DISRAELI, BENJAMIN, EARL OF BEACONSFIELD:
English statesman; born at London, England, Dec. 21, 1804; died there April 19, 1881. The son of Isaac D'Israeli, he was descended from a wealthy Sephardic family of Venice, his grandfather having come to England to engage in commerce. He was educated at a private school, at which he used to "stand back" when Christian prayers were recited; but at the suggestion of the poet Rogers was baptized in 1817, immediately after the death of his grandfather, Benjamin D'Israeli. At the age of seventeen Disraeli was articled to Swain & Stevenson, solicitors, in the Old Jewry, and in 1824 entered Lincoln's Inn, but withdrew his name in 1831. At the age of twenty-two Disraeli wrote the novel "Vivian Grey," a political satire, and leaped into sudden notoriety. His health giving way, he spent the next three years traveling in the East. On this journey he visited Jerusalem, whence he derived the impressions which distinguish "Tancred," and probably those which afterward determined his philo-Turkish policy. Returning to England, he unsuccessfully contested High Wycombe (1834) and Taunton (1835). At Taunton he attacked the policy of O'Connell, the Irish patriot, who had written him a commendatory letter when he stood for Wycombe. O'Connell, replying, spoke of "the impenitent thief who died on the cross, and whose name, I verily believe, must have been Disraeli." Disraeli challenged the son of O'Connell to a duel on behalf of his father, but the affair came to nothing.
By this time Disraeli was well known. He had written in 1828 "The Infernal Marriage," "Ixion in Heaven," and "Popanilla," satirical burlesques. In 1836 his "Letters from Runnymede," directed against the government, caused considerable comment. Disraeli now mingled in the best society, though handicapped by a tendency to obtrude his personality. He adopted eccentricities of dress and opinion which nearly ruined his political prospects. Between 1831 and 1839 he wrote "The Young Duke," "Contarini Fleming," "The Wondrous Tale of Alroy"—the only novel by him dealing entirely with a Jewish subject (see Alroy) "The Rise of Iskander," "Vindication of the British Constitution," "The Revolutionary Epic," "Venetia," "Henrietta Temple," and "The Tragedy of Count Alarcos."Views on Judaism.
On the dissolution of 1837 Disraeli was returned for Maidstone with Mr. Wyndham Lewis. Disraeli's first speech in the House of Commons was a fiasco. His extraordinary appearance, his theatrical delivery, and above all the enmity of the O'Connell faction robbed him of the leniency usually shown to the maiden speeches of new members, and he was not allowed to finish; he sat down with the memorable prediction that the time would come when they would hear him. Sir Robert Peel, however, by no means acquiesced in the adverse judgment. In 1839 Disraeli married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, the widow of his late colleague, and was thenceforth free from pecuniary cares. He now purchased the country estate of Hughenden, and in 1841 was returned for Shrewsbury as a follower of Peel. The alliance did not last long. Peel gradually turned toward free trade, though his party had been elected pledged to protection, Disraeli becoming the spokesman of the malcontents. About this time he published two remarkable novels, "Coningsby" and "Sybil." The main idea of "Coningsby" was that the crown, released by the Reform Bill from an aristocracy which had usurped its functions, might regain its suspended powers, and thus solve many of the difficulties of the time. But "Coningsby" contains more than that. The most impressive character in the book is Sidonia, a Jew of immense wealth, through whom Disraeli expounds many of his views. Disraeli was proud of his Hebrew descent. He regarded Christianity as developed Judaism. "One half the world worships a Jew and the other half a Jewess," he said. Disraeli classed the Jews among the Caucasian nations, and claimed that no amount of persecution could destroy an unmixed and splendidly organized race. The Jews, he claimed, werethe aristocracy of nature. Disraeli did not plead for toleration, but for the admission of Jews to full privileges on account of their especial merits. "If the Jews had not prevailed upon the Romans to crucify our Lord, what would have become of the Atonement?" he asks in "Tancred." In "Coningsby" Sidonia says: "The Jews, independently of the capital qualities for citizenship which they possess, are a race essentially monarchical, deeply religious, and essentially Tories. The fact is, you can not crush a pure race of Caucasian organization. It is a physiological fact, a simple law of nature, which has baffled Egyptian and Assyrian kings, Roman emperors, and Christian inquisitors." He then remarks that the Jews lead all the intellectual movements in Europe, monopolize professorial chairs, and enter into political affairs. He, however, makes the blunder of classifying Soult and Masséna as Jews. Disraeli appears genuinely to have believed in Christianity as developed Judaism. He detested Colenso and the essayists of his school. In rejecting Darwinism he said: "I am on the side of the angels."Advocates Jewish Emancipation.
In his "Life of Lord George Bentinck." Disraeli devotes a chapter to a statement of the Jewish case. He begins by declaring that the Roman massacres, and the fact that the Diaspora had begun long before the death of Christ, make it impossible that the Jews of to-day can be descended from those who attended the crucifixion. Further, he says, the theory that the Jews are now expiating their offense is not dogmatically sound. "The native tendency of the Jewish race," he continues, "is against the doctrine of the equality of man. They have also another characteristic—the faculty of acquisition. Thus it will be seen that all the tendencies of the Jewish race are conservative. Their bias is to religion, property, and natural aristocracy, and it should be the interest of statesmen that . . . their energies and creative powers should be enlisted in the cause of existing society." Disraeli consistently and honorably supported all the bills for the removal of Jewish disabilities, and his conduct in this regard earned him the admiration of his great rival, Mr. Gladstone. "Sybil" deals with the squalor and wretchedness of the factory-workers. Here the Church is to play the part ascribed to the crown in "Coningsby." In 1847 "Tancred" appeared. In this book the hero, a duke's son, of course, goes to Jerusalem to seek inspiration, and Disraeli then describes the scenes which he had visited in early life.In Office.
He now bade farewell to literature for nearly five and twenty years. In 1848 Isaac D'Israeli died, and in the same year the death of Lord George Bentinck gave the Conservative leadership to Disraeli. During the next three years he reorganized the party, and won back the Peelites to Conservatism. In 1852 Lord Derby came into office and Disraeli became chancellor of the exchequer; but his budget was defeated in the first few months of the administration, and the Coalition Cabinet came into power. In 1852 he wrote the "Life of Lord George Bentinck," in which, besides his plea for the Jews, he gives a graphic account of the free-trade struggle. During the war with Russia he loyally supported the Coalition, but when the Aberdeen ministry fell in consequence of the mismanagement of the war, Lord Derby refused to take office without the aid of Mr. Gladstone or Lord Palmerston. This scornful treatment of his own followers angered Disraeli exceedingly. Disraeli was then forty-five years of age: he had lost an opportunity which did not again come to him for many years. In 1858 he and Lord Derby took office for a few months, but were beaten on their new Reform Bill. This year was distinguished by the admission of Jews to Parliament. The elections failed to give Lord Derby a clear majority, and the ministry was turned out of office on the ground of its failure to prevent the war between France and Austria. In 1863 Disraeli came into possession of the fortune of Mrs. Brydges Willyams, a lady of Jewish parentage who had taken great interest in him owing to his Jewish birth and connection with the De Laras, with whom her own family, the Mendez da Costas, had intermarried.
The great question which now agitated England was that of reform. In 1865 Lord Palmerston died, and the new premier, Lord John Russell, introduced a bill which was defeated on a matter of detail. He resigned, and Derby and Disraeli came into power. There had been some talk of ignoring Disraeli in favor of another leader, as he had made several tactical errors; but he had lived down his eccentricities and reconstructed his party, and though he had failed on the whole to win their confidence, he was too formidable to be overlooked. It was now that he made the celebrated "leap in the dark," which drew down upon him the wrath of Carlyle, who described him as "a superlative Hebrew conjurer, spellbinding all the great lords, great parties, great interests, of England." His new policy was bitterly denounced by many of his own party, but nevertheless restored the Conservatives to public confidence. Perceiving that reform was inevitable, he outbid the Whigs and introduced a bill of a far more radical nature than that proposed by his opponents. He lost three of his party in the process, Lord Cranborne (afterward Lord Salisbury), Lord Carnarvon; and General Peel; but the measure became law.At Berlin Congress.
Lord Derby now retired from political life and Disraeli became premier. In 1869 the elections went against him, and he yielded office to Mr. Gladstone. Refusing a peerage on giving up office, he nevertheless had his wife created Viscountess of Beaconsfield in her own right; four years later she died. In 1874 he was once more returned to power. It was the first time there had been a clear Tory majority for more than thirty years; and since 1848 he had had no real chance to display his abilities. Now nearly seventy, he was compelled to exchange the House of Commons for the less strenuous atmosphere of the House of Lords, becoming Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. At this time several Turkish provinces were in rebellion, and Russia, in defiance of treaty obligations, declared war upon the sultan. Public feeling was greatly excited against Turkey by the atrocities committed by the irregular troops in Bulgaria (which, however, were subsequently found to be greatly exaggerated), and Lord Beaconsfield was overruled in his desire to intervene on behalf of Turkey. His political enemies accused him of "Semitic instincts," though the Turks are not a Semitic race. But when Russia had practically effaced the Turkish empire in Europe by the treaty of San Stefano, Lord Beaconsfield sent the British fleet into the Dardanelles and brought Indian troops to Malta as an indication of the intentions of the British government. This latter act subjected him to the accusation of undermining the liberties of England by unconstitutional procedures. Russia submitted, and agreed to the discussion of the whole affair at the Congress of Berlin. Lord Beaconsfield went as a delegate, accompanied by the Marquis of Salisbury, and succeeded in compelling Russia to modify materially the terms of the treaty. By this congress it was decreed that Rumania should grant full religious freedom to her subjects. Disraeli's public interference on behalf of the Jews of Rumania consisted in supporting M. Waddington, who introduced the subject on behalf of France; but it is believed that he was more active, and took the initiative behind the diplomatic scenes. His whole conduct of affairs at the congress extorted the admiration of the assembled diplomats of Europe, and he had reason to boast on his return that he had brought back "peace with honor" (see Berlin Congress).
Among the other acts of Lord Beaconsfield during his administration was the enactment of the law by which Queen Victoria was proclaimed Empress of India. He annexed Cyprus, and in return for it guaranteed the protection of the Turkish dominions in Asia Minor. By a clever piece of business foresight he purchased a number of shares in the Suez Canal, which have since increased in value to an enormous extent. This was done at his own personal initiative, acting on a hint of Mr. Greenwood, and was carried through with the aid of the Rothschilds, who took some risks in buying the shares before Parliament had ratified the sale. Disraeli was on familiar terms with the Rothschild family, and would often listen at their table to the Hebrew grace after meals intoned according to the usual cantillation. "I like to listen to the old tunes," he remarked on one occasion.
In 1880 Mr. Gladstone was again returned on questions of domestic legislation. Lord Beaconsfield had no prospects of surviving Gladstone's administration, but nevertheless continued to direct the affairs of his party until his death. During his later years he wrote two more novels: "Lothair" (1870) and "Endymion" (1880). The anniversary of his death is celebrated as "Primrose Day," and in connection with it a large Conservative organization has grown up, known as the "Primrose League."
- Dictionary of National Biography;
- Froude, Earl of Beaconsfield;
- Georg Brandes, Lord Beaconsfield.