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Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield

Benjamin Disraeli, British statesman, second child and eldest son of Isaac D'lsraeli and Maria Basevi, who were married in 1802, was born at No. 6 John Street, Bedford Row, on 21 December 1804. Benjamin Disraeli was born, it is said, December 24, 1804, and, as is well known from the publicity he gave to the fact, and the pride he took in his descent, was sprung from Jewish parents. In the interesting introduction to the works of his father he gives us a sketch of his family history, which will well repay perusal. "My grandfather," he writes, "who became an English denizen in 1748, was an Italian descendant from one of those Hebrew families whom the Inquisition forced to emigrate from the Spanish peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, and who found a refuge in the more tolerant territories of the Venetian republic. His ancestors had dropped their Gothic surname on their settlement in the Terra Firma; and grateful to the God of Jacob who had sustained them through unprecedented trials, and guarded them through unheard-of perils, they assumed the name of 'Disraeli/ a name never borne before or since by any other family, in order that their race might be for ever recognized. Undisturbed and unmolested, they flourished as merchants for more than two centuries under the protection of the lion of St.Mark, which was but just, as the patron saint of the republic was himself a child of Israel. But towards the middle of the eighteenth century the altered circumstances of England, favourable, as it was then supposed, to commerce and religious liberty, attracted the attention of my greatgrandfather to this island, and he resolved that the youngest of his two sons, Benjamin, the 'son of his right hand,' should settle in a country where the dynasty seemed at length established, through the recent failure of Prince Charles Edward, and where public opinion appeared definitively adverse to persecution on matters of creed and conscience."

Of Isaac Disraeli's other children, Sarah was born in 1802, Naphtali in 1807, Ralph (Raphael) in 1809, and James (Jacob) in 1813. None of the family was akin to Benjamin for genius and character, except Sarah, to whom he was deeply indebted for a wise, unswerving and sympathetic devotion, when, in his earlier days, he needed it most. All Isaac Disraeli's children were born into the Jewish communion, in which, however, they were not to grow up. It is a reasonable inference from Isaac's character that he was never at ease in the ritual of Judaism. His father died in the winter of 1816, and soon afterwards Isaac formally withdrew with all his household from the Jewish church. His son Benjamin, who had been admitted to it with the usual rites eight days after his birth, was baptized at St Andrew's church in Holborn in July 1817.

Taking the worldly view alone, of course, most fortunate for his aspirations in youth was his withdrawal from Judaism in childhood. That it was fully sanctioned by his intellect at maturity is evident; but the vindication of unbiased choice would not have been readily accepted had Disraeli abandoned Judaism of his own will at the pushing' Vivian Grey period or after. Family pride contributed to the feeling in his case; for in his more speculative moods he could look back upon an ancestry which was of those, perhaps, who colonized the shores of the Mediterranean from before the time of the Captivity. More definite is the history of descent from an ennobled Spanish family which escaped from the Torquemada persecutions to Venice, there found a new home, took a new name, and prospered for six generations.

At fifteen, not before, Benjamin was sent to a Unitarian school at Walthamstow — a well-known school, populous enough to be a little world of emulation and conflict but otherwise unfit. Not there, nor in any similar institution at that illiberal time, perhaps, was a Jewish boy likely to make a fortunate entry into "the great family of mankind." His name, the foreign look of him, and some pronounced incompatibilities not all chargeable to young Disraeli (as afterwards the name came to be spelt), soon raised a crop of troubles. His stay at Walthamstow was brief, his departure abrupt, and he went to school no more. With the run of his father's library, and the benefits of that born bookman's guidance, he now set out to educate himself. This he did with an industry stiffened by matchless self-confidence and by ambitions fully mature before he was eighteen.

He was barely seventeen when (in November 1821) he was taken into the office of Messrs Swain, Stevens and Co., solicitors, in Frederick's Place, Old Jewry. Here he remained for three years—" most assiduous in his attention to business," said one of the partners, "and showing great ability in the transaction of it." It was then determined that he should go to the bar; and accordingly he was entered at Lincoln's Inn in 1824. But Disraeli had found other studies and an alien use for his pen.

About this time he edited a History of Paul Jones, originally published in America, the preface of the English edition being Disraeli's first appearance as an author. He sat down at twenty or twenty-one to write Vivian Grey. Published in 1826, the success of this insolently clever novel, the immediate introduction of its author to the great world, and the daring eccentricities of dress, demeanour, and opinion by which he fixed attention on himself there, have always been among the most favorite morsels of Disraeli's history. With them it began, and successive generations of inquirers into a strange career and a character still shrouded and baffling refer to them as settled starting-points of investigation. When any part of Disraeli's career is studied, the laces and essences, the rings over gloves, the jewelled satin shirt-fronts, the guitarerics and chibouqueries of his early days are never remote from memory. The "purposed affectation" sprang from an unaffected delight in gauds of attire, gauds of fancy and expression. It was not only to startle and impress the world that he paraded his eccentricities of splendour. His family also had to be impressed by them.

Disraeli put law in abeyance and resumed novel-writing. His weakest book, and two or three other productions, brief, but in every literary sense the finest of his works, were written in the next two or three years. But for The Infernal Marriage, and Pofanilla, Disraeli could not be placed among the greater writers of his kind; yet none of his imaginative books have been so little read as these. Disraeli set out on a tour in southern Europe and the nearer East. He saw Cadiz, Seville, Granada, Athens, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Cairo, Thebes; played the corsair with James Clay on a yacht voyage from Malta to Corfu; visited the terrible Reschid, then with a Turkish army in the Albanian capital; and landed in Cyprus.

When Disraeli returned to England in 1831, all thought of the law was abandoned. The pen of romance was again taken up. In the next five years he Wrote Conlarini Fleming, the Revolutionary Epick, Alroy, Henrietta Temple, the Runnymede Letters, a Vindication of the British Constitution, and other matter of less note. The epic, begun in great hope and confidence, was ended in less, though its author was to the last unwilling that it should be forgotten. The novels revived the success he had with Vivian Grey, and restored him to his place among the brilliancies and powers of the time. The political writing, too, much of it in a garish, extravagant style, exercised his deeper ambitions.

In What is He? and the Vindication he struck the keynote to the explanations he afterwards consistently offered of all his apparent inconsistencies. Here an interpretation of Tory principles as capable of running with the democratic idea, and as called upon to do so, is ingeniously attempted. The aristocratic principle of government having been destroyed by the Reform Bill, and the House of Lords being practically "abrogated "by that measure, it became necessary that Toryism should start from the democratic basis, from which it had never been alien. The filched liberties of the crown and the people should be restored, and the nation redeemed from the oligarchies which had stolen from both.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2016 15:42:28 ZULU