I think that I can say with some confidence that when I began my graduate work, I did not expect to end up with the dissertation project I now have. While I had always intended to study British imperial history, Joseph Chamberlain's 1903 tariff reform movement was probably not the first idea to come to mind. I first "discovered" tariff reform while reading the political memoir of the Tory politician Leopold Amery, a strident imperialist and an acolyte of Joseph Chamberlain. He described a speech Chamberlain had made in Birmingham, and spoke ecstatically about the speech's profound, world-shaking power and magnitude. At that point I knew I had to discover what was so gripping about a revision in British trade policy that it could be labeled “a challenge to free thought as direct and provocative as the theses which Luther nailed to the church door at Wittenberg.”
My work most closely related to the debates about the nature of British imperialism so central to the "new imperial history" of the last generation, so I was intrigued at how the rhetoric of empire was deployed by both tariff reform's advocates and its opponents. To Chamberlain and his ilk, it would be the first step in the creation of a cohesive imperial economic bloc, and the foundation of a grand project of the federation of the empire. To the tariff reform movement's detractors, it threatened to strike a blow at the central pillar of British greatness, the liberal principles of freedom, even in the guise of imperial rule. I was also surprised at how little attention Chamberlain's imperial reform movement has been given in recent years. In particular, I discovered a wealth of imperial rhetoric was deployed within these political debates, reflecting an impressive diversity of opinion about how Britons conceptualized and valued their empire. My dissertation project, tentatively titled "Building an Imperial World: Ideologies of Imperialism and the Tariff Reform Movement in Britain, 1900-1914," examines the intellectual and ideological underpinnings of British imperialism as articulated in the debates surrounding Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform movement and the broader advocacy of imperial federation. Empire was quite clearly a central element of British society at the turn of the century, the "height" of European imperialism, but what the British Empire meant, what it should mean, and what it could become in the future, was always contested and reflected diverse and often contradictory ideologies of imperialism at work in the life of British society.
I had received funding from my university, Northern Illinois University, to conduct preliminary archival research in the summer of 2015, so I was able to build on that groundwork for my research in July-August 2016 that the NACBS's Pre-Dissertation Grant was funding. My first destination was the papers of Joseph Chamberlain, housed at the University of Birmingham's Cadbury Research Library. My experience there was nothing short of excellent. Every single one of their policies seemed designed to facilitate an easier and more productive research experience. Perhaps the most productive moments of my research were the result of the archive's staff retrieving folios and documents on their own initiative after having heard my description of project. It certainly resulted in the most unusual find, an illustrated anti-tariff reform-themed children's ABC book buried amongst a box of unsorted documents from the Chamberlain estate. Whether its sarcastic descriptions and disparaging renderings of Tory politicians and the tariff reform agenda resonated with an upcoming generation of future British voters remains uncertain, however.
More certain than that is the amount of research that I was able to complete because of the grant. Following my time in Birmingham, I proceeded to the University of Warwick, which holds the few surviving papers of the Tariff Reform League, and from there on to London. While there, I explored the papers of many British politicians in the Parliamentary Archives and the British Library, including its ever-expanding digital collection of newspapers. And finally, at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, I was able to access the papers of Richard Jebb, an imperialist thinker and reform advocate. One quite striking feature of this time in the archive was the extent to which the digital age has opened up possibilities for research. Whether ordering items ahead of time through an archive's computer system, browsing their online catalogs before arrival, or simply entering the archive armed with a digital camera, battery charger, and enough space on a memory card, the amount of research that can be carried out in a set amount of time seems to have grown exponentially. And in an era of diminishing funding opportunities, it makes grants such as those provided by the NACBS all the more important when it makes access to the archives for dissertation research possible.
Kevin Luginbill is a PhD Student in the department of history at Northern Illinois University.