Benjamin Disraeli

by Valerie Cullen
Class of 1997

Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1880) (nicknamed "Dizzy") was an English statesman from 1837 to 1880. He was Prime Minister of England in 1868, and again from 1874 to 1880. He was England's first Jewish Prime Minister. When he was young, his father had a severe argument with his synagogue, and, as a result, baptized his children as Christians. If he hadn't been baptized, his career would have been very different (Jews were not allowed in Parliament until 1858).

His early life was a series of failures. In 1824 he lost all of his money in South African mining shares, and didn't get out of debt until middle age. He became a novelist like his father (he wrote many books throughout his life) and then decided in 1831 to enter politics. He lost as an independent radical in both 1832 and 1835, and decided he needed to affiliate himself with a political party. He finally won a seat in the House of Commons in 1837 as a Conservative. His first speech was so pompous and poorly delivered that he was shouted at and forced to sit down. He uttered this famous quote: "I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me." He was right; in 1846, when the Liberals repealed the Corn Laws (protective tariffs on foreign grain), he became the leader of the opposition in the House of Commons. Then he became the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was Prime Minister for a very short time during 1868, then resigned when the Liberals won the elections.

During 1872, his very rich wife died of cancer, and all of her fortunes were inherited by her cousins. Now poorer, Disraeli decided to fully devote his life to politics. After 1872, he favored making the Conservative party clearly different from the Liberal policy. He favored social reform and a strong foreign policy, especially against Russia. One of his larger goals was to fully bring India into the British Empire.

In 1874, the Conservatives won power and Disraeli became Prime Minister again. He was old and in poor health, but a strong cabinet and a friendship with Conservative Queen Victoria convinced him to take the job. In England, he passed acts that increased political power of the unions, protected workers, and increased health care. He was also busy with foreign affairs.

In 1875, Disraeli scored a huge imperialistic victory for England when he learned of Khedive Ismail Pasha of Egypt's intent to sell his large interest in the Suez Canal to pay off debts. Even though the Foreign Office opposed it, Disraeli bought the shares using money from the Rothschild family in England until Parliament approved the purchase. Disraeli did this to secure a British-controlled passage to India. During 1876, he brought forward a bill to give Queen Victoria the title of "Empress of India." Even though many opposed it, he fought for it at her request. Around this time, she gave him the title of the Earl of Beaconsfield.

When the Russo-Turkish war broke out, Disraeli kept the British out of the war, even though the British feared for the security of India. He then represented Britain at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 after the war ended. He was friendly with Otto von Bismarck during the Congress. They discovered that they had a lot in common-among other things, they both liked Realpolitik, and didn't like Slavs. Disraeli was called "The lion of the Congress." Bismarck said this about him: "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann." ("The old Jew, that is the man.") Disraeli was instrumental in dissolving the Three Emperors League and preventing Russian expansion in Turkey. He also secured Cypress for Britain.

There was one blight on Disraeli's record of foreign affairs. In 1877, South Africa was allied with the British. The Boers wanted protection from the Capetown colony, due to fear of the Zulus. Sir Bartle Frere, English High Commissioner for South Africa, believed South Africa could not be secure until Britain had control over all of the native tribes, and had destroyed the Zulu system. Disraeli and the rest of the cabinet, especially during the Eastern Crisis, did not want war. Disraeli was also worried because it was appearing that war with Afghanistan was going to happen soon. Frere was ordered not to start war, but Frere paid no attention and antagonized the Zulus. During 1879 the Zulus attacked at Isandalhwana, and wiped out the British troops there. Disraeli ordered more troops in, and sent orders to replace one of the commanders of forces, Lord Chelmsford. He ignored orders to be replaced, conquered the Zulus, and resigned, knowing he would be in trouble. Many hailed Chelmsford as a hero, but Disraeli was very upset with him and with Frere. He did not fire them, but had people in the cabinet treat them badly. This was one of the rare times that Queen Victoria was upset with him-she thought he should either back them or fire them, not do something in between. She also thought he was being too harsh on Chelmsford.

During the elections of 1880, the Conservatives were badly defeated, but Disraeli still kept his party leadership. He died later that year, still Queen Victoria's favorite Prime Minister.