Viscount Bryce (1838–1922) is one of those figures whose importance in the history of thought is explained not by the originality or penetration of their ideas but by their pertinence to a certain time and place. He was surely one of the most successful cultivators of Anglo-American affinity to have yet appeared. In his major work, The American Commonwealth (1888), he left posterity an invaluable account of American politics and society in the late nineteenth century. To be sure, that account may be as much a description of America’s self-image as of American reality, but a nation’s vision of itself is vital historical data. Most important of all, Bryce helped set the terms of American political attitudes and American political science for several decades. He could have performed none of these functions if he had been a daring and unorthodox social critic and innovator rather than what he was—a diligent, highly intelligent and observant, but essentially conventional, British gentleman who loved America because he found there a great many people not very different from himself.
Bryce was born in Belfast but educated chiefly in Scotland and England. His father, a Scottish schoolmaster, was a mathematician and geologist of some distinction, and Bryce grew up in a bookish, pious atmosphere, which seems to have stimulated his natural precocity and nurtured a spirit of private and public virtue. He attended Glasgow University for three years, then went on a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford. There his remarkable capacity for forming friendships and his evident intellectual gifts quickly won him an honored place. Albert Dicey, T. H. Green, Henry Nettleship, E. A. Freeman, and Matthew Arnold were among his friends. His academic career was punctuated by the bewildering succession of awards that so often identified men of future distinction in the Britain of his day. He took a first in both Greats and Modern History and received, among other accolades, the Arnold prize for his essay “The Holy Roman Empire,” which was published “greatly changed and enlarged” in 1864. The book earned the young author an immediate and deserved scholarly reputation, but it is worth noting that the study was praised not for originality of insight but as the first erudite English synthesis of accepted historical knowledge on the subject.
He had been elected a fellow of Oriel College in 1862; in the same year he began to study law and was called to the bar in 1867. Although moderately successful as a lawyer, he had already developed a consuming passion for travel, inquiry, and public service, and he abandoned the bar in 1882 after his election to Parliament. Meanwhile he had found time not only for his legal practice but for journalism, scholarship, teaching, and an endless series of journeys on the Continent, in the Near East, and in America. Everywhere he went he gathered information, largely by word of mouth, about the government and mores of the countries he visited. The United States interested him most of all, and he began writing The American Commonwealth after his third visit to America in 1883. The first edition was published in 1888.
The book and the view of America that it presented faithfully reflected the quality of the man. Bryce had undertaken to produce the first over-all description of American democracy, treating not only the national constitutional structure but also state and local government, the party system, public opinion, and social institutions. From conversations during his American travels, he had accumulated a formidable body of detailed knowledge that he now poured into the work. He sought, as he said, “to present simply the facts of the case … letting them speak for themselves,” and he hoped that philosophically inclined readers would find in the book not ready-made theories but material on which they could base their own bold generalizations. His great predecessor, Tocqueville, was of course always before his mind’s eye, but Bryce consciously chose to eschew Tocqueville’s deductive, speculative method, preferring to exploit his own talents and opportunities.
The choice was shrewd. He could never have matched Tocqueville’s brilliant imagination, but he knew far more about the actual data of American political life, and much of the data had never been recorded before. There was little new in the section on the national government, but the synoptic descriptions of state governments and of the party system were unique, and the perspective Bryce provided was as useful to contemporaries as it has been to later historians. The account has all the qualities of its tireless and fair-minded author: it is balanced, never tendentious, thoughtful though seldom profound, and as accurate as objective descriptions of human institutions are likely to be.
But of course Bryce could not entirely suppress evaluations, however detached and objective he sought to be, and the value system of the book, stated or implied, is the one that might be expected, given his character and his sources. His outlook had been shaped by the England of Mill and Bagehot and by his own moderate and friendly temperament. His principal American friends and informants were kindred spirits like Charles Eliot of Harvard, and his view of American democracy was much like theirs—cautiously optimistic but troubled by its flaws, meliorative rather than revolutionary, institutional rather than comprehensive. Insofar as he could be said to have a fundamental point, it was that the party system, with its pattern of spoils and corruption, was the great blemish of the commonwealth, but that the excellence of the constitutional structure and the sovereignty of a basically right-minded populace prevented the blemish from ruining the polity and justified a favorable verdict for American democracy. It followed that the most urgent American problem was to reform politics and government and that this could be best accomplished by substituting good men for the rascally machine politicians who were the chief source of corruption and inefficiency. That the good men were at hand Bryce knew: they were his friends in Boston, New York, and elsewhere— the solid, Anglo-Saxon, natural leaders of the upper middle class, those among whom the mugwump movement was conceived. If more of them would turn their interest to civic affairs, the sensible electorate would support them, jobbery and dishonesty would be eliminated from government, the merit system established, and the American republic purged of its faults.
Once put down on paper and stamped with the mark of Bryce’s continually growing international fame, these judgments assumed independent authority and influenced the tone of political discourse for years to come. Bryce had become Regius professor of civil law at Oxford in 1870 and was under secretary for foreign affairs under Gladstone and British ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913. For the last-named role he was admirably equipped, and his affection and respect for America were reciprocated in full measure. In 1914 he was raised to the peerage. The American Commonwealth received attention not only because of Bryce’s prestige but also because it was the first, and for a long time incomparably the best, textbook on American government. It is hardly surprising then that its influence, as it ran through successive editions from 1888 to 1909, can be traced in the political rallying cries of the progressive era and in the approach of American political scientists until very recent times.
Bryce was not as sanguine about the benevolence of direct popular democracy as some of the progressives were, for his instinct was to be moderate in both his enthusiasms and his fears. But his confidence in the fundamental goodness of the American populace (or at least what was then an Anglo-Saxon majority) implied a faith in direct popular rule that the progressives could draw on, and his reformist strictures against machine politics were echoed throughout the “age of reform.” Those like Herbert Croly, who thought that “bosses” might be indispensable democratic leaders, or like the later Lincoln Steffens, who lacked faith in purely political reform, could not prevail against Bryce’s great authority, particularly since Bryce had the common advantage of saying what America preferred to hear. His impact on academic political science was no less strong. When other texts on American government were written, they tended to take off from Bryce. Thus they reflected his concern with institutions rather than with underlying social forces, his view that the political could and should be sharply distinguished from the administrative and governmental, and his belief that political behavior was something to deplore and reform, rather than to study and live with.
However, by the time he published Modern Democracies in 1921, the wheel had turned. Characteristically, he had elected to produce a pioneer work in the field that is now called “comparative government”; again he could claim to have written the first synoptic treatment of a significant subject. But Bryce was still wedded to the assumptions of 1888, and modern social thought was not; and while the book was justly praised as a compendium of data, its outlook was respectfully criticized. Bryce was aware that representative democracy, which had seemed so promising in the Mill–Bagehot era, was now being challenged and that attempts were being made to appraise political systems in terms of root economic and social facts. Yet he steadfastly held to the view that democracy has nothing to do with economic equality, ignored the group basis of politics, continued to emphasize reforms like the abolition of the spoils system, and proposed as his chief remedy for democracy’s ills an improved second chamber of the legislature. His values and attitudes continued to find some spokesmen for many years to come, but political science in general has gradually but surely drifted away from him, and he is now often dutifully cited but seldom read or heeded. Yet his books remain, as has been said, precious historical records of the facts and viewpoints of an earlier age, and few scholars can claim to have influenced their time more profoundly than Bryce did.
Robert G. McCloskey
(1864) 1956 The Holy Roman Empire. New ed., rev. & enl. London: Macmillan.
(1888) 1909 The American Commonwealth. 3d ed., 2 vols. New York and London: Macmillan. → An abridged edition was published in 1959 by Putnam.
1901 Studies in History and Jurisprudence. 2 vols. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
1903 Studies in Contemporary Biography. New York: Macmillan.
1921 Modern Democracies. 2 vols. New York: Macmillan.
Bryce’s American Commonwealth: Fiftieth Anniversary. Edited by Robert C. Brooks. 1939 New York: Macmillan.
Fisher, Herbert A. L. 1927 James Bryce (Viscount Bryce of Dechmont, O. M.). 2 vols. New York: Macmillan.
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James Bryce, also known as the Viscount Bryce of Dechmont, was born May 10, 1838, in Belfast, Ireland. He attended Glasgow and Heidelberg Universities and received a bachelor of arts degree from Oxford University in 1862.
After his admission to the bar in 1867, Bryce practiced law for the next fifteen years. He accepted a professorship at Oxford in 1870, where he taught civil law until 1893.
Bryce entered Parliament in 1880 and remained a member until 1907. During this time, he also performed diplomatic duties—serving as undersecretary of foreign affairs in 1886 and chief secretary for Ireland from 1905 to 1906. From 1907 to 1913, he acted as ambassador to the United States.
In 1913, Bryce participated at the hague tribunal, the international court of arbitration established in the Netherlands. After world war i, he was active in the formation of the league of nations.
Bryce gained fame for his numerous publications, including The Holy Roman Empire: The American Commonwealth, which was published in 1888 and was an important work concerning American government; and Modern Democracies, published in 1921.
He died January 22, 1922, in Sidmouth, Devonshire, England.
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