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( Originally Published Early 1900's )
"TO THE STRONG NOTHING IS DIFFICULT"
The historian Froude, speaking of Lord Beaconsfield, says: "For forty years he was in the front of all the battles which were fought in the House of Commons, in opposition or in office, in adversity or in success, in conflict and competition with the most famous debaters of the age. In the teeth of prejudice, without support save his own force of character, without the advantage of being the representative of any popular cause which appealed to the imagination, he fought his way until the consent of Parliament and country raised him to the Premiership." Mr, Fronde adds, "Extraordinary qualities of some kind he must have possessed."
It is the aim of this short sketch of the life of the Premier to bring into relief these extraordinary qualities, without descending too minutely into the details of his long and eventful career, both as a littérateur and as a politician.
Benjamin Disraeli was a descendant of one of those Jewish families compelled by the Spanish Inquisition to leave the Peninsula toward the close of the Fifteenth Century. The family settled in Venice, where it dropped its Spanish name Lara, apparently and became known simply as D'Israeli, or Sons of Israel. Here they throve and made money for 200 years. About the middle of the last Century a scion of the family, Benjamin D'Israeli went to England, where he took root and prospered as a financier. His son Isaac, preferred the pursuit of literature to that of business, and became the author of several works, of which the best known is his "Curiosities of Literature."
Isaac Disraeli was the father of the subject of this sketch, who was born in London, December 21, 1804. The child was received into the Jewish church with the usual rites. Subsequently Isaac Disraeli, who was a "free-thinker," severed his connection with the Jews; and Benjamin, on the advice, it is said, of Samuel Rogers, received the rite of Christian baptism, at the age of thirteen.
The strong prejudice which at that time existed against the Jews, rendered it undesirable that Benjamin should enter either Eton or a University; accordingly the education problem was solved by sending him to a private school in the neighborhood of London. Here he received his only schooling; but a good part of his education, which was purely literary, and not at all scientific, must have been gathered in his father's extensive library.
Upon leaving school at the age of seventeen Benjamin entered a lawyer's office, upon the advice of his father, not, apparently, of his own inclination. His tastes, like his father's, were literary. He was conscious, too, of a power within him and he was ambitious as well. He was deter-mined to make for himself a name. By the time he was twenty-one he had written and published his first book - "Vivian Grey."
His first venture was successful. "Vivian" was the book of the season. Everyone asked everyone else, "Have you read it?" The scene was laid in Scandinavia. But it was recognized at once that the characters were English and were living. Numerous "keys" were published. Vivian Grey was the writer himself.
Vivian is the son of a distinguished author, lively, talented, irresistibly attractive, and engrossed from boyhood with the idea of making a career for himself. In society he is petted and patronized by a dozen women of fashion; but the apparently frivolous boy is an obstinate and indefatigable student, and when he has devoured a mass of historical reading, he takes to the study of politics. His first political reflection is simply this How many great nobles only want brains to become ministers, and what does Vivian Grey want in order to become one? Nothing but the influence of such a noble. So Vivian Grey finds his nobleman and takes up politics, and for a time wins success; nor is he over-scrupulous in his choice of means. But disaster comes upon him and he finally decides that the best thing for him to do is to leave the country,
No one could mistake the personality of Vivian, and there was no false modesty displayed in the delineation of the character. The book is, furthermore, virtually a publication of the writer's own aspirations. "Vivian Grey" was followed by the "Young Duke," a flashy picture of high society, and by two short satirical pieces; "Ixion in Heaven," and "Popanilla," a burlesque on the English Constitution.
Disraeli now spent a year in traveling, visiting Spain, the old home of his family, Malta, Greece, and continuing the journey by way of the coast of Asia Minor, to Jerusalem the real objective point of the journey and lastly to Egypt.
Upon his return, in 1831, he wrote a new story, "Contarini Fleming" giving a second portrait of himself, presenting his poetic aspirations and introducing his travels, much as Byron had done in Childe Harold. The book, though less flatteringly received than "Vivian Grey," still added to his reputation. But less fortunate was his "Revolutionary Epic," conceived on the plain of Troy, and having for its theme the French Revolution. Fifty copies only of the first cantos were published, as an experiment and friends dissuaded him from continuing the work.
Disraeli had now the entrée to the best literary society of London. At Bulwer's home he was introduced to Count d'Orsay, Lady Morgan, Mrs. Norton, Mrs. Gore, and other notables. Lady Blessington welcomed him at Kensington. Flying higher he made acquaintance with Lord Mulgrave, Lord William Lennox and Tom Moore. He formed also acquaintances which were less advantageous to him. Although he himself never gambled nor gave way to dissipation of any sort, his habits of life were expensive; gradually he became involved in debt, having borrowed, not only for himself, but for his impecunious friends. He was at one time on the verge of ruin from this cause, and he continued to be embarrassed by debt for years. His election expenses were always heavy; but he was always sanguine of the future and finally he recovered himself by marrying wealth.
Disraeli's inordinate passion for attracting attention displayed itself, among other ways, in extravagant foppishness of dress. N. P. Willis met him at a party at Lady Blessington's. "He was sitting at a window looking on Hyde Park, the last rays of sunlight reflected from the gorgeous gold flowers of a splendid embroidered waist-coat. Patent leather pumps, a white stick with a black cord and tassel, and a quantity of chains about his neck and pockets, served to make him a conspicuous object. He has one of the most remarkable faces I ever saw. He is lividly pale, and but for the energy of his action and the strength of his lungs would seem to be a victim of consumption. His eye is black as Erebus, and has the most mocking, lying-in-wait expression conceivable. . .
His hair is as extraordinary as his taste in waistcoats. A thick heavy mass of jet black ringlets falls on his left cheek almost to his collarless stock, which on the right temple is parted and put away with the smooth carefulness of a girl."
In 1832 Disraeli offered himself as a candidate to the electors of High Wycombe, a borough near which his father now resided, having removed from London. He at this time called himself a Radical in politics yet an independent Radical. He detested the Whigs, the party of the middle classes, had some sympathies with the Tories, but the stress of his canvass was on need of reform to relieve the wretchedness of the lowest classes. Bulwer, who worked hard for him, procured him letters from O'Connell, Burdett, and Hume, and these letters were placarded conspicuously in the Wycombe marketplace. The Government considered the danger of his election so imminent that the son of Lord Grey was brought out as an opposing candidate. Disraeli made a good fight. In the first place he made a gorgeous display of himself, entering Wycombe in an open carriage and four, dressed with his usual extravagance laced shirt, coat with pink lining, and a stunning cane; and in the next place he made a speech which won the admiration of Colonel Grey him-self. But in spite of all he was defeated.
Two months after this election Parliament was dissolved (August 16, 1832), and he presented himself again to this constituency. He invited them to "make an end of the factious slang of Whig and Tory," and to "unite in forming a great national party." He declared that he wore the badge of no party and the livery of no faction, that he sought their votes "as an independent neighbor," and he pledged himself to withhold his support from every Ministry which would not "originate some great measure to ameliorate the condition of the lower orders." Lord Lyndhurst and the Duke of Wellington had now become interested in Disraeli, and exerted their influence in his behalf. But the powers against him were too strong and he was again defeated.
But never mind. He has determined to have a seat in Parliament and have one he will; yet two, other defeats await him one at Wycombe and one at Taunton before he wins a victory at last, in 1837. In the meantime, apart from his electioneering speech-making, he has not been idle; he has kept his name before the public by political essays; and he has published besides two works of fiction, "Venetia," and "Henrietta Temple." In these five years, too, he has found it advisable to change his political tactics. He has realized the impossibility of winning as an independent, and has joined the party of Peel. Further-more, he has had a tilt with O'Connell. He had spoken in one of his speeches of the Whigs as "grasping his bloody hand," referring to massacres in Ireland, and O'Connell, remembering the service he had rendered the young aspirant for political honors, took him to task for the insult in a violent speech at Dublin, in which he taunted Disraeli with his Jewish extraction, and intimated a probability that he was descended from "the blasphemous thief that died upon the cross." Disraeli, having sought without success to draw O'Connell's son into, a duel over the matter, addressed a pungent letter to O'Connell through the "Times." He expected, he said in conclusion, yet to become a representative of the people. "We shall meet at Philippi." The incident made no little talk at the time, and was helpful to Disraeli by keeping up the public interest in him.
On the death of William IV, in the summer of 1837, Parliament was dissolved. Disraeli was elected, as a Tory, for Maidstone, and at the age of thirty-three entered the House of Commons, of which he was henceforth to remain a member until removed to the House of Lords.
Disraeli was welcomed by Peel "very warmly," was invited by him "to join a swell dinner at the Carlton," and was otherwise treated flatteringly. He kept his mouth closed in the House for three weeks, and then made, or attempted to make his maiden speech. The scene has often been described. The speech was a failure, not because Disraeli lacked confidence he had no lack of that but partly because his ridiculous dress excited merriment —a bottle-green frock coat, a white waistcoat, no collar, and a needless display of gold chain but more particularly because O'Connell and his party had determined that it should be a failure. O'Connell seated himself in front of the speaker and looked him leeringly squarely in the face. Every sentence he uttered was received with laughter and jeers. In vain his own friends, Peel among them, applauded. He was fairly howled down. But before taking his seat he shouted in tones which startled even the noisy rabble, "I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me." And, in fact, he was not again interrupted; but this was probably in part due to his accepting the advice of a friend "Get rid of your genius for a season; speak often, but shortly, and to the point."
Disraeli had entered Parliament as a friend of the Peel Ministry. He had, however, his own views, particularly on the subject of the condition of the poor in England and Ireland, and he declined to be in all cases a servile follower of Peel. His independent course is the more noteworthy because he might reasonably have expected to be given an office under the Ministry had he been more subservient, and his financial embarrassments were such at this time that an office seemed to be a condition necessary to his continuance in Parliament. In 1839 his differences with Peel nearly reached the point of actual rupture of their friendly relations. The occasion was the famous presentation of the Chartist petition a petition from the laboring classes of England imploring legislature in their be-half, and which was signed by hundreds of thousands of names, and was so bulky that it was brought to Westminster in a triumphal car constructed especially for the purpose.
By the great majority of the House the petition was received with scoffs and jeers; but Disraeli dared to speak in behalf of the oppressed laboring man. The rejection of the petition led to riots. Disraeli was one of a minority of five who dared to say that the increase of the police force for which Lord John Russell had appealed was unnecessary. For this he was rebuked by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in his reply he did not hesitate to direct a shaft at the chief himself. All hope of obtaining office under Peel was at an end. But, fortunately, just at this time, when it seemed almost inevitable that he must retire from Parliament because of his straitened finances, fortune favored him in the same way as she had favored many of the heroes of his romances. He married money.
Mr. Wyndham Lewis, his colleague for Maidstone, and his highly esteemed friend, who, in fact, had been the means of his election, died. His widow, the "clever rattling flirt," as he had described her on their first acquaintance, after a year's mourning, became Disraeli's wife. Mr. Froude thus speaks of her : "She was childless. She was left the sole possessor of a house at Grosvenor Gate, and a life income of several thousand a year. She was not beautiful. Disraeli was thirty-five and she was approaching fifty. But she was a heroine if ever woman deserved the name. She devoted herself to Disraeli with a completeness which left no room in her mind for any other thought. As to him, he had said that he would never marry for love. But if love, in the common sense of the word, did not exist between these two, there was an affection which stood the trial of thirty years, and deepened as they both declined into age. . . . The hours spent with his wife in retirement were the happiest he ever knew. In defeat or victory he hurried home from the House of Commons to share his vexations or his triumphs with his companion, who never believed that he could fail. The moment of his whole life which, perhaps, gave him the greatest delight was that at which he was able to decorate his wife with a peerage."
At the general election of 1841 Sir Robert Peel was again borne into power. A period of five years in Disraeli's Parliamentary life now ensued of which it is impossible to give a very clear account in a short space; yet some-thing must be said. England at this time was in the throes of a great political crisis. There was distress among the poor on all sides, and the Government was looked to for relief. Wages were low; food was high. That was to be done, was a question on which political parties divided. Disraeli had studied as profoundly as was possible for a man of his highly imaginative bent of mind this vast political problem, ,and he had reached his own conclusions as to the source of England's evils. Succinctly stated, it was the fact that England had broken away from her traditionary habits. Both her aristocracy and her peasantry had degenerated; the English lord was no longer the kind and generous protector of his tenantry, and the tenant had good reason for no longer looking up to the nobleman with affectionate regard as had his forefathers. And more than this, there had arisen a great middle class founded upon an entirely new interest the manufacturing interest. What was to be done? Reform the aristocracy and bring back the people to their first love.
Disraeli found disciples for this new political creed in a coterie of young noblemen in Parliament, fresh from Oxford, who formed themselves into an association which they styled "Young England," and which they fondly hoped might become the nucleus of a new national party, that would supplant both Whigs and Tories. It was for "Young England" that he now wrote "Coningsby" and "Sybil" both political novels. In the former he ex-pounded his views on the various causes of England's degeneracy; the latter was designed mainly to present the striking the terrible contrast between the conditions of the rich and the poor. Holding such convictions which have here been barely more than hinted at Disraeli opposed every measure of reform which did not seem to him to go to the very root of the matter, and this root was in the decline of England's national character. Impossible it is here to present fully. his views of reform. But enough has been said to indicate that at this period of his life Disraeli was a theoretical rather than a practical states-man, with his head full of ideas impossible of realization.
The election which had put Peel into office was a victory of the Protectionists over the Free Traders. Peel himself was an avowed Protectionist; but soon after his accession to office he began to show Free Trade proclivities, and finally came out squarely for the repeal of the Corn Laws, to the disgust of his party. He was opposed now openly and bitterly by Disraeli, who had gradually been shaking off allegiance to him. The Bill repealing the Corn Laws was passed (in 1846). In fact the Irish famine seemed to render its passage an absolute necessity; still, the Tories were offended that their own chief had taken the leading part in the drama, and they determined on revenge. A few days later Peel was defeated on a coercion Bill for Ireland, and resigned office.
The nominal leader in the attack upon Peel had been Lord George Bentinck; but the forces had really been marshaled by Disraeli, and to him now fell the task of building together the shattered ruins of the Conservative party. Very unwillingly they submitted to the unwelcome necessity. They had no love for Disraeli. He was looked upon as an un-English adventurer; he had never sued, for their favors; he had spoken and voted as he pleased, whether they liked it or not; he had advocated in spite of them the admission of the Jews into Parliament. But he had championed the cause of the Tory party when their trained leaders had deserted them, and had won their applause. Lord George remained a year or two the nominal chief; but Lord George died, and Disraeli became the acknowledged leader of the opposition.
For the next twenty-five years Disraeli held this position in the House of Commons, varied with brief intervals of power. He was three times Chancellor of the Exchequer under Lord Derby in 1852, in 1858-9, and again in 1867 but he was in office owing rather to the Liberal dissensions than to recovered strength on his own side. Being in a minority, he was unable to initiate any policy; nor if the opportunity had been offered would he have attempted to reverse the commercial policy of Peel. He accepted the decision upon this point as final. More than this, what Cobden had prophesied for Free Trade came to pass. Science and skill came 'to the support of enterprise, and England entered upon a glorious era of commercial prosperity.
As an opposition leader Disraeli was never willfully obstructive, and while dexterous as a party chief, he conducted himself always with dignity and fairness. Any proposal which he considered good he helped forward with earnestness and ability proposals for shortening the hours of labor, for the protection of children in factories, for the improvement of the dwelling houses of the poor. Among foreign events which occurred within this long period was the Crimean War. Disraeli strove earnestly to prevent this war, which every Englishman now admits to have been wholly unnecessary, and a disgrace to England; but when once the war had broken out, he gave the Government his most cordial support. For his attitude during our own Civil War we have cause to be grateful to him. It was beyond question mainly the efforts of Disraeli which prevented England from accepting the proposal of Napoleon to recognize the belligerency of the Confederate States.
During this period Disraeli had abundant leisure for literary work. It was at this time that he wrote "Tancred" and "Life of Lord George Bentinck" the former a novel, written while he was still under the illusion that the English aristocracy might be regenerated, and forming a sort of sequel to "Coningsby" and "Sybil"; the latter, interesting as setting forth his own peculiar views of Christianity.
In 1867 Lord John Russell's Reform Bill was defeated. The Whig Ministry fell and Lord Derby came a third time to the helm with Disraeli as his Chancellor of the Exchequer. And now an astonishing thing happened. Disraeli introduced and carried a Reform Bill far more sweeping than any that had before been attempted a bill which carried with it household suffrage. He did the very thing for which twenty years before he had fought and defeated Peel for doing. He had said in one of his speeches on that occasion that Peel "had caught the Whigs bathing and had carried off their clothes," and now he repeated the exploit and kept the clothes. The Liberals were beaten with their own ammunition.
In February, 1868, an event occurred which was destined to realize Disraeli's wildest youthful dreams. Lord Derby retired from public life, warmly recommending the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the Queen as his only possible successor, and Disraeli became Prime Minister. Little as he was liked in many quarters, there was a general feeling in the country that he had honorably won the distinction now accorded him by his rare capabilities and persistent hard work for many years; and when he walked for the first time in his new honors from Downing Street to the House of Commons, he was greeted with enthusiastic applause, both on the way and in the lobby of the House. But he was destined to wear his new honors but for a short time. Gladstone brought forward his famous resolution for the disestablishment of the Irish Church, and carried it against the Government. At the dissolution he was rewarded with a majority so sweeping that Disraeli, without waiting for the meeting of Parliament, resigned his office and was succeeded by Gladstone. The Queen now offered Disraeli a peerage. He declined the honor for himself, but accepted it for his wife, who now became Viscountess Beaconsfield.
Disraeli had again leisure for literary work, and produced "Lothair," a portrayal of the contemporary aristocracy of England, a book of which Mr. Froude remarks : "The student of English history in time to come who would know what the nobles of England were like in the days of Queen Victoria, will read 'Lothair' with the same interest with which they read Horace and Juvenal."
After Mr. Gladstone's energetic measures in behalf of Ireland, came a Conservative reaction.
In 1874 Mr. Disraeli again became Prime Minister. He had now behind him a strong majority, and for the first time he really had power. He could do what he pleased. He could dictate the foreign and colonial policy. He was master of the fleet and the army. He was virtually Sovereign of England so long as his party was true to him. Mr. Gladstone, for so many years his great rival, had retired from the leadership of the Liberal party, leaving Lord Hartington to direct it, so that the new Minister had no strong opposition to embarrass him. Let us see what he did.
Disraeli was an imperialist, in the sense that he thought England the greatest Nation of the world, and desired to keep her so. England's prestige abroad had suffered sadly from the irresolution of his predecessors. Lord John Russell, for example, had met a rebuff from Bismarck when he attempted to interfere in the affair of the Polish insurrection, and again when he protested against Russia's violation of the Treaty of Paris, at the time of the overthrow of Napoleon. The ties which bound England's colonies to the mother country had been weakened by the granting of constitutions which rendered them all but independent. Disraeli proposed to change all this, as far as possible. There was little to be ,done in the case of the colonies, but he could at least render England respected abroad; he could consolidate and even extend her Empire. And this is what he sought to do. England bristled up to Russia, and for a time the war fever ran high in England. It really seemed as if a war was inevitable between these two great powers, who had undertaken between them the civilization of Asia a war from which England could gain but little were she victorious, and which, in the case of her defeat, would cost her her Indian possessions. There was a war of conquest inaugurated in South Africa. Egypt was occupied by British troops. There was a war in Abyssinia.
In 1877 Russia declared war against Turkey in behalf of Bulgaria. The old ally of England was in danger; the Dardanelles, the "Key of India," might be lost, and Disraeli was in favor of helping the "sick man," as in 1854. But now Mr. Gladstone came forth from his retirement. He forced the country to observe what Turkish rule meant, and he compelled Disraeli to keep his hands off. Still, when the Peace of San Stefano was signed, Disraeli insisted that it should not be accepted by Europe until revised by the Powers. The Conference for this purpose met at Berlin, and thither went Disraeli, now Lord Beaconsfield, to look after England's interests in person. The Conference was presided over by Bismarck. It was not a harmonious affair. Beaconsfield became stubborn. He broke up the Conference and announced that he should return home and take other measures. And now Bismarck, "the Peacemaker," interposed with his good offices. Russia consented to yield a point or two of no great substantial significance. Beaconsfield had the glory of extorting a concession by a menace, and returned to England in triumph. This was the climax of his career. All England sang the praises of her patriot Minister. One might have thought that the Eastern Question was settled for all time; but alas, this question still remains to plague Europe.
One graceful thing which Beaconsfield did during his régime as Prime Minister must not be overlooked. He offered Carlyle, not a peerage, for a hereditary honor would be a mockery to a childless old man, but the Grand Cross of the Bath, with a life income corresponding to such a rank. Carlyle declined; but he was sensible of the compliment, and was touched at the quarter from which it came, for of all Disraeli's haters the most cordial and sarcastic had been Carlyle.
The result of the election of 188o was against Beacons-field, and he accepted his fate, as on a former occasion, without waiting for a meeting of Parliament. He was succeeded in office by Mr. Gladstone. He now took his place as leader of the opposition in the House of Lords, showing no signs of weakened powers.
Some thirty years before this time Disraeli had purchased, with his share of his father's estate, a manor at Hughenden, near his old home, and to this it was now his chief pleasure to retire, with or without companions, more often alone. For a fortnight together he would remain there in solitude he had now been a widower for nine years wandering through the park or through the woods, which in his youth had been the scene of so many ambitious or moody meditations. He took a special pleasure at these times in visiting his tenants, looking after their comfort, and seeing that there were "no dust-heaps, nor cesspools, nor choked drains, nor damp floors" among the Hughenden tenements. He was on pleasant terms with everyone about the place, and was especially kind to old people and to children. In the quiet of this retreat he now finished "Endymion," which had been half completed when he took office in 1874.
Beaconsfield was still, apparently, in the enjoyment of excellent health. But his end was drawing near. He was at his place at the opening of the session of 1881, and addressed the House with much of his old-time vigor. In the middle of March he had an attack of gout, which was aggravated by a cold. At first no danger was apprehended, but he grew worse day after day, and on the 19th of April Benjamin Disraeli, Lord Beaconsfield, took his final departure from the scene where he had so long shone with so much brilliancy. That there was genuine sincerity in the eulogiums which followed, both in Parliament and in the press, there can be no question. His name had become a household word. He had even come to be nick-named "Dizzy," an excellent sign of his popularity. The whole English Nation, without regard to politics, felt that a man was gone whose place was not easily to be filled, and that the honors which had come to him as the fruit of years of toil had been fairly won. A place was offered in the Abbey, and a public funeral; but his desire had been to be buried at Hughenden. There he now rests by the side of his devoted wife.
What estimate should be placed upon Disraeli? Very nearly the same estimate which we place upon a man who, having begun life as a penniless boy, has by indomitable perseverance and energy, by shrewdness and a close attention to business, become the possessor of millions. Such a man we call a successful man, but we never think of him as a great man. We may admire him, esteem him, if his integrity is above reproach; we may recognize in him a man of marked and exceptional abilities; but we reserve the title of greatness for those who have not merely won great personal triumphs, but who have also in some way left their impress upon the age in which they lived. Disraeli's ambition was not for wealth, but for fame. For money he cared little, except as it was necessary for furthering his political aspirations. He had abundant opportunities of enriching himself, had he been unprincipled enough to use them; yet even his worst enemy never charged him with the possession of a single penny which he had not come by honestly. At the very outset of his career he declared his aim in life under the thin disguise of "Vivian Grey." His ambition, wild as it then seemed to be, was avowed with a clearness that could not be mistaken. It was nothing less than to become Prime Minister of England; and despite the obstacles which beset his path, he reached the goal of his ambition. A successful man he was, and deservingly successful. "Forti Nihil Difficile" (To the Strong Nothing is Difficult), was the motto of his coat of arms, exemplified in his own character.
But how will the historian judge Disraeli? A brilliant man, a strong man, he undoubtedly was; but judged from the impress which he left upon English history, he was hardly a great man. Not one of the great measures which he once insisted on did he carry or attempt to carry. And of the work to which he addressed himself, when finally he had the power, very little that was accomplished now remains. He seemed, indeed, at the time to have achieved great triumphs of diplomacy, but what has be-come of them? Of all these achievements there remain only to his Nation the Suez Canal shares and the possession of Cyprus, and to his Queen the gaudy title of Empress of India. All else that Beaconsfield did for England has either been undone or forgotten.