Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881), British writer and prime minister (1868 and 1874-1880), who for more than three decades exerted a profound influence on British politics and left an enduring stamp on the Conservative Party, known until the 1830s as the Tory Party.

Disraeli was born in London and educated

Disraeli was born in London and educated at private schools in Blackheath and Walthamstow. He was Jewish until 1817 when he converted to Christianity after his father had a disagreement with his synagogue. Between the ages of 17 and 20, Disraeli was a law apprentice in a London office. During the same period he speculated in stocks and suffered heavy financial losses. Primarily in order to pay off his debts, he began writing novels, the first of which, "Vivien Grey," appeared in 1826 with some success. He continued to write novels and frequented fashionable salons, dressing in an eccentric manner. In 1830 he traveled in Spain, the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, and the Levant. Upon his return he decided to enter politics; from 1832 to 1835 he ran unsuccessfully for Parliament, first as a Radical and then three times as a Tory, wanting more to be elected than believing in any particular party.

Despite these defeats

Despite these defeats, he became well known through a series of pamphlets, tracts, and letters to the "London Times," in which he set forth the foundation of his conservative philosophy, which supported government reforms to help the working and middle classes, and to preserve traditional institutions such as the monarchy. In the elections of 1837, after Queen Victoria ascended the throne, he finally won a seat in the House of Commons. With his maiden speech, however, he nearly ruined his career because his phraseology and attire provoked derisive laughter from his fellow members. He slowly acquired a reputation in Parliament, but in 1841 he was refused a cabinet post in the Conservative ministry of Sir Robert Peel. Disraeli labored to win support for his policies and to that end championed factory workers against the rich Liberal manufacturers. His novels "Coningsby, or the Younger Generation" (1844) and "Sybil, or the Two Nations" (1845) expressed his views on the need for government reform and increased his prestige in Parliament, especially with the so-called Young England group, which opposed Peel`s conservatism. When Peel was engaged in his successful effort to repeal the Corn Laws in 1846, Disraeli`s eloquent attacks on his party`s chief won him leadership of the protectionists, but the divided Conservative Party failed to win the national election the following year. Disraeli supported Liberal Prime Minister Lord John Russell in 1847, when his government lifted the ban excluding adherents of the Jewish faith from Parliament. In 1852 Disraeli became chancellor of the Exchequer under Edward Geoffrey Stanley, 14th earl of Derby, and he held the same office in the Derby ministries of 1858 and 1859 and 1866 to 1868.

In 1859

In 1859, as Conservative leader in the House of Commons, Disraeli introduced a reform bill extending the franchise to all taxpayers. The bill failed to carry, but later Disraeli succeeded in amending the Reform Bills by passing the Reform Act of 1867, which extended suffrage to the working classes. When Derby retired in 1868, Disraeli became prime minister, but his government was defeated in the same year, and he spent six years in parliamentary opposition to Prime Minister William Gladstone. After the elections of 1874 Disraeli was able to form a strong majority government backed by the partisan sympathy of Queen Victoria.

His prime ministership was marked by many

His prime ministership was marked by many notable events. Domestically he passed legislation that improved housing and working conditions for the poor. His greatest triumphs, however, were achieved in foreign policy, where he worked to protect and increase Britain`s overseas empire. In 1875, to protect the lifeline of the empire, he took personal responsibility for borrowing 4 million pounds to purchase for the government the shares in the Suez Canal that were owned by the khedive of Egypt. Disraeli further emphasized his imperial policy by creating the title of Empress of India for Queen Victoria in 1876. In that year Queen Victoria created him earl of Beaconsfield in recognition of his services. Disraeli`s most spectacular triumph in external affairs came in 1878 as British plenipotentiary to the Congress of Berlin, which redrew the boundaries of southeastern Europe after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the Russo-Turkish War. During the war Disraeli had been concerned with preventing Russia from gaining strategic advantages in the Mediterranean and had sent the British fleet to the Dardanelles in February 1878. At the Congress of Berlin, by brilliant diplomatic maneuvers, he deprived Russia of many of the advantages of victory and returned to England claiming to have won peace with honor. The queen offered to reward him with a dukedom, which he refused.

Disraeli`s writings include "Vindication

Disraeli`s writings include "Vindication of the British Constitution" (1835) and the novels "The Young Duke" (1831), "Henrietta Temple" (1837), "Tancred, or the New Crusade" (1847), and "Endymion" (1880).

Despite his long public life

Despite his long public life, Disraeli is still regarded as an enigma. His multitude of enemies regarded him as an opportunist and a seeker of power; his legions of followers saw him as a man of high principle. These opposing views probably resulted from the contradictions inherent in his public acts. He was an intelligent politician with a good sense of timing. Disraeli was a conservative in his zeal to expand the British empire and a radical in his support of government reform and his effort to extend the vote to the working class. Perhaps he embodied the best of both traditions.

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