James Bryce Bryce.

Studies in contemporary biography online

. (page 2 of 29)
Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 2 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

in favour of Conservatism set in, which grew
so fast that, in 1874, the general election gave, for
the first time since 1846, a decided Conservative
majority. Mr. Disraeli became again Prime
Minister, and now a Prime ?ylinister no longer
on sufferance, but with the absolute command of
a dominant party, rising so much above the rest
of the Cabinet as to appear the sole author of its
policy. In 1876, feeling the weight of age, he
transferred himself to the House of Lords as
Earl of Beaconsfield. The policy he followed
(from 1876 till 1880) in the troubles which arose
in the Turkish East out of the insurrection in
Herzegovina and the massacres in Bulgaria, as
well as that subsequently pursued in Afghanistan
and in South Africa, while it received the enthusi-
astic approval of the soldiers, the stockbrokers,
and the richer classes generally, raised no less
vehement opposition in other sections of the
nation, and especially in those two which, when
heartily united and excited, have usually been
masters of Enc^land the Protestant Noncon-

1 6 Biographical Studies

formists and the upper part of the working class.
An election foug-ht with unusual heat left him in
so decided a minority that he resigned office in
April 1880, without waiting for an adverse vote
in Parliament. When the result had become
clear he observed, " They," meaning his friends,
"will come in again, but I shall not." A year
later he died.

Here is a wonderful career, not less wonder-
ful to those who live in the midst of English
politics and society than it appears to observers
in other countries. A man with few external
advantages, not even that of education at a
university, where useful friendships are formed,
with grave positive disadvantages in his Jewish
extraction and the vagaries of his first years of
public life, presses forward, step by step, through
slights and disappointments which retard but never
dishearten him, assumes as of right the leadership
of a party the aristocratic party, the party in those
days peculiarly suspicious of new men and poor
men, wins a reputation for sagacity which makes
his early errors forgotten, becomes in old age the
favourite of a court, the master of a great country,
one of the three or four arbiters of Europe.
There is here more than one problem to solve,
or, at least, a problem with more than one aspect.
What was the true character of the man who had
sustained such a part? Did he hold any principles,
or was he merely playing with them as counters ?

Lord Beaconsheld 1 7

By what gifts or arts did he win such a success ?
Was there really a mystery beneath the wizard's
robe which he delighted to wrap around him ?
And how, being so unlike the Englishmen among
whom his lot was cast, did he so fascinate and
rule them ?

Imagine a man of strong will and brilliant
intellectual powers, belonging to an ancient and
persecuted race, who finds himself born in a
foreign country, amid a people for whose ideas
and habits he has no sympathy and scant
respect. Suppose him proud, ambitious, self-
confident too ambitious to rest content in a
private station, so self-confident as to believe that
he can win whatever he aspires to. To achieve
success, he must bend his pride, must use the
language and humour the prejudices of those he
has to deal with ; while his pride avenges itself
by silent scorn or thinly disguised irony. Accus-
tomed to observe things from without, he discerns
the weak points of all political parties, the hollow-
ness of institutions and watchwords, the instability
of popular passion. If his imagination be more
susceptible than his emotions, his intellect more
active than his conscience, the isolation in which
he stands and the superior insight it affords him
may render him cold, calculating, self-centred.
The sentiment of personal honour may remain,
because his pride will support it ; and he will be

tenacious of the ideas which he has struck out,


1 8 Biographical Studies

because they are his own. But for ordinary
principles of conduct he may have small regard,
because he has not grown up under the conven-
tional morality of the time and nation, but has
looked on it merely as a phenomenon to be
recognised and reckoned with, because he has
noted how much there is in it of unreality or
pharisaism how far it sometimes is from repre-
senting or expressing either the higher judgments
of philosophy or the higher precepts of religion.
Realising and perhaps exaggerating the power
of his own intelligence, he will secretly revolve
schemes of ambition wherein genius, uncon-
trolled by fears or by conscience, makes all
things bend to its purposes, till the scruples and
hesitations of common humanity seem to him
only parts of men's cowardice or stupidity. What
success he will win when he comes to carry out
such schemes in practice will largely depend on
the circumstances in which he finds himself, as
well as on his gift forjudging of them. He may
become a Napoleon. He may fall in a premature
collision with forces which want of sympathy has
prevented him from estimating.

In some of his novels, and most fully in the
first of them, Mr. Disraeli sketched a character
and foreshadowed a career not altogether unlike
that which has just been indicated. It would be
unfair to treat as autobiographical, though some
of his critics have done so, the picture of Vivian

Lord Beaconsheld 19

Grey. What that singular book shows is that,
at an age when his contemporaries were lads at
college, absorbed in cricket matches or Latin
verse -making, Disraeli had already meditated
profoundly on the conditions and methods of
worldly success, had rejected the allurements of
pleasure and the attractions of literature, as well
as the ideal life of philosophy, had conceived of
a character isolated, ambitious, intense, resolute,
untrammelled by scruples, who moulds men to
his purposes by the sheer force of his intellect,
humouring their foibles, using their weaknesses,
and luring them into his chosen path by the bait
of self-interest.

To lay stress on the fact that Mr. Disraeli
was of Hebrew birth is not, though some of his
political antagonists stooped so to use it, to cast
any reproach upon him : it is only to note a fact
of the utmost importance for a proper compre-
hension of his position. The Jews were at the
beginning of the nineteenth century still foreigners
in England, not only on account of their religion,
with its mass of ancient rites and usages, but also
because they were filled with the memory of
centuries of persecution, and perceived that in
some parts of Europe the old spirit of hatred had
not died out. The antiquity of their race, their
sense of its long-suffering and isolation, their
pride in the intellectual achievements of those
ancestors whose blood, not largely mixed with

2 Biographical Studies

that of any other race, flows in their veins, lead
the stronger or more reflective spirits to revenge
themselves by a kind of scorn upon the upstart
Western peoples among whom their lot is cast.
The mockery one finds in Heinrich Heine could
not have come from a Teuton. Even while imitat-
ing, as the wealthier of them have latterly begun
to imitate, the manners and luxury of those
nominal Christians among whom they live, they
retain their feeling of detachment, and are apt
to regard with a coldly observant curiosity the
beliefs, prejudices, enthusiasms of the nations of
Europe. The same passionate intensity which
makes the grandeur of the ancient Hebrew
literature still lives among them, though often
narrowed by ages of oppression, and gives them
the peculiar effectiveness that comes from turning
all the powers of the mind, imaginative as well as
reasoning, into a single channel, be that channel
what it may. They produce, in proportion to
their numbers, an unusually large number of able
and successful men, as any one may prove by
recounting the eminent Jews of the last seventy
years. This success has most often been won in
practical life, in commerce, or at the bar, or in
the press (which over the European continent
they so largely control) ; yet often also in the
higher walks of literature or science, less fre-
quently in art, most frequently in music.

Mr. Disraeli had three of these characteristics

Lord Beaconsfield 2 1

of his race in full measure detachment, intensity,
the passion for material success. Nature gave
him a resolute will, a keen and precociously active
intellect, a vehement individuality ; that is to
say, a consciousness of his own powers, and a
determination to make them recognised by his
fellows. In some men, the passion to succeed is
clogged by the fear of failure ; in others, the
sense of their greatness is self-sufficing and
indisposes them to effort. But with him ambi-
tion spurred self-confidence, and self-confidence
justified ambition. He grew up in a cultivated
home, familiar not only with books but with the
brightest and most polished men and women of
the day, whose conversation sharpened his wits
almost from childhood. No religious influences
worked upon him, for his father had ceased to
be a Jew in faith without becoming even
nominallv a Christian, and there is little in his
writings to show that he had ever felt anything
more than an imaginative, or what may be called an
historical, interest in religion.^ Thus his develop-
ment was purely intellectual. The society he moved
in was a society of men and women of the world
witty, superficial in its interests, without serious-

' That historical interest he did feel deeply. (J>ne might almost say
of him that he was a Christian because lie was a Jew, for Christianity was
to him the proper development of the ancient religion of Israel. "The
Jews," he observes in \\\c Life of Geoi-ge Bentinck, " rejiresent the
Semitic principle, all that is spiritual in our nature. . . . It is dejilor-
able that several millions of Jews still jiersist in believing only .1 part of
their religion."

2 2 Biographical Studies

ness or reverence. He felt himself no English-
man, and watched English life and politics as a
student of natural history might watch the habits
of bees or ants. English society was then, and
perhaps is still, more complex, more full of in-
consistencies, of contrasts between theory and
practice, between appearances and realities, than
that of any other country. Nowhere so much
limitation of view among the fashionable, so much
pharisaism among the respectable, so much vul-
garity among the rich, mixed with so much real
earnestness, benevolence, and good sense ; nowhere,
therefore, so much to seem merely ridiculous to
one who looked at it from without, wanting the
sympathy which comes from the love of mankind,
or even from the love of one's country. It was
natural for a young man with Disraeli's gifts to
mock at what he saw. But he would not sit
still in mere contempt. The thirst for power
and fame gave him no rest. He must gain what
he saw every one around him struggling for.
He must triumph over these people whose follies
amused him ; and the sense that he perceived
and could use their follies would add zest to
his triumph. He might have been a great
satirist ; he resolved to become a great statesman.
For such a career, his Hebrew detachment gave
him some eminent advantages. It enabled him
to take a cooler and more scientific view of the
social and political phenomena he had to deal

Lord Beaconsheld 23

with. He was not led astray by party cries.
He did not share vulgar prejudices. He calcu-
lated the forces at work as an engineer calculates
the strength of his materials, the strain they have
to bear from the wind, and the weights they
must support. And what he had to plan was
not the success of a cause, which might depend
on a thousand things out of his ken, but his own
success, a simpler matter.

A still greater source of strength lay in his
Hebrew intensity. It would have pleased him,
so full of pride in the pure blood of his race,'
to attribute to that purity the singular power
of concentration which the Jews undoubtedly
possess. They have the faculty of throwing the
whole stress of their natures into the pursuit of
one object, fixing their eyes on it alone, sacri-
ficing to it other desires, clinging to it even when
it seems unattainable. Disraeli was only twenty-
eight when he made his first attempt to enter
the House of Commons. Four repulses did
not discourage him, though his means were but
scanty to support such contests ; and the fifth

' Though it has been maintained that in the Dark and Middle Arjes a
considerable number of Gentiles found their way into Jewish communities
and became Judaised.

The high average of intellectual power among the Jews need not be
attributed to purity of race ; it is sufticiently ex[)lained by their history.
Nor is it clear that where two of the more advanced races are mixed by
intermarriage, the product is inferior to either of the parent stocks. On
the contrary, such a mixture, t-.;'. of Teutonic and Slavonic blood, or of
Celtic and Teutonic, gives a result at least ccjual in ca[iacity to either of
the pure-blooded races which liave been so commingled.

24 Biographical Studies

time he succeeded. When his first speech in
Parliament had been received with laughter, and
politicians were congratulating themselves that
this adventurer had found his level, he calmly
told them that he had always ended by suc-
ceeding in whatever he attempted, and that
he would succeed in this too. He received no
help from his own side, who regarded him with
suspicion, but forced hinibclf into prominence,
and at last to leadership, by his complete superi-
ority to rebuffs. Through the long years in
which he had to make head against a majority
in the House of Commons, he never seemed
disheartened by his repeated defeats, never re-
laxed the vigilance with which he watched his
adversaries, never indulged himself (though he
was physically indolent and often in poor health)
by staying away from Parliament, even when
business was slack ; never missed an opportunity
for exposing a blunder of his adversaries, or
commending the good service of one of his
own followers. The same curious tenacity was
apparent in his ideas. Before he was twenty-
two years of age he had, under the inspiration
of Bolingbroke, excogitated a theory of the
Constitution of England, of the way England
should be governed at home and her policy
directed abroad, from which he hardly swerved
through all his later life. Often as he was
accused of inconsistency, he probably believed

Lord Beaconsfield 25

himself to be, and in a sense he was, sub-
stantially faithful, I will not say to the same
doctrines, but to the same notions or tendencies ;
and one could discover from the phrases he em-
ployed how he fancied himself to be really follow-
ing out these old notions, even when his conduct
seemed opposed to the traditions of his party/
The weakness of intense minds is their tendency
to narrowness, and this weakness was in so far
his that, while always ready for new expedients,
he was not accessible to new ideas. Indeed,
the old ideas were too much a part of himself,
stamped with his own individuality, to be forsaken
or even varied. He did not love knowledge, nor
enjoy speculation for its own sake ; he valued
views as they pleased his imagination or as they
carried practical results with them ; and having
framed his theory once for all and worked steadily
upon its lines, he was not the man to admit that
it had been defective, and to set himself in later
life to repair it. His pride was involved in
proving it correct by applying it.

With this resolute concentration of purpose
there went an undaunted courage a quality less
rare among English statesmen, but eminently

' lie had an intellectual arrogance, whicli made him dislike what
may be called the Radical cf)nception of human equality. In the Life
of Lord Gi'or^c Bentiiirk he remarks, "The lews are a living and the
most striking evidence of the falsity of that ])ernici<)us doctrine of modern

times, the natural equality of man Ml the tendencies of the Jewish

race are conservative. Their bias is to religion, projjerty, and natural

2 6 Biographical Studies

laudable in him, because for great part of his
career he had no family or party connections to
back him up, but was obliged to face the world
with nothing but his own self-confidence. So far
from seeking to conceal his Jewish origin, he dis-
played his pride in it, and refused all support to
the efforts which the Tory party made to maintain
the exclusion of Jews from Parliament. Nobody
showed more self-possession and (except on two
or three occasions) more perfect self-command in
the hot strife of Parliament than this suspected
stranger. His opponents learnt to fear one who
never feared for himself ; his followers knew that
their chief would not fail them in the hour of
danger. His very face and bearing had in them
an impassive calmness which magnetised those
who watched him. He liked to surround himself
with mystery, to pose as remote, majestic, self-
centred, to appear above the need of a confidant.
He would sit for hours on his bench in the House
of Commons, listening with eyes half-shut to furious
assaults on himself and his policy, not showing by
the movement of a muscle that he had felt a
wound ; and when he rose to reply would discharge
his sarcasms with an air of easy coolness. That
this indifference was sometimes simulated appeared
by the resentment he showed afterwards.

Ambition such as his could not afford to be
scrupulous, nor have his admirers ever claimed
conscientiousness as one of his merits. One who

Lord Beaconsfield 27

sets power and fame before him as the main
ends to be pursued may no doubt be restrained
by pride from the use of such means as are
obviously low and dishonourable. Other ques-
tionable means he may reject because he knows
that the opinion of those whose good-will and
good word he must secure would condemn them.
But he will not be likely to allow kindliness or
compassion to stand in his way ; nor will he be
very regardful of truth. To a statesman, who
must necessarily have many facts in his know-
ledge, or many plans in his mind, which the
interests of his colleagues, or of his party, or of
the nation, forbid him to reveal, the temptation to
put questioners on a false scent, and to seem to
agree where he really dissents, is at all times a
strong one. An honest man may sometimes be
betrayed into yielding to it ; and those who know
how difficult are the cases of conscience that arise
will not deal harshly with a possibly misleading
silence, or even with the evasion of an embar-
rassing inquiry, where a real public interest can
be pleaded, for the existence of such a public
interest, if it does not justify, may palliate omis-
sions to make a full disclosure of the facts. All
things considered, the standard of truthfulness
among English public men has (of course with
some conspicuous exceptions) been a high one.
Of that standard Disraeli fell short. People did
not take his word for a thing as they would have

2 8 Biographical Studies

taken the word of the Duke of WelHngton, or
Lord Althorp, or Lord Derby, or Lord Russell,
or even of that not very rigid moralist, Lord
Palmerston. Instances of his lapses were not
wanting as late as 1877. His behaviour toward
Sir Robert Peel, whom he plied with every dart
of sarcasm, after having shortly before lavished
praises on him, and sought office under him, has
often been commented on.^ Disraeli was himself
(as those who knew him have often stated) accus-
tomed to justify it by observing that he was
then an insignificant personage, to whom it was
supremely important to attract public notice anti
make a political position ; that the opportunity
of attacking the powerful Prime Minister, at a
moment when their altered attitude towards the
Corn Laws had exposed the Ministry to the sus-
picions of their own party, was too good to be
lost ; and that he was therefore obliged to assail
Peel, though he had himself no particular attach-
ment to the Corn Laws, and believed Peel to have
been a bona- fide convert. It was therefore no
personal resentment against one who had slighted
him, but merely the exigencies of his own career,
that drove him to this course, whose fortunate
result proved the soundness of his calculations,

^ On one occasion he went so far as to deny tlial he liad asked Peel for
office, relying on the fact that the letter which contained the rerjuest was
marked "private," so that Peel could not use it to disprove his state-
ment {Letters of Sir Jxohert Peel, by C. S. Parker, vol. ii. p. 486 ; vol.
iii. pj). 347. 34S).

Lord Beaconsfield 29

This defence will not surprise any one who
is familiar with Disraeli's earlier novels. These
stories are as far as possible from being immoral ;
that is to say, there is nothing in them unbecoming
or corrupting. Friendship, patriotism, love, are
all recognised as powerful and worthy motives of
conduct. That which is wanting is the sense of
right and wrong. His personages have for certain
purposes the conventional sense of honour, though
seldom a fine sense, but they do not ask whether
such and such a course is conformable to principle.
They move in a world which is polished, agree-
able, dignified, averse to baseness and vulgarity,
but in which conscience and religion scarcely
seem to exist. The men live for pleasure or
fame, the women for pleasure or love.

Some allowance must, of course, be made for
the circumstances of Disraeli's position and early
training. He was brought up neither a Jew nor
a Christian. The elder people who took him
by the hand when he entered life, people like
Samuel Rogers and Lady Blessington. were not
the people to give lessons in morality. Lord
Lyndhurst, the first of his powerful political
friends, and the man whose example most affected
him, was, with all his splendid gifts, conspicuously
wanting in political principle. Add to this the
isolation in which the young man found himself,
standing outside the common stream of English
life, not sharing its sentiments, perceiving the

30 Biographical Studies

hollowness of much that passed for virtue and
patriotism, and it is easy to understand how he
should have been as perfect a cynic at twenty-
five as their experience of the world makes many
at sixty. If he had loved truth or mankind, he
might have quickly worked through his youthful
cynicism. But pride and ambition, the pride of
race and the pride of genius, left no room for
these sentiments. Nor was his cynicism the fruit
merely of a keen and sceptical intelligence. It
came from a cold heart.

The pursuit of fame and power, to which he
gave all his efforts, is presented in his writings as
the only alternative ideal to a life of pleasure ; and
he probably regarded those who pursued some
other as either fools or weaklings. Early in his
political life he said one night to Mr. Bright
(from whom I heard the anecdote), as they took
their umbrellas in the cloak-room of the House
of Commons : " After all, what is it that brings
you and me here ? Fame ! This is the true
arena. I might have occupied a literary throne ;
but I have renounced it for this career." The
external pomps and trappings of life, titles, stately
houses and far-spreading parks, all those gauds and
vanities with which sumptuous wealth surrounds
itself, had throughout his life a singular fascination
for him. He liked to mock at them in his novels,
but they fascinated him none the less. One can
understand how they might fire the imagination

Lord Beaconsheld 3 i

of an ambitious youth who saw them from a
distance might even retain their charm for one
who was just struggling into the society which
possessed them, and who desired to feel himself
the equal of the possessors. It is stranger that,
when he had harnessed the English aristocracy
to his chariot, and was driving them where he
pleased, he should have continued to admire such
things. So, however, it was. There was even
in him a vein of inordinate deference to rank
and wealth which would in a less eminent person
have been called snobbishness. In his will he
directs that his estate of Hughenden Manor, in
Buckinghamshire, shall pass under an entail as
strict as he could devise, that the person who
succeeds to it shall always bear the name of
Disraeli. His ambition Is the common, not to
say vulgar, ambition of the English parvenu,
to found a "county family." In his story of

Online LibraryJames Bryce BryceStudies in contemporary biography → online text (page 2 of 29)