Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st earl of Beaconsfield

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Disraeli, Benjamin, 1st earl of Beaconsfield

Benjamin Disraeli, 1st earl of Beaconsfield (dĬzrā´lē), 1804–81, British statesman and author. He is regarded as the founder of the modern Conservative party.

Early Career

Disraeli was of Jewish ancestry, but his father, the literary critic Isaac D'Israeli, had him baptized (1817). In 1826 Disraeli published his first novel, Vivian Grey. It was the beginning of a prolific literary career, and his political essays and numerous novels earned him a permanent place in English literature. After a period of foreign travel (1830–31), Disraeli returned to London, where he soon became prominent in society. Standing four times for Parliament without success, he was finally elected in 1837 and rapidly developed into an outstanding, realistic, and caustically witty politician.

He was a follower of Sir Robert Peel until 1843, but he then became spokesman for the Young England group of Tories, espousing a sort of romantic and aristocratic Toryism. He expressed these themes in the political novels Coningsby (1844) and Sybil (1846). He criticized Peel's free-trade legislation, particularly repeal of the corn laws (1846). After repeal went through (1846), he helped bring down Peel's ministry.

At the death of Lord George Bentinck (1848), Disraeli became leader of the Tory protectionists. He was chancellor of the exchequer in the brief governments of the earl of Derby in 1852 and 1858–59, and after continuing opposition during the Liberal governments of Palmerston and Russell, he became chancellor under Derby again in 1866. With consummate political skill, he piloted through Parliament the Reform Bill of 1867 (see under Reform Acts), which enfranchised some two million men, largely of the working classes, and greatly benefited his party.

Prime Minister

Disraeli succeeded the earl of Derby as prime minister in 1868 but lost the office to Gladstone in the same year. Disraeli's second ministry (1874–80) enacted many domestic reforms in housing, public health, and factory legislation, but it was more notable for its aggressive foreign policy. The annexation of the Fiji islands (1874) and of the Transvaal (1877), the war against the Afghans (1878–79), and the Zulu War of 1879 proclaimed England a world imperial power more clearly than before. So did Queen Victoria's assumption (1876) of the title of empress of India; Disraeli was a great favorite of the queen.

The government's purchase (1875) of the controlling share of Suez Canal stock from the bankrupt khedive of Egypt strengthened British Mediterranean interests, which were jealously guarded in the diplomacy during and after the Russo-Turkish War (1877–78). During the war Disraeli supported Turkey diplomatically and by threat of intervention in order to combat Russian influence in the eastern Mediterranean, and he induced Turkey to cede Cyprus to Great Britain. He forced Russia to submit the Treaty of San Stefano to the Congress of Berlin (1878) and there secured the treaty revisions that greatly reduced Russian power in the Balkans (see Berlin, Congress of) and helped preserve peace in Europe. Disraeli was created earl of Beaconsfield in 1876. He was defeated by Gladstone in 1880.

Bibliography

See biographies by W. F. Monypenny and G. E. Buckle (6 vol, 1910–20, rev. ed. 1968), R. W. Davis (1976), R. Blake (1966, repr. 1987), S. Bradford (1982), J. Ridley (1995), W. Kuhn (2005), C. Hibbert (2006), and A. Kirsch (2009); study by M. Swartz (1985).

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