James Bryce 1st Viscount Bryce

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James Bryce

The British historian, jurist, and statesman James Bryce, Viscount Bryce (1838-1922), is best known for "The American Commonwealth," a significant study of United States political institutions. He also fostered a revival of interest in Roman law.

James Bryce was born on May 10, 1838, in Belfast, Ireland, the son of a Scottish schoolmaster. In 1846 the family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where James attended secondary school and studied at the university. In 1857 he entered Trinity College, Oxford, where he had a brilliant scholastic career. In 1862 he was elected a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and was the first fellow who did not take the Anglican oaths.

Bryce's The Holy Roman Empire (1864) established his reputation as a legal historian. After practicing law in London for several years, he returned to Oxford in 1870 as regius professor of civil law, a post he held until 1893. His lectures at Oxford (published in 1901 as Studies in History and Jurisprudence) led to a revival in the study of Roman law.

An avid traveler, Bryce made the first of many trips to the United States in 1870. His interest in the life of the Armenians, which was acquired during a climbing holiday in 1876, led him to write Transcaucasia and Ararat (1877). A close friend and adviser of William Gladstone, Bryce entered the House of Commons in 1880 and from 1885 to 1907 sat as a Liberal member. During this period he completed his most important work, The American Commonwealth (1888). In this classic study, Bryce's legal training, historical knowledge, and firsthand experience of American life contribute to his cogent and influential analysis of the governmental process in the United States.

After serving as undersecretary for foreign affairs in 1886 and again in 1892, Bryce served as president of the Board of Trade and chairman of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1894-1895. His visit to South Africa in 1895 led him to protest the handling of negotiations with the Boer republics, and his Impressions of South Africa (1897) influenced the Liberal position on the Boer War.

After serving as chief secretary for Ireland (1905-1906), Bryce was the British ambassador to the United States (1907-1913). During his ambassadorship he dealt with many United States-Canadian problems. He was elevated to the peerage on his return to England in 1913. During the remaining 9 years of his life, Bryce served on the International Court at The Hague, supported the establishment of the League of Nations, and published Modern Democracy (1921). He died on Jan. 22, 1922.

Further Reading

The best book on Bryce is H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce (2 vols., 1927). It emphasizes Bryce's connections with the United States but also discusses his parliamentary career, writings, and influence on legal studies. See also Edmund S. Ions's study, James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870-1922 (1968).

Additional Sources

Bernard, Burton C., James Bryce and St. Louis: a bibliographic introduction to the writings of James Bryce, May 10, 1988, Granite City, Ill.: B.C. Bernard, 1988.

Bernard, Burton C., The James Bryce Collection at Washington University, St. Louis, October 22, 1988, Granite City, Ill.: B.C. Bernard, c1988. □

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Bryce, James (1838–1922). Political analyst and Liberal politician. Bryce was from Belfast and educated there and in Glasgow and Oxford universities. In 1863 he won the Arnold history prize with The Holy Roman Empire, the first of many works on the character and morphology of states. After a spell as an education commissioner, in 1870 he became professor of Roman law at Oxford, and began the revival of that subject. Bryce was one of a group of Oxford liberal intellectuals who provided the party with a cogent programme of reform, much of it education oriented. He was a keen mountaineer and travelled widely. In 1877 he published Transcaucasia and Ararat, reflecting his interest in the Eastern Question, a subject which preoccupied him for the rest of his life; he became an especial champion of the rights of the Armenians, including their right to nationhood after the disintegration of the Turkish empire in 1918. In 1880 Bryce became a Liberal MP. He was in Gladstone's last cabinet of 1892–4, becoming president of the Board of Trade 1894–5. He chaired a royal commission on education in 1895. A home-ruler despite his Ulster protestant background, he was an uneasy Irish secretary 1906–7, when he went to Washington as ambassador (until 1913), a very successful appointment. Bryce's greatest (and still influential) book was The American Commonwealth (1888), a practical as well as theoretical analysis, based on interviews and travels. Bryce became Viscount Bryce in 1914. That year he chaired the Bryce commission on war atrocities and was a member of the small group which promoted a League of Nations. In 1921 he published Modern Democracies, an encomium for a fast-disappearing liberalism.

H. C. G. Matthew