President Nixon lamented in 1969 to his urban-affairs advisor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that there was a dearth of poetry in the White House and had the former professor draw up a list of books for him to read. Nixon soon became enthralled with the 1966 classic biography of Disraeli by Robert Blake. The book was made required reading for all White House staff.
David Cesarani’s new biography of Disraeli does not surpass Blake’s book. It focuses on the Jewish aspect of Benjamin Disraeli as part of the Jewish Lives series at Yale University Press.
Disraeli was born in London in 1804 of Italian-Jewish stock and lived among the Sephardic community of Portuguese and Spanish Jews. His father, Isaac, rarely attended Jewish services and arranged to have his children baptized Christian. “Isaac D’Israeli was typical of Sephardi Jews,” writes Cesarani, “cosmopolitan migrants who by the time they settled in London were already semidetached from the faith of their ancestors.” At age 12, Benjamin entered the Church of England.
Isaac Disraeli wanted to be a poet and not a businessman. He was a friend of John Murray, the Tory publisher and founder of The Quarterly Review. In two books published by Murray on James I and Charles I, Isaac defended the Stuarts and challenged the Whig interpretation of history. In a wonderful biography of Benjamin Disraeli, André Maurois says the Disraeli family considered Charles I a martyr and that “devotion to the Stuarts and hatred of the Puritans was the sole religion of the household.”
Benjamin Disraeli inherited his father’s literary gifts. Largely self-educated, he never attended university. As a young man he traveled extensively, had extramarital affairs, and got himself into severe and almost lifelong debt, first with an ill-fated newspaper, The Representative, then from various stock-market speculations and extravagant living. Cesarani quips, “Disraeli never allowed straightened financial circumstances to impede him from anything.” At age 32, he had stood for Parliament four times. This would have been enough for a normal human being, but Disraeli ran again and finally won in 1837.
During these early years, Disraeli managed to write ten novels. Some are quite excellent: They emphasize the importance of faith over the sordid materialism favored by middle-class liberalism. Writing provided him an outlet for his romantic sensibility, as well as with desperately needed cash. But Disraeli had a burning ambition to lead men. Writing political romance ultimately failed to satisfy him. An entry from his diary reads, “I wish to act what I write.”
As a younger man, Disraeli dressed in the outrageous and aggressively refined attire of a dandy. Dandyism was a kind of aristocratic reaction to an age of democratic dullness. Disraeli believed the dandy to be not a mere clotheshorse, but a gesture and mask of personality to confront the slights and sneers of the world. Lord Byron had set the standard. Indeed, Disraeli worshiped Byron and became a sort of Don Juan in prose. Both in his books and in his person, Disraeli challenged the conformity and scientific materialism of the era. André Maurois states this beautifully:
The fashionable doctrine amongst the Whigs and their allies was utilitarianism, born of a kind of anti-romantic reaction of the middle classes. The invention of the steam-engine and industrial machinery, the astounding development of English railways and mines, had inspired a passionate belief in them of material progress. The new science of political economy had taught them that the relations between men are not moral relations or duties, but are decreed by laws no less exact and inevitable than the law of gravity or the movement of the stars. The law of supply and demand was their gospel, the locomotive their fetish, and Manchester their Holy City.
Disraeli, the painter of great parks and flowering gardens and glittering mansions, detested this reek of coal. Political economy bored him; he could not believe that men, men of flesh with mobile faces like his heroes, Retz, Napoleon, and Loyola[,] were condemned to combine like so many crooked atoms in order to produce the cheapest calico in the richest possible world.
Two years after entering Parliament, Disraeli managed to land a wealthy widow, Mary Anne Lewis, 12 years his senior, to whom he remained faithful. He toned down his dress and over the years overcame the notoriety of his youth, his debt, and the suspicions surrounding the flamboyant man of letters. But he had yet to overcome his reputation for unprincipled ambition and (despite the fact that he had been baptized) the prejudice against him as a Jew.
It was not until 1849 that Disraeli finally won his party leadership, a post he held for 27 years. Most of his life was spent in political opposition. Unlike recent American speakers of the House, Disraeli understood that “the duty of the opposition is to oppose.” He served as prime minister in 1868, and again from 1874 to 1880.
Disraeli believed that “change,” as he outlined it in a speech of 1867, “should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and traditions of a people” and “not in deference to an abstract principle.” He had the will to undertake necessary reforms.
In fact, his Reform Act of 1867 was ingenious. Disraeli realized that the First Reform Act of 1832, which had extended the vote to the manufacturing commercial classes (who were now voting solidly Whig), sorely disadvantaged the landed Tory aristocracy. So he cleverly extended suffrage to urban workers, thus forming an alliance between them and the rural landlords. A new Conservative Party emerged—not as a result of the sort of class warfare advocated by Marx but as a class alliance to promote the stability of the English nation.
Disraeli abhorred the doctrine of laissez-faire along with the so-called economic interpretation of history, and he sought to protect people from the ideology he saw destroying the fabric of English society. Former Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel, Disraeli argued, had advanced revolution by inaction. Disraeli passed legislation to improve workingmen’s lives that included the Artisans’ Dwelling Act, the Employee and Workman’s Act, a Factory Act, and a Rivers Pollution Act as part of a program that has been labeled “Tory Socialism.” His reform of the Conservative Party had a major impact upon his country for 35 years of his life, and for at least half a century after his death.
Cesarani barely mentions these reforms. He unfairly scolds Disraeli for not leading an all-out crusade for Jewish emancipation and criticizes Disraeli’s silence in Parliament on the 1845 commission recommending the repeal of the laws that penalized Jews for their faith. Disraeli did, however, speak up for Jewish rights when it suited his political ambitions. The author fails to understand that the great man’s first ambition was to be prime minister of all of Great Britain, and that men, like monarchs, must maneuver accordingly. Paradoxically, his advocation of the Jewish people as a great race leads Cesarani to accuse him of playing “a formative part in the construction of anti-Semitic discourse appropriated by the Nazis.”
Disraeli was proud of his Jewish heritage, and also the victim of prejudice all his life. “Yes I am a Jew,” he exclaimed to a political opponent who attacked him, “and while the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon.” He believed the tendencies of the Jewish race to be conservative ones. Jews, he thought, were blessed and specially chosen by God to redeem the world, and he saw Christianity as the completion of Judaism. Europe, he wrote, was indebted to Jews. “All their literature and all their religion” came from Jews, and thus Europeans are indebted to them for much that regulates, much that charms, and much that solaces existence. “The toiling multitude rest every seventh day by virtue of a Jewish law.”
In his time, Disraeli tried to lift mankind from the slough of materialism to a higher spiritual level. He correctly observed that
the Utilitarians in politics are like the Unitarians in religion. Both omit imagination from their systems, and imagination governs mankind. Utilitarianism, liberalism, materialism, Manchester economics and scientism are of the same origin. Human nature is not just an economic machine blind to the spiritual imagination. It informs man he has a spiritual dimension.
Benjamin Disraeli, a force on behalf of civilization, died within a few days of Karl Marx, who was bent on its destruction.
[Disraeli: The Novel Politician, by David Cesaran (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press) 304 pp.; $25.00]