Disraeli, Benjamin, first Earl of Beaconsfield 1804-1881, statesman and man of letters, was born at 6 King's Road, Bedford Row (now 22 Theobald's Road), London, on 21 Dec. 1804. He was son of Isaac D'Israeli [qv.], whose family consisted of four sons and one daughter. Benjamin, who was baptised at St. Andrew's, Holborn (31 July 1817), was privately educated, and at the age of seventeen was articled to Messrs. Swain & Stevenson, solicitors in the Old Jewry. He entered Lincoln's Inn in 1824, and kept nine terms, but removed his name in 1831. He soon, however, discovered a taste for literature, and in 1826 contributed a forgotten poem, The Modern Dunciad, to a forgotten magazine, called The Star Chamber. In the same year he burst upon the town with Vivian Grey (of which a second part appeared in 1827), a novel more remarkable perhaps for a youth of twenty than even Congreve's Old Bachelor. Extravagant, audacious, and sparkling, rather than truly brilliant, it achieved at once a great success; but the young author, as if to show his contempt for popularity, quitted England soon after its publication, and spent the next three years (1828-31) in Spain, Italy, the Levant, and the south-east of Europe, which he described to his sister in the first series of letters edited by Mr. Ralph Disraeli. On his return to England in 1831, the brother and sister still continued regular correspondents, and his Letters from 1832 to 1852 form the contents of a second volume lately published by the same editor. They do not add much to what was already known, and, though amusing and interesting, are coloured by a strain of egotism, which, if intended for a joke in writing to a near relative, is not one of those jokes which every one is bound to understand.
It was not till the general election of 1837 that Disraeli obtained a seat in parliament, having previously contested without success both High Wycombe (twice in 1832, and in Jan. 1835), and Taunton (in 1835), involving himself in squabbles of no very dignified character with Joseph Hume and Daniel O'Connell. At Taunton he attacked O'Connell, who had written a complimentary letter about him when he stood for Wycombe. O'Connell retorted by comparing Disraeli to the impenitent thief. There was some talk of a duel with O'Connell's son, Morgan, O'Connell having made a vow against the practice; but nothing came of it. In a letter to the Times of 31 Dec. 1835 Disraeli gave his own version of the quarrel. While willing to accept the assistance of these influential politicians against whig dictation, he had distinctly disavowed all sympathy with their peculiar principles. His support of the ballot and triennial parliaments he justified by the example of Bolingbroke and Sir William Wyndham. But the public of that day knew nothing of either, and the historical toryism of Disraeli was entirely beyond their grasp.
During the five years that elapsed between his return to England and his entrance into parliament Disraeli's pen was constantly employed. Besides What is He? (1833), a reply to a reported sneer of Earl Grey, and The Present Crisis Examined (1834), he published in 1835 his Vindication of the British Constitution, a copy of which he forwarded to Sir Robert Peel, who thanked him for the gift in a very complimentary letter, and in 1836 the Letters of Runnymede, an attack on the government of Lord Melbourne. In pure literature he was still more prolific. Within the same period he published The Young Duke (1831), Contarini Fleming (1832), The Wondrous Tale of Alroy (1833), The Rise of Iskander, The Revolutionary Epic (1834), Venetia (1837), and Henrietta Temple (1837). We learn from the Letters that he was received in the best society, and mingled in all the gaieties of the fashionable world. A hundred exaggerated stories of his dress, his manners, and his conversation at this period of his life were long current in London. One lady declared that she had seen him at a party in green velvet trousers and a black satin shirt. He was said to have delighted in shocking the respectability of decorous celebrities by the most startling moral paradoxes, and in short to have done everything that he ought not to have done, if he really hoped to be, what he told Lord Melbourne in 1835 that he wished to be, prime minister of England. He himself was so far nettled by the revival of some of this gossip many years afterwards that he wrote to the editor of an evening paper to declare that he never possessed a pair of green trousers in his life. His great friend at this time was Lord Lyndhurst, and much was made of the fact that in 1835 the two were seen pacing the Opera Colonnade together at half-past twelve o'clock at night, engaged in the most animated conversation. Lord Lyndhurst had before that date interested himself in Mr. Disraeli's parliamentary prospects; but whether he had any share in procuring his return for Maidstone we are unable to say.
On the death of William IV, parliament was again dissolved, and Disraeli received an invitation to stand for the borough of Maidstone in conjunction with Mr. Wyndham Lewis. They were both returned (27 July 1837); and Disraeli was now to measure himself in reality against the statesmen and orators with whom he had often contended in imagination, and in his own opinion with success. That he was not cowed by the failure of his first attempt might have convinced his contemporaries that his confidence was not ill-founded. The thin, pale, dark-complexioned young man, with the long black ringlets and dandified costume, rising from below the gangway, delivering an ambitious and eccentric speech, received with shouts of derision, and finally sitting down with the defiant assertion that the time will come when they will hear him, is the central figure of a group destined one day, we hope, to be enrolled among the great historic paintings which illustrate the life of English politics. The subject of his speech (7 Dec. 1837) was a motion made by Mr. Smith O'Brien for a select committee to inquire into the existence of an alleged election subscription in Ireland for promoting petitions against the return of certain members of parliament. O'Connell spoke against the motion and Disraeli replied to him. In this famous speech there is nothing outrageously bombastic, nothing more so, certainly, than what was listened to with applause when the orator had won the ear of the house. But the language, the manner, and the appearance of the new member, neither of which by itself would have provoked the reception which he experienced, combined together to produce an irresistible effect, which, heightened by the knowledge of his rather singular antecedents, may excuse, though they cannot justify, the roars of laughter amid which he was compelled to sit down. At the same time it should be remembered that this derisive clamour proceeded only from a portion of the house, and chiefly from a knot of members congregated below the bar. Two such judges as Mr. Sheil and Sir Robert Peel thought very differently of the young orator; both detected in his speech the germs of future excellence, and Sheil gave him some excellent advice, by which he seems to have profited.
Of the impression which his appearance and mode of speaking more than seventy years ago produced upon a disinterested spectator an interesting record has been preserved by an eye-witness, who long survived, of a memorable scene which occurred in the court of queen's bench on 22 Nov. 1838. Disraeli had published a libel on Mr. Charles Austin, the celebrated parliamentary counsel, who instructed his solicitor to file a criminal information against him. Disraeli pleaded guilty, and was called up to receive judgment in the court of queen's bench on 22 Nov. 1838. The eyewitness, who was then under articles to Mr. Austin's solicitors, was in court that morning, and as soon as he entered he saw Disraeli sitting in the solicitors' well, dressed in the height of the fashion. When Sir John Campbell, the attorney-general, rose to pray the judgment of the court, Disraeli begged permission to say a few words, and then spoke for about ten minutes with eloquence, propriety, and dignity. His apology was accepted as both ample and honourable. The attorney-general withdrew his prayer for judgment, and Lord Denman declared that the court, being satisfied with the apology, considered the business at an end.
The year 1839 was an eventful one in Disraeli's life. In July he made his famous speech on the chartist petition, alluded to with justifiable pride in Sybil, in which he declared that the rights of labour were as sacred as the rights of property. In the same month he published the Tragedy of Count Alarcos, which was no success; and in the following August he married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, the widow of his former colleague, whose acquaintance he had made six years before at Leeds, when he described her as pretty and a flirt. With her fortune he was enabled to purchase the estate of Hughenden from the executors of the Young family and to assume the style and position of an English country gentleman. In Mrs. Lewis, moreover, he found not only the wealth which he required, but the sympathy, the courage, and the devotion of which he stood little less in need—the perfect wife, ever ready to console him under every disappointment, to enliven him in his darkest hours, and to rekindle his hopes when they seemed almost reduced to ashes. In illustration of her courage it may be mentioned that once when she was driving down with her husband to the House of Commons, her hand was crushed in the door of the carriage, and she suppressed every indication of the pain that she was suffering till she had seen him safe into Westminster Hall, for fear of distracting his mind from the very important speech which he was about to deliver. Those who were admitted to the intimacy of Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli used to say that he was fond of telling her in joke that he had married her for her money, to which she would invariably reply, Ah! but if you had to do it again, you would do it for love, a statement to which he always smilingly assented.
In 1841 Disraeli was returned for Shrewsbury, one of the great conservative party which Sir Robert Peel had led to victory. He applied to Peel in Sept. 1841 for some recognition in the form of government office. Peel was then forming his ministry, but he civilly declined to entertain Disraeli's application (Sir Robert Peel from his private papers, ii. 486-9). The rebuff doubtless influenced Disraeli's subsequent relations with the chief of his party. But the accepted version of the controversy between Disraeli and Sir Robert Peel is derived, for the most part, from the friends of Sir Robert and the enemies of Disraeli. When Peel forsook his old policy of protection for the new policy of free trade, and thereby drew upon himself Disraeli's stinging hostility, allowance must be made, in the words of the editor of Lord Beaconsfield's speeches, for the provocation given by Sir Robert Peel, especially by the style in which he lectured his former supporters for adhering to the principles in which he himself had so long and so sedulously trained them; this was, if not sufficient to justify every one of these attacks, far greater than the victorious converts were either willing to acknowledge, or perhaps even able to appreciate. Their success, their talents, and the popularity of the cause they had expounded, dazzled the public eye, and neutralised for a time all the efforts of a beaten party to vindicate the justice of its anger. But we may learn from Mr. Morley's Life of Mr. Cobden that the old free-traders, at all events, were doubtful of the political morality which sanctioned the carriage of free trade in a parliament dedicated to protection, and that they saw little to condemn and something to applaud in Mr. Disraeli's satire.
It was not, however, till 1843 that Disraeli saw anything to find fault with in the commercial policy of Sir Robert Peel, which, as he declared, was only a continuation of the system begun by Bolingbroke and carried on by Pitt, Liverpool, and Canning. And he himself, in a speech which he delivered at Shrewsbury on 9 May 1843, stated emphatically that his support of the corn laws was based not on economical but on social and political grounds. Our territorial constitution was the foundation of our greatness, and as far as protection to agriculture was necessary to that constitution he was a protectionist. From this position Disraeli never swerved: it was his firm conviction that the preponderance of the landed interest was as much for the benefit of the whole labouring population of the country as it was for that of farmers and landowners. The year 1843, however, did not pass over without some indication of a change in the feelings of the conservative party towards the statesman whom they had so long venerated. The first symptoms of insubordination broke out on 9 Aug. on the introduction of the Irish Arms Bill, when Disraeli, Lord John Manners, Smythe, Baillie Cochrane, and the little party whom it was the fashion to style Young England, condemned the policy of the government as a violation of tory traditions, and, what was more, of the system to which the ministry had pledged itself. A violent attack was made upon them from the treasury bench. Both the Times and the Morning Chronicle denounced this attempt to cow and bully the rising talent of the house in no measured terms. Disraeli always maintained in regard to his quarrel with Sir Robert Peel that the provocation came from the prime minister. He had some warrant for the assertion. Whatever change of tone came over the metropolitan press at a subsequent period, it is clear that at the commencement of the misunderstanding between the two men the leading organs of opinion on both sides recognised the justice of Disraeli's protests.
Disraeli never referred to Sir Robert's refusal of his application for office when the conservative ministry was in process of formation in 1841. Of this nothing was known till long after Disraeli's death. But he was not the man to forgive or to forget such treatment; and the hour of vengeance was at hand. The further development of Sir Robert Peel's financial system by degrees made it clear to his supporters that the principle of protection was doomed; and it is a moot question to this day whether a more confidential and conciliatory attitude on the part of the prime minister might not have overcome their resistance to a change which he himself had so rigorously and persistently opposed. Disraeli's chance in life now came to him. He became the spokesman of the malcontents two years before the great change was announced; and during that interval he poured forth speech after speech each bristling with sarcasms which went the round of Europe. Conservatism was an organised hypocrisy. Peel had caught the whigs bathing, and run away with their clothes, an image perhaps suggested by a copy of verses in the Craftsman. His mind was a huge appropriation clause. The agricultural interest was likened to a cast-off mistress who makes herself troublesome to her late protector, and then the right honourable gentleman sends down his valet who says in the genteelest manner We can have no whining here. Sir Robert was like the Turkish admiral who had steered his fleet right into the enemy's port. He was no more a great statesman than the man who gets up behind the carriage is a great whip. There was just that element of truth in all these taunts which would have made it difficult for the most imperturbable of mankind to hear them with indifference. Peel writhed under them; and, whatever his original offence, it is impossible to excuse the severity of the punishment inflicted.
The Maynooth grant, on which Disraeli opposed and Lord John Manners supported the government, broke up the Young England party; but its spirit survived and lives still in the pages of Coningsby and Sybil. These works were published in 1844 and 1845, just before the repeal of the corn laws, and while the conservative party was outwardly still unbroken. The sensation which they created was enormous, and the effect which they produced was lasting. The political views expounded in these famous novels had already been broached in the Vindication of the British Constitution, but there they attracted little notice; and for this reason perhaps the author decided to recast them in the form of fiction. The pith and marrow of the theory which they embodied was that from 1688 to 1832 the government of the country had been a close oligarchy, the Venetian constitution, and that by the Reform Bill of 1832 the crown, having been delivered from the aristocratic connections which had usurped its prerogatives, might perhaps be destined to regain some of its suspended powers, and that herein might lie the best solution of many of our modern difficulties.
The tories had fought bravely for the old constitution, which with all its faults was a reality, as the Edinburgh Review admitted in reviewing Disraeli's novels. But now that this was gone what had they in its place? Peel had not supplied a substitute, or a creed which could inspire faith. Could such a substitute be found in the revival of the monarchical principle, combined with the great Anglican movement which had already taken root at Oxford? In this question lies the key to Coningsby and Sybil. Disraeli looked back to Bolingbroke and Wyndham, as Newman and his friends looked back to Laud and Andrewes, and asked himself whether the tory idea of monarchy, as it existed in the reign of George I, was capable of being revived in the reign of Queen Victoria on a large sphere of action, and as a substantive religion. He would pass over the long and dreary interval of pseudo-toryism, the toryism of Eldon and Wetherell, which was purely materialistic and obstructive, and seek his inspiration at the fountain-head; among men who, while conforming themselves to the parliamentary constitution of the eighteenth century, still kept alive the chivalrous spirit of the seventeenth, and touched with one hand the traditions of the cavaliers.
It is impossible to say, even after far more than half a century and with Disraeli's whole subsequent career unfolded before us, to what extent these suggestions were intended to be practical, and how far they were prompted by that love of effect which he shared with Lord Chatham. That his earliest sympathies were with the Stuart monarchy, and that he firmly believed such a system to be better adapted for securing the happiness of the whole people than the oligarchical monarchy which succeeded it, seems to be indisputable. But how far he really believed in the possibility of restoring it is another question. He saw what others saw, that the downfall of the old constitution in 1832 had been followed, as all revolutions are followed, by an age of infidelity, and he wished, as others wished, to see a revival of political faith. Here, too, he was perfectly sincere. But who and what was to be the object of it? Disraeli said an emancipated sovereign. But did he really believe it? The Jews, he tells us, are essentially monarchical, and the instincts of his race, combined with the bias imparted to his mind by the researches of his father, may certainly have rendered him less sceptical of such a consummation than an ordinary Englishman. The very conservative reaction which followed the Reform Bill, instead of the revolution that was anticipated, may have contributed to the illusion. He makes Sidonia point out to Coningsby that the press is a better guarantee against abuses than the House of Commons. What experiments he might have tried, had power come to him twenty years sooner than it did, it is difficult to say. His speeches on Ireland during his earlier career in parliament are very remarkable. A starving people, an alien church, and an absentee aristocracy, that, said he, in 1844, is the Irish question. That he would in those days have preferred a solution of one part of this question by the establishment of the Romish church in Ireland is pretty clear. Even four-and-twenty years afterwards he spoke of that as an intelligible policy—not one that he approved of himself, but one that might be entertained, and which at all events respected the sanctity of ecclesiastical property. But, whatever he may have believed forty years ago, he probably discovered soon afterwards that his favourite ideas could not be embodied in action, and he then seems to have made up his mind to do the best he could for the constitution as it actually existed.
There was, however, another side to Young England toryism which admitted of a far more practical application, and which has been attended by far other fortunes. What Coningsby had to some extent done for the English peasantry by calling attention to their ancient rights, and to the degree in which they had been invaded by the new poor law, that Sybil did far more effectually for both peasantry and artisans. Sybil was founded on the experience of the factory system which Disraeli acquired during a tour through the north of England in 1844 in company with Lord John Manners and the Hon. G. Smythe. The graphic pictures of the misery and squalor of the factory population, which imparted to its pages so vivid a dramatic interest, lent a powerful impetus to the cause of factory reform first initiated by Mr. Sadler, and afterwards carried forward by Lord Ashley. Without it the working classes would probably have had longer to wait for that succession of remedial measures which realised his own prediction and broke the last links in the chain of Saxon thraldom. But something more is still wanted to round off the Young England system. In Sybil the church plays the part which is played in Coningsby by the crown. The youth of England see in the slavery of the church as potent an instrument for evil as in the bondage of the sovereign or the serfdom of the masses. All these things must be amended. This was the triple foundation—the church, the monarchy, and the people—on which the new toryism was based; and if it was a partial failure, it was certainly not a complete one, for it can hardly be disputed that the labouring classes are largely indebted to the sympathy inspired by Young England for their present improved condition, while both the monarchy and the church have profited by the novel and striking colours in which their claims were represented.
With the publication of Tancred (1847) Disraeli bade farewell to fiction for a quarter of a century. He had been elected M.P. for Buckinghamshire in 1847, and on the death of Lord George Bentinck in Sept. 1848, he was chosen leader of the party in the House of Commons, in consequence, as he said himself, of a speech on the labours of the session, which was delivered on 30 Aug. It is an able and impressive one, though to appreciate its full effect at the moment we must remember accurately the state of public business at the period, and the disorganised condition of the House of Commons, which Peel declared to be, as far as he knew, without precedent, except perhaps during the short administration of Lord Shelburne from September 1782 to February 1783.--4^Øz0-Ú¢£õÜÿ%!In the next three years Disraeli was engaged in building up a new conservative party out of the demoralised fragments of the old one, and right well did he perform the task. The best explanation of his policy at this time is to be found in his own speeches, and from those of 8 March 1849, 2 July 1849, 19 Feb. 1850, and 11 Feb. 1851 we may learn all that we require to know. He gradually brought back the Peelites to the conservative ranks, and so well did he set before parliament the claims of the landed interest to the reduction of those burdens which had been only imposed on it while protection existed, and could not be justified after it was abolished, that they have never been disputed since, though the two parties have differed very widely as to the best method of satisfying them. On Lord John Russell's resignation in 1851 the queen sent for the late Lord Derby, on which occasion Disraeli offered to give up the leadership of the party in the lower house to Mr. Gladstone if he chose to rejoin his old colleague. Both Mr. Gladstone and Lord Palmerston, however, declined to do so on the ground that the conservatives had not yet washed their hands of protection, and the government went on another year. Then Lord John Russell resigned again, and Lord Derby had no alternative but to form a ministry out of the materials at his own disposal, which, however, were much better than he imagined. Lord Derby, it is said, was anxious to make Herries chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons (Greville Papers, new series, vol. iii.). But there is no trace of any such proposal in the life of Herries himself, and it is unlikely that in 1852 Disraeli, who had been working so long at the reconstruction of the party, and had almost raised it from the dead to renewed health and vigour, should have been asked to serve under Herries. Lord Derby dissolved in 1852 and gained about thirty seats, but this was not enough, and, being defeated on the budget in the following November, gave way to the famous coalition. The two principal features of Disraeli's first budget which caused its rejection by the house were the extension of the house tax to houses of 10l. a year rateable value, and the extension of the income tax to incomes of 100l. a year precarious income, and 50l. a year fixed. In his speech on this occasion he uttered his memorable dictum that England does not love coalitions, and the doings of the coalition which dethroned him seemed to prove that England was in the right.
In 1849, Disraeli published an edition of the Curiosities of Literature, in the preface to which he gave an interesting account of his own family; and in 1852 he found time to write the Life of Lord George Bentinck, a political study of the highest interest and value. It is not only a most vivid and picturesque account of the great battle between the protectionists and free traders: it is there and there alone that we catch the true spirit of the opposition to Peel, and understand what it was that stung the protectionists to the quick, and palliated tactics which perhaps no provocation could have altogether justified. In this volume, too, is to be found the whole story of Peel and Canning, whom Peel was accused by Lord G. Bentinck of having chased and hunted to death; and the whole attack and defence on the great question whether Peel had admitted in 1829 that he had changed his opinions on the catholic question as early as 1825. But possibly, to many readers, the most valuable and interesting chapter in the whole book will be that upon the Jews, in which the author sums up both with eloquence and conciseness all that he had said upon the same subject in his three great novels.
In 1853, Disraeli considered that the coalition which turned him out of office had been aimed at himself; that it was a coalition against a person and not against a principle; that in this it resembled the coalition of 1783 rather than the coalition of 1794, and he determined therefore to provide himself with an organ in the press specially devoted to writing down the Aberdeen administration. In the summer of 1853 appeared the Press newspaper, a weekly journal containing the usual number of leading articles and reviews of books, but combined with squibs, poetry, and humorous essays, after the manner of the Anti-Jacobin. The first editor is believed to have been Mr. Francis. He, however, was in a very short time succeeded by Mr. Samuel Lucas, and he in turn by David Trevena Coulton [qv.], who conducted the paper till his death in 1857, and in whom Disraeli reposed the greatest confidence. The first leading article in the first number was written by Disraeli himself, and the fifteenth earl of Derby, then Lord Stanley, was for a time a regular contributor. For their verses, dialogues, and comic articles in general, the management relied chiefly on Shirley Brooks [qv.]. But Disraeli himself continued to be the inspiring spirit of the paper down to 1858. He kept it constantly supplied with the best political information; and on Thursday afternoons he might often be seen coming out of Mr. Coulton's house in Little Queen Anne Street with the stealthy step and furtive glance of one who is on secret service. But governments are not to be written down any more than individuals, except by themselves; and what neither the logic nor the satire of the Press could perhaps have done for Lord Aberdeen, was done for him effectually by his good friend the emperor of Russia.
During all the negotiations which preceded the Crimean war, and during the progress of the siege of Sebastopol, it has been allowed that the attitude of Disraeli as leader of the opposition was honourable and patriotic. He gave the government the support which it required, and it was not till after the fall of the coalition and the capture of Sebastopol that he again became a hostile censor. He was at this time smarting under a great disappointment. On the resignation of Lord Aberdeen, Lord Derby declined to take office without the assistance of Lord Palmerston or Mr. Gladstone, thereby casting a slur upon his own supporters which some of them felt very acutely. They had been turned out of office, as they thought, by an unscrupulous combination, after having administered public affairs with recognised efficiency. The country, thought Disraeli, was prepared to welcome them; and to the last hour of his life he deplored the timidity of Lord Derby which threw away the best chance he ever had. It was not, however, merely timidity which made Lord Derby pause. Lord Derby had a very strong sense of duty; and he probably thought that a government formed by Lord Palmerston and supported by the conservative opposition would be a stronger government than his own. Disraeli thought he was mistaken. Had Lord Derby taken office, he used to say, he would have had at his back little short of three hundred followers, which a dissolution of parliament would, it might reasonably be supposed, have converted into a majority of the house. The conservative party never had such a chance again for many years. They had outlived the taint of protection. A vigorous prosecution of the war and the negotiation of an honourable peace were the two objects on which the whole mind of the nation was concentrated. An appeal to the people so strengthen the hands of Lord Derby for these purposes would almost certainly have been successful. The Peelites were still hovering between liberalism and conservatism, with a decided bias towards the latter. In the Life of Bishop Wilberforce may be found sufficient proof of this assertion. All that they wanted was some kind of guarantee that in joining Lord Derby they would not be on the losing side; and a general election in 1855 or 1856 would have afforded it. This was Disraeli's own view of the situation, and that the immediate result would have been what he foresaw may be regarded as certain. This was probably the greatest disappointment which Disraeli ever encountered. He was then just forty-five, and might have looked forward to a long career of usefulness and greatness. When next the conservatives appealed to the country, the reform question had become the question of the day; foreign affairs had gone against them; and when after the short-lived ministry of 1858 they returned to the opposition benches their prospects had never looked more hopeless.
In the meantime, however, important events had taken place—the Peace of Paris, the Chinese war, the Indian mutiny; while the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, the Government of India Bill, and the first conservative Reform Bill had greatly affected the position of parties in parliament. Disraeli's relations with his own party were not improved by the part which he took in some of these affairs. It was thought, for instance, by many conservatives that the support given to Mr. Milner Gibson's vote of censure on the government for upholding the action of Sir John Bowring in China was a great mistake; and it certainly turned out badly, for Lord Palmerston, appealing to the country on the ground that public servants must be supported, carried all before him, and came back with a triumphant majority. In the following year Disraeli, in the opinion of many persons, made a similar mistake in combining to attack the government on the Conspiracy to Murder Bill, which they had brought in without first sending a proper reply to the peremptory despatch written by Count Walewski. But this time the attack was at all events successful. The country had been justly irritated by the language of the French colonels, and Lord Palmerston's followers deserting him, he was defeated by a majority of nineteen, and at once resigned. Lord Derby formed a new government, and Disraeli was again chancellor of the exchequer and leader of the House of Commons.
The first thing which demanded the attention of the new government was the suppression of the Indian mutiny and the reconstruction of the Indian government, and on 26 March 1858 Disraeli introduced the India Bill (No. 1), which, however, never reached a second reading; and it was then determined to proceed by resolutions, which were carried through the House of Commons with conspicuous ability by Lord Stanley, the present Lord Derby, who had succeeded Lord Ellenborough as president of the board of control. The change was caused by the publication of a despatch addressed by Lord Ellenborough to Lord Canning, then governor-general of India, in which he censured Lord Canning's proclamation addressed to the landowners of Oude as harsh and impolitic, and not unlikely to rekindle the flames of rebellion. In India Sir James Outram strongly disapproved of it. But Lord Canning had a large party of friends in England, and before Sir James Outram's opinion was known in this country they raised a storm which threatened the existence of the government. Lord Ellenborough resigned; but that was not sufficient, and Mr. Cardwell gave notice of a vote of censure in the House of Commons, the collapse of which has been immortalised by Disraeli's brilliant description of it at the memorable Slough banquet. The same year was distinguished by the final concession of the Jewish claims in accordance with a compromise suggested by Lord Lucan, to the effect that each house of parliament should have the power of modifying the form of oath to be taken at its own pleasure, and Disraeli had the satisfaction of taking part in this settlement of the question as member of a conservative administration.
The popular excitement which was roused in the north of England by Mr. Bright during the autumn of 1858 made it absolutely necessary for Lord Derby to deal with the question of parliamentary reform, and accordingly, on 28 Feb., Disraeli introduced the bill which caused Mr. Henley and Mr. Walpole to retire from office. Its principal features were the equalisation of the town and county franchise, both being fixed at a 10l. rental, and the restriction of the borough freeholders to vote for the borough in which their freeholds were situated. On 21 March Lord John Russell moved amendment condemning ‘the disfranchisement,’ as it was called, of the borough freeholders, and the non-reduction of the borough franchise, which was carried by a majority of 330 to 291. Disraeli now paid the penalty of the error which he had committed in 1857. Had he still possessed the votes which he lost at the general election in that year, he would have carried his bill. His strategy on the China question cost the conservatives twenty-six seats, and had these been available in 1859 the ayes for the government bill would have been 317 and the noes 304. He could then have appealed to his new constituencies with almost a certainty of success; but his sin had found him out, and it was long ere he ceased to feel its consequences. Lord Derby, as it was, dissolved parliament, but without obtaining a clear majority, though Disraeli was again at the head of a numerically powerful party, numbering 302 votes. A vote of want of confidence was at once proposed by Lord Hartington, and then happened one of the strangest things in the whole of Disraeli's lifetime. War had broken out between France and Austria in May, and ‘failure to preserve the peace of Europe’ was one of the charges brought against the conservative government. In Lord Malmesbury's despatches lay an easy refutation of the charge; but, although they were printed and ready for delivery long before the end of the debate, Disraeli, for reasons which have never been explained, would not allow them to be placed on the table of the house. Members voted in ignorance of their contents, and the amendment was carried against the government by 323 to 310 votes, a majority of thirteen. Mr. Horsman and others declared afterwards that had they seen the blue book first they would have voted with ministers. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now, by what motive Disraeli was actuated; and it was as much a riddle to his colleagues as it was to every one else.
The second administration of Lord Palmerston constitutes a kind of landing-place in the career of Disraeli. In the fifth volume of the life of the late prince consort a conversation is mentioned which took place in January 1861 between the prince and the leader of the opposition, in which Disraeli declared that the conservative party did not wish to take advantage of the weakness of the government, but on the contrary were willing to support them provided they plunged into no system of ‘democratic finance,’ as they had shown an inclination to do in 1860. This ‘time-honoured rule of an honourable opposition,’ says Sir Theodore Martin, was strictly observed in the session of 1861. But when the condition on which it rested was violated, Disraeli did not find his own party very willing to reverse their attitude. Their confidence in his leadership had been somewhat shaken by the events of the past five years. The reform agitation, which had revived immediately on Lord Palmerston's resignation, subsided again, curiously enough, as soon as he returned to office; and many tory members considered that the prime minister was a better representative of conservative opinions than the leader of the opposition. Disraeli at this time often sat alone upon the front bench, and in 1862, when an opportunity occurred of defeating the government, on Lord Palmerston declaring that he would make it a cabinet question, Mr. Walpole, who had charge of the hostile resolution, positively refused to go on with it. Disraeli's imperturbability under every kind of attack or disappointment has often been remarked; but it was sometimes more apparent than real. And men who sat exactly opposite to him at this period of his life used to say that they could tell when he was moved by the darkening of his whole face. Not a muscle moved; but gradually his pale complexion assumed a swarthier hue, and it was plain that he was struggling with emotions which he was anxious to avoid betraying. At this particular stage of his career he had perhaps some reason for despondency. He had begun well. He had completely lived down the ill effects of his first appearance and his early eccentricities. He had reconstructed the conservative party, and made it once more as powerful an opposition as it had been under Sir Robert Peel. Down to 1855 all had gone on favourably, but since that time his fortune seemed to have deserted him. The party for which he had done so much were insubordinate and suspicious, and talked of finding another leader. This was eminently unjust to Disraeli, since it was impossible in those days to make head against the popularity of Lord Palmerston, and no other leader whom the party could have chosen was likely to have shown more courage and confidence in adversity. But there is no doubt that this feeling of dissatisfaction prevailed widely in the conservative ranks, and that Disraeli at times felt it deeply.
It was at this very time, however, that he made some of his best speeches. Two of them, delivered on 24 Feb. 1860 and 7 April 1862 respectively, contain a criticism of Mr. Gladstone's financial system, on which the last word has not yet been spoken, and are well worth studying at the present day; while his annual surveys of Lord John Russell's foreign policy are among the ablest, as well as the most humorous, speeches which he ever made. Lord Palmerston, however, was ‘in for his life;’ his personal influence was unrivalled, and, fortified by Mr. Gladstone's budgets, his position was impregnable. The opposition was condemned to the dreary occupation of waiting for dead men's shoes. And no wonder they grew restless and dissatisfied. The general election of 1865 did nothing to improve their temper. They lost some twenty seats, and had Lord Palmerston been a younger man they would have had another six or seven years of the cold shade to look forward to.
The prime minister, however, died in October 1865, and a new chapter in the life of Disraeli was opened. Lord Palmerston was succeeded by Earl Russell, Mr. Gladstone leading the House of Commons. A reform bill was introduced by the government, divided into two parts, and the house was invited to consent to the extension of the franchise before it was made acquainted with the scheme for the distribution of seats. In opposition to this proposal a considerable section of the liberal party made common cause with the conservatives, and acquired thereby the title of ‘the Cave’ bestowed on them by Mr. Bright. The government were compelled to bring in an entire measure, but this did not save them from ultimate discomfiture. They fixed the borough occupation franchise at 7l., and the question arose whether it should be a rental or a rating franchise; that is to say, whether the 7l. should be what the tenant actually paid to his landlord, or what he was assessed at to the poor rate. If he was assessed at 7l., his actual rent would be a trifle higher. The government adopted the former of these two views, Disraeli and his new allies the latter, and the result was that, on a resolution moved by Lord Dunkellin, the ministers were defeated by a majority of eleven, and Lord Russell immediately resigned. It was not to the amount of the qualification that Disraeli objected so much as to the inferiority of a rental to a rating franchise, and his reasons for thinking so, for ‘making the rate-book the register,’ were explained by himself, even in 1859, when he thought the practical difficulties in the way of it were too great to be overcome. It is important to remember this, because of the discussions that ensued in the following year when he brought in his own Reform Bill, and endeavoured to base the franchise on the personal payment of rates. This was the old constitutional qualification; the ratepayer was simply the old scot-and-lot voter, and though the franchise might be limited to men who paid a certain amount of rates, it should be the payment of rates and not the payment of rent which entitled him to a vote. This was the position contended for by Lord Dunkellin, Sir Hugh Cairns, and other speakers; and it is an entire mistake to suppose that the objection to the government proposal was that a 7l. qualification was too low. Lord Dunkellin was in favour of a lower one, and it was admitted by the whole opposition that this was a question of detail. The principle at issue was that the right to the franchise should rest on the contribution to the poor rate. Thus when in the following year Disraeli proposed to give the franchise to all ratepayers there was no such change of front, no such ‘unparalleled betrayal,’ as Mr. Lowe charged him with. The conservative party had never taken their stand on any particular figure. And in point of fact the necessity of a rating suffrage pure and simple had long been contemplated by the two conservative leaders.
The cabinet, however, was divided on the subject, Lord Derby, Disraeli, and the majority being in favour of a measure on which the two leaders of the party had for some time been agreed, while Lords Cranborne and Carnarvon and General Peel considered that it went too far. In deference to their opinions, and to avert their resignation, a measure of a different character was devised on the spur of the moment and subsequently submitted to the house. Disraeli, who had at one time tendered his own resignation, which of course was not to be heard of, was observed to be labouring under very unwonted depression while discharging this unwelcome duty. But the ‘ten minutes' bill,’ as it was named, was only born to perish. The ministry soon found their new position untenable. Their own followers demanded the original scheme. The resignation of the dissentients was accepted: and on 18 March 1867 the more popular bill was introduced.
On 12 April Mr. Gladstone moved an amendment which struck at the principle of the bill by proposing to give the franchise to the householder who compounded for the rates as well as to the householder who paid them. This debate was the first real trial of strength between the government and the opposition, and when the numbers were read out, for Gladstone's amendment 289, against it 310, a scene was witnessed in the house such as few of its oldest members recollected. The bursts of cheering were again and again renewed; and none crowded to shake hands with the leader of the house more heartily than the very tory country gentlemen whom he was absurdly said to have betrayed. The younger members of the party extemporised a supper at the Carlton and begged of him to join them. But, as Lady Beaconsfield was never tired of repeating, ‘Dizzy came home to me,’ and then she would add how he ate half the raised pie and drank the whole of the bottle of champagne which she had prepared in anticipation of his triumph.
Perhaps the best defence of the conservative Reform Bill within a narrow compass is to be found in Disraeli's speech at Edinburgh on 29 Oct. 1867, celebrated for its comparison of the ‘Edinburgh’ and ‘Quarterly’ Reviews to the boots at the Blue Boar and the chambermaid at the Red Lion. While regretting that the settlement of 1832 had not been respected by its authors, he had always reserved to the conservative party the full right of dealing with the question now that their opponents had reopened it, and of redressing the anomalies which confessedly existed in Lord Grey's Reform Bill. In 1859 both Lord Derby and himself had come to the conclusion that between the existing 10l. franchise and household suffrage there was no trustworthy halting-place. In their first Reform Bill they chose to abide by the former, and, that alternative having been rejected, they could in their second essay only have recourse to the latter. It is pretty clear that they were right, and that any intermediate franchise of 7l., 6l., or 5l. would have been swept away within a very few years of its creation. But at the time the experiment was regarded with considerable distrust and apprehension, which the results of the general election of 1868 were not calculated to allay. But, whatever the policy of the measure, there could not be two opinions of the extraordinary ability displayed by Disraeli in the conduct of it. Nor must the fact be forgotten that in the introduction of a measure repugnant to the prejudices and connections of conservatives in general, Disraeli, unlike Peel, carried his party with him.
The Reform Bill became law in August 1867, and then, his work being done, Lord Derby, who had long been a great sufferer from the gout, retired from office, and Mr. Disraeli realised the dream of his youth, and became prime minister of England. But the popularity of the tory party did not ripen all at once. The Reform Bill of 1867 was not so inconsistent with the principles of toryism as many people supposed who took only the narrow view of tory principles which was fashionable about the middle of the century. The late Sir Robert Peel always regretted the extinction of those popular franchises which the first Reform Bill had abolished. And in 1831 Lord Aberdeen suggested household suffrage to the Duke of Wellington as quite a natural and feasible principle for the tory party to adopt without incurring either remonstrance or reproach. But the tory party were not at first accredited with the change. The people were told that it had been wrung from a reluctant aristocracy by the liberals, and the liberals reaped the whole benefit of it when the appeal to the people came. At the Guildhall dinner on 9 Nov., Disraeli spoke confidently of the organisation and prospects of the conservatives. ‘Arms of precision’ would, he said, tell their tale. But he was doomed to disappointment, and Mr. Gladstone returned to power with a majority of 170.
Now began the last long phase of the Irish question. Disraeli had always sympathised with Ireland. We have seen what he said of her in 1837 and again in 1844. But he seems to have thought that the Irish famine had really settled the Irish question ‘by the act of God;’ and he used to point to the growing prosperity of Ireland between 1850 and 1865 in proof of his assertion. He always contended that the Fenian conspiracy, which so alarmed Mr. Gladstone, was a foreign conspiracy; and that, when this had been effectually crushed, England might have left Ireland to proceed tranquilly along the path of improvement without further interference. Mr. Gladstone's Irish policy merely raked into a flame the embers which were all but extinct, revived hopes and aspirations which, except by a small party of conspirators, had been practically forgotten, and created a new Irish question for the present generation which otherwise would never have arisen. These were his general views. In 1871, two years after the passing of the Church Bill, and one year after the passing of the Land Act, the condition of Ireland was worse than ever. A coercion bill was passed, and the Habeas Corpus Act was suspended. It was impossible to explain away such facts as these, and in his speech on the ‘Westmeath committee,’ 27 Feb. 1871, Disraeli ‘woke up,’ as it was said, and delivered a speech in his old style which delighted the opposition benches. Mr. Gladstone's Irish legislation, just or unjust, had not only failed in its avowed object¾the removal, namely, of Irish discontent¾but had rendered it still more rancorous. A darker and fiercer spirit had taken possession of Ireland than the one which had been driven out, and Mr. Gladstone had beckoned it to come in.
The Black Sea conference, the treaty of Washington, the affair of Sir Spencer Robinson, Sir Robert Collier, and Ewelme Rectory continued to furnish him with materials for sarcasm during the next two years, and in 1872 he delivered two of his most famous speeches, one at Manchester on 3 April, and another at the Crystal Palace on 24 June. It was in the first of these that he likened the heads of departments in Mr. Gladstone's government, as he sat opposite to them in the House of Commons, to ‘a range of extinct volcanoes.’ But in the same speech is to be found also the best explanation and vindication of the working of the English monarchy with which we are acquainted, and which may now be called the locus classicus on the subject. It has been quoted, and repeated, and borrowed, and abridged, and expanded over and over again. In the speech at the Crystal Palace he dwelt on his favourite distinction between national and cosmopolitan principles as the distinctive creeds of toryism and liberalism, and claimed for the former that its watchwords were the constitution, the empire, and the people. The year, however, which witnessed this revival of energy in the leader of the opposition, did not pass over without a severe domestic calamity which robbed his existence of its sunshine. On 15 Dec. 1872 his wife, who had been created Viscountess Beaconsfield, 30 Nov. 1868, died, and he felt ‘that he had no longer a home.’
In 1873 Mr. Gladstone, being defeated on the Irish University Education Bill, resigned office, and her majesty sent for Disraeli, who declined to form a government, and Mr. Gladstone returned to his seat. In the following January, however, he dissolved parliament rather suddenly. The opposition was placed in a clear majority; Disraeli no longer hesitated, and the tory government of 1874 came into being. It was the first time that the tories had commanded a majority since 1841, and Disraeli was now at length to reap the fruits of his long and patient devotion to the interests of his party. But the triumph had come too late, when it was impossible for him to carry out measures which, had he been ten years younger, he would certainly have adopted. The enfranchisement of the peasantry and the reform of our provincial administration would assuredly have been anticipated by the author of ‘Coningsby’ and ‘Sybil,’ the consistent upholder of local authority and jurisdiction, had his health and strength been adequate to so arduous an undertaking. But though Disraeli was a man of naturally strong constitution, his strength had been severely tried. When he became prime minister for the second time he was in his sixty-ninth year, and these were not the piping days of peace when Lord Palmerston could slumber tranquilly through his duties up to eighty years of age. The strain of leading the House of Commons had doubled since his time, and at the end of the session of 1876 Disraeli found it necessary to exchange that arduous position for the less trying duties which devolve on the leader of the House of Lords. On 11 Aug. 1876 he made his last speech in the House of Commons. But the public had no suspicion of the truth till the next morning, when it was officially announced that he was to be created Earl of Beaconsfield, and that his place in the lower house was to be taken by Sir Stafford Northcote. The English House of Commons may have known more subtle philosophers, more majestic orators, more thoroughly consistent politicians, but never one who loved it better or was more zealous for its dignity and honour. The tory administration from 1874 to 1880 will probably be remembered in history rather by the strongly marked features of its foreign and colonial policy than by any less imposing records. At the same time it would be a mistake to overlook the fact that in the field of domestic legislation it accomplished numerous reforms of a useful and popular description, and effected a satisfactory settlement of more than one long-vexed question in which the working class was deeply interested. We need only name such measures as the Factory Acts of 1874 and 1878, the Employers and Workmen Act (abolishing imprisonment for breach of contract), the Conspiracy and Protection to Property Act (enlarging the right of combination), the Poor Law Amendment Act, the Public Health Act, the Artisans' Dwellings Act, the Commons Act, and, last but not least, the Factories and Workshops Act. On 29 March 1878, Mr. Macdonald, the labour representative, said of this bill, that it would redound to the honour and credit of the government. On 16 July 1875, Mr. Mundella thanked the home secretary, on behalf of the working men of England, ‘for the very fair way in which he had met the representations of both masters and men.’ But it is rather by the policy which he pursued in the east of Europe and in India that Disraeli's claim to distinction during the last ten years of his life will generally be judged. Before, however, we pass on to these questions, we must notice one act of his administration which cost him nearly a third of his popularity at a single stroke: we mean the Public Worship Regulation Act. This act, though really less stringent in its provisions than the Church Discipline Act, and though Disraeli himself was personally averse to it, was made odious to the clergy by an unfortunate phrase which he applied to it. He said it was a bill ‘to put down ritualism.’ This unlucky expression brought a hornets' nest about his ears, and alienated a considerable body of supporters who had transferred their allegiance from Mr. Gladstone to the leader of the conservative party, when this unpardonable offence drove them away from him for ever.
Macaulay complains of the war policy of Mr. Pitt, that it halted between two opinions. ‘Pitt should either,’ he says, ‘have thrown himself heart and soul into Burke's conception of the war, or else have abstained altogether.’ This criticism represents perhaps to some slight extent what future historians will say of the policy of Lord Beaconsfield, as we must in future style him, though not of Beaconsfield himself. He avoided the mistakes of Lord Aberdeen, and, by his courage and decision at a critical moment, saved England from war and Turkey from destruction. But it will probably be thought hereafter that the same courage and decision exhibited at an earlier stage of the negotiations would have produced still more satisfactory results, and have prevented the campaign of 1877 altogether. When Russia made a casus belli of Turkey's refusal to sign the protocol submitted to her in the spring of that year, then, it may be thought, was England's real opportunity for the adoption of decisive measures. Lord Derby declared the conduct of Russia to be a gross breach of treaty obligations, yet resolved to remain neutral unless certain specific British interests were assailed or threatened. But for the neglect of this opportunity Beaconsfield was not responsible. The cabinet was divided in opinion, and the party of compromise prevailed.
In favour of this policy there are indeed several arguments to be adduced. Public opinion had been violently excited against Turkey by what will long be remembered as the ‘Bulgarian atrocities,’ or the outrages said to have been committed by the bashi-bazouks in the suppression of the Bulgarian insurrection. These outrages were discovered shortly afterwards to have been either gross exaggerations or pure inventions. But the effect of them had not subsided by the spring of 1877; and the violent and inflammatory harangues poured like torrents of lava on the heads of a government which could be base enough to sympathise with the authors of them intimidated some of Beaconsfield's colleagues, and made Lord Derby's answer to the Russian announcement the only one possible. In the second place it may be said that the time for maintaining the integrity of the Turkish empire by force of arms had in 1877 already gone by; that when Russia violated the treaty of Paris in 1871, then was the time for England and the other powers to have taken up arms in its defence; and that their refusal to do so amounted to a tacit admission that the treaty was obsolete. ‘Tum decuit metuisse tuis,’ Russia may have said with some reason; and on this view of the situation it might of course be maintained fairly that in case of any future quarrel between Turkey and Russia the intervention of England was limited to the protection of her own interests. The only doubt that remains is whether the same end could not have been better served by exhibiting in 1877 the attitude which we reserved for 1878, and whether to have maintained the Turkish empire as it then stood would not have been a better guarantee for British interests than the treaty of Berlin. Beaconsfield would have said yes. But he was overruled as we have seen; and that being so, history will not deny that he made the best of a bad bargain.
The war between Russia and Turkey ended with the treaty of San Stephano, by which the empire of Turkey in Europe was effaced, and a new state, the mere tool of Russia, was to stretch from the Danube to the Ægean. Beaconsfield instantly demanded that the treaty should be submitted to the other European powers. The refusal of Russia brought the English fleet to the Dardanelles, and a division of our Indian army to Malta. Then at last Russia submitted to the inevitable. The congress assembled at Berlin, and Beaconsfield and Lord Salisbury went out as the English plenipotentiaries. The object of this country was to bar the advance of Russia to the Mediterranean, either by the northern or the southern route, either by Bulgaria or by Asia Minor. The treaty of Berlin and the Anglo-Turkish convention combined were supposed to have effected these objects. And when the plenipotentiaries returned to London on 15 July 1878, bringing ‘peace with honour,’ the popularity of Beaconsfield reached its culminating point. This was allowed by Mr. Gladstone himself in the eloquent tribute which he paid to a deceased rival. He was created K.G. 22 July 1878. But Beaconsfield lived to show himself even greater in adversity than in prosperity, and by the dignity with which he bore the loss of power to win even more admiration than he had known when he possessed it.
In view of subsequent circumstances it may be well to point out that, as the main object of the treaty of Berlin was to exclude Russia from the Mediterranean, so one of the best means of effecting that object was thought to lie in the constitution of a strong and independent state between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. But though the materials for such a barrier might ultimately be found in Bosnia, Herzegovina, and Roumelia, they did not exist in 1878; and what Beaconsfield designed by the provisional settlement then effected was to place the people in a position to develope them. To this end it was necessary to loose these provinces from the grasp of Russia, to protect them in the cultivation of their internal resources, to encourage them in the accumulation of wealth, and, generally, to gain time for those habits and instincts to mature themselves which are essential to permanent independence. It was hoped that by the treaty of Berlin these ends would be attained, and that the conception itself is worthy of a great statesman is surely not to be disputed.
Beaconsfield's policy on the Eastern question was constantly ascribed by his enemies to his ‘Semitic instincts,’ which were supposed to taint all his views of the relations between Turkey and her christian subjects. But they could know little of Beaconsfield who supposed that his Semitic instincts led him to any partiality for the Turks. On the contrary, he always describes them in ‘Tancred’ as the great oppressors of the Arabs, with whom lay his real sympathies, and as a tribe of semi-barbarous conquerors, who, with many of the virtues of a dominant race to recommend them, were without any true civilisation, literature, or science. When he said in the House of Commons that he did not much believe in the stories of the Turks torturing their prisoners, as they generally had a much more expeditious mode of disposing of them, he was simply stating that to give quarter to rebels was not one of the Turkish traditions; and for this, forsooth, he was accused of ‘flippancy’ in dealing with a grave subject. This charge, however, was scarcely so absurd as the suggestion made in some quarters that his summons of Indian troops to Malta was a precedent for bringing them to England and overthrowing our liberties by force ! The lawyers in both houses of parliament got up long debates on the technical construction of the statute by which the English and Indian armies were amalgamated, and it was contended by the opposition that this employment of the Indian army was a direct breach of it. The case was argued with equal ability on behalf of the government; but the people of England took a broader view, deciding, on the principle of salus populi suprema lex, that government was justified by circumstances, and were not sorry perhaps at the same time to discover that they were a greater military power than they had supposed.
Beaconsfield's policy in India was based on the principle of material guarantees. He did not think it safe to trust entirely to moral ones: to friendships, which are dependent upon interests, or to interests which are necessarily fluctuating with every movement of the world around us. Especially was this true in his opinion of Indian states and rulers. There are those who think that the contingent benefits of insurance are not worth the certain cost, and there is an influential school of foreign policy in England which inculcates this belief. To this it is sufficient to say that Beaconsfield was diametrically opposed. The occupation of Cyprus, predicted, by the bye, in ‘Tancred,’ the retention of Candahar, and the scheme of the ‘scientific frontier,’ show that he cherished the traditions of Pitt, Canning, and Palmerston, who desired England to be a great empire as well as a prosperous community. But it was in the advice tendered to her majesty to assume the title of Empress of India that Beaconsfield was supposed to have given the rein most freely to his heated imagination and innate sympathy with despotism. We notice the charge, not because we believe that there was a particle of truth in it, but because no biography of this eminent man would be complete without some further reference to his supposed sympathy with personal government.
Beaconsfield was the first to perceive that one tendency of the Reform Bill of 1832 was to increase the power of individuals, and that he would have been well pleased to see it turned to the advantage of the crown may readily be granted. He saw that with the removal of those restraints which are imposed on the most powerful of ministers by an oligarchical constitution one guarantee against personal supremacy had vanished. Unless some substitute for it could be found in the royal prerogative, we seemed threatened with a septennial dictatorship. Democracy is favourable to tribunes, and tribunes are not celebrated for their moderation, disinterestedness, or love of constitutional liberty. With each enlargement of our electoral system the danger would grow worse, as great masses of people, especially uneducated masses, can only comprehend simplicity, and are impatient of all the complicated machinery, the checks and counter-checks on which constitutional systems are dependent. It may not have seemed impossible to Beaconsfield at one time that the crown might come to represent that personal element in the government of the country which democracies love. It is said that one of his colleagues who disagreed with him, conversing with an acquaintance on her majesty's known attachment to Beaconsfield, said: ‘He tells her, sir, that she can govern like Queen Elizabeth.’ But whatever he told his sovereign it did not go beyond what has been already explained. And considering that a minister who is a dictator is really more powerful than either king or queen, and that the mischief which he may accomplish in seven years is incalculable, it is after all a question perhaps whether some increase in the direct power of the crown might not be for the public good.
By his removal to the House of Lords the government was decidedly weakened, but Beaconsfield's own abilities were as conspicuous in the one house as in the other, and some of his greatest speeches were delivered during the last five years of his life. But the clouds which had been dispersed by the treaty of Berlin and the successful termination of the Afghan war began once more to gather round his administration. A war with the Zulus in South Africa, attended by serious disasters, and the continued depression of the agricultural and commercial interests, combined to create that vague discontent throughout the country which always portends a change of government. It is remarkable, indeed, that the most sanguine member of the opposition did not look forward to more than a bare majority, and that most of the whig leaders despaired of their fortunes altogether. Beaconsfield himself, perhaps, foresaw what was likely to happen more clearly than any one. ‘I think it very doubtful whether you will find us here this time next year,’ was his remark to a friend who came to take leave of him in Downing Street before leaving England for a twelvemonth. But neither he nor any one else expected so decisive a defeat. Encouraged for the moment by great electoral successes at Liverpool, Sheffield, and Southwark, the cabinet determined to dissolve parliament in March 1880, and the result was that the tory party lost a hundred and eleven seats. Beaconsfield at once resigned when he saw that the day was irretrievably lost, and Mr. Gladstone returned to power for the second time with an immense majority.
During the brief period of political leadership that still remained to him, Beaconsfield conducted himself with great wisdom and moderation. It was owing to his advice that the House of Lords accepted both the Burials Bill and the Ground Game Bill, reserving their strength for the more important and mischievous proposals which he believed to be in store for them. Thus when government, to please their Irish supporters, passed the Compensation for Disturbance Bill through the commons, he was able to secure its rejection in the House of Lords with less strain on their lordships' authority than might otherwise have been occasioned. In the following session and within six weeks of his death he spoke with great eloquence and earnestness against the evacuation of Candahar (4 March), and it was in this speech that he uttered the memorable words which will long live in English history: ‘But, my lords, the key of India is not Herat or Candahar; the key of India is London.’ This, though not the last time that his voice was heard in the House of Lords, was the last of his great speeches. About three weeks afterwards he was known to be indisposed, and though his illness fluctuated almost from day to day, and was not for some time supposed to be dangerous, he never left the house again. For the space of four weeks the public anxiety grew daily more intense; and from every class of society, and from all quarters of the kingdom, came ever-increasing demonstrations of his deep and widespread popularity. When his illness terminated fatally on 19 April, the general burst of sorrow resembled that elicited by the death of the Duke of Wellington. Queen Victoria wrote two days later to Dean Stanley: ‘His devotion and kindness to me, his wise counsels, his great gentleness combined with firmness, his one thought of the honour and glory of the country make the death of my dear Lord Beaconsfield a national calamity.’ The day of his death¾which was named Primrose Day in the belief that the primrose was his favourite flower¾was consecrated to his memory by his political followers.
Beaconsfield left express directions that his last resting-place should be next to Lady Beaconsfield's in Hughenden churchyard, and there, accordingly, on 26 April, he was buried. The Prince of Wales (afterwards King Edward VII) attended the funeral. A few days afterwards Queen Victoria placed a wreath of flowers on his tomb, and on 27 Feb. 1882 she set up an elaborate tablet to his memory above the seat which he used to occupy in the chancel of the church; the queen also caused to be suspended above the tablet his insignia of knight of the Garter, which were transferred from St. George's Chapel, Windsor. Statues of Beaconsfield were erected in Westminster Abbey (voted by parliament 9 May 1881) and in Parliament Square. A copy by Lockhart Bogle of the last portrait painted of him (by Sir John Everett Millais, R.A.) is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.
That he was a great man who scaled the heights of fortune and won the battle of life against odds which seemed to be irresistible, and who at the gloomiest moments of his career never lost heart or hope, can no longer be a matter of controversy. A combination of genius, patience, intrepidity, and strength of will, such as occurs only at intervals of centuries, could alone have enabled him to succeed. Of the means by which he rose to power, and the extent to which he was favoured by chance, different opinions will be entertained, but his errors seem rather to have sprung from a reliance upon false analogies than from any deliberate design to make a tool of party, or rise by the profession of principles which he was prepared at any moment to abandon. It is most probable that he really believed in the popular toryism which he preached, and that he did not make sufficient allowance for the force of modern radicalism which was already in possession of the field. At the same time it is necessary to remember that the democratic Reform Bill, which Disraeli carried in 1867, proved the existence of a conservative spirit among the working classes, in which it may be said, perhaps, that he alone of all his contemporaries believed; that under that franchise (in 1874) the first tory majority was returned for a whole generation; and that under the still more enlarged franchise of 1885 a tory party was returned to parliament in 1886, numbering nearly half the House of Commons. These are facts to which their due weight must be allowed in estimating the political foresight which proclaimed that tory principles would, if properly explained, be supported by the English masses.
To the foreign policy of which Beaconsfield was the exponent justice could hardly be done, except under a system of government more stable than our own has now become. Beaconsfield no doubt carried popular opinion with him on the Eastern question, and it is possible that if he had been allowed his own way he might have obtained such a hold upon the working classes as to have averted the defeat which overtook him in 1880. But all this is matter of conjecture. We only see that, notwithstanding the enthusiasm which his foreign policy had inspired, the people were ready on very slight provocation to depose him in favour of a statesman by whom it was sure to be reversed. It is enough to affirm that Beaconsfield was a great statesman, though history may still decide that his policy, both foreign and domestic, was founded on a miscalculation of the forces at his command, as well as of those that were opposed to him.
Beaconsfield has been described as rather a debater than an orator. If concise and luminous argument, felicitous imagery, satire unequalled both for its wit and its severity, and the power of holding an audience enchained for many hours at a time, do not constitute an orator, the description may be just. But it is one that will exclude from the list of orators a multitude of great names which the common consent of mankind has enrolled in it; nor can the quality of moral earnestness, resulting from a sincere belief in the justice of his own cause, very well be denied to that eloquent vindication of a suffering interest which won the assent of Mr. Gladstone. His great speeches on the monarchy and the empire breathe the ripened conviction of a lifetime.
That Beaconsfield, had he not forsaken literature for politics, might have equalled the fame of some of our greatest English writers, is an opinion which has been expressed by very competent and impartial critics. And we doubt, as it is, whether the non-political parts of ‘Coningsby’ and ‘Sybil’ are either as well known or as much admired as they deserve to be. His three best novels, considered only from a dramatic point of view, are the two just mentioned and ‘Henrietta Temple,’ published in 1837. Of these three the plots are skilfully constructed, the characters admirably drawn, and the style in the more colloquial and humorous passages fresh, lively, and piquant. In ‘Henrietta Temple,’ indeed, there is not much character, except perhaps in the Roman catholic priest, Glastonbury, a portrait which we would not willingly have missed. But the story of the lovers is told with great sweetness and beauty, though the author does not affect to touch those deeper chords of passion which awaken tears and pity. In ‘Sybil’ he may have intended to do so; and in the passion of Stephen Morley for the heroine he has made the nearest approach to it which we find in any of his works. But he has only partially succeeded even here, and it is evident that his strength did not lie in the delineation of this class of emotions. The plot in ‘Coningsby’ is perhaps the best of all, but both in this story and in the one which immediately succeeded it we have a procession of characters which would have amply atoned for the worst plot that ever was constructed. The best painters of character in our literature might be proud of two such portraits as Lord Marney and Mr. Ormsby.
In ‘Coningsby’ Disraeli first gave to the world that eloquent vindication of the Jewish race which has been rightly considered to reflect so much honour on himself. In ‘Tancred’ he leads his readers into ‘the Desert,’ the cradle of the Arabs, from which they spread east and west, and became known as the Moors in Spain and the Jews in Palestine. Nothing can be more interesting than his account of the manners and the men, of which neither are much changed since the days of the patriarchs¾nothing finer than his picture of the rocks and towers of Jerusalem, or the green forests of the Lebanon.
His other novels, both his earlier and his later ones, are decidedly inferior to these. Of ‘Vivian Grey’ neither the plot nor the characters are really good. In this, far more than in either ‘Coningsby’ or ‘Sybil,’ it was the political satire which took the world by storm; but we doubt if any one could read it now without weariness. ‘Venetia’ and the ‘Young Duke’ are not political, and they narrowly miss being dull. ‘Lothair’ (1870) and ‘Endymion’ (1880) are of very different degrees of merit, and though we cannot call the latter dull, most of Disraeli's admirers will wish that it had never been published.
Of those which have not already been mentioned, ‘Contarini Fleming’ has been the most admired. Neither this, however, nor ‘Alroy’ (1833), nor the ‘Rise of Iskander,’ nor ‘Count Alarcos’ (1839), nor the ‘Revolutionary Epick’ (1834), are worthy of the author's genius. He seems at one time to have fancied that nature had intended him for a poet. But even as a writer of poetical prose he is not to be admired. His writings where he essays this style afford too many instances of the false sublime, and of stilted rhetoric mistaken for the spontaneous utterance of the imagination, to be entitled to any but very qualified commendation. Of a style exactly suited to the description of what we call society, of its sayings and its doings, its sense and its folly, its vices and its virtues, Disraeli was a perfect master. In the three burlesques which he wrote in his youth, ‘The Infernal Marriage,’ ‘Ixion in Heaven,’ and ‘Popanilla’ (1828), this talent is displayed to great advantage. The second is perhaps the best. The dinner party at Olympus, with Apollo for Byron, and Jupiter for George IV, is excellent. Proserpine in Elysium, where she developed a taste for society, and her receptions were the most brilliant of the season, is also most diverting. An useful bibliography of Lord Beaconsfield's writings was published in ‘Notes and Queries,’ 1893. One of the happiest critical estimates of his powers as a novelist is that by Leslie Stephen in his ‘Hours in a Library.’
In private life he is said to have been kind and constant in his friendships, liberal in his charities, and prompt to recognise and assist struggling merit whenever his attention was directed to it. In general society he was not a great talker. He usually had rather a preoccupied air, and though he was a great admirer of gaiety and good spirits in those who surrounded him, he was incapable of abandoning himself to the pleasures of the moment, whatever they might be, like Lord Derby or Lord Palmerston. He was no sportsman, but he records in a letter to his sister that he once rode to hounds and rode well. Though a naturalist and a lover of nature in all her forms, he had neither game nor gamekeepers at home. He preferred peacocks to pheasants, and left it to his tenants to supply his table as they chose. In his own woods and gardens he found a constant source of interest and amusement, and he loved a walk or drive through the woodland scenery of the Chiltern Hills, with some appreciative companion to whom he could enlarge on their seventeenth-century associations.
The authentic life is by W. F. Monypenny, 1908. Other authorities are Sir Theodore Martin's Life of the Prince Consort, 1880; The Right Hon. Benjamin Disraeli, a Biography, 1854: Memorials of Lord Beaconsfield, 1881; Speeches of Lord Beaconsfield, ed. T. E. Kebbel, 1881; G. C. Thompson's Public Opinion and Lord Beaconsfield 1875-80, 1886; Life of Bishop Wilberforce, 1879-83; Martin's Life of Lord Lyndhurst, 1883; Malmesbury's Memoirs of an ex-Minister, 1884; Greville Papers, 1874-85; Croker Papers, 1884; The Peel Papers, 1891-9; Morley's Life of Gladstone, 1903, Lord Beaconsfield, by T. P. O'Connor (1878), of which a revised edition appeared in 1904, gives a hostile account of his political career. A favourable sketch, by Georg Brandes, was issued at Copenhagen in 1878. It was translated from the Danish into English in 1880. Other studies of his career and character are by J. A. Froude (1890), by Wilfrid Meynell (1903), and Walter Sichel (1904). Sir William Fraser's Disraeli and his Day (1891) is valuable.
Contributor: T. E. K. [Thomas Edward Kebbel]