Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1804, was born Benjamin Disraeli.

Disraeli was a novelist turned politician, who as Prime Minister, introduced to the Tory Party, the notions of democracy and imperialism.

Benjamin Disraeli was born on 21st December 1804, at London, the eldest son of Isaac D'Israeli and Maria Basevi, Italian Jewish immigrants. In 1813, Disraeli senior seems to have fallen out with the local synagogue, and decided to transfer his allegiance to the Church of England. He had Benjamin Disraeli and his brother baptised at the Anglican Church. The young Disraeli grew up in an atmosphere of genteel, and indeed gentile, poverty, educated at private schools of no standing and, at the age of 17, was articled to a firm of solicitors.

Disraeli could not stick with law work and decided to try to earn a living writing. He wrote several novels over a period of time, mostly noted for their overt sentimentality and didactic overtones, noted characteristics of the Victorian novel. His most famous work, still in print, was Sybil, subtitled Two Nations, a sentimental melodrama of a young heroine torn apart by a society divided into two groups, the rich and the poor.

Disraeli’s works were quite successful and enabled him to move in high society. In 1831, it was suggested to him that he should stand for Parliament. He made two unsuccessful attempts to be elected as a radical, before he realised that he must align himself with one of the major parties. He chose the Conservatives and, in 1837, successfully stood for Maidstone. In the 1832 election, the old Tory Party had been reduced to about 100 seats in Parliament and was effectively finished as an organisation. The rump of the party banded together with a group of disillusioned Whigs, under the leadership of Sir Robert Peel. At first, they were called the Peelites but later became known as the Conservatives, on account of their desire to conserve the best of the old values of the Tories. In 1852, The Whig Party also fell apart to revive later as the Liberal Party. Although Disraeli joined the Conservatives, he was not a supporter of the old Tory system, which he found divisive, and indeed he attacked in his scarifying novel, Sybil. Two Nations. Disraeli was a ‘One Nation Conservative’.

In 1839, Disraeli married a rich widow, Mrs. Wyndham Lewis, and no longer needed to write to earn a living. He could concentrate on his political career, and quickly rose to the top of the party. He appealed to the electorate on account of his natural charm, his resolute yet tolerant views and his ability to condense the most complicated arguments. When the Prime minister, Sir Robert Peel, denied him a post in the Cabinet, he formed a group of young Conservatives known as Young England, who attacked Peel on all fronts until he was obliged to resign. Disraeli did not immediately become party leader, but in 1868 when Lord Derby could not take the pressure any longer, he resigned in favour of Disraeli. When he became Prime minister, Disraeli is reported to have said "I have climbed to the top of a greasy pole.

Disraeli became Prime Minister on two occasions, the first for a brief period in 1868, and secondly from 1874 to 1880. During his term as party leader, he alternated as Prime Minister and opposition leader with his arch nemesis, David Gladstone, the Liberal Party leader. Disraeli and Gladstone faced each other across the floor of the House of Commons, criticising each others policies and demanding the others resignation. Between them they created the two party system.

As Prime Minister, Disraeli brought in the Climbing Boys Act to prevent the use of children as chimney sweeps, and the Factories Act to protect workers in industry. He purchased a majority share in the Suez Canal and proclaimed Queen Victoria as Empress of India. His policy was to get the queen on his side by a combination of charm and flattery. He said to Matthew Arnold “Everyone likes flattery, and when you come to Royalty you should lay it on with a trowel.”

In 1872, Disraeli's wife died of cancer after a long illness. She had often told people "Dizzy married me for my money but if he had the chance again he would marry me for love." Disraeli never denied this and was distraught when she died. In 1874, he began a romantic friendship with two sisters, Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, but never managed to choose one of them for a bride. He continued to flatter Queen Victoria who, in 1880, offered him a Dukedom, which he gratefully declined, but was persuaded to accept a knighthood. After a general election defeat in 1880, his health rapidly declined and he died on 19th April 1881. He was buried in the family vault at Hughenden, where shortly after his funeral, Queen Victoria arrived to lay a wreath, and later built a memorial. [Saint Michael's Church, Hughenden Park, Hughenden, High Wycombe, Bucks HP14 4LA]

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