Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield

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The Earl of Beaconsfield
Periods in Office: February, 1868December, 1868
February, 1874April, 1880
PM Predecessors: The Earl of Derby
William Ewart Gladstone
PM Successor: William Ewart Gladstone
Date of Birth: 21 December 1804
Place of Birth: London
Political Party: Conservative

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st Earl of Beaconsfield (December 21, 1804April 19, 1881) was a British statesman and author. He served in government for three decades, serving as Conservative Prime Minister several times. His terms in office were marked by frequent conflicts with his Liberal counterpart, William Ewart Gladstone. While Disraeli had the advantage of Queen Victoria's support, Gladstone was a reformer at heart, receiving great support from much of the population. In 1880, after Disraeli had been elevated to the peerage, Disraeli's final term as Prime Minister ended, and he died one year later.

Personal life

Disraeli descended from Portuguese Sephardic Jews from both his mother's and his father's side. His mother came from a branch of the illustrious Abravanel family. His parents belonged to the Portuguese-language synagogue in London.

His father was the literary critic and historian Isaac D'Israeli who, though Jewish, had Benjamin baptised and raised in the Church of England. However he was also circumcised by a relative from his mother's side, David Abravanel Lindo.

His father destined him for the law, and he was articled to a solicitor. The law was, however, uncongenial, and he had already begun to write. After some journalistic work, he brought himself into general notice by the publication, in 1827, of his first novel, Vivian Grey, which created a sensation by its brilliance, audacity, and slightly veiled portraits of living celebrities. After producing a Vindication of the British Constitution, and some political pamphlets, he followed up his first success 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 Epic and three burlesques, Ixion, The Infernal Marriage, and Popanilla. These works had gained for him a brilliant, if not universally admitted, place in literature. But his ambition was by no means confined to literary achievement; he aimed also at fame as a man of action. After various unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament, in which he stood, first as a Radical, and then as a Tory, he was in 1837 returned for Maidstone, having for his colleague Mr. Wyndham Lewis, whose widow he afterwards married. For some years after entering on his political career, D. ceased to write, and devoted his energies to parliamentary work. His first speech was a total failure, being received with shouts of laughter, but with characteristic courage and perseverance he pursued his course, gradually rose to a commanding position in parliament and in the country, became leader of his party, was thrice Chancellor of the Exchequer, 1852, 1858-59, and 1866-68, in which last year he became Prime Minister, which office he again held from 1874 till 1880. To return to his literary career, in 1844 he had published Coningsby, followed by Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847), and in 1848 he wrote a life of Lord G. Bentinck, his predecessor in the leadership of the Protectionist party. His last novels were Lothair (1870), and Endymion (1880). He was raised to the peerage as Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876, and was a Knight of the Garter. In his later years he was the intimate friend as well as the trusted minister of Queen Victoria. The career of Disraeli is one of the most remarkable in English history. With no family or political influence, and with some personal characteristics, and the then current prejudices in regard to his race to contend with, he rose by sheer force of will and intellect to the highest honours attainable in the United Kingdom at that time. His most marked qualities were an almost infinite patience and perseverance, indomitable courage, a certain spaciousness of mind, and depth of penetration, and an absolute confidence in his own abilities, aided by great powers of debate rising occasionally to eloquence. Though the object, first of a kind of contemptuous dislike, then of an intense opposition, he rose to be universally regarded as, at all events, a great political force, and by a large part of the nation as a great statesman. As a writer he is generally interesting, and his books teem with striking thoughts, shrewd maxims, and brilliant phrases which stick in the memory. On the other hand he is often artificial, extravagant, and turgid, and his ultimate literary position is difficult to forecast.

He was Britain's first, and thus far only, Jewish Prime Minister. Officially, he was a member of the Church of England, as members of other faiths were not allowed to sit in the House of Commons. His Jewish beliefs were an open secret, however. He was once attacked for being Jewish by the Irish nationalist politician Daniel O'Connell, to whom he replied:

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.

Queen Victoria once asked him, "Mr Disraeli, what is your real religion? You were born a Jew and you forsook your great people. Now you are a member of the Church of England, but no one believes that you are a Christian at heart. Please tell me, who are you and what are you?" To which Disraeli is famously said to have replied, "Your Majesty, I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New."

Disraeli was a staunch supporter of Lionel de Rothschild's right to take a seat when he was elected to the House of Commons but not allowed to serve there. The bar on non-Christians sitting in Parliament was lifted after a long struggle, and Rothschild became the first Jewish member of the House of Commons in 1858, eleven years after first being elected.

Although he had had several notorious affairs, in his youth, Disraeli was ostentatiously faithful and attentive to his wife: Disraeli married, in 1839, the widow of his political colleague. Mary Anne Lewis was some twelve years older than he and a self-proclaimed flibbertigibbet.

Known to his friends as Dizzy, Disraeli himself had a fine, if wry, sense of humour and enjoyed the ambiguities of the English language. When an aspiring writer would send Disraeli an uninteresting manuscript to review, he liked to reply, "Dear Sir, I thank you for sending me a copy of your book, which I shall waste no time in reading." Disraeli's own novels have fallen out of literary fashion, but even those he came to regard as youthful follies are witty, racy chronicles of the age, and the mature works Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), and Tancred (1847) also contain an entertaining exposition in fiction of Disraeli's political philosophy.

Lord Beaconsfield is buried in Hughenden, Buckinghamshire. The anniversary of his death on 19 April is known as Primrose Day.

Political career

Missing image
Arms of Benjamin Disraeli

Though he initially stood for election, unsuccessfully, as a Whig and 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.

Disraeli was sympathetic to some of the demands of the Chartists and argued for an alliance between the landed aristocracy and the working class against the increasing power of the middle class helping 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.

Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel passed over Disraeli when putting together a Cabinet and Disraeli became a sharp critic of Peel's government. In Parliament, Disraeli became known for his defense of the protectionist Corn Laws, in opposition to fellow Conservative Sir Robert Peel's advocacy to repeal the laws, which Disraeli denounced as "laissez-faire capitalism".

Disraeli would lose the fight — the repeal of the Corn Laws came at great political cost to the split Tory party. But Peel's betrayal of conservative ideology would cost him the ministry, and Disraeli would rise to fill the leadership void Peel's fall left in the Tory party.

In 1852 Lord Derby appointed Disraeli Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons in the (in)famous Who? Who? Ministry. Due to a combination of bad timing and a lack of experience, Disraeli's first Budget was a failure. His duel, nonetheless, with William Gladstone over the Budget marked the beginning of thirty years of parliamentary hostility. Derby's government fell after a few months and Disraeli left government; Gladstone succeeded him as Chancellor (and was far more successful in that position). 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 introduced his own measure in 1867. 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 with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants and granting constituencies to fifteen unrepresented towns and extra representation in parliament to larger towns such as Liverpool and Manchester, which had previously been underrepresented in Parliament.

Benjamin Disraeli and
Benjamin Disraeli and Queen Victoria

In 1868 Lord Derby resigned and Benjamin Disraeli became the new Prime Minister. However, in the 1868 General Election that followed, William Gladstone and the Liberals were returned to power with a majority of 170. During these times Disraeli and Salisbury were keen supporters of 'Killing Home Rule with Kindness'. In effect this mean that when in power they would grant Ireland anything they wanted except Home Rule. After six years in opposition, Disraeli and the Conservative Party won the 1874 General 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). His government also introduced a new Factory Act meant to protect workers, the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act (1875) to allowed peaceful picketing and the Employers and Workmen Act (1878) which enabled workers to sue employers in the civil courts if they broke legal contracts.

Disraeli was a staunch British imperialist and helped strengthen the British Empire with his support for the construction of the Suez Canal. He also achieved a diplomatic success at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 in limiting the growing influence of Russia in the Balkans.

He was elevated to the House of Lords in 1876 when Queen Victoria made him Earl of Beaconsfield. 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.

Disraeli's Governments

Works by Disraeli



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Line drawing of Disraeli

Biographies of Beaconsfield

Films about Beaconsfield


  • Mark Twain claimed that Disraeli originated the phrase, There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics, but it is unclear if this is actually one of his inventions (it was first popularized in Twain's autobiography, though attributed to Disraeli there); most who try to pin it down do award it to the prime minister.
  • Your Majesty, I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the New.
  • (On becoming Prime Minister) I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.
  • It would be a tragedy if anybody were to push Mr. Gladstone into the river and a disaster if anybody were to pull him out again.
  • A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.
  • Come! Let us go there! Said in response to a speech by William Gladstone in the House of Commons who called a public park fit only for lunatics and Jews.


External links

Preceded by:
Sir Charles Wood
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by:
William Ewart Gladstone
Preceded by:
The Lord John Russell
Leader of the House of Commons
Succeeded by:
The Lord John Russell
Preceded by:
Sir George Lewis, Bt
Chancellor of the Exchequer
Succeeded by:
William Ewart Gladstone
Preceded by:
The Viscount Palmerston
Leader of the House of Commons
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Palmerston

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Preceded by:
The Earl of Malmesbury
Lord Privy Seal
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The Duke of Argyll
Preceded by:
The Duke of Richmond
Leader of the House of Lords
Succeeded by:
The Earl Granville

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Preceded by:
New Creation
Earl of Beaconsfield
Succeeded by:

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See Also:

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de:Benjamin Disraeli fr:Benjamin Disraeli he:בנימין ד'יזראלי ja:ベンジャミン・ディズレーリ pl:Benjamin Disraeli pt:Benjamin Disraelisv:Benjamin Disraeli ru:Дизраэли, Бенджамин


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