Benjamin Disraeli

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Benjamin Disraeli

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS (December 21, 1804 – April 19, 1881) was an English statesman and literary figure. He served in government for three decades, twice as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom the first and thus far only person of Jewish descent to do so, although Disraeli was baptized in the Anglican Church at an early age. Disraeli's most lasting achievement was the creation of the modern Conservative Party after the Corn Laws schism of 1846.

Although a major figure in the protectionist wing of the Conservative Party after 1846, Disraeli's relations with the other leading figures in the party, particularly Edward Smith-Stanley, 14th Earl of Derby, the overall leader, were often strained. Not until the 1860s would Derby and Disraeli be on easy terms, and the latter's succession of the former assured. From 1852 onwards Disraeli's career would also be marked by his often intense rivalry with William Ewart Gladstone, who eventually rose to become leader of the Liberal Party. In this duel, Disraeli was aided by his warm friendship with Queen Victoria, who came to detest Gladstone during the latter's first premiership in the 1870s. In 1876 Disraeli was raised to the peerage as the Earl of Beaconsfield, serving for nearly four decades in the House of Commons. He died in 1881.

Before and during his political career Disraeli was well-known as a literary and social figure, although his novels are not generally regarded as belonging to the first rank of Victorian literature. He mainly wrote romances, of which Sybil and Vivian Grey are perhaps the best-known today. He was and is unusual among British Prime Ministers for having gained equal social and political renown.

Disraeli was proud of his Jewish heritage and of the Jewish peoples' contribution to culture and civilization. He advocated a new type of Jew, replacing the Jews as 'victim' image with the Jew as hero image. he did much in Britain to promote equal rights for Jews. He was a friend of the first Jewish member if the House of Lords, Baron Rothschild (1840-1915) who financed the Suez Canal project. His son, the 2nd Baron (1868-1937) influenced Lord Balfour, author of the Balfour Declaration towards a sympathetic appreciation of Jewish concerns. The Rothschild family was a pioneer of Jewish settlement in Israel. In two of his novels, Disraeli's heroes worked for and achieve the return of Jews to Israel, a notion that Disraeli supported. His own interest in the region contributed to British desire to promote the colonization or settlement of Jews in Israel, which eventually resulted in the British mandate of Palestine. Mentioned in the anti-Jewish Protocols of the Elders of Zion as part of the alleged International Jewish conspiracy to take control of the world, he remains the subject of anti-Jewish propaganda[1][2]

Disraeli did much to promote a fuller democracy in Britain (the Reform Act, 1867), and to end the injustice and discrimination against his own people. He reportedly once responded to an anti-Jewish remark in Parliament with, "When the gentleman s ancestors were herding swine in Scandinavia, mine were receiving the holy tablets from the Deity on Mount Sinai".[3]

Early life

Isaac D'Israeli
Father of Benjamin Disraeli

Disraeli descended from Italian Sephardic Jews from both his maternal and paternal sides, although he claimed Spanish ancestry during his own lifetime, he may have just been referring to the fact that all Sephardim ultimately originate in Spain. [4] His father was the literary critic and historian Isaac D'Israeli who, though Jewish, in 1817 had Benjamin baptized in the Church of England, following a dispute with their synagogue. The elder D'Israeli (Benjamin changed the spelling in the 1820s by dropping the foreign-looking apostrophe) himself was content to remain outside organized religion. [5] Benjamin at first attended a small school in Blackheath called Eliot Place (later to evolve into St Piran's School). Beginning in 1817 Benjamin attended Higham Hall, in Walthamstow. His younger brothers, in contrast, attended the superior Winchester College, a fact which apparently grated on Disraeli and may explain his dislike of his mother, Maria D'Israeli.

His father destined him for the law, and he was articled to a solicitor in 1821. The law was, however, uncongenial, and by 1825 he gave it up. Disraeli was apparently determined to obtain independent means, and speculated on the stock exchange as early as 1824 on various South American mining companies. The recognition of the new South American republics on the recommendation of George Canning (1770-1827), Foreign Secretary and briefly Prime Minister, had led to a considerable boom, encouraged by various promoters and aggrandizers. In this connection Disraeli became involved with the financier John Diston Powles, one such booster. In the course of 1825 Disraeli wrote three anonymous pamphlets for Powles, promoting the companies.[6]

That same year Disraeli's financial activities brought him into contact with the publisher John Murray. Murray, like Powles and Disraeli, was involved in the South American mines. Accordingly, they attempted to bring out a newspaper, The Representative, to promote the cause of the mines and those politicians who supported the mines, specifically Canning. The newspaper was a failure, in part because the mining speculation "bubble" burst in late 1825, financially ruining Powles and Disraeli. Also, according to Disraeli's biographer, Robert Blake, Baron Blake, the paper was "atrociously edited," and would have failed anyway. The debts which Disraeli incurred through this affair would dog him the rest of his life.

Literary career

a Young Disraeli
by Sir Francis Grant, 1852

Disraeli now turned towards literature, and brought out his first novel, Vivian Grey, in 1827. Disraeli's biographers agree that Vivian Grey was a thinly-veiled re-telling of the affair of the Representative, and it proved very popular on its release, although it also caused much offense within the Tory literary world when Disraeli's authorship was discovered. The book, which was initially published anonymously, was purportedly written by a "man of fashion" – someone who moved in high society. Disraeli, then just 23 years old, did not move in high society, and the numerous solecisms present in Vivian Grey made this painfully obvious. Reviewers were sharply critical on these grounds of both the author and the book. Furthermore, Murray believed that Disraeli had caricatured him and abused his confidence–an accusation denied at the time, and by the official biography, although subsequent biographers (notably Blake) have sided with Murray.[7]

After producing a Vindication of the British Constitution, and some political pamphlets, Disraeli followed up Vivian Grey by a series of novels, The Young Duke (1831), Contarini Fleming (1832), Alroy (1833), Venetia and Henrietta Temple (1837). During the same period he had also written The Revolutionary Epick and three burlesques, Ixion, The Infernal Marriage, and Popanilla. Of these only Henrietta Temple (based on his affair with Henrietta Sykes) was a true success.


Sir Robert Peel, Bt.
Prime Minister 1834-1835, 1841-1846

Disraeli had been considering a political career as early as 1830, before he departed England for the Mediterranean. His first real efforts, however, did not come until 1832, during the great crisis over the Reform Bill, when he contributed to an anti-Whig pamphlet edited by Croker and published by Murray entitled England and France: or a cure for Ministerial Gallomania. The choice of a Tory publication was regarded as odd if not offensive by Disraeli's friends and relatives, who thought him more of a Radical. Indeed, Disraeli had objected to Murray about Croker inserting "high Tory" sentiment, writing that "it is quite impossible that anything adverse to the general measure of Reform can issue from my pen." Further, at the time a whimsical pamphlet entitled England and France, or a Cure for the Ministerial Gallomania, 1832, was published, Disraeli was in fact electioneering in High Wycombe in the Radical interest. [8] Disraeli's politics at the time were influenced both by his rebellious streak and by his desire to make his mark. In the early 1830s the Tories and the interests they represented appeared to be a lost cause. The other great party, the Whigs, was apparently anathema to Disraeli: "Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig." [9]

Though he initially stood for election, unsuccessfully, as a 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. The next year he settled his private life by marrying Mary Anne Lewis, the widow of Wyndham Lewis, Disraeli's erstwhile colleague at Maidstone.

Lord John Manners
Friend of Disraeli, and leading figure in the Young England movement

Although nominally a Conservative, Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists (universal suffrage and abolition of the property qualification for MPs and other democratic reforms) and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the middle class, helping to 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. During the twenty years which separated the Corn Laws and the Second Reform Bill Disraeli would seek Tory-Radical alliances, to little avail.

Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel passed over Disraeli when putting together his government in 1841 and Disraeli, hurt, gradually became a sharp critic of Peel's government, often deliberately adopting positions contrary to those of his nominal chief. The best known of these cases was the Maynooth grant in 1845 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 (the corn laws made it expensive to import corn, thus bread prices were also high for poorer people). The end of 1845 and the first months of 1846 were dominated by the battle in Parliament between the free traders and the protectionists over the repeal of the Corn Laws, with the latter rallying around Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck. An alliance of pro-Peel Conservatives, Radicals, and Whigs carried repeal, but the Conservative Party split in half. Peel and his followers, known as Peelites, moved towards the Whigs, while a new Conservative Party formed around the protectionists, led by Disraeli, Bentinck, and Edward Smith-Stanley, later 14th Earl of Derby.


The First Derby government

The first opportunity for Disraeli, Stanley, and the protectionist Tories to take office had come in 1851, when the government of John Russell, 1st Earl Russell had been defeated in the House of Commons over the Ecclesiastical Titles Act 1851[10] Disraeli was to have been Secretary of State for the Home Department, with Stanley (who became the Earl of Derby later that year) as Prime Minister. The Peelites, however, refused to serve under Stanley or with Disraeli, and attempts to create a purely protectionist government failed. [11]

The Earl of Derby Prime Minister 1852, 1858-1859, 1866-1868

Russell resumed office, but resigned again in early 1852 when a combination of the protectionists and Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston defeated him on a Militia Bill. This time Edward Smith-Stanley (Lord Derby as he had become) took office, and appointed Disraeli as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. Disraeli's first and primary responsibility was to produce a Budget for the coming fiscal year. He proposed to reduce taxes on Malt and Tea (indirect taxation); additional revenue would come from an increase in the property tax. More controversially, Disraeli also proposed to alter the workings of the Income tax (direct taxation) by "differentiating"–i.e., different rates would be levied on different types of income. [12] The establishment of the income tax on a permanent basis had been the subject of much inter-party discussion since the fall of Peel's ministry, but no conclusions had been reached, and Disraeli was criticized for mixing up details over the different "schedules" of income. He was also hampered by an unexpected increase in defense expenditure, which was forced on him by Derby and Sir John Pakington, 1st Baron Hampton, leading to his celebrated remark to John Bright about the "damned defenses." [13] This, combined with bad timing and perceived inexperience led to the failure of the budget and consequently the fall of the government in December of that year.

Nonetheless, William Ewart Gladstone's final speech on the budget marked the beginning of over 20 years of mutual parliamentary hostility and the end of Gladstone's formal association with the Conservative Party.

The Second & Third Derby governments

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.

After engineering the defeat of a Liberal Reform Bill introduced by Gladstone in 1866, Disraeli and Derby introduced their own measure in 1867.

William Ewart Gladstone
Four-time Prime Minister

This was primarily a political strategy designed to give Conservatives control of the reform process and thereby long term benefits in the Commons, similar to those derived by the Whigs after the 1832 Reform Act. The Reform Act of 1867 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. Historical constituencies now almost devoid of people and therefore in the gift of the local landowner with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants were no longer represented. Fifteen unrepresented towns were granted constituencies and extra representation was given to larger towns such as Liverpool and Manchester, which had previously been under-represented in Parliament. This act was unpopular with the right wing of the Conservative Party, most notably Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury who resigned from the government and spoke against the bill. Cranborne, however, was unable to lead a rebellion similar to that which Disraeli had led against Peel twenty years earlier.

Disraeli's involvement in the passing of the Second Reform Act 1867 had been seen as a cynical example of political opportunism. [14]On the other hand, there is reason to believe that Disraeli was a sincere democrat. He owed his own political career to merit and the vote of the people, since he was socially an outsider and from birth did not belong to the establishment. He promoted measures to protect workers, such as the 1874 Factory Act as well as the Education Act, providing free elementary schooling and believed that a person's labor was an valuable as their property.

Prime Minister

First government

Derby's health had been declining for some time and he finally resigned as Prime Minister in late February of 1868; he would live for another 20 months. Disraeli's efforts over the past two years had dispelled, for the time being, any doubts about him succeeding Derby as leader of the Conservative Party and therefore Prime Minister. As Disraeli remarked, "I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole." [15]

The Marquess of Salisbury
Three-time Prime Minister

However, the Conservatives were still a minority in the House of Commons, and the enacting of the Reform Bill required the calling of new election once the new voting register had been compiled. Disraeli's term as Prime Minister would therefore be fairly short, unless the Conservatives won the general election. He made only two major changes in the cabinet: he replaced Frederic Thesiger, 1st Baron Chelmsford as Lord Chancellor with Hugh Cairns, 1st Earl Cairns, and brought in George Ward Hunt as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli and Chelmsford had never gotten along particularly well, and Cairns, in Disraeli's view, was a far stronger minister. [16]

Disraeli's first premiership was dominated by the heated debate over the established Church of Ireland. Although Ireland was (and remains) overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, the Protestant Church remained the established church and was funded by direct taxation. An initial attempt by Disraeli to negotiate with Henry Edward Cardinal Manning the establishment of a Roman Catholic university in Dublin foundered in mid-March when William Ewart Gladstone moved resolutions to dis-establish the Irish Church altogether. The proposal divided the Conservative Party while reuniting the Liberals under Gladstone's leadership. While Disraeli's government survived until the 1868 December general election, the initiative had passed to the Liberals.[17]

Second government

However, in the 1868 election that followed, William Gladstone and the Liberals were returned to power with a majority of 170. After six years in opposition, Disraeli and the Conservative Party won 1874 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) all of which were of a reformist stamp, intended to improve the working conditions, education and welfare of working class people. His government also introduced a new Factory Act meant to protect workers, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) to allow peaceful picketing and the Employers and Workmen Act (1878) to enable workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legal contracts.

Disraeli and Queen Victoria.

Disraeli was a staunch British imperialist and helped strengthen the British Empire with his support for the construction of the Suez Canal which his friend, Lord Rothschild, the Jewish financier, bank rolled. He also achieved a diplomatic success at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 in limiting the growing influence of Russia in the Balkans and breaking up the League of the Three Emperors between Germany, Russia and Austria, a mainly anti-French and anti-republican alliance. However, difficulties in South Africa, epitomized by the defeat of the British Army at the Battle of Isandlwana, and Afghanistan weakened his government and likely led to his party's defeat in the 1880 election. However, he had opposed the policy of annexing Princely states in India, which was a direct cause of the events of 1857-1858, and once proposed a commission to inquire into the complaints of all classes of the Indian peoples.

He was elevated to the House of Lords in 1876 when Queen Victoria (who liked Disraeli both personally and politically) made him Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden. 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. His literary executor and for all intents and purposes his heir was his private secretary, Montagu Corry, 1st Baron Rowton.

Disraeli's governments

  • First Disraeli Ministry (February–December 1868)
  • Second Disraeli Ministry (February 1874–April 1880)


For some, Disraeli remains a controversial figure, part of a Jewish conspiracy to gain control of the world's finances and political institutions. For some, he is a champion of democracy, the founder of modern British conservatism that seeks to put money into people's hands so that they can exercise their personal preference in purchasing services, such as education and health care, from the provider of their choice, as opposed to the left-wing concept of free government provision paid for by higher taxation. Others see his democratic reforms in more cynical terms, as opportunism. Nonetheless, his political legacy remains one of increasing democratization and also of social reform. His support for the full emancipation of Jews, and concern that the legitimate complaints of Britain's Indian subjects be fully investigated, suggest a sincere not merely opportunistic interest in human welfare.

Works by Disraeli

Line drawing of Disraeli


  • Vivian Grey (1826)
  • Popanilla (1828)
  • 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)
  • Henrietta Temple (1837)
  • Venetia (1837)
  • The Tragedy of Count Alarcos (1839)
  • Coningsby, or the New Generation (1844)
  • Sybil, or The Two Nations (1845)
  • Tancred, or the New Crusade (1847)
  • Lothair (1870)
  • Endymion (1880)
  • Falconet (unfinished 1881)


  • An Inquiry into the Plans, Progress, and Policy of the American Mining Companies (1825)
  • Lawyers and Legislators: or, Notes, on the American Mining Companies (1825)
  • The present state of Mexico (1825)
  • England and France, or a Cure for the Ministerial Gallomania (1832)
  • What Is He? (1833)
  • The Letters of Runnymede (1836)
  • Lord George Bentinck (1852)

Biographies of Disraeli

  • Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969. ISBN 0198329032
  • Bradford, Sarah. Disraeli. New York: Stein and Day, 1983. ISBN 0812828992
  • Hibbert, Christopher. Disraeli and His World. London: Thames and Hudson, 1978. ISBN 0500130655
  • Hibbert, Christopher. Disraeli, a Personal History. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. ISBN 0007147171
  • Maurois, André. Benjamin Disraeli. Arnhem: Van Loghum Slaterus, 1929.
  • Monypenny, William and George Buckle. The Life of Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield. New York, Russell & Russell, 1968.
  • Pearson, Hesketh. Dizzy: a life of Benjamin Disreali. London: Penguin, 2001. ISBN 0141390891
  • Ridley, Jane. Young Disraeli, 1804-1846. New York: Crown Publishers, c1995 ISBN 0517586436
  • Smith, Paul. Disraeli: A Brief Life. Cambridge; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN 0521381509
  • Weintraub, Stanley. Disraeli. New York: Truman Talley Books/Dutton, 1993. ISBN 0525936688

Films featuring Disraeli

Statue in Parliament Square, London
  • Disraeli (1929) George Arliss (Academy Award for Best Actor), Joan Bennett
  • The Prime Minister (1941 in film|1941) John Gielgud
  • The Mudlark (1950) Alec Guinness
  • Disraeli (1978) Ian McShane, Mary Peach (Masterpiece Theatre four-part series)
  • Mrs. Brown (1997) Sir Antony Sher


  1. .For the Protocols.
  2. for an example of anti-Disraeli polemic, see [1]. Retrieved June 5, 2008.
  3. Ronald Hilton.[2]. "Jews: Nixon, Kissinger, and Disraeli." WAIS Stanford University. Retrieved June 5, 2008.
  4. Robert Blake. Disraeli. (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), 3. Norman Gash, reviewing Blake's work, argued that Benjamin's claim to Spanish ancestry could not be entirely dismissed. Norman Gash, review of Disraeli, by Robert Blake. The English Historical Review 83 (327) (April 1968): 360-364
  5. Opponents, however, continued to include the apostrophe in correspondence. Henry Pelham-Clinton, 5th Duke of Newcastle-under-Lyne, writing to Sir Robert Peel in 1846, referred to "D'Israeli." J. B. Conacher, "Peel and the Peelites, 1846-1850." The English Historical Review 73 (288) (July 1958): 435
  6. Blake, 24-26; Claudio Veliz, "Egana, Lambert, and the Chilean Mining Associations of 1825." The Hispanic American Historical Review 55 (4) (Nov., 1975): 637-663
  7. Stephen R. Graubard, review of Disraeli, by Robert Blake. The American Historical Review, 73 (1) (Oct., 1967): 139.
  8. Blake, 84-86.
  9. Blake, 87
  10. In 1850, the Catholic Church re-established a hierarchy in Britain. The Church of England had continued to use the original buildings and titles, such as Bishop of London. This act made it illegal for a Catholic bishop to enjoy the same style. The Catholics went ahead anyway, technically operating illegally until the Act was repealed in 1871.
  11. Blake, 301-305.
  12. P. R. Ghosh, "Disraelian Conservatism: A Financial Approach." The English Historical Review, Vol. 99, No. 391. (Apr., 1984), 269-273; H. C. G. Matthew, "Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Politics of Mid-Victorian Budgets." The Historical Journal, Vol. 22, No. 3. (Sep., 1979), 621.
  13. Bright's diary quotes the conversation in full. See George Trevelyan, The Life of John Bright, (London, 1913), 205-206
  14. Sean Lang, Parliamentary Reform, 1785-1928, (Routledge, 1999), passim.
  15. Blake, 485-487.
  16. Blake, 487-489.
  17. Blake, 496-502.
Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Blake, Robert. Disraeli. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969 ISBN 0198329032
  • Conancher, J. B. "Peel and the Peelites, 1846-1850." The English Historical Review 73(288) (July 1958): 431-452.
  • Gash, Norman. Review of Disraeli by Robert Blake. The English Historical Review 83(327) (April 1968): 360-364.
  • Ghosh, P. R. "Disraelian Conservatism: A Financial Approach." The English Historical Review 99(391) (April 1984): 268-296.
  • Graubard, Stephen R. Review of Disraeli by Robert Blake. The American Historical Review 73(1) (Oct., 1967): 139.
  • Jerman, B. R. The Young Disraeli. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960.
  • Lang, Sean. Parliamentary Reform, 1785-1928. London; New York: Routledge, 1999. ISBN 0415183995
  • Matthew, H.C.G. "Disraeli, Gladstone, and the Politics of Mid-Victorian Budgets." The Historical Journal. Vol. 22, No. 3. (Sep., 1979), 615-643.
  • Trevelyan, George Macaulay. The Life of John Bright Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, [original 1913] reprint 1971. ISBN 083714552X
  • Veliz, Claudio. "Egana, Lambert, and the Chilean Mining Associations of 1825." The Hispanic American Historical Review 55(4) (Nov., 1975): 637-663.


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