Chamberlain and Roosevelt

by John O'Sullivan

I’d like to clear up a possible misunderstanding from an earlier post on Romney and the Anglo-Saxon flap. One of my critics, Wildbillcuster, takes exception to my linking Teddy Roosevelt with Joseph Chamberlain as paragons of Anglo-Saxondom in an earlier age. He thinks that this is a postmodern attempt to devalue the status of an American hero — which Roosevelt certainly was and is.

Well, I wonder if by chance Wildbillcuster has confused Joseph Chamberlain with his son, Neville, of appeasement fame or infamy. Neville was a loyal son devoted to his father’s political heritage — and he should not be defined solely by his foreign policy in the late thirties. But he was simply not of his father’s stature as a statesman.

Joseph Chamberlain was one of the greatest statesmen of the Victorian and Edwardian ages and, as it happens, a friend and admirer of the United States. He dominated politics, dominating and dividing the two main parties in turn, from the 1880s to 1906 when he suffered a stroke and had to withdraw from active politics. Most of the social reforms he urged as a radical Liberal came to pass. His time as a colonial was also full of achievement. But his stroke meant that his great imperial vision of transforming the British empire into a worldwide democratic federation remained a dream. (It was always a long shot — but as Chamberlain said of his great rival Arthur Balfour: “Arthur hates difficulties, I love ’em.” You could never count Joe out until God did.)

Joe Chamberlain — he was known as “our Joe” to the English working classes — is certainly worth comparison with Teddy. They were both bold, far-thinking, courageous, and, above all, gallant figures who lived and breathed enthusiasm for their causes. Chamberlain was asked by the young Winston Churchill to campaign for him in his first election. He described the scene when the election meeting became boisterous:

I watched my honoured guest with close attention. He loved the roar of the multitude, and with my father could always say “I have never feared the English democracy.” The blood mantled in his cheek, and his eye as it caught mine twinkled with pure enjoyment.

Incidentally, both Chamberlain and Roosevelt elicited great poems from Kipling: one on Chamberlain when he resigned from the cabinet over tariff reform, and this one on the death of Teddy.

So I hope Wildbillcuster will consider Chamberlain and Roosevelt reasonably paired. For myself, though I would have been on the opposite side to Joe on almost every political issue, I believe him to be one of the most attractive and inspiring figures in British political history.

Romance romantics (to be distinguished from political romantics like me), incidentally, will be interested to know that his third wife (he was twice widowed) was the daughter of the secretary for war in Grover Cleveland’s administration, Mary Endicott. She was, almost inevitably, painted by John Singer Sargent in this portrait.

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