Skip to main content
Select Source:

Joseph Chamberlain

Joseph Chamberlain

The English politician Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) influenced the fate of the Liberal party and then of the Conservative party. He has been described as one of Britain's first "professional" politicians.

Born in London on July 8, 1836, of a middle-class family, Joseph Chamberlain moved to Birmingham when he was 18 to join his uncle's engineering firm. He was so successful in business that he was able to retire with a large and assured income at the age of 38 and devote the rest of his life to politics. His first political position (1873-1876) was as the reforming Liberal lord mayor of Birmingham, where he promoted a "civic gospel." The city acquired new municipally owned services along with new buildings and roads, and it became a mecca for urban reformers. Chamberlain worked through a Liberal caucus, a more sophisticated form of party organization than existed anywhere else in Britain. When Chamberlain was elected to Parliament in 1876, his stated object was to do for the nation what he had already done for his local community.

Liberal Party

Chamberlain's liberalism was different in tone and in content from that of his party leaders, particularly William Gladstone. Chamberlain was a radical in sympathy, with a Unitarian religious background, and he systematically set out to attract support not only from religious dissenters but also from workingmen. His proposals for social reform, entailing increased government intervention and expenditure, were attacked by old-fashioned radicals as well as by Conservatives and moderate Liberals.

When the Liberals were returned to power in 1880, Chamberlain became president of the Board of Trade and a member of the Cabinet. However, he was never at ease personally or politically with Gladstone, his prime minister. After pressing for his unauthorized radical program in the 1885 election, Chamberlain broke with Gladstone in 1886 over the issue of home rule for Ireland. Because of Chamberlain's vigorous opposition to Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, the Liberal party split and was unable to regain office, except for one brief interlude, for 20 years.

The nature of the Liberal split was important. There had always been an internal division between Whigs and radicals, and it had seemed on more than one occasion that the party would divide into a right and a left wing. Instead, as a result of the home rule crisis, many Whigs and radicals found themselves in league against Gladstone, who represented the middle. After 1886 there was little hope for accommodation between Gladstone and Chamberlain, and Chamberlain became the effective leader of a third force, the Liberal Unionists, of which the Whig S. C. C. Hartington (later the Duke of Devonshire) was titular leader. Chamberlain's position throughout the rest of his political life was greatly strengthened by the fact that Birmingham remained loyal to him. Indeed, many of the policies which he advocated had their origins in the politics of the city.

Colonial Secretary

In 1895 Chamberlain became colonial secretary in a predominantly Conservative government led by Lord Salisbury. In his new position Chamberlain pursued forceful policies promoting imperial development. Although he was interested in the development of the tropics and in the transformation of the empire into a partnership of self-governing equals, his colonial secretaryship is associated mainly with the Boer War (1899-1902). His critics called this conflict "Chamberlain's war"; this description was a drastic oversimplification, despite Chamberlain's belief that British "existence as a great Power" was at stake. After the Peace of Vereeniging ended the war, he visited South Africa and supported measures of conciliation between South Africans of British and Boer descent. Throughout this period he was keenly interested in wider questions of foreign policy and argued for closer relations with Germany and the United States.

In May 1903 Chamberlain once again disturbed the pattern of British domestic politics by announcing his support of tariffs favoring imperial products and his abandonment of belief in free trade. His motives were mixed, but the effect of his conversion was to split the Conservatives as well as the Liberal Unionists. In September 1903 he resigned from the Cabinet and began a campaign to educate the British public. The leading Conservative free traders resigned with him, but his influence was perpetuated by the appointment of his son Austen as chancellor of the Exchequer. Chamberlain himself never held office again, and his protectionist campaign failed. The Liberals were returned to power in 1906, the year Chamberlain became 70. Immediately after the birthday celebrations in Birmingham, Chamberlain had a stroke, which prostrated him for the rest of his life. He died on July 2, 1914, a few weeks before the outbreak of World War I. It was left to his son Neville to lead Britain away from free trade in 1932.

Despite Chamberlain's switches of party alignment, his political career was more consistent than it seemed on the surface. He preferred deeds to talk and candor to equivocation. He looked for issues with extraparliamentary appeal and never lost his belief in active government.

Further Reading

There are several collections of Chamberlain's speeches, including Charles W. Boyd, ed., Mr. Chamberlain's Speeches (2 vols., 1914). The standard biography, The Life of JosephChamberlain (1932-1969), consists of six volumes, the first three by James L. Garvin and the final three by Julian Amery. Two recent studies are Peter Fraser, Joseph Chamberlain: Radicalism and Empire, 1868-1914 (1966), and Michael Hurst, Joseph Chamberlain and Liberal Reunion: The Round Table Conference of 1887 (1967). For material on the Chamberlain family see Sir Charles Petrie, The Chamberlain Tradition (1938).

Additional Sources

Jay, Richard, Joseph Chamberlain, a political study, Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Judd, Denis, Radical Joe: a life of Joseph Chamberlain, London: Hamilton, 1977.

Marsh, Peter T., Joseph Chamberlain: entrepreneur in politics, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.

Powell, J. Enoch (John Enoch), Joseph Chamberlain, London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Joseph Chamberlain." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Joseph Chamberlain." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/joseph-chamberlain

"Joseph Chamberlain." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/joseph-chamberlain

Chamberlain, Joseph

Chamberlain, Joseph (1836–1914). Radical and imperialist. Like many of the most interesting politicians, Chamberlain defies categorization. He made his fortune as a screw manufacturer, which enabled him to retire at the age of 38. He dedicated the rest of his life to politics, first on the Birmingham city council, where he rose to be mayor in 1873–5, and then as a Birmingham MP. He was an advanced social reformer, clearing slums, building houses for the poor, setting up free public libraries and art galleries, and taking the gas, water, and sewage systems of Birmingham into municipal ownership. He also had sharp views on the aristocracy, which he regarded as useless (‘they toil not, neither do they spin’), and he talked of making them pay a ‘ransom’ for their continued enjoyment of their privileges. That offended, as one might expect, Queen Victoria.

He rose to cabinet rank in 1880. But he was not altogether comfortable even on the radical wing of the Liberal Party, because of his patriotic views on national issues. These were sorely tested by Gladstone's limp policies, as he saw them, on South Africa and Egypt, and caused him to break formally with the Liberal Party over the Irish Home Rule issue in 1886. That was curious in some ways, because he was not an out-and-out unionist, and did not seem all that far away from Gladstone's views on Ireland when the crisis came. That led some of his contemporaries to suspect that he was really making a play for the leadership. If that was in his mind, however, he was soon disabused. The new Liberal Unionist group he attached himself to never made it up with the rump of the Liberal Party, and eventually allied with the Conservatives. It was this camp that provided Chamberlain with his next major platform, as colonial secretary in Salisbury's government of 1895.

As colonial secretary Chamberlain proved as radical as he had on the domestic scene, and in many of the same ways: advocating the development by central government, for example, of what he called Britain's ‘imperial estates’. He also believed in their extension, particularly in southern Africa, where he was instrumental in trying to bring the Afrikaner republics to heel, first clandestinely (the Jameson Raid) and then by helping to provoke the second Boer War. That made him the leading imperialist of his time. But he was an unusual one. He sought to extend the empire, but also worried about its over-extension. With this in mind in 1898 he tried to fix a protective alliance with Germany behind Salisbury's back. He also wished to consolidate the colonies, in order to maximize their potential strength. In 1903 he came out publicly in favour of imperial preference as a means of achieving this, resigning from the cabinet in order to press it at the next election (1906). The result was to split the Conservative Party (the second great party he had had this effect on), and give the Liberals a landslide victory.

He may have been right. In July 1906, however, he suffered a disabling stroke. Without his energy behind it the tariff reform campaign wilted. He died just before the Great War came to bear out his deepest fears.

Bernard Porter

Bibliography

Marsh, P. T. , Joseph Chamberlain (New Haven, 1994).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph

Chamberlain, Joseph

Joseph Chamberlain, 1836–1914, British statesman. After a successful business career, he entered local politics and won distinction as a reforming mayor of Birmingham (1873–76). Entering Parliament as a Liberal in 1876, Chamberlain advocated radical social reform and served under William Gladstone as president of the Board of Trade (1880–85). In 1886, however, he broke with Gladstone, leading the defection from the Liberal party of the Liberal Unionists (those Liberals who opposed Home Rule for Ireland). In 1887–88 he negotiated a treaty with the United States to settle the fisheries dispute between that country and Canada. Chamberlain became leader of the Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons in 1891, and in 1895 he joined the Conservative government as colonial secretary. While maintaining his interest in social reform at home, he pursued a vigorous colonial policy aimed at imperial expansion, cooperation, and consolidation. Although a parliamentary inquiry cleared him of complicity in the Jameson Raid (see Jameson, Sir Leander Starr), there is some evidence that he was at least aware of the conspiracy. His subsequent attempts to reach a settlement with the Boers failed, resulting in the South African War (1899–1902). After the war he worked for a conciliatory peace. Chamberlain's belief in the need for closer imperial union led him to espouse the cause of imperial preference in tariffs. However, this proposed abandonment of Great Britain's traditional free trade policy provoked great controversy, and in 1903 he resigned from office to spend three years in an attempt, through the Tariff Reform League, to convert the country to his views. His campaign split the Liberal Unionist–Conservative bloc and contributed to its defeat in the election of 1906. Ill health ended Chamberlain's public life in 1906, but his tariff policy was adopted (1919, 1932) within the lifetime of his sons, Austen and Neville.

See E. E. Gulley, Joseph Chamberlain and English Social Politics (1926); W. L. Strauss, Joseph Chamberlain and the Theory of Imperialism (1942, repr. 1971); biography (to 1903 only) by J. L. Garvin and J. Amery (6 vol., 1932–51); studies by R. V. Kubicek (1969) and M. Balfour (1985).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph

"Chamberlain, Joseph." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph

Chamberlain, Joseph

Chamberlain, Joseph (1836–1914) British political leader, father of Neville Chamberlain. He entered Parliament as a Liberal in 1876. In 1880, he became president of the board of trade. In 1886 he resigned over Gladstone's Home Rule Bill, and was leader of the Liberal Unionists from 1889. In 1895, he returned to government as colonial secretary, where his aggressive, imperialist stance helped provoke the South African War (1899). He resigned again in 1903 in order to argue freely for tariff reforms.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Chamberlain, Joseph." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Chamberlain, Joseph." World Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 21, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph

"Chamberlain, Joseph." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chamberlain-joseph