A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)


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Edited by Susan Ratcliffe

In , when the combination of the Irish famine and the arguments of Richard Cobden convinced Peel to repeal the protective duties on foreign imported grain known as the Corn Laws, Disraeli found his issue. Young England could rally against Peel not only their own members but the great mass of the country squires who formed the backbone of the Conservative Party. As lieutenant to Lord George Bentinck , the nominal leader of the rebels, Disraeli consolidated the opposition to Peel in a series of brilliant speeches. While Disraeli and his fellow protectionists could not stop the repeal of the Corn Laws because the Whigs also backed the bill, the rebels put Peel in the minority on another issue and forced him to resign in The loyalty of most of the Conservative former ministers to Peel and the death of Bentinck made Disraeli indisputably the leader of the opposition in the Commons.

The party could not, however, do without his talents. His election to Parliament as member for Buckinghamshire in and his purchase of Hughenden Manor, near High Wycombe, in fortified his social and political power. His finances, however, remained shaky. When the Whig government fell in and the earl of Derby , leader of the Conservative Party, formed a short-lived minority government, Disraeli was chancellor of the Exchequer despite his protest that he knew nothing of finance. His budget in fact brought the government down in , though Disraeli could hardly be blamed.

Political beginnings

The free-trade majority in the Commons was determined to defeat measures that relieved agriculture, even though the method chosen did not involve protection, yet Disraeli had to bring forward some such proposals to placate his followers. Again, until , the Tories were in opposition.

Then Derby again formed a minority government with Disraeli as chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli for some time had felt there was no reason to allow parliamentary reform to be a Whig monopoly, and so he introduced a moderate reform bill in The bill, however, seemed too obviously designed to help his party, and so it was defeated; the Tories again were out of office and remained so for six years.

In when the Whig-Liberal leader Lord Russell brought forward a moderate reform bill, a combination of Tory opposition and a revolt against Russell toppled his government. Derby formed his third minority government with Disraeli as chancellor of the Exchequer. Although the initiative for a new Conservative reform bill came from Queen Victoria and Lord Derby, Disraeli introduced it in the Commons and conducted the fight for it with unsurpassed enthusiasm and mastery of parliamentary tactics.

Biographical/Historical

He believed the bill should be a sweeping one with certain safeguards, and he was determined that it should be carried by a Conservative government. The Liberals , however, had a majority, and he had to accept their amendments , which removed nearly all the safeguards. The bill that passed doubled the existing electorate and was more democratic than most Conservatives had foreseen.

In when Derby retired from politics, Disraeli became prime minister. Disraeli set a precedent by resigning before Parliament met. Now the old politics defined by personalities shifted to an emergence of two parties with coherent policies. The party leaders, Disraeli and William E. Gladstone , were implacable enemies, and they polarized the parties. At first Disraeli played a comparatively peaceful role. He tried to create a new image for the Conservative Party that he hoped would persuade the new electorate. His seeming apathy disturbed his followers, and his novel Lothair 3 vol.

From , however, Disraeli ran the party with a firm hand. He sharply differentiated Conservative from Liberal policy on several issues: he defended the monarchy, the House of Lords , and the church against what he took to be the threat of radical Liberal policy; he put forth a policy to consolidate the empire, with special emphasis on India; he dwelt on social reform; he enunciated a strong foreign policy , especially against Russia. Her death brought material losses: her house in London and her fortune passed to cousins.

At age 68 his health was not good, but he turned implacably to political battle.

He began a romantic friendship with two sisters, Lady Bradford and Lady Chesterfield, with whom he corresponded on politics and his personal feelings until his death. Gladstone reluctantly returned to office, but within a year he dissolved the Parliament himself. Disraeli had been at work on party organization and electoral machinery, and the Conservatives won a resounding victory in Disraeli gained power too late.

He aged rapidly during his second ministry. But he formed a strong cabinet and profited from the friendship of the queen, a political conservative who disliked Gladstone. Disraeli treated her as a human being , whereas Gladstone treated her as a political institution. In regard to social reform, Disraeli was able at last to show that Tory democracy was more than a slogan. The Public Health Act of codified the complicated law on that subject. Equally important were an enlightened series of factory acts , preventing the exploitation of labour and two trades union acts that clarified the legal position of those bodies.

Disraeli, Benjamin 1804-1881

His first great success was the acquisition of Suez Canal shares. An English journalist discovered this fact and told the Foreign Office. Disraeli overrode its recommendation against the purchase and bought the shares using funds provided by the Rothschild family until Parliament could confirm the bargain.


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His relentless moralising, his rescue work, his Tractarianism, his extreme radicalism on some issues and conservatism on others, put him outside any of the normal categories of politicians. That was one thing they had in common.


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  7. It was about the only one. The publication of his letters to her — hers to him have not survived — is the culmination of an historical mystery story of many years standing. Michael and Eleanor Brock tell the tale in an appendix to this admirably edited correspondence. Asquith, when preparing the second volume of his Memories and Reflections , asked Venetia Montagu as she now was , among other women to whom he had been accustomed to write, to furnish him with copies of his letters so that he could refresh his memory about certain episodes in politics.

    Unwilling to reveal the extent of his correspondence with her or even to mention her name, Asquith used extracts from this version of the letters as if they were his own diary by altering a few words here and there.

    Benjamin Disraeli

    He also omitted or amended observations that might have been embarrassing to Liberal politicians. The pretence was kept up as late as by Lady Violet Bonham Carter in Winston Churchill as I knew him , although she had access by then to the full text of the letters, and although a little-noticed footnote in the official Life of Asquith by J. Venetia Montagu is said to have become his mistress in Whether or not that is true, she provided him from time to time with extracts from the letters. Beaverbrook used these in Politicians and the War , Volume I, also published in He did not indicate the source and took many liberties with the material.

    In he allowed me to read some of the copies of letters in his possession when I was writing my life of Bonar Law, but, for reasons of copyright, I could not quote from them — which was probably just as well in view of what one now knows to be their inaccuracy. Beaverbrook allowed another myth to arise. In fact, as the editors show, only 15 out of published in this book could be described as written when Asquith was on duty either in Cabinet or Committee or on the Treasury Bench. The first historians to have full access to the original letters were Randolph Churchill and Martin Gilbert in their multi-volume Churchill and Roy Jenkins in his Asquith When she died in , the present editors took over the task.

    They have performed it with great skill and immense care. The annotation is neither too much nor too little, and it is always scrupulously accurate. The passages by the editors which link the correspondence are in themselves important contributions to the history of the times. The book is in every respect a model of how the letters of a major statesman should be edited.

    Quick Overview

    Asquith depended greatly on women. He was not in private life the cautious figure that he seemed in public. He married his first wife when he was a briefless barrister of Before she died in he was in love with Margot Tennant, whom he married in May when she was 30 and he He was Home Secretary at the time. If this was required the Queen wd not give it as she thinks she is most unfit for a C.

    Margot was most unfit and also very extravagant. She had married Asquith on the rebound. It was not a happy relationship, nor was it improved by her bad relations with her brilliant stepdaughter, Violet. She was 27, he was He liked nicknames. Most of these letters were written between March and May and they discuss with total candour the personalities and problems of the day. Asquith was in some respects a waning force. By he was politically in serious trouble over the Ulster crisis, which he undoubtedly misjudged and mishandled. It was only the outbreak of war that extricated him from an impossible position.

    Personally, however, his health and general grip had improved. This weakness was to return after his friendship with Venetia ended. Even if one makes allowance for the outbreak of a war to which there was no parallel in history, it remains astonishing that a prime minister should have disclosed such highly confidential information to a young woman of less than half his age. Posterity, however, can be thankful that he did. No information ever leaked to anyone, and if Asquith had behaved with proper caution we would have missed a fascinating commentary on one of the great crises of British public life by one of its principal participants.

    In early Disraeli became prime minister, ascending to the top of the British government when the prime minister, Lord Derby, became too ill to hold office. Disraeli's term was brief as a new election voted out the Conservative Party at the end of the year. Disraeli and the Conservatives were in opposition while William Ewart Gladstone served as prime minister in the early s. In the election of Disraeli and the Conservative regained power, and Disraeli served as prime minister until , when Gladstone's party prevailed and Gladstone again became prime minister.

    Disraeli and Gladstone were at times bitter rivals, and it is remarkable to note how the position of prime minister was held by one or the other for roughly two decades:. Queen Victoria took a liking to Disraeli, and Disraeli, for his part, knew how to flatter and accommodate the queen. Their relationship was generally very friendly, a sharp contrast to Victoria's relationship with Gladstone, whom she detested. Disraeli developed the habit of writing letters to Victoria describing political events in novelistic terms.

    The queen greatly appreciated the letters, telling someone she had "never had such letters in her life.

    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli by Harriet Prescott Spofford

    He would later flatter the queen by occasionally prefacing remarks with, "We authors, Ma'am During his second term as prime minister, Disraeli seized the chance to buy a controlling interest in the Suez Canal. And he generally stood for an expansive and imperial foreign policy, which tended to be popular at home. Disraeli also convinced Parliament to bestow the title "Empress of India" upon Queen Victoria, which pleased the queen greatly, as she was fascinated by The Raj. In , Victoria bestowed upon the Disraeli the title of Lord Beaconsfield, which meant he could move from the House of Commons to the House of Lords.

    Disraeli continued to serve as prime minister until , when an election returned the Liberal Party, and its leader, Gladstone, to power. Depressed and disheartened by the electoral defeat, Disraeli took ill and died April 19,

    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)
    A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated) A Brief Biography of Benjamin Disraeli (Annotated)

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