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"Disraeli" and "Lord Beaconsfield" redirect here. For other uses, see Disraeli (disambiguation).

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield, KG, PC, FRS (21 December 1804 – 19 April 1881), was a British statesman of the Conservative Party who twice served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He played a central role in the creation of the modern Conservative Party, defining its policies and its broad outreach. Disraeli is remembered for his influential voice in world affairs, his political battles with the Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, and his one-nation conservatism or "Tory democracy". He made the Conservatives the party most identified with the glory and power of the British Empire. He is the only British prime minister to have been of Jewish birth. He was also a novelist, publishing works of fiction even as Prime Minister.

Disraeli was born in Bloomsbury, then a part of Middlesex. His father left Judaism after a dispute at his synagogue; young Benjamin became an Anglican at the age of 12. After several unsuccessful attempts, Disraeli entered the House of Commons in 1837. In 1846 the Prime Minister at the time, Sir Robert Peel, split the party over his proposal to repeal the Corn Laws, which involved ending the tariff on imported grain. Disraeli clashed with Peel in the House of Commons. Disraeli became a major figure in the party. When Lord Derby, the party leader, thrice formed governments in the 1850s and 1860s, Disraeli served as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons.

Upon Derby's retirement in 1868, Disraeli became Prime Minister briefly before losing that year's general election. He returned to the Opposition, before leading the party to winning a majority in the 1874 general election. He maintained a close friendship with Queen Victoria, who in 1876 appointed him Earl of Beaconsfield. Disraeli's second term was dominated by the Eastern Question—the slow decay of the Ottoman Empire and the desire of other European powers, such as Russia, to gain at its expense. Disraeli arranged for the British to purchase a major interest in the Suez Canal Company (in Ottoman-controlled Egypt). In 1878, faced with Russian victories against the Ottomans, he worked at the Congress of Berlin to obtain peace in the Balkans at terms favourable to Britain and unfavourable to Russia, its longstanding enemy. This diplomatic victory over Russia established Disraeli as one of Europe's leading statesmen.

World events thereafter moved against the Conservatives. Controversial wars in Afghanistan and South Africa undermined his public support. He angered British farmers by refusing to reinstitute the Corn Laws in response to poor harvests and cheap imported grain. With Gladstone conducting a massive speaking campaign, his Liberals bested Disraeli's Conservatives at the 1880 general election. In his final months, Disraeli led the Conservatives in Opposition. He had throughout his career written novels, beginning in 1826, and he published his last completed novel, Endymion, shortly before he died at the age of 76.

Early life[edit]


Disraeli was born on 21 December 1804 at 6 King's Road, Bedford Row, Bloomsbury, London,[n 1] the second child and eldest son of Isaac D'Israeli, a literary critic and historian, and Maria (Miriam), née Basevi.[2] The family was of Sephardic Jewish Italian mercantile background. All Disraeli's grandparents and great-grandparents were born in Italy; Isaac's father, Benjamin, moved to England from Venice in 1748.[4] Disraeli later romanticised his origins, claiming that his father's family was of grand Spanish and Venetian descent; in fact Isaac's family was of no great distinction,[5] but on Disraeli's mother's side, in which he took no interest, there were some distinguished forebears.[6][n 2] Historians differ on Disraeli's motives for rewriting his family history: Bernard Glassman argues that it was intended to give him status comparable to that of England's ruling elite;[7]Sarah Bradford believes "his dislike of the commonplace would not allow him to accept the facts of his birth as being as middle-class and undramatic as they really were".[8]

Disraeli's siblings were Sarah (1802–1859), Naphtali (born and died 1807), Ralph (1809–1898), and James ("Jem") (1813–1868). He was close to his sister, and on affectionate but more distant terms with his surviving brothers.[9] Details of his schooling are sketchy.[10] From the age of about six he was a day boy at a dame school in Islington that one of his biographers later described as "for those days a very high-class establishment".[11][n 3] Two years later or so—the exact date has not been ascertained—he was sent as a boarder to Rev John Potticary's St Piran's school at Blackheath.[16] While he was there events at the family home changed the course of Disraeli's education and of his whole life: his father renounced Judaism and had the four children baptised into the Church of England in July and August 1817.[10]

Isaac D'Israeli had never taken religion very seriously, but had remained a conforming member of the Bevis Marks Synagogue.[5] His father, the elder Benjamin, was a prominent and devout member; it was probably from respect for him that Isaac did not leave when he fell out with the synagogue authorities in 1813.[n 4] After Benjamin senior died in 1816 Isaac felt free to leave the congregation following a second dispute.[10][n 5] Isaac's friend Sharon Turner, a solicitor, convinced him that although he could comfortably remain unattached to any formal religion it would be disadvantageous to the children if they did so. Turner stood as godfather when Benjamin was baptised, aged twelve, on 31 July 1817.[17]

Conversion to Christianity enabled Disraeli to contemplate a career in politics. Britain in the early-nineteenth century was not a greatly anti-Semitic society, and there had been Members of Parliament (MPs) from Jewish families since Samson Gideon in 1770. But until 1858, MPs were required to take the oath of allegiance "on the true faith of a Christian", necessitating at least nominal conversion.[19] It is not known whether Disraeli formed any ambition for a parliamentary career at the time of his baptism, but there is no doubt that he bitterly regretted his parents' decision not to send him to Winchester College.[20] As one of the great public schools of England, Winchester consistently provided recruits to the political elite.[21] His two younger brothers were sent there, and it is not clear why Isaac D'Israeli chose to send his eldest son to a much less prestigious school.[22] The boy evidently held his mother responsible for the decision; Bradford speculates that "Benjamin's delicate health and his obviously Jewish appearance may have had something to do with it."[20] The school chosen for him was run by Eliezer Cogan at Higham Hill in Walthamstow. He began there in the autumn term of 1817;[16] he later recalled his education:

I was at school for two or three years under the Revd. Dr Cogan, a Greek scholar of eminence, who had contributed notes to the A[e]schylus of Bishop Blomfield, & was himself the Editor of the Greek Gnostic poets. After this I was with a private tutor for two years in my own County, & my education was severely classical. Too much so; in the pride of boyish erudition, I edited the Idonisian Eclogue of Theocritus, wh. was privately printed. This was my first production: puerile pedantry.[23]


In November 1821, shortly before his seventeenth birthday, Disraeli was articled as a clerk to a firm of solicitors—Swain, Stevens, Maples, Pearse and Hunt—in the City of London.[24] T F Maples was not only the young Disraeli's employer and friend of his father's, but also his prospective father-in-law: Isaac and Maples entertained the possibility that the latter's only daughter might be a suitable match for Benjamin.[25] A friendship developed, but there was no romance. The firm had a large and profitable business, and as the biographer R W Davis observes, the clerkship was "the kind of secure, respectable position that many fathers dream of for their children".[24] Although biographers including Robert Blake and Bradford comment that such a post was incompatible with Disraeli's romantic and ambitious nature, he reportedly gave his employers satisfactory service, and later professed to have learned a good deal from his time with the firm.[26] He recalled, "I had some scruples, for even then I dreamed of Parliament. My father's refrain always was 'Philip Carteret Webb', who was the most eminent solicitor of his boyhood and who was an MP. It would be a mistake to suppose that the two years and more that I was in the office of our friend were wasted. I have often thought, though I have often regretted the University, that it was much the reverse."[27]

The year after joining Maples' firm, Benjamin changed his surname from D'Israeli to Disraeli. His reasons for doing so are unknown, but the biographer Bernard Glassman surmises that it was to avoid being confused with his father.[28] Disraeli's sister and brothers adopted the new version of the name; Isaac and his wife retained the older form.[28][n 6]

Disraeli toured Belgium and the Rhine Valley with his father in the summer of 1824; he later wrote that it was while travelling on the Rhine that he decided to abandon his position: "I determined when descending those magical waters that I would not be a lawyer."[33] On their return to England he left the solicitors, at the suggestion of Maples, with the aim of qualifying as a barrister. He enrolled as a student at Lincoln's Inn and joined the chambers of his uncle, Nathaniel Basevy, and then those of Benjamin Austen, who persuaded Isaac that Disraeli would never make a barrister and should be allowed to pursue a literary career.[34] He had made a tentative start: in May 1824 he submitted a manuscript to his father's friend, the publisher John Murray, but withdrew it before Murray could decide whether to publish it.[35] Released from the law, Disraeli did some work for Murray, but turned most of his attention not to literature but to speculative dealing on the stock exchange.[36]

There was at the time a boom in shares in South American mining companies. Spain was losing its South American colonies in the face of rebellions. At the urging of George Canning the British government recognised the new independent governments of Argentina (1824), Colombia and Mexico (both 1825).[37] With no money of his own, Disraeli borrowed money to invest. He became involved with the financier J. D. Powles, who was prominent among those encouraging the mining boom. In the course of 1825, Disraeli wrote three anonymous pamphlets for Powles, promoting the companies.[38] The pamphlets were published by John Murray, who invested heavily in the boom.[39]

Murray had for some time had ambitions to establish a new morning paper to compete with The Times.[40] In 1825 Disraeli convinced him that he should proceed. The new paper, The Representative, promoted the mines and those politicians who supported them, particularly Canning. Disraeli impressed Murray with his energy and commitment to the project, but he failed in his key task of persuading the eminent writer John Gibson Lockhart to edit the paper. After that, Disraeli's influence on Murray waned, and to his resentment he was sidelined in the affairs of The Representative.[40] The paper survived for only six months, partly because the mining bubble burst in late 1825, and partly because, according to Blake, the paper was "atrociously edited", and would have failed regardless.[41]

The bursting of the mining bubble was ruinous for Disraeli. By June 1825 he and his business partners had lost £7,000. Disraeli could not pay off the last of his debts from this debacle until 1849.[42] He turned to writing, motivated partly by his desperate need for money, and partly by a wish for revenge on Murray and others by whom he felt slighted.[43] There was a vogue for what was called "silver-fork fiction"—novels depicting aristocratic life, usually by anonymous authors, read avidly by the aspirational middle classes.[44] Disraeli's first novel, Vivian Grey, published anonymously in four volumes in 1826–27, was a thinly veiled re-telling of the affair of The Representative.[45] It sold well, but caused much offence in influential circles when the authorship was discovered.[45] Disraeli, then just 23 years old, did not move in high society, as the numerous solecisms in his book made obvious. Reviewers were sharply critical on these grounds of both the author and the book. Furthermore, Murray and Lockhart, men of great influence in literary circles, believed that Disraeli had caricatured them and abused their confidence—an accusation denied by the author but repeated by many of his biographers.[46] In later editions Disraeli made many changes, softening his satire, but the damage to his reputation proved long-lasting.[42]

Disraeli's biographer Jonathan Parry writes that the financial failure and personal criticism that Disraeli suffered in 1825 and 1826 were probably the trigger for a serious nervous crisis affecting him over the next four years: "He had always been moody, sensitive, and solitary by nature, but now became seriously depressed and lethargic."[42] He was still living with his parents in London, but in search of the "change of air" recommended by the family's doctors Isaac took a succession of houses in the country and on the coast, before Disraeli sought wider horizons.[47]


Together with his sister's fiancé, William Meredith, Disraeli travelled widely in southern Europe and beyond in 1830–31.[n 7] The trip was financed partly by another high society novel, The Young Duke, written in 1829–30. The tour was cut short suddenly by Meredith's death from smallpox in Cairo in July 1831.[n 8] Despite this tragedy, and the need for treatment for a sexually transmitted disease on his return, Disraeli felt enriched by his experiences. He became, in Parry's words, "aware of values that seemed denied to his insular countrymen. The journey encouraged his self-consciousness, his moral relativism, and his interest in Eastern racial and religious attitudes."[42] Blake regards the tour as one of the formative experiences of Disraeli's whole career: "[T]he impressions that it made on him were life-lasting. They conditioned his attitude toward some of the most important political problems which faced him in his later years—especially the Eastern Question; they also coloured many of his novels."[50]

Disraeli wrote two novels in the aftermath of the tour. Contarini Fleming (1832) was avowedly a self-portrait. It is subtitled "a psychological autobiography", and depicts the conflicting elements of its hero's character: the duality of northern and Mediterranean ancestry, the dreaming artist and the bold man of action. As Parry observes, the book ends on a political note, setting out Europe's progress "from feudal to federal principles".[42]The Wondrous Tale of Alroy the following year portrayed the problems of a medieval Jew in deciding between a small, exclusively Jewish state and a large empire embracing all.[42]

After the two novels were published, Disraeli declared that he would "write no more about myself".[51] He had already turned his attention to politics in 1832, during the great crisis over the Reform Bill. He contributed to an anti-Whig pamphlet edited by John Wilson Croker and published by Murray entitled England and France: or a cure for Ministerial Gallomania. The choice of a Tory publication was regarded as strange by Disraeli's friends and relatives, who thought him more of a Radical. Indeed, he had objected to Murray about Croker's inserting "high Tory" sentiment: Disraeli remarked, "it is quite impossible that anything adverse to the general measure of Reform can issue from my pen."[n 9] Moreover, at the time Gallomania was published, Disraeli was electioneering in High Wycombe in the Radical interest.[54]

Disraeli's politics at the time were influenced both by his rebellious streak and by his desire to make his mark.[55] At that time, the politics of the nation were dominated by members of the aristocracy, together with a few powerful commoners. The Whigs derived from the coalition of Lords who had forced through the Bill of Rights in 1689 and in some cases were their actual descendants, not merely spiritual. The Tories tended to support King and Church, and sought to thwart political change. A small number of Radicals, generally from northern constituencies, were the strongest advocates of continuing reform.[56] In the early-1830s the Tories and the interests they represented appeared to be a lost cause. The other great party, the Whigs, were anathema to Disraeli: "Toryism is worn out & I cannot condescend to be a Whig."[55] There were two general elections in 1832; Disraeli unsuccessfully stood as a Radical at High Wycombe in each.[57]

Disraeli's political views embraced certain Radical policies, particularly democratic reform of the electoral system, and also some Tory ones, including protectionism. He began to move in Tory circles. In 1834 he was introduced to the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, by Henrietta Sykes, wife of Sir Francis Sykes. She was having an affair with Lyndhurst, and began another with Disraeli.[n 10] Disraeli and Lyndhurst took an immediate liking to each other. Lyndhurst was an indiscreet gossip with a fondness for intrigue; this appealed greatly to Disraeli, who became his secretary and go-between. In 1835 Disraeli stood for the last time as a Radical, unsuccessfully contesting High Wycombe once again.

In April 1835, Disraeli fought a by-election at Taunton as a Tory candidate.[60] The Irish MP Daniel O'Connell, misled by inaccurate press reports, thought Disraeli had slandered him while electioneering at Taunton; he launched an outspoken attack, referring to Disraeli as:

a reptile ... just fit now, after being twice discarded by the people, to become a Conservative. He possesses all the necessary requisites of perfidy, selfishness, depravity, want of principle, etc., which would qualify him for the change. His name shows that he is of Jewish origin. I do not use it as a term of reproach; there are many most respectable Jews. But there are, as in every other people, some of the lowest and most disgusting grade of moral turpitude; and of those I look upon Mr. Disraeli as the worst.[61]

Disraeli's public exchanges with O'Connell, extensively reproduced in The Times,[62] included a demand for a duel with the 60-year-old O'Connell's son (which resulted in Disraeli's temporary detention by the authorities), a reference to "the inextinguishable hatred with which [he] shall pursue [O'Connell's] existence", and the accusation that O'Connell's supporters had a "princely revenue wrung from a starving race of fanatical slaves".[63] Disraeli was highly gratified by the dispute, which propelled him to general public notice for the first time.[64] He did not defeat the incumbent Whig member, Henry Labouchere, but the Taunton constituency was regarded as unwinnable by the Tories. Disraeli kept Labouchere's majority down to 170,[65] a good showing that put him in line for a winnable seat in the near future.[66]

With Lyndhurst's encouragement Disraeli turned to writing propaganda for his newly adopted party. His Vindication of the English Constitution, was published in December 1835. It was couched in the form of an open letter to Lyndhurst, and in Bradford's view encapsulates a political philosophy that Disraeli adhered to for the rest of his life.[67] Its themes were the value of benevolent aristocratic government, a loathing of political dogma, and the modernisation of Tory policies.[68] The following year he wrote a series of satires on politicians of the day, which he published in The Times under the pen-name "Runnymede". His targets included the Whigs, collectively and individually, Irish nationalists, and political corruption. One essay ended:

The English nation, therefore, rallies for rescue from the degrading plots of a profligate oligarchy, a barbarizing sectarianism, and a boroughmongering Papacy, round their hereditary leaders—the Peers. The House of Lords, therefore, at this moment represents everything in the realm except the Whig oligarchs, their tools the Dissenters, and their masters the Irish priests. In the mean time, the Whigs bawl that there is a "collision!" It is true there is a collision, but it is not a collision between the Lords and the People, but between the Ministers and the Constitution.[69]

Disraeli was now firmly in the Tory camp. He was elected to the exclusively Tory Carlton Club in 1836, and was also taken up by the party's leading hostess, Lady Londonderry.[70] In June 1837 William IV died, the young Queen Victoria, his niece, succeeded him, and parliament was dissolved.[71] On the recommendation of the Carlton Club, Disraeli was adopted as a Tory parliamentary candidate at the ensuing general election.



In the election in July 1837 Disraeli won a seat in the House of Commons as one of two members, both Tory, for the constituency of Maidstone.[72] The other was Wyndham Lewis, who helped finance Disraeli's election campaign, and who died the following year.[73] In the same year Disraeli published a novel, Henrietta Temple, which was a love story and social comedy, drawing on his affair with Henrietta Sykes. He had broken off the relationship in late 1836, distraught that she had taken yet another lover.[74] His other novel of this period is Venetia, a romance based on the characters of Shelley and Byron, written quickly to raise much-needed money.[75]

Disraeli made his maiden speech in Parliament on 7 December 1837. He followed O'Connell, whom he sharply criticised for the latter's "long, rambling, jumbling, speech".[76] He was shouted down by O'Connell's supporters.[n 11] After this unpromising start Disraeli kept a low profile for the rest of the parliamentary session. He was a loyal supporter of the party leader Sir Robert Peel and his policies, with the exception of a personal sympathy for the Chartist movement that most Tories did not share.[42]

In 1839 Disraeli married Mary Anne Lewis, the widow of Wyndham Lewis. Twelve years Disraeli's senior, Mary Lewis had a substantial income of £5,000 a year. His motives were generally assumed to be mercenary, but the couple came to cherish one another, remaining close until she died more than three decades later.[79] "Dizzy married me for my money", his wife said later, "But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love."[80]

Finding the financial demands of his Maidstone seat too much, Disraeli secured a Tory nomination for Shrewsbury, winning one of the constituency's two seats at the 1841 general election, despite serious opposition, and heavy debts which opponents seized on.[81] The election was a massive defeat for the Whigs across the country, and Peel became Prime Minister.[82] Disraeli hoped, unrealistically, for ministerial office.[n 12] Though disappointed at being left on the back benches, he continued his support for Peel in 1842 and 1843, seeking to establish himself as an expert on foreign affairs and international trade.[42]

Although a Tory (or Conservative, as some in the party now called themselves)[n 13] Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the aims of Chartism, and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the merchants and new industrialists in the middle class.[88] After Disraeli won widespread acclaim in March 1842 for worsting the formidable Lord Palmerston in debate, he was taken up by a small group of idealistic new Tory MPs, with whom he formed the Young England group. They held that the landed interests should use their power to protect the poor from exploitation by middle-class businessmen.[89]

For many years in his parliamentary career Disraeli hoped to forge a paternalistic Tory-Radical alliance, but he was unsuccessful. Before the Reform Act 1867, the working class did not possess the vote and therefore had little political power. Although Disraeli forged a personal friendship with John Bright, a Lancashire manufacturer and leading Radical, Disraeli was unable to persuade Bright to sacrifice his distinct position for parliamentary advancement. When Disraeli attempted to secure a Tory-Radical cabinet in 1852, Bright refused.[90][n 14]

Disraeli gradually became a sharp critic of Peel's government, often deliberately taking positions contrary to those of his nominal chief. The best known of these stances were over the Maynooth Grant in 1845 and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. But the young MP had attacked his leader as early as 1843 on Ireland and then on foreign policy interventions. In a letter of February 1844, he slighted the Prime Minister for failing to send him a Policy Circular. He laid into the Whigs as freebooters, swindlers and conmen but Peel's own Free Trade policies were directly in the firing line.[91]

The President of the Board of Trade, William Gladstone, resigned from the cabinet over the Maynooth Grant.[92] The Corn Laws imposed a tariff on imported wheat, protecting British farmers from foreign competition, but making the cost of bread artificially high. Peel hoped that the repeal of the Corn Laws and the resultant influx of cheaper wheat into Britain would relieve the condition of the poor, and in particular the suffering caused by successive failure of potato crops in Ireland—the Great Famine.[93][n 15]

The first months of 1846 were dominated by a 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. The landowning interest in the Party, under its leader, William Miles MP for East Somerset, had called upon Disraeli to lead the Party. Disraeli had declined, though pledged support to the Country Gentlemen's Interes, as Bentink had offered to lead if he had Disraeli's support. Disraeli stated, in a letter to Sir William Miles of 11 June 1860, that he wished to help "because, from my earliest years, my sympathies had been with the landed interest of England".[95]

An alliance of free-trade Conservatives (the "Peelites"), Radicals, and Whigs carried repeal,[96] and the Conservative Party split: the Peelites moved towards the Whigs, while a "new" Conservative Party formed around the protectionists, led by Disraeli, Bentinck, and Lord Stanley (later Lord Derby).[97]

The split in the Tory party over the repeal of the Corn Laws had profound implications for Disraeli's political career: almost every Tory politician with experience of office followed Peel, leaving the rump bereft of leadership. In Blake's words, "[Disraeli] found himself almost the only figure on his side capable of putting up the oratorical display essential for a parliamentary leader."[98] Looking on from the House of Lords, the Duke of Argyll wrote that Disraeli "was like a subaltern in a great battle where every superior officer was killed or wounded".[99] If the Tory Party could muster the electoral support necessary to form a government, then Disraeli now seemed to be guaranteed high office. However, he would take office with a group of men who possessed little or no official experience, who had rarely felt moved to speak in the House of Commons, and who, as a group, remained hostile to Disraeli on a personal level.[100] In the event the matter was not put to the test, as the Tory split soon had the party out of office, not regaining power until 1852.[101] The Conservatives would not again have a majority in the House of Commons until 1874.[102]

Bentinck and the leadership[edit]

Peel successfully steered the repeal of the Corn Laws through Parliament, and was then defeated by an alliance of all his enemies on the issue of Irish law and order; he resigned in June 1846. The Tories remained split and the Queen sent for Lord John Russell, the Whig leader. In the 1847 general election, Disraeli stood, successfully, for the Buckinghamshire constituency.[103] The new House of Commons had more Conservative than Whig members, but the depth of the Tory schism enabled Russell to continue to govern. The Conservatives were led by Bentinck in the Commons and Stanley in the Lords.[98]

In 1847 a small political crisis occurred which removed Bentinck from the leadership and highlighted Disraeli's differences with his own party. In that year's general election, Lionel de Rothschild had been returned for the City of London. As a practising Jew he could not take the oath of allegiance in the prescribed Christian form, and therefore could not take his seat. Lord John Russell, the Whig leader who had succeeded Peel as Prime Minister and like Rothschild was a member for the City of London, proposed in the Commons that the oath should be amended to permit Jews to enter Parliament.[104]

Disraeli spoke in favour of the measure, arguing that Christianity was "completed Judaism", and asking the House of Commons "Where is your Christianity if you do not believe in their Judaism?"[105] Russell and Disraeli's future rival Gladstone thought it brave of him to speak as he did;[106] the speech was badly received by his own party. The Tories and the Anglican establishment were hostile to the bill.[n 16]Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, spoke strongly against the measure and implied that Russell was paying off the Jews for helping elect him.[107] With the exception of Disraeli, every member of the future protectionist cabinet then in Parliament voted against the measure. One who was not yet an MP, Lord John Manners, stood against Rothschild when the latter re-submitted himself for election in 1849. Disraeli, who had attended the Protectionists dinner at the Merchant Taylors Hall, joined Bentinck in speaking and voting for the bill, although his own speech was a standard one of toleration. The measure was voted down.[108]

In the aftermath of the debate Bentinck resigned the leadership and was succeeded by Lord Granby; Disraeli's own speech, thought by many of his own party to be blasphemous, ruled him out for the time being.[109] While these intrigues played out, Disraeli was working with the Bentinck family to secure the necessary financing to purchase Hughenden Manor, in Buckinghamshire. The possession of a country house, and incumbency of a county constituency were regarded as essential for a Tory with ambitions to lead the party. Disraeli and his wife alternated between Hughenden and several homes in London for the rest of their marriage. The negotiations were complicated by Bentinck's sudden death on 21 September 1848, but Disraeli obtained a loan of £25,000 from Bentinck's brothers Lord Henry Bentinck and Lord Titchfield.[110]

Within a month of his appointment Granby resigned the leadership in the Commons, feeling himself inadequate to the post, and the party functioned without a leader in the Commons for the rest of the parliamentary session. At the start of the next session, affairs were handled by a triumvirate of Granby, Disraeli, and John Charles Herries—indicative of the tension between Disraeli and the rest of the party, who needed his talents but mistrusted him. This confused arrangement ended with Granby's resignation in 1851; Disraeli effectively ignored the two men regardless.[111]


First Derby government[edit]

Main article: Who? Who? ministry

In March 1851, Lord John Russell's government was defeated over a bill to equalise the county and borough franchises, mostly because of divisions among his supporters. He resigned, and the Queen sent for Stanley, who felt that a minority government could do little and would not last long, so Russell remained in office. Disraeli regretted this, hoping for an opportunity, however brief, to show himself capable in office.[112] Stanley, on the other hand, deprecated his inexperienced followers as a reason for not assuming office, "These are not names I can put before the Queen."[113]

At the end of June 1851, Stanley's father died, and he succeeded to his title as Earl of Derby.[114] The Whigs were wracked by internal dissensions during the second half of 1851, much of which Parliament spent in recess. Russell dismissed Lord Palmerston from the cabinet, leaving the latter determined to deprive the Prime Minister of office as well. Palmerston did so within weeks of Parliament's reassembly on 4 February 1852, his followers combining with Disraeli's Tories to defeat the government on a Militia Bill, and Russell resigned. Derby had either to take office or risk damage to his reputation[115] and he accepted the Queen's commission as Prime Minister. Palmerston declined any office; Derby had hoped to have him as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli, his closest ally, was his second choice and accepted, though disclaiming any great knowledge in the financial field. Gladstone refused to join the government.[116] Disraeli may have been attracted to the office by the £5,000 per year salary, which would help pay his debts.[117] Few of the new cabinet had held office before; when Derby tried to inform the Duke of Wellington of the names of the Queen's new ministers, the old Duke, who was somewhat deaf, inadvertently branded the new government by incredulously repeating "Who? Who?"[115]

In the following weeks, Disraeli served as Leader of the House (with Derby as Prime Minister in the Lords) and as Chancellor. He wrote regular reports on proceedings in the Commons to Victoria, who described them as "very curious" and "much in the style of his books".[117] Parliament was prorogued on 1 July 1852 as the Tories could not govern for long as a minority; Disraeli hoped that they would gain a majority of about 40. Instead, the election later that month had no clear winner, and the Derby government held to power pending the meeting of Parliament.[118]

Disraeli's task as Chancellor was to devise a budget which would satisfy the protectionist elements who supported the Tories, without uniting the free-traders against it.[119] His proposed budget, which he presented to the Commons on 3 December, lowered the taxes on malt and tea, provisions designed to appeal to the working class. To make his budget revenue-neutral, as funds were needed to provide defences against the French, he doubled the house tax and continued the income tax.[120] Disraeli's overall purpose was to enact policies which would benefit the working classes, making his party more attractive to them.[121] Although the budget did not contain protectionist features, the opposition was prepared to destroy it—and Disraeli's career as Chancellor—in part out of revenge for his actions against Peel in 1846. MP Sidney Herbert predicted that the budget would fail because "Jews make no converts".[120]

Disraeli delivered the budget on 3 December 1852,[122] and prepared to wind up the debate for the government on 16 December—it was customary for the Chancellor to have the last word. A massive defeat for the government was predicted. Disraeli attacked his opponents individually, and then as a force, "I face a Coalition ... This, too, I know, that England does not love coalitions."[123] His speech of three hours was quickly seen as a parliamentary masterpiece. As MPs prepared to divide, Gladstone rose to his feet and began an angry speech, despite the efforts of Tory MPs to shout him down.[124] The interruptions were fewer, as Gladstone gained control of the House, and in the next two hours painted a picture of Disraeli as frivolous and his budget as subversive. The government was defeated by 19 votes, and Derby resigned four days later. He was replaced by the Peelite Earl of Aberdeen, with Gladstone as his Chancellor.[125] Because of Disraeli's unpopularity among the Peelites, no party reconciliation was possible while he remained Tory leader in the House of Commons.[126]


With the fall of the government, Disraeli and the Conservatives returned to the opposition benches. Disraeli would spend three-quarters of his 44-year parliamentary career in opposition. Derby was reluctant to seek to unseat the government, fearing a repetition of the Who? Who? Ministry and knowing that despite his lieutenant's strengths, shared dislike of Disraeli was part of what had formed the governing coalition. Disraeli, on the other hand, was anxious to return to office. In the interim, Disraeli, as Conservative leader in the Commons, opposed the government on all major measures.[127]

In June 1853 Disraeli was awarded an honorary degree by Oxford University. He had been recommended for it by Lord Derby, the university's Chancellor.[128] The start of the Crimean War in 1854 caused a lull in party politics; Disraeli spoke patriotically in support. The British military efforts were marked by bungling, and in 1855 a restive Parliament considered a resolution to establish a committee on the conduct of the war. The Aberdeen government chose to make this a motion of confidence; Disraeli led the opposition to defeat the government, 305 to 148. Aberdeen resigned, and the Queen sent for Derby, who to Disraeli's frustration refused to take office. Palmerston was deemed essential to any Whig ministry, and he would not join any he did not head. The Queen reluctantly asked Palmerston to form a government.[129] Under Palmerston, the war went better, and was ended by the Treaty of Paris in early 1856. Disraeli was early to call for peace, but had little influence on events.[130]

When a rebellion broke out in India in 1857, Disraeli took a keen interest in affairs, having been a member of a select committee in 1852 which considered how best to rule the subcontinent, and had proposed eliminating the governing role of the British East India Company. After peace was restored, and Palmerston in early 1858 brought in legislation for direct rule of India by the Crown, Disraeli opposed it. Many Conservative MPs refused to follow him and the bill passed the Commons easily.[131]

Palmerston's grip on the premiership was weakened by his response to the Orsini affair, in which an attempt was made to assassinate the French Emperor Napoleon III by an Italian revolutionary with a bomb made in Birmingham. At the request of the French ambassador, Palmerston put forward amendments to the conspiracy to murder statute, proposing to make creating an infernal device a felony rather than a misdemeanour. He was defeated by 19 votes on the second reading, with many Liberals crossing the aisle against him. He immediately resigned, and Lord Derby returned to office.[132]

Second Derby government[edit]

Main article: Second Derby–Disraeli ministry

Derby took office at the head of a purely "Conservative" administration, not in coalition with any other faction. He again offered a place to Gladstone, who declined. Disraeli was once more leader of the House of Commons and returned to the Exchequer. As in 1852, Derby led a minority government, dependent on the division of its opponents for survival.[133] As Leader of the House, Disraeli resumed his regular reports to Queen Victoria, who had requested that he include what she "could not meet in newspapers".[134]

During its brief life of just over a year, the Derby government proved moderately progressive. The Government of India Act 1858 ended the role of the East India Company in governing the subcontinent.[135] It also passed the Thames Purification Bill, which funded the construction of much larger sewers for London.[136] Disraeli had supported efforts to allow Jews to sit in Parliament—the oaths required of new members could only be made in good faith by a Christian. Disraeli had a bill passed through the Commons allowing each house of Parliament to determine what oaths its members should take. This was grudgingly agreed to by the House of Lords, with a minority of Conservatives joining with the opposition to pass it. In 1858, Baron Lionel de Rothschild became the first MP to profess the Jewish faith.[137]

Faced with a vacancy,[n 17] Disraeli and Derby tried yet again to bring Gladstone, still nominally a Conservative MP, into the government, hoping to strengthen it. Disraeli wrote a personal letter to Gladstone, asking him to place the good of the party above personal animosity: "Every man performs his office, and there is a Power, greater than ourselves, that disposes of all this."[139] In responding to Disraeli, Gladstone denied that personal feelings played any role in his decisions then and previously whether to accept office, while acknowledging that there were differences between him and Derby "broader than you may have supposed".[140]

The Tories pursued a Reform Bill in 1859, which would have resulted in a modest increase to the franchise. The Liberals were healing the breaches between those who favoured Russell and the Palmerston loyalists, and in late March 1859, the government was defeated on a Russell-sponsored amendment. Derby dissolved Parliament, and the ensuing general election resulted in modest Tory gains, but not enough to control the Commons. When Parliament assembled, Derby's government was defeated by 13 votes on an amendment to the Address from the Throne. He resigned, and the Queen reluctantly sent for Palmerston again.[141]

Opposition and third term as Chancellor[edit]

Main article: Third Derby–Disraeli ministry

After Derby's second ejection from office, Disraeli faced dissension within Conservative ranks from those who blamed him for the defeat, or who felt he was disloyal to Derby—the former Prime Minister warned Disraeli of some MPs seeking his removal from the front bench.[142] Among the conspirators were Lord Robert Cecil, a young Conservative MP who would a quarter century later become Prime Minister as Lord Salisbury; he wrote that having Disraeli as leader in the Commons decreased the Conservatives' chance of holding office. When Cecil's father objected, Lord Robert stated, "I have merely put into print what all the country gentlemen were saying in private."[142]

Disraeli led a toothless opposition in the Commons—seeing no way of unseating Palmerston, Derby had privately agreed not to seek the government's defeat.[143] Disraeli kept himself informed on foreign affairs, and on what was going on in cabinet, thanks to a source within it. When the American Civil War began in 1861, Disraeli said little publicly, but like most Englishmen expected the South to win. Less reticent were Palmerston, Gladstone (again Chancellor) and Russell, whose statements in support of the South contributed to years of hard feelings in the United States.[144] In 1862, Disraeli met Prussian Count Otto von Bismarck for the first time and said of him, "be careful about that man, he means what he says".[145]

The party truce ended in 1864, with Tories outraged over Palmerston's handling of the territorial dispute between the German Confederation and Denmark known as the Schleswig-Holstein Question. Disraeli had little help from Derby, who was ill, but he united the party enough on a no-confidence vote to limit the government to a majority of 18—Tory defections and absentees kept Palmerston in office.[146]

Disraeli's father, mother and sister—Isaac, Maria and Sarah
Disraeli as a young man—a retrospective portrayal painted in 1852
Mary Anne Lewis c. 1820–30
Lord Robert Cecil, Disraeli's fierce opponent in the 1860s, but later his ally and successor

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