- Historic Sites
Few men—foreign or native born—have ever understood us better than this infinitely curious, inveterate Visitor from England
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
When James Bryce presented his credentials as ambassador from Great Britain to President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, he probably knew more about the nation to which he had been sent than any foreign envoy in Washington before or since. He had made seven trips to the United States, the first in 1870, thirty-seven years before; he had visited every state from coast to coast; he had studied the federal constitutions and those of all the states; he had made himself an expert on Congress, on the state legislatures, on the judiciary, and on the party system; and he had extensively interviewed hundreds of American citizens. His classic work, The American Commonwealth, had been first published in 1888 and thereafter reissued again and again to thousands of readers on both sides of the Atlantic. Bryce was considered an expert on American affairs even in the United States, and his work was taught in schools and colleges here until it was finally out of date. His friend, Theodore Roosevelt, felt about him as did his sovereign, Queen Victoria, whom he once had accompanied on an Italian vacation as minister in attendance. “I like Mr. Bryce,” she observed. “He knows so much, and is so modest.”
Bryce is still read today by students of history and occasionally by law students for his illuminating analysis of constitutional law as it was interpreted a century ago, but inevitably his work has ceased in the large to be relevant to modern problems, and his is the usual fate of commentators on the passing scene, even when they are as brilliant as Walter Lippmann or as informative as John Gunther. But he still has an abiding place in the history of Anglo-American relations. He assisted importantly in the development of the great friendship between the two nations that at last succeeded the long bitterness of the Revolution, of 1812, and of the misunderstandings and animosities of the Civil War.
Bryce had one of those long, sunny, healthy, rich Victorian lives, spread over law, literature, travel, mountain climbing, Parliament, and diplomacy, beginning in 1838 with his birth in Belfast of Scotch-Irish middle-class parents, and ending with a peaceful death in his beautiful estate near London, laden with honors, honorary degrees, the Order of Merit, and the title of viscount, eighty-three years later, in 1922.
His family had moved to Glasgow in 1846 when his father received a call to teach in a high school there. Bryce attended Glasgow College and then Oxford, where he attained every available honor. He then read law and engaged in a small practice in London, but his primary interest was in literature and politics. In 1864, at just twenty-six, he leaped into fame with the publication of The Holy Roman Empire, a treatise on the medieval concept of the Catholic world empire which began with the coronation of Charlemagne by the Pope in A. D. 800 and lasted, at least in theory, until its dissolution by Napoleon in 1804. Bryce’s essay is a beautifully conceived and mellifluously written unit, a minor classic in the tradition of Gibbon.
The young Henry James met Bryce in Oxford at this time. While conceding that his new friend talked well and was “distinctly able,” he noted that he possessed three conflicting dispositions—literature, law, and politics—”and he has not made a complete thing of any one of them. ” James saw Bryce as belonging to the class of “young doctrinaire radicals who don’t take the ‘popular heart’ and seem booked to remain out of affairs. They are all tainted with priggishness—though Bryce less so than some of the others.”
Bryce managed to support himself in London with the sales of his treatise, by writing articles and occasional briefs, and with the salary that came to him as regius professor of civil law at Oxford, a sinecure that required him only to make an occasional speech in Latin at the presentation of an honorary degree. It is always difficult to determine what money the great Victorians lived on, because the contemporary two-volume “life and letters,” with its expensive plates of pompous portraits protected by onion paper, never incurred the charge of poor taste by discussing money. However, life in London was not expensive for a bachelor, and Bryce did not have to marry his security until 1889, when he was fifty-one. His wife, the former Marion Ashton of Manchester, then brought him a fortune derived from cotton spinning, a London apartment at Buckingham Gate, and a country estate in Sussex.
As Bryce was all his life a determined traveler and explorer, it would have been surprising if he had not come to the United States. He was a democrat, and here was democracy; he was an educationalist, and where else could he have found public education carried out on such a scale? He paid his first visit to our shores in 1870 at the age of thirty-two, and in the words of his biographer, Herbert A. Fisher, “Here he found great and unaffected simplicity, an engaging spirit of equality and a quickening sense of hopefulness, as inspiring as the dry, nimble air and the stainless blue sky of an American Fall. … He fell in love with the United States. It was almost a case of love at first sight.”
A second visit, in 1881, took him to the Pacific and Southern states. A third, in 1883, took him to the Northwest and the Hawaiian Islands. It was during this third visit that the idea of The American Commonwealth took root.