Who was he: Benjamin Disraeli was one of the most powerful English politicians of the 19th century, serving twice as prime minister and active in the Parliament as an oppositionist. Disraeli is remembered for his bitter rivalry with William Gladstone, whom he openly attacked during Parliament sessions as well as in his literary works. He enjoyed the high esteem and favor of the Victorian court, as Queen Victoria herself shared his utter hatred for Gladstone.
As a legislator, one of Disraeli's prominent achievements was the the 1867 Reform Act, which increased enfranchisement of the people by reducing the monetary requirements for voting and effecting a redistribution of parliamentary seats. He also created the modern Conservative Party.
Another of his important activities was establishing the New England Group, by which Disraeli championed the interests of both the aristocratic and working classes. He advocated an alliance between the two disparate groups, arguing that the union would counteract the middle class, which he felt had too much political power. Disraeli further urged the rich to use their power and influence to aid the poor, and expressed this same philosophy in several of his novels, especially his trilogy Corningsby, Sybil and Tancred.
As a member of the Tory Party, Disraeli advocated the rights of the labor classes, especially the right to air grievances through peaceful picketing. He focused on social reforms to improve public health and prevent labor abuses. Throughout his legislative career he assumed leadership positions in Parliament.
Background: Benjamin Disraeli was born December 21, 1804 to Italian-Jewish parents but was baptized as a Christian along with his siblings. His father was a well-known writer of historical works, which influenced Disraeli to take an interest in writing and literature. Disraeli attended private school at Higham Hill in Walthamstow.
Benjamin Disraeli's father groomed him for a legal career and he was eventually hired to work as a solicitor. However, Disraeli ended his law career and instead played the stock market, investing in South American mining companies. These investments brought financial loss and huge debts for Disraeli.
Disraeli took after his father in his love of literature, as well, and pursued writing with good success. Disraeil wrote a number of books: Vivian Grey (1826), The Young Duke (1831), Contarini Fleming (1832), Venetia (1837), Coningsby (1844), Sybil (1845), Tancred (1847) and his last, Endymion, in 1880 during his retirement. Most of his books illustrated injustices in the parliamentary and concern for the plight of the poor.
Despite his earlier losses in the stock market, Disraeli was able to prosper for a time after he was acquainted with publisher John Murray, with whom he collaborated in publishing a newspaper, The Representative, which covered the mining "bubble" in South America. However, the paper ultimately failed, again causing financial ruin for Disraeli. This left him heavily in debt and led to a breakdown in his health.
Disraeli decided to pursue a political career after his business failures and was elected as a Tory candidate in 1837. He soon gained recognition as an eloquent and provocative speaker and his political career progressed.
In 1839, Benjamin Disraeli married a rich widow 12 years his senior, Mary Wyndham Lewis. Although Disraeli later admitted the marriage was initially entered into for financial reasons, their relationship blossomed through the years. In 1852, he became chancellor under Lord Derby's minority government. After Derby retired in 1868, Disraeli became the new prime minister. During his term, he oversaw a polarization of the parliament between two parties. He found himself frequently at odds with Liberal Party leader William Gladstone.
Disraeli was elected to a second term in 1874, and during this term he concentrated on social reform measures. In 1876 he was elevated to the House of Lords. Queen Victoria also made Benjamin Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield and Viscount Hughenden.
When William Gladstone became prime minister in 1880 Disraeli retired from politics to spend his retirement writing novels. However, Benjamin Disraeli's health failed shortly after retirement and he died 19 April 1881. Queen Victoria had a memorial erected in Disraeli's honor outside of St. Michael's Church. He also has a memorial in Westminster Abbey and a large statue in Ormskirk.