Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS, born Benjamin D’ Israeli, (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881), was a British Conservative statesman and literary figure. He served in government for three decades, twice as Prime Minister. He was the first Prime Minister of Jewish heritage, though he converted to the Anglican faith. He played an instrumental role in 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 1844, Disraeli’s relations with the other leading figures in the party, particularly Lord 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 Gladstone, who eventually rose to become the leader of the Liberal Party. In this feud, 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, capping nearly four decades in the House of Commons.
“I am a Conservative to preserve all that is good in our constitution, a Radical to remove all that is bad. I seek to preserve property and to respect order, and I equally decry the appeal to the passions of the many or the prejudices of the few.”
– Quote by Benjamin Disraeli, campaign speech
Before and during his political career, Disraeli was well-known as a literary and social figure, although his novels are not generally regarded as a part of the Victorian literary canon. He mainly wrote romances, of which Sybil and Vivian Grey are perhaps the best-known today. He is unusual among British Prime Ministers for having gained equal social and political renown.
Commentary on Life of Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli helped to define the Conservative ideology which was to stand for over 100 years. Fiercely patriotic and conservative, Disraeli was one of the most ardent supporters of the monarchy, the British Empire and the British way of life. He aspired that the British Empire would be a beacon of Liberty (Imperium et Libertas) though in practice this ideal was far from reality.
“It has been said that the people of this country are deeply interested in the humanitarian and philanthropic considerations involved in [the Eastern Question]. All must appreciate such feelings. But I am mistaken if there be not a yet deeper sentiment on the part of the people of this country, one with which I cannot doubt your lordships will ever sympathise, and that is—the determination to maintain the Empire of England.”
– Benjamin Disraeli (1877)
Yet, though he was undoubtedly a conservative on many issues, he helped to promote a greater sense of social duty amongst the Conservative party. He also helped to extend the popular vote with the great reform act of 1867. This attitude of benevolent Capitalism has been described as One Nation Conservatism. Over a century later, Mrs Thatcher was criticised for her apparent departure from this more compassionate aspect of Conservativism.
Disraeli was more than just a career politician, he was a writer and skilled debater and conversationalist. He developed a critical relationship with Queen Victoria when she passed into excess mourning following the death of her husband Prince Albert, Disraeli was one of the few who was able to coax her out of her isolation.
Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Benjamin Disraeli Biography”, Oxford, UK www.biographyonline.net, 11th Jan 2010. Last updated 20 February 2018.
Disraeli: A Biography
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