The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 81. Benjamin Disraeli

In the revolt against Peel, of which the house of commons was, necessarily, the chief scene, the leading parts were played by lord George Bentinck and Disraeli. Lord George had made a high-minded sacrifice of his interest in the turf, and, during his short political career, proved a very effective, if not always highly refined, speaker, who took great trouble with facts and figures. The parliamentary career of Benjamin Disraeli, first earl of Beaconsfield, really began with those attacks upon Peel which left their mark upon the political history of the country. They, also, left their mark upon his style of oratory, which, after, at first, deriving its significance from its invective, retained the original seasoning even when it was applied to the unfolding or defence of a positive policy. Disraeli’s power of sarcasm (which no orator ever more successfully heightened by scornfulness of manner and by mimicry of gesture) was, however, only one of the gifts conspicuous in a long succession of speeches—some delivered, as it were, at bay, some, in the moment of triumph. None of these gifts was more assiduously cultivated by their possessor than the imaginative faculty, with which he was sumptuously endowed and which, in great matters and in small, though in imperial, in preference to “parochial,” questions, he constantly turned to the fullest account, but always with consummate discrimination and often, as it was said, “behind a mask.” Thus, the splendour of his ideals, which, in his younger days, had been largely associated with fantastic conceptions or racial traditions, became, in the end, one of the most valuable of his political ways and means, took captive queen and country, and, for a time, made the world listen to his eloquence as to the messages of an oracle.

Among the politicians to whom the name of Peelites clung even after their leader had passed away, Sir James Graham, who, at first, was regarded as their leader and who, at one time, seemed likely to rise to a foremost position in the conduct of affairs, was a fine speaker, though rather inclined to pompousness, and the best in the house on financial and economical subjects (William Huskisson, whose knowledge of these had been most valuable to Peel, was without oratorical power). But, with all his ability and statesmanlike insight, he could not gain the full confidence of his contemporaries, perhaps because he seemed to be without perfect trust in himself. The most brilliant (except one) of his political associates, Sidney Herbert, afterwards first lord Herbert of Lea, died before his oratorical and other gifts had secured to him the highest political honours.

Among ministers whose attention was chiefly, though, in neither case, exclusively, given to foreign affairs, the earl of Clarendon and earl Granville were the most conspicuous; they were alike men of great personal charm and accomplished speakers, skilled in the art of diplomatic composition and in the use of forms and turns of courteous speech, an art which has often been missing in English statesmen who lacked their cosmopolitan training. To these qualifications, Granville, whose unselfish services were of the utmost value to his chief, added that of a popular vein, which won him many friends outside the foreign offices of Europe, and made him singularly winning as an orator. During many a long year of party conflict, Gladstone had no more loyal adjutant than the marquis of Hartington, afterwards duke of Devonshire, who possessed in a degree never surpassed the power, invaluable in debate, of bringing home to friends and opponents the absolute sincerity of his utterances.