A Career of brilliant struggle came at last to what must be described as its crowning success. In 1868 Mr. Disraeli became for the first time Prime Minister. Punch had a striking cartoon to illustrate the event a cartoon which represented Vivian Grey sent for at last. The author of " Vivian Grey " was now Prime Minister to Queen Victoria. The event was due to the retirement of Lord Derby, who at that date was at the head of a Conservative Administration. Lord Derby had for some time been in a feeble condition of health; and he thought it prudent to give up the overtaxing work which necessarily comes on the leader of a Government, who is as energetic and as unsparing of himself as Lord Derby always was. In February, 1868, Lord Derby made up his mind that he must retire from the position of Prime Minister, and the Queen reluctantly accepted his resignation. The public, in general, heard with regret the news of Lord Derby's retirement and of the cause which had brought it about. His political opponents, as well as his political supporters, admired alike his brilliant talents, his Parliamentary eloquence, and his literary culture. He had changed his opinion more than once on political subjects; but no one ever questioned his sincerity and his integrity; and there was something frank and chivalrous about him which won for him a general sympathy. He had given remarkable evidences of scholarship and of poetic taste; and his translation of Homer's Iliad was regarded as one of the best versions of the great poem in the English language. We may take our leave of Lord Derby now, for his life came to an end the year after his resignation, and his retirement from the position of Prime Minister was, in fact, the close of his political career.
The moment his retirement was announced, the eyes of all men concerned in political affairs turned at once to Mr. Disraeli. Disraeli had made a hard fight against many difficulties; for nearly ten long years he had been a failure in the House of Commons, and it was only when everybody was beginning to set him down as a hopeless failure that he suddenly found a splendid opportunity and made splendid use of it; and from that time forth his career went higher and higher on towards success. Everybody knew that he was ambitious; indeed, he made no secret himself about the strength of his ambition; but the feeling of the public in general was that he had played his part gallantly, and that he was entitled to his full reward. Somehow or other he was not taken quite seriously as a statesman; that is to say, no one thought of applying to his career the same rigid code of criticism that would have been applied to the career of some of his contemporaries. The term "opportunist," which is now so familiar in political life, had not come into use in Mr. Disraeli's time, or else he would probably have been described as an opportunist of the most ready and most dexterous capabilities. Nobody doubted, however, his personal integrity; and nobody questioned that, with all his curious changes of position, his sudden advances and his sudden retreats, he had a sincere desire to promote the greatness of the Empire according to his own definition of Imperial greatness. At all events, it is certain that there was a general sense of satisfaction when Mr. Disraeli was invited to accept the position of Prime Minister.
In constructing his Administration, Mr. Disraeli made but few changes in the personal arrangements left to him by his predecessor. One of the changes, however, was important, and although it was the source of some severe criticism at the time, especially among the Tory Party, it testified before long to Disraeli's judgment and his wise resolve. This change consisted in the removal of Lord Chelmsford from the position of Lord Chancellor, which he had occupied under Lord Derby, and the elevation of Lord Cairns to his place. The profound legal knowledge and the brilliant Parliamentary eloquence of Lord Cairns have been already mentioned in this book; and there can be no doubt that he will always be remembered as one of the great Lord Chancellors of England. Disraeli's Administration proved to be very active in its work. One remarkable and most commendable piece of legislation accomplished by the new Governmerit was the Act prohibiting executions, in public. For a long time a sense of horror and loathing against the system of public executions had been growing up in the breast of every man of education and feeling throughout the country. An execution in any of the great towns was then a hideous exhibition. It was a scene of drunken revelry a very carnival of demoralising brutality. No rational being could possibly doubt that each such public exhibition had its terrible effect in debauching the minds of the spectators, so that the death of one criminal tended to create fresh criminals for a future scaffold. If the system of capital punishment is to continue, if it is necessary to the welfare of our social system that crime should have its punishment by death, it is at least a public advantage that the sentence should be carried out within the precincts of the prison as it is at present, and that while every care is taken to ensure that nothing shall be done in absolute secrecy, the public feeling of good citizens is not outraged, and the evil tendencies of bad citizens are not stimulated by the system which was allowed to prevail in spite of continual remonstrance during so many centuries in Great Britain and Ireland.
The Conservative Government made another change in the antique ways of the Constitutional system, which was certainly more open to question than the abolition of the public execution, but which is, on the whole, fairly entitled to be considered a measure of reform. This was the change in the law with regard to the disposal of election petitions. An election petition is a claim made by a defeated candidate at a Parliamentary contest, or by his friends on his behalf, for the seat in the House of Commons which an apparent majority of votes at the election has given to his rival. It might, for instance, be asserted by the defeated candidate that the election of the successful man had been brought about by bribery and corruption, or by some irregularity in the manner of counting the votes, by persons being admitted to vote who were not legally entitled to the suffrage, or by the fraudulent votes of persons who assumed names and qualifications which did not belong to them. It is manifest, of course, that every election contest must be open to the revising power of some sort of tribunal, for otherwise it would be impossible that the public could feel certain whether a man elected to a seat in the House of Commons had really the approval of the majority of the constituents. Up to the time of which we are now speaking, the decision had been in the hands of the House of Commons itself.