Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. DISRAELI. ( From The Economist, 2 nd July, 1859.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. DISRAELI. ( From “ The Economist, ” 2 nd July, 1859.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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“The career of the late Chancellor of the Exchequer,” said one of Mr. Disraeli’s political friends soon after his comparative failure as a Minister in 1852, “is not closed; we believe its brightest portion is in the future. We have invariably observed that whenever Mr. Disraeli has received a check, it has only been the herald of a great advance; and that when the world has believed him beaten, he has always been on the eve of his greatest victories.” Read by the light of recent events, this was undoubtedly a remarkable prophecy. Mr. Disraeli has never held a position so eminent as that which he now holds. He was the life and soul of the late Administration. Without him it could not have lasted a single week. He has resigned without accepting any reward. Lord Derby has taken the blue ribbon. Lord Malmesbury and Sir John Pakington have had the Order of the Bath. Mr. Disraeli, who was far more essential to the Government than either of them, whose management of the House of Commons won him on this occasion universal admiration, whose recent speeches have scarcely been rivalled for insight, point, and individual character, by any statesman of our day,—has retired with a dignity that will deservedly increase his influence in entering on the leadership of the powerful Conservative Opposition. It is not, therefore, an inappropriate time to make a few remarks on his general capacity and character as a statesman. He has proved, in the last year, that his great abilities are matured, and his character weighted, by experience. He has shown that he can do, what in 1852 at least he had not yet learned to do,—lead with dignity, and fail with dignity after personal exertions which, so far as their intellectual character is concerned, might well have earned ample success. What are the principal characteristics of his strange and brilliant career?
Mr. Disraeli is chiefly remarkable for the unusual combination which his mind presents of individual tenacity of purpose, with a flexibility and pliancy of intellect rarely found in men of so much audacity and strength. There never was a statesman of eminence who, when he entered on public life, was so strangely in need of the lessons of experience; there never was one who was so apt a learner; there never was one who was more resolute to turn that ready faculty to the best account. From the day of his maiden speech, now more than twenty-one years ago, when he appealed in vain to the House of Commons for a cheer, and sat down with the warning, “I am not at all surprised at the reception I have experienced. I have begun several times several things, and I have often succeeded at last. I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will listen to me,” up to the day when, amid the breathless attention of the House, he delivered his gallant, eloquent, and adroit defence of the late Government, Mr. Disraeli has never quailed beneath the difficulties of his arduous career, and never failed in that self-possession, which knows how to turn every error, every false step into the materials of a future success. Beginning without rank, without connection, without wealth,—with every difficulty in his path which the prejudices of race could conjure up,—without entering into the convictions or understanding the political traditions either of the party he was to defend or of the party he was to assail,—wholly destitute of the kind of practical sagacity which most easily inspires Englishmen with confidence,—with an ill-regulated literary ambition and a false melodramatic taste that were well calculated to increase tenfold the existing prejudices against him, it is difficult to conceive a greater marvel than the brilliant success which Mr. Disraeli has achieved, single-handed, in a sphere of life usually thought singularly exclusive and inaccessible to unassisted adventurers.
The success of this great party-leader is, we believe, traceable to two principal gifts—a very sensitive and impressible, but extremely unoriginal imagination, and a dexterity seldom equalled in working up all the impressions he receives into materials for personal attacks. Had Mr. Disraeli been a man of deeper and more original imagination than he is, he could not have surrendered as he has done, at every crisis in his career, to the ascendant influence of the hour. He has never had a political faith,—he probably does not know what it means. No man has invented so many political theories. No living politician’s fancy has been half so prolific of suggestions for new bases of political creed. No statesman has ever been so “viewy”. But notwithstanding all his strictures on Sir Robert Peel for want of originality and imagination, there probably never was a statesman so unoriginal as himself. His efforts at originality—whether political or literary—have ever been of that excessively theatrical kind which seem, as it were, to be always gasping for breath; and he is never successful except when he desists from such efforts, and simply adopts or delineates what he sees in the actual life around him. Whether as a novelist or as a statesman, his efforts at original construction have always been rhapsodical. Those who knew his early fictions and Coningsby well, recognised last session, in India Bill No. 2, unmistakeable traces of the same mind. The same unsound imagination which filled Mr. Disraeli’s novels with the most flimsy and eccentric theories of history, society, and political organisation,—which invented the “Venetian-Doge” theory of the English Constitution,—the doctrine of the absolute ascendancy of the “Caucasian” race,—the gospel of “Young England,”—the historical hypothesis that Charles the First was a martyr to the principle of direct taxation,—the identity of Tory principles with those of Free Trade,—the theory that the “tendency of civilisation is to pure monarchy,”—that “an educated nation recoils from the imperfect vicariat of what it calls a representative Government,” and a thousand others,—has been equally visible whenever Mr. Disraeli has attempted to win the admiration of the House of Commons by any proposition of a directly constructive nature. No politician has ever shown, in the bad sense of the word, so romantic a political imagination,—in other words, a fancy so little imbued with the laws of real life, so ready to revolt against those laws, and put feeble idealities in their place. His ideal measures, like his ideal heroes, have always seemed the inventions of a mind on the rack to produce something grand or startling instead of something true and life-like; there is no trace in them of the genius which breathes in his criticisms of actual measures, and his delineations of actual men. Nothing has really impeded his progress more than his efforts after originality. His mind was made to receive impressions and to interpret the tendencies of others. When he has limited himself to this he has been marvellously successful. When he has striven to engrave something new upon his age, he has fallen far below the standard of even average English sense.
On the other hand, if there have been no statesmen of eminence so devoid of constructive genius as Mr. Disraeli—if, even, he has fallen far below his great adversary Sir Robert Peel in his attempts to create, simply because he has been possessed with the desire to astonish, instead of with the desire to interpret, his age,—there has seldom been a statesman with so great a power for understanding and delineating all that comes within the actual range of his experience, and turning it into a weapon of the most formidable efficiency. Mr. Disraeli has made himself a power in the House of Commons exactly by this art. Whenever he has lost way, it has been by attempts at original statesmanship; but, when he has confined his efforts to showing how well he understands both the weak and strong points of those around him, he has been terrible and quite unsurpassed. Whether in fiction or in debate, there are few who have drawn so many true and subtle sketches of those whom they have actually seen and known. His power seems limited to direct experience. He has no insight into past history,—no power of giving or restoring life to characters with which he has not come into personal contact. But he is an absolute master of personalities of all kinds, whether purely critical, flattering, or caustic; and it is by the unsparing use of this formidable literary weapon that, in spite of all blunders, he has won his way to the eminence on which he now stands. He has said, in one of his works, “nothing is great but the personal,” and for him, at least, it has been so. He has adopted the opinions of parties as he would adopt a national costume. “Tory,” “Radical,” “Tory-Radical,” “Free-Trader,” “Protectionist,” “Conservative,” “Reformer,” no creed has come amiss to him, and amidst them all he has maintained the same clear eye for the personal qualities of those around him, and the same determined will to use them for individual or party ends.
In short, Mr. Disraeli owes his great success to his very unusual capacity for applying a literary genius, in itself limited, to the practical purposes of public life. Had his genius been really deeper than it is, it would have absorbed him, and he would have devoted his life to the exercise of an imagination which, as it is, he has principally valued as a formidable political weapon. While his combative instinct has been strong, and so determined him to seek a fair field for its practical satisfaction, his literary insight has been only of that depth which irritates and fires the intellect without absorbing it. It has not been deep enough to engross his powers; it has been quite deep enough to give him the sense of power. He forms, in this respect, a remarkable contrast to Sir E. B. Lytton, who, with probably greater literary genius, has nothing like the same power of wielding it as a practical instrument,—the same art of turning his literary ploughshares and pruning hooks into swords and spears. Indeed, practical politics is not an attractive field for men who care to delineate life more than they care to influence it. Statesmen must usually be occupied more with measures, social tendencies, public wants, national convictions, than with the niceties of individual character. Mr. Disraeli is just enough of a literary man to indicate clearly in all his speeches that these things do not seriously occupy him,—that he compels himself to use them as instruments for ends which interest him far more deeply. When we read his speeches we feel, by a kind of instinct, that there is nothing very real or very deep,—nothing which seems to him of essential importance,—as long as he stays in the field of dry argument and exposition. But when we come to the personal phases of the question, all is changed and living. The telling epithets, the graphic hints, the signs of living insight, are all reserved for those passages in which he addresses himself not to measures but to men, in which he throws off a happy picture of a statesman’s career, or delineates with life-like touches the demeanour of the House of Commons. He has nothing of the statesman’s power of imaging forth the actual effect and operation of the measures he advocates,—nothing of the statesman’s power of penetrating to the heart of a deep national conviction. When he attempts these things, he is apt to produce some romantic failure that brings scorn upon himself; but, though almost all his power is limited to the use of a keen and delicate weapon very susceptible of abuse, he has at least recently shown that the responsibility of a high position can make him generous and dignified,—with here and there even a certain touch of chivalry,—in the wielding of a talent so individual and so pungent as his own.