- 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
Bryce’s method of research was constant inquiry. Waiters in hotels were asked how they spent their savings; conductors on trains how they enforced nonsmoking rules; university men, lawyers, politicians, and captains of industry were quizzed on the details of their work and recreation. Nothing seemed to escape his notice, from the number of advertisements for soothsayers in a San Francisco newspaper to the mortgage interest rates in Walla Walla.
Bryce was a friendly man and a good mixer, and Americans, many of whom still had a chip on their shoulder about British snobbishness, found his infinite curiosity about, and obvious admiration for, their country enchanting.
He began to write his great book after the third trip, but his time was far from free. In 1880 he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal. His career in the House of Commons was not a noted success. He was too professorial. As Fisher has pointed out, Bryce, in a speech against Irish coercion, would lay down the principle that one democratic community could never govern another democratic community by force. Then it would occur to him that Switzerland and Sonderbund might constitute an exception to his rule, and he would bore the House by explaining in detail why his cited exception was really not apposite to the issue before Parliament. But he cared only for truth. As William James put it, “to Bryce all facts were born free and equal.”
In 1886 Prime Minister Gladstone appointed him under-secretary for foreign affairs and, in 1892, chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The latter was a cabinet sinecure that enabled Gladstone to utilize Bryce’s full energies in drafting the Home Rule bill for Ireland. In 1894 he became president of the Board of Trade in Lord Rosebery’s cabinet, and in 1906 chief secretary for Ireland. It should be noted that if he bored fellow members of Parliament, even in an age of notable loquacity, his was never the dullness associated with mossbacks. He was always a liberal: Pro-Irish, pro-Armenian, pro-Boer. Only about women’s suffrage did he remain a conservative. His chivalrous lace-valentine concept of the pure, ideal woman who must never be sullied by the ballot kept him until the end in male-chauvinist ranks where he did not otherwise belong.
The defeat of the first Home Rule bill threw the Liberal party into opposition, and Bryce was able at last to devote the bulk of his time to writing The American Commonwealth , which finally was published in 1888.
His design in these three volumes was nothing less than to describe the government of the United States and of the several states, their constitutions, the American system of political parties, and the ideas, temper, and habits of the “sovereign people. ” In later editions he added chapters on new subjects such as the latest phase of immigration, foreign policy, industrial expansion, the future of the Negro, and particular political events, which was not altogether a happy idea. The American Commonwealth is too vast a compendium of facts and opinions to be subject to amendment. It has to be America caught at a point in time, 1888, and left there.
His appreciation of the great American experiment in constitutional government was so profound, and his affection for the American people so evident, that even his severest criticisms of the political system were taken in good part on our side of the Atlantic. He understood the purpose of our system of checks and balances but he was always conscious of what we paid for it.
The Presidency, for example, did not appeal to our men of greatest talent. The President did not address the legislature, as did the British prime minister, and he could not submit bills. His appointments and treaties were subject to a jealously guarded power of approval by the Senate. The politicians who nominated him preferred a good candidate to a good chief executive. If elected, he had no need of great intellectual gifts; his job was like that of a manager of a railway or a chairman of a commercial company. So long as he was honest and made the right appointments, he could get by.
The modern reader may be amused by Bryce’s downgrading of the White House, but he himself pointed out what most differentiated his time from our own: we had no national deficit and no threatening neighbors. Americans could afford a long succession of mediocre leaders.
Of the two houses of Congress, Bryce found the Senate the more important. He even believed that its essential function was to act as a restraint to the multitudinous and less disciplined House of Representatives. But he thought that Congress was hampered in having imperfect powers over the President, just as the President was hampered by having no initiative in Congress. The result was that the nation did not know where to fix responsibility for misfeasance or neglect. Friction had resulted in a loss of force. By relieving the administration of the duty of legislative sessions and by seeking to make members of Congress independent of the executive branch, the founding fathers had condemned the latter “to be architects without science, critics without experience, censors without responsibility.”