Gladstone for its policy towards the Ottoman Empire. In 1876 the Bulgarian atrocities had taken place but Disraeli said that the press reports were exaggerated - this was something of a faux pas for him and Gladstone made the most of his opportunity, publishing a pamphlet The Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East later in the year. Another outbreak of Russo-Turkish hostilities erupted in the war of 1877 which ended with the Treaty of Adrianople in 1878 and was followed by the Congress of Berlin that was attended by Disraeli and Salisbury on behalf of Britain. The meeting culminated in the signing of the Treaty of Berlin and Disraeli claimed to have won 'peace with honour'. In 1880 he resigned as PM following a Liberal victory at the general election and became leader of the Opposition from the Lords. Always something of a dandy, he arrived at a dinner party wearing 'green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low shoes, sliver buckles, lace at his wrists and his hair in ringlets...' [Henry Bulmer]. He died a year later and was buried at Hughenden parish church in Buckinghamshire. He was 76 years old.
Blake, R. Disraeli. London, 1966.
Bradford, S. Disraeli. London, 1982.
Weintraub, S. Disraeli: A Biography. London, 1993.
Last modified 11 October 2002