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Since the days of Richelieu, there has been no such picturesque figure in the history of civilization as that of Benjamin Disraeli.
Although his father, Isaac Disraeli, was in much more than easy circumstances and had made a literary reputation, he was under the social disadvantage that was the portion of a Jew, and his mother, Maria Basevi, was of the same despised race.
Their son was born in London, December 21, 1804, and his birth was attended by the usual Jewish ceremonies in the Spanish synagogue. When he was thirteen years old his father formally withdrew from the Jewish congregation, and the children were baptized into the Christian faith, Benjamin's godfather being Sharon Turner. The boy was early seen to have rare talents, and he was already an immense reader in his father's vast library. It was decided to give him an exact education and send him to one of the large schools, where he should have the advantage of discipline and the opportunity of desirable friendships; but the prejudice against his birth was an obstacle--life would have been made impossible by the indelicacy and cruelty of the high-born and Christian lads. He was finally sent to a school where he found himself the superior of his masters; even there he was taunted with his birth; and he was taken home to work with his father and with tutors, where, conscious of his powers and full of lively ambition, he studied twelve hours a day, and made himself the master of a vast and varied information. At seventeen he entered a solicitor's office, and while working there for three years, entered at Lincoln's Inn, he evinced an ability that promised him great eminence. It was not, however, precisely the sort of eminence that he desired, the strifes and achievements of political life being more to his taste.
He had the qualities which fitted him for that life, the "taking arts" and accomplishments; he was a fine linguist; he had a wonderfully well-stored memory, great self-confidence, self-respect, and assurance; his manners were easy, and he had all social graces and refinements; his face was singularly handsome, and remarkable through its pallor, the depth of its black eyes, and delicacy of its chiselled features framed in night-dark curls; he was a master of the art of self-defence, a hard and fine rider, and he was equipped with wit, sarcasm, poetical perception, keen reason, unbounded ambition, and undaunted courage.
He dressed in his early years in a manner that has been described as extraordinary, but which was the manner of the young men of the period, of D'Orsay and of Bulwer, at the time when Tennyson called the latter a band-box. Later his dress was more negligent, although always neat and fine.
He was on pleasant terms with the distinguished people whom he met at his father's table, and was everywhere sought in society, when, at twenty, he began his career by the publication of "Vivian Grey," a novel, unlike anything that had been written, bristling with point and sally, and full of daring portraiture, and which made him immediately famous.
His health, however, now gave way, a trouble in his head making it necessary to suspend work; and after a tour of Europe he remained for two or three years at Bradenham, near High Wycombe, his father's country-house, happy in the companionship of his father and mother, and his thoroughly congenial sister Sarah; passionately fond of country life, and during the time producing a novel, "The Young Duke," and three shorter works, "Popanilla," "The Infernal Marriage," and "Ixion in Heaven," gay and brilliant satires, sparkling with epigram and with beauty, and destined to live with the English language and English history.
In company with Mr. Meredith, to whom his sister was promised in marriage, he journeyed for the next two years through the south of Europe and the East. Spain was among the first of his objective points, in the proud memory of his descent from the Spanish nobles who, driven out of Spain in the fifteenth century, went over to Venice, and changed the name belonging to the House of Dara to that of D'Israeli, the sons of Israel--a cognomen never borne by any other family--and remained there for two hundred years, going to England only when, Venice falling into decay, it was necessary to go where they could live in safety. He wrote the account of his travels to his sister in a series of affectionate and light-hearted letters, which charmingly betray his own personality, and which are full of the most vivid pictures of Malta, Corfu, Albania, the Plains of Troy, Turkey--which was kind to his race when a cruel and unreasoning world showed it only malignant hate, and which he regarded with the gratitude that never forsakes a Jew; Cyprus, the advantage of whose possession he early recognized; Egypt, whose destinies were afterward in his hand; and Jerusalem, the holy city of his people, his impressions of which "Tancred" afterward embodied, together with a foreshadowing of much of his policy in the East. The journey made him acquainted with the theatre of his intentions, and with the prepossessions which it gave or fostered, doubtless had a great influence upon his life and action. The close of the journey was darkened by the death of his companion, for whom his sister mourned as long as she lived.
After his return home he wrote a new novel, "Contarini Fleming," a wonderful and poetical study of temperament, which Milman pronounced the equal of "Childe Harold," which Goethe and Heine and Beckford, the author of "Vathek," praised with delighted warmth. The "Wondrous Tale of Alroy," also, published a little later, with "The Rise of Iskander," Beckford found stirring and full of intensity and charm.
In 1832 Disraeli offered himself as an independent candidate for the borough of High Wycombe. The Government of course defeated him; and not until after several hot contests during the next few years, did he gain his end, taking his seat, then at the age of thirty-three, in Queen Victoria's first Parliament. The character of the struggle at these elections may be inferred from O'Connell's declaration in one of them, that in all probability this "Disraeli was the heir-at-law of the blasphemous thief that died on the cross." Disraeli challenged O'Connell's son, who failed to accept the challenge. But Disraeli never cherished a grudge; and only three weeks after he entered Parliament he risked his seat there by a pointed statement of the misgovernment of Ireland. Neither did O'Connell bear malice, and he said of one of Disraeli's speeches, somewhat later, that "it was all excellent except the peroration, and that was matchless." Not only in O'Connell's case was this impossibility in Disraeli's nature of doing anything ignoble shown; he secured, when in power, a life-pension to the widow and children of the artist Leech, who had for half a lifetime showered him with the cruel ridicule of the caricaturist; and he offered the Grand Cross of the Bath, and a life-income suitable to the maintenance of its dignity, to Carlyle, who had pursued him now with contempt and now with malignity. In the intervals of the electoral contests a series of letters to The Times, filled with biting sarcasm, under the signature of "Runnymede;" a novel--"Henrietta Temple;" a "Vindication of the British Constitution," dedicated to Lord Lyndhurst; a contrasting presentation of the characters of Byron and Shelley, in the form of romance, under the title of "Venetia," sufficiently occupied Disraeli's time. He was, meanwhile, in the vortex of gay social life, a member of the Carlton Club, the friend of Count D'Orsay, Lady Blessington, Mrs. Norton, Lady Dufferin, Bulwer, Tom Moore, Lady Morgan, of Lyndhurst, of the public men and of the men of fashion, and he was courted by princes and pretty women. He had come to Parliament prepared as few or none before him, with coolness, courage, wit, and eloquence, and with a far-seeing sagacity that enabled him to make the most of something like the gift of prophecy. But he was handicapped with the fact of his race, with his debts, which, although he was not personally extravagant or at all self-indulgent, had become heavy, with the absence of a constituency or a popular cause; and having no landed property, nor belonging even remotely to any great family, he was looked upon both by Whig and Tory as more or less of an adventurer.
Like almost all young men, his first preferences and professions were for reform. But brought face to face with responsibility he modified his opinions; and the great power and place that he ultimately won, were won through the originality, the thought, the force, and the independence that dared act without reference to his own advantage, and the splendid courage that was undismayed by any odds. Although he could have acquired office in the earlier years by withholding open expression of his opinions, he preferred his freedom; and although always in want of money, he never made a penny by means of the place or the power that he won, or even through the legitimate opportunities which these offered.
His first speech in Parliament was attended by peculiar circumstances. A number of the ruder members of the opposition were determined that he should not be heard, and they drowned every sentence in derisive cheers and mocking yells. Disraeli bore it with dignity, but as it was impossible to proceed in the noisy and barbarous din, he closed by saying that he had begun several times many things, and had succeeded at last; and then in a tone that resounded even above the clamor, for he had at all times a sonorous and impressive voice, he cried, "I will sit down now. But the time will come when you will hear me!" Of this speech Peel said it was anything but failure; and Sir John Campbell, the Attorney-General, assured him that there was a lively desire in the opposing party to hear him, but they were hindered by a coterie over whom they had no control. In describing the scene, in a letter to his sister that night, with great frankness, as disastrous, Disraeli signed himself, "Yours in very good spirits." When he spoke, a week afterward, he commanded the attention of the House.
Disraeli had always declared that no government should have his support which did not seek to improve the condition of the poor; and as he looked at the British constitution and social construction, he believed that the Conservatives were the best able to accomplish this end. Because he was a Jew he was none the less an Englishman, and he had the true interests of the United Kingdom at heart. He held that the strength of England lay in the land, and he supported the corn laws from stern principle. "It will be an exception to the principles which seem hitherto to have ruled society," he exclaimed, "if you can maintain the success at which you aim, without the possession of that permanence and stability which the territorial principle alone can afford. Although you may for a moment flourish after their destruction, although your ports may be filled with shipping, your factories smoke on every plain, and your forges flame in every city, I see no reason why you should form an exception to that which the page of history has mournfully recorded, that you should not fade like Tyrian dye, and moulder like the Venetian palaces."
He was already, in 1839, to a certain extent, a power in Parliament, launching the shafts of his sarcasm alike at the Chancellor of the Exchequer or an Under Secretary; and in this year he published his tragedy of "Count Alarcos," and married Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, the wealthy widow of his friend and colleague, several years his senior, but through thirty years his invaluable friend and confidante. In dedicating "Sybil" to her, he said, "I would inscribe this work to one whose noble spirit and gentle nature ever prompt her to sympathize with the suffering; to one whose sweet voice has often encouraged and whose taste and judgment have ever guided its pages, the most severe of critics, but a perfect wife." Her devotion to him was illustrated by her behavior one night when, on the eve of an exciting session, she drove with him to Palace Yard, and her hand being crushed in the carriage-door, she gave no sign, lest it should disturb his train of thought and lessen his power in the approaching debate, and endured her agony without blenching till he had left her. He rewarded such devotion in kind, his happiest hours were those spent in her society, and perhaps the proudest moment of his life was that when, the Queen having offered him a peerage, he declined it for himself but accepted it for his wife, and made her Viscountess Beaconsfield in her own right.
Immediately upon their marriage Mr. Disraeli travelled with his wife for a couple of months on the continent; and returning to London he received the congratulations of Peel, Wellington, and others, and began to entertain the party chiefs; he dined privately with Louis Philippe in Paris, shook hands with the King of Hanover in London, and in every way took his social and personal position firmly. In Parliament he crossed swords with Palmerston, refused his support to Peel's Coercion Bill in relation to Ireland, characterizing it as one of those measures which to introduce was degrading, and to oppose disgraceful; later he maintained that as revolution was the only remedy for the wrongs of Ireland, and as her connection with England prevented revolution, therefore it was the duty of England to effect by policy what revolution would effect by force, and as he had defended the Chartist petition, so in turn, when the Eastern Question came up, he defended Turkey; in all this making it supremely plain that he never was the one to truckle to rank or authority. He was the head of the small party of Young Englanders; he was feared and respected by both the larger parties; and the Commons, whose assemblage he had scornfully proclaimed a thing of past history, if they did not choose, had presently to accept him for their leader.
Henry Hope, entertaining a number of their friends at Deepdene, urged Disraeli to treat the questions of common interest in a literary form, and the powerful works--rather treatises than novels--"Coningsby" and "Sybil," appeared; and these were followed by "Tancred," in which the curious reader will find much of Disraeli's Eastern policy indicated. These three books the author regarded as a trilogy upon English politics, principles, and possibilities.
As a debater, then and always, Disraeli was keen, ready, and unanswerable; as a satirist, swift, subtle, and finished. His epigrams were among the "jewels that on the stretched forefinger of all time sparkle forever." It was he that said "Destiny is our will, and our will is nature." At another time he said, "The critics--they are those who have failed in literature and in art." When Prince Napoleon was slain he exclaimed, "A very remarkable people the Zulus: they defeat our generals, they convert our bishops, they have settled the fate of a great European dynasty." Every one remembers the startling sentence in which he condemned Mr. Gladstone's Irish policy of 1868: "We have legalized confiscation; we have consecrated sacrilege; we have condoned treason." And his power of picturesque mockery appears in a speech made, in 1872, immediately before the downfall of the Gladstone ministry: "As I sat opposite the Treasury bench the ministers reminded me of those marine landscapes not unusual on the coasts of South America. You behold a range of exhausted volcanoes. Not a flame flickers on a single pallid crest. But the situation is still dangerous. There are occasional earthquakes, and ever and anon the dark rumbling of the sea." His attacks on Peel have been pronounced to be among the most remarkable speeches in the annals of the British Legislature. In 1849, at which period also he wrote the biography of his father and the memoir of his friend Lord George Bentinck, he was the recognized leader of the Conservatives. When Peel was overthrown, Disraeli, who had overthrown him, after a brief period, succeeded to his place.
It was not with cordiality that the Conservatives submitted to Disraeli's direction. He had carried himself in relation to them with an unsurpassed independence. He was of a people whom they held in contempt, and whose admission to Parliament he had enforced. In his speeches he had spared none of them. He had no friend at court, and he was still very young. But there was no help for it--he was master of the situation, and master of them. He was now thrice Chancellor of the Exchequer; and for a quarter of a century he led the opposition in the House of Commons, except in the brief intervals when he was identified with the Government. In leading the opposition he was never an obstructionist; and he lent his aid to every generous measure, such as the reduction of the hours of labor, the protection of factory children, the improvement of the homes of the poor, the extension of the suffrage. He refused English interference on the side of the South during the Civil War in the United States of America; he hindered disastrous hostilities with France at the time of Louis Napoleon's coup-d'etat; he would have prevented the Crimean War had it been possible; and he would not allow retaliation in kind for the Sepoy atrocities. He did the most and the best with his opportunities. His policy was always to develop and sustain English character. "There is no country," he said in a remarkable warning to the House, "at the present moment that exists under the same circumstances and under the same conditions as the people of this realm. You have an ancient, powerful, and richly endowed Church, and perfect religious liberty. You have unbroken order and complete freedom. You have landed estates as large as the Romans, combined with a commercial enterprise such as Carthage and Venice united never equalled. And you must remember that this peculiar country, with these strong contrasts, is not governed by force. It is governed by a most singular series of traditionary influences, which generation after generation cherishes and preserves, because it knows that they embalm custom and represent law. And with this you have created the greatest empire of modern times. You have amassed a capital of fabulous amount. You have devised and sustained a system of credit still more marvellous, and you have established a scheme so vast and complicated of labor and industry that the history of the world affords no parallel to it. And these mighty creations are out of all proportion to the essential and indigenous elements and resources of the country. If you destroy that state of society, remember this: England cannot begin again."
In religion Disraeli accepted Christianity fully--but as a completion of the Hebrew revelation. He coupled in thought and word "the sacred heights of Sinai and of Calvary." He was proud of his great people, and never hesitated to declare his pride. "All the north of Europe worship a Jew," he said, "and all the south of Europe worship a Jew's mother." In spite of the fact that he was an Asiatic by nature, he despised what he called the pagan ceremonies of the ritualists, and distrusted what he felt to be the atheistic tendency of science.
Shortly after his father's death, Mr. Disraeli had purchased with his paternal inheritance the manor of Hughenden, near Bradenham, in whose park his wife erected a monument to his father; and there, in the intervals of public business, he found quiet and enjoyment with his peacocks and swans and owls, his gardening, his tenantry. His books brought him in great sums of money; a friend, Mrs. Brydges Willyams, of Torquay, after twelve years of romantic intimacy with him and his wife, bequeathed him a fortune, and lies buried by the side of himself and Lady Beaconsfield at Hughenden. His circumstances were easy, his fame was assured, and when he went down to Parliament for the first time after he became Prime Minister, the crowds outside cheered him to the echo, the crowds within took up the acclaim, and the House that once had silenced him with derisive mockery, hailed with wild welcome this man who, without money, without birth, without support, had made himself, by force of will, courage, genius, loyalty, and truth, the ruler of the British Empire.
While he was again in opposition Mr. Disraeli took occasion to write "Lothair," a precise portraiture of the British aristocracy and a clear presentation of its relation to the Church, the spirit of revolution, the intrigues of the ultramontanes, the simplicity of true religion; every page splendid with wit and with picturesque charm. During another period of enforced leisure he wrote "Endymion," in which there are some slight autobiographical features.
Succeeded by Mr. Gladstone as prime minister, a half-dozen years later Disraeli was again at the helm. The Eastern question was then one of passionate interest; and when Russia was dictating terms of peace with the Ottoman, Mr. Disraeli insisted on their revision at a Conference of all the Powers, held at Berlin, which he attended in person, and where he obliged Russia to yield, and won a great diplomatic victory. He returned to London, said Mr. Froude, "in a blaze of glory, bearing peace with honor." He was made Earl of Beaconsfield, and given the Garter; and before he went into retirement again, after the nation had revived its interest in imperialism, he had acquired the mastery of the Suez Canal, and he had annexed Cyprus, and, by giving the queen the additional title of Empress of India, this child of the Orient had made of Great Britain an Oriental empire. He had ruled the country for six consecutive years when he next went into retirement. He died shortly afterward, from the effect of a severe cold, aggravating an attack of gout, on April 19, 1881.
In public or in private Disraeli never did a dishonorable action. He never attacked the weak or the defenceless, but singled out the proudest adversary. He never held malice. His impulses were always the most generous, his ideas and his purposes of the largest. He desired in all things the good of his country, and he sought it by what seemed to him, whether or not he was mistaken, the surest and loftiest ways.