Chamberlain, Joseph

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CHAMBERLAIN, JOSEPH (1836–1914), British politician.

Joseph Chamberlain was born into a striving middle-class Unitarian family in 1836. Trained in business practices by his father, Chamberlain learned more than economic lessons. Controlling outcomes, managing variable markets, and exerting power over potential business rivals helped construct an aggressive and competitive personality. He learned his lessons well: in 1854 he moved to Birmingham from his native London to begin work in a new family business. As a young man, he made important contacts among Birmingham's business elite and became known as a leading entrepreneur and civic booster. He was chairman of the school board, served on the town council, and was three times Birmingham's mayor (1873–1876). Redesigning the mayoralty from its traditional role as a ceremonial institution into a dynamic policy-making office, Chamberlain dominated Birmingham political life. He became a radical Liberal member of Parliament at a by-election in 1876. The following year, he established the National Liberal Foundation, the first and most famous "caucus." Designed to promote progressive causes, such as free nonsectarian education and an extension of the franchise, the NLF also served as an important vehicle for Chamberlain's ever expanding ambition.

When the general election of 1880 returned William Ewart Gladstone for his second administration, Chamberlain—with only four years' parliamentary experience—effectively stormed the cabinet. He threatened the Liberal leadership with the formation of an independent "pure left" party unless he was given office. Appointed president of the board of trade (1880–1885), Chamberlain had only a mixed record: his uncompromising attitude occasionally alienated important interests, especially shipowners. He enjoyed more success in cultivating opinion in the countryside. His personal "Unauthorized Programme" of 1885 advocated a more active government role in improving the life of the poor by, for example, making smallholdings and allotments available to agricultural workers. To his critics, leading Liberals among them, Chamberlain sounded suspiciously socialistic.

During Gladstone's brief third administration in 1886, Chamberlain broke with the Liberal Party over Home Rule for Ireland. Fearful that Home Rule would lead to Irish independence, Chamberlain revealed his emerging imperialist convictions. Leading a knot of like-minded Liberal Unionists in the House of Commons, he contributed to the defeat of Home Rule and the resignation of Gladstone. Although he was out of office for nearly a decade, his intensifying imperial ideas inclined Chamberlain and his followers to act on occasion with Salisbury's (Robert Arthur Talbot Gascoyne-Cecil, third marquis of Salisbury) Conservative government. After a brief Liberal interlude from 1892 to 1895, the Conservative and Unionist alliance was again returned to power at the general election of 1895. Chamberlain, weary of the political wilderness, eagerly accepted the position of secretary of the colonial office (1895–1903) as his reward for supporting Conservative initiatives. His primary aims during the new Salisbury administration were to develop the economic viability of the colonies, to protect British access to global markets, and to consolidate the British Empire. In pursuing these aims, he was one of the architects of the Boer War (1899–1902). By the war's end, Chamberlain had come to symbolize "both the will and the power" (as one admirer wrote) of British imperialism.

Capitalizing on his reputation as imperial spokesman, Chamberlain launched a new national campaign in 1903. It was the last great campaign of his life. He proposed an imperial union based on a system of reciprocal preferential tariffs by which England and its colonies would establish economic advantages over foreign imports, thus strengthening the empire through material ties of trade and commerce. As a sign that he had not forgotten his radical past, he promised that under such a system, domestic workers would have higher wages and the government greater revenues, sufficient to fund social legislation such as old-age pensions. Creating a Tariff Reform League to harness financial and political support and beating the drum for tariff reform at enthusiastic meetings throughout the country, Chamberlain seemed to carry all before him.

Alarmed at his early success, the Liberals—condemning tariff reform as a risky protectionist policy—fell back on their traditional support of free trade. It was not, however, the Liberals who defeated Chamberlain's policy, but Chamberlain himself. As the campaign progressed, it became increasingly clear that Chamberlain was determined to force Arthur James Balfour, the Conservative and Unionist prime minister (1902–1905), either to declare for tariff reform or to resign. It seemed to many suspicious Conservatives that the ungentlemanly Chamberlain wanted the party leadership for himself. Matters came to a head when Balfour retired from office in December 1905. The ensuing general election was disastrous for the Unionist alliance: the Liberals won in a landslide. Chamberlain had overreached himself. He had split the Conservative Party just as he had the Liberals two decades earlier. His health undermined by his constant political maneuvering, he suffered a stroke in July 1906. Partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, he died on 2 July 1914.

Although he never attained the highest political office and his imperial dreams did not withstand the test of time, Chamberlain nevertheless accomplished much. In Birmingham, he created a model for municipal reform. On a national scale he brought to an emerging and expanding electorate the most critical issues of the day in a clear and incisive manner. Most particularly, in emphasizing the importance of public education and national welfare, he strengthened the view that the modern state had fundamental responsibilities for all its citizens.

See alsoBoer War; Conservatism; Great Britain; Tories; Trade and Economic Growth.


Garvin, J. L., and Julian Amery, eds. Life of Joseph Chamberlain. 6 vols. London, 1932–1969.

Jay, Richard. Joseph Chamberlain: A Political Study. Oxford, U.K., 1981.

Marsh, Peter T. Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics. New Haven, Conn., 1994.

Porter, Andrew N. The Origins of the South African War: Joseph Chamberlain and the Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1895–1899. Manchester, U.K., 1980.

Travis L. Crosby

Joseph Chamberlain

views updated May 11 2018

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. □

Chamberlain, Joseph

views updated May 23 2018

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


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

Chamberlain, Joseph

views updated May 23 2018

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.

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