Benjamin Disraeli, whose name would be inextricably linked with the growth of the British Empire, was born in London on December 21, 1804, to Isaac and Maria D’Israeli. Although England did not have the ugly record of anti-Semitism of other European countries, Isaac decided that assimilation into English society was the best path for his son. Although Isaac had his children, Benjamin, Sarah, Raphael, and Jacobus baptized into Christianity, he himself remained committed to Judaism.
Isaac was a distinguished writer and passed the love of writing on to his son. After several failed attempts in politics, Benjamin was elected as the Tory (Conservative) Party representative in 1837 from Maidstone, in Kent, England.
Coincidentally, this was also the year in which Victoria became queen, a woman whose life would be so closely connected to his. Although the Tory Party historically represented the nobility and the landowners, Disraeli was of the progressive wing of the party.
Philosophically, he leaned more toward the Whigs, later known as the Liberal Party, and espoused the cause of the rising working class. The working class was increasingly exploited in the factories, mills, and mines of a rapidly industrializing Britain. Two years later, Disraeli married a wealthy widow, Mrs. Wyndham Lewis.
In 1841 the general elections brought the Conservatives to power in Britain, and Sir Robert Peel became the prime minister. When Peel turned Disraeli down for a seat in his cabinet, Disraeli helped form the Young England group. This group attempted to redirect politics in the aftermath of the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, the first of several reform bills that would open the voting franchise to larger numbers of Britain’s working classes.
The Young Englanders sought an alliance between the aristocracy of Britain, the backbone of the Tory Party since its formation in the reign of King Charles II, and the rising working-class poor. Although nothing came directly from these ideas, it characterized British political life in the 1840s. The group disbanded after the Maynooth Grant in 1845, the same event that led to William Gladstone’s resignation from the cabinet.
One of the cornerstones of Peel’s policy was the repeal of the Corn Laws, which kept the price of corn artificially high. This benefited landowners, who formed part of Disraeli’s constituency. Disraeli’s opposition to Peel’s program did not succeed, and the Corn Laws were repealed in 1846. But the divisiveness at least partly caused by Disraeli brought down Peel’s administration, leading to a Whig government led by Lord John Russell.
When Russell resigned in 1852, Edward Stanley formed a Tory government in which Disraeli finally achieved his dream of a cabinet appointment, as chancellor of the exchequer. Stanley became prime minister two more times in his career, summoning Disraeli back to his post each time. Concurrently, Disraeli was leader of the House of Commons, which brought him into contact with Gladstone, the leader of Whigs.
Pressure was building to extend the voting franchise. In a rare act of political unanimity, Gladstone and Disraeli joined forces to press for a second Reform Bill. While Gladstone did it out of his lifelong commitment for liberal causes, Disraeli functioned from a more complicated political calculus.
If the Conservative Party did not embrace more progressive causes, it would become moribund. Due to their combined parliamentary weight, the second Reform Bill was almost assured to pass, and it did so in 1867.
In the general elections of 1868, Gladstone became prime minister, and Disraeli lost his cabinet position. The elections of 1874, however, brought Disraeli to power as prime minister, the first one totally dedicated to the expansion—and perpetuation—of the British Empire.
Disraeli realized that support for the empire in a parliamentary democracy depended on the allegiance of the growing industrial classes. To support this segment of the population, Disraeli passed legislation that protected workers and trade unions.
In his quest to make England a great empire, Disraeli found an ardent ally in Queen Victoria. At this time, the Suez Canal had made possible a rapid transit to the jewel of Britain’s imperial crown: India. By the early 1870s the khedive Ismail of Egypt had virtually bankrupted Egypt through his ambitious program of modernization.
When the chancellor of the exchequer requested Parliament to approve funds to buy the khedive’s shares, Disraeli delivered an impassioned speech urging approval. Parliament was convinced that the purchase was a strong move. In August 1876 Victoria raised Disraeli to the peerage as Lord Beaconsfield; he was compelled to leave the House of Commons. Still, he continued to serve as prime minister.
In 1878 Disraeli faced the first major foreign crisis of his administration. In 1875 the Christian population of the Balkans rebelled against their overlords in the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Revulsion over the thousands killed again united Gladstone and Disraeli.
In April 1877 Czar Alexander II declared war on the Turks. The Russians and their Romanian allies were delayed for months by the Turkish defense of Plevna (Pleven) in Bulgaria, from July to December of 1877.
But after Plevna fell, the Russians and Romanians seemed determined to press on to finish off the Turkish empire and take its capital of Constantinople. Such a grab for power was unthinkable to Disraeli, when Russia already was in a position, through its rapid conquest of the khanates of Central Asia, to threaten British India.
Consequently, Disraeli put Britain on a war footing such as had not been seen since the war scare with France years earlier. The British Mediterranean fleet cast anchor from its base at Malta, which Great Britain had gained during the Napoleonic Wars, and moved up to support the Turks by June 30, 1877.
Any further Russian advance would meet the firepower of the Royal Navy. On March 3, 1878, the Russians forced the Turks to sign the Treaty of San Stefano, which created a Greater Bulgaria, covering much of the Balkans.
Disraeli and his administration considered a Greater Bulgaria, which would have a Russian force present, as merely another stop toward a future Russian move to take over what remained of the Ottoman Empire in Europe.
With the Congress of Berlin ending the Balkan crisis in 1878 and the invasion of Afghanistan in the same year to prevent it from becoming a Russian satellite, Disraeli showed not only his belief in the British Empire, but also his determination to use both the British navy and land forces to defend it.
Although Disraeli and the Conservatives were beaten in the general election of 1880, he had made his mark as perhaps the greatest of Victorian imperialists. As for Disraeli himself, he returned to writing at the end of his political career. But after the publication of Endymion in 1880, Disraeli fell ill and died on April 19, 1881. Queen Victoria personally attended his funeral and burial at Hugenden.