Chamberlain, Joseph

Chamberlain, Joseph
   A major British politician and from 1895 an imperially ambitious colonial secretary, Joseph Chamberlain made his fortune in the Birmingham manufacturing industry, retired from business, and became one of the ablest public figures of his time. As a city councilor, then mayor of Birmingham, he was a reformer and a driving force behind the Elementary Education Act of 1870. Chamberlain regarded the British aristocracy as a burden on the nation yet cultivated an aristocratic appearance with a monocle and a fresh orchid in his buttonhole - an ambivalence of attitude reflected in his politics. Elected in 1876 as a Liberal member of Parliament, he rose to cabinet rank in Gladstone ’s government of 1880. Chamberlain’s democratic convictions, tinged with republican and socialist views, placed him on the radical wing of the Liberal Party; yet his deepest sentiments were for the ideal of imperial unity. Subscribing to the liberal imperialism of Charles Dilke, he favored a degree of Irish autonomy within the Empire yet resigned from Gladstone’s cabinet in 1885 over the policy of Irish Home Rule.
   Chamberlain emerged the leader of the Liberal Unionists, cooperating with the Conservative Party to bar Gladstone from office. When Salisbury ’s Conservatives formed a coalition government with the Unionists in 1895, Chamberlain was given his choice of ministries and chose the Colonial Office. “Pushful Joe” involved Britain more intensively in the Scramble for Africa. He favored bringing the Boer republics into the Empire and was accused of colluding in the machinations of Cecil Rhodes in the disastrous Jameson Raid. Chamberlain negotiated with the government of the Transvaal, but the failure to reach agreement on the rights of British Uitlanders led to the Second Boer War.
   Yet Chamberlain was as concerned to consolidate British power as to extend it. He favored the idea of an imperial federation of the white peoples of the Empire and broke with the traditional Liberal principle of free trade, advocating imperial preference. He helped bring about the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, sought an alliance with Germany, and ultimately favored entente with France as an alternative. His tariff policy split the Conservative Party and facilitated a Liberal landslide in the election of 1906. He died in 1914, but his sons, Austen and Neville, carried the family flag into Britain’s foreign policy of the 1920s and 1930s.
   See also <>; <>.
    Marsh, Peter T. Joseph Chamberlain: Entrepreneur in Politics. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994;
    Strauss, William L. Joseph Chamberlain and the Theory of Imperialism. Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1942.

Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.

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