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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 made the further point that all the carefully devised machinery of the Constitution had done little to solve the problem of slavery or to avert the Civil War, and he noted that President Lincoln had had to free himself from constitutional shackles to bring that conflict to a successful conclusion. Yet as soon as it was over, the reign of legality had returned. A people capable of such adjustments, Bryce concluded, “can work any constitution,” but they should never lose sight of the faults of their political machinery.
Coming now to the two great political parties, Bryce observed that Europeans could never make out that they had any distinctive tenets. But he found their differences in their attitudes toward the salient feature of the Constitution: its effort to establish an equipoise between the force that would carry the planet states off into space and the force that would draw them back under the sun of the national government. He saw the Democrats as favoring states’ rights and the Republicans, who had inherited the authoritarianism of the Puritans, as supporting stronger federal powers. In our day it would appear to be just the reverse.
Bryce was properly shocked by the corruption of political machines, particularly in the big cities. When he attended a state convention in Rochester, New York, he noted that the important decisions had been taken before the public proceedings. All that the man in the gallery could observe was “a tremendous coming and going and chattering and clattering of crowds of men who looked at once sordid and flashy, faces shrewd but mean and sometimes brutal.…”
In the last analysis, he concluded that the system of checks and balances had to be monitored by public opinion. It was that opinion, operating with a force unknown in any European country, which really kept America going. But Bryce’s final warning was that our Constitution was not really being tested by world events in the 1880’s. The ship of state was still “sailing upon a summer sea.”
The success of The American Commonwealth on both sides of the Atlantic and its many subsequent editions gave Bryce an immense following in the United States, but it was not for two decades after its first publication that, in 1907, he finally was appointed the British ambassador. His friendship with Theodore Roosevelt was undoubtedly a factor in this appointment. The two men had much in common: scholarship, politics, exploration—the vigorous life.
Roosevelt’s daughter, Ethel Derby, once told me that her family had found Bryce prolix and tedious. But I doubt that her father shared this view. Did not there have to be a congeniality between two such danger-defying mountain climbers? Roosevelt, even as President, would ascend a rock face two hundred feet high in Rock Creek Park and once crossed an incomplete suspension bridge, swinging himself from girder to girder by his arms, with certain death the penalty of a fall. Bryce, on the edge of the great crater, Kilauea, in Hawaii, slipped through a fissure obscured by brushwood and would have plunged to a fiery death in the bowels of the volcano had he not managed to catch hold of a small shrub on the side and slowly work his way back to the surface. His ascents included Mauna Loa in Hawaii, Machaca in Basutoland, Myogisan in Japan, and Ararat in Armenia.
Bryce’s ambassadorship, which lasted until 1913, was outstandingly successful, but he suffered three major disappointments. A proposed reciprocal tariff reduction between Canada and the United States was scuttled because of fear in Ottawa that Canada might be absorbed into the American economy. Bryce, who had to exercise great tact, because the Canadians had no diplomatic representative in Washington, nonetheless fell between two stools, being accused in Ottawa of thinking only of the British Empire and criticized in the House of Commons for fostering divisiveness between Britain and her colony.
A second disappointment came when the Senate eviscerated a proposed arbitration treaty between the United States and Britain by excluding from it such essential subjects as aliens, boundaries, and the Monroe Doctrine. And finally, Bryce was unsuccessful in opposing the Panama Canal bill which exempted American ships from tolls, in flagrant contravention of the Hay-Pauncefote Treaty. He was vindicated, however, after his return to England, when this bill was repealed at the request of President Wilson in 1914.
But all these setbacks were as nothing compared with Bryce’s triumphs in public relations. He was invited to speak everywhere and was covered with honorary degrees. A large part of his years as ambassador were spent in traveling about the United States. Because his intimacy had been with Republican Presidents Roosevelt and Taft, and because he was over seventy years of age, he was in 1913 replaced by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, who was to play a major role in bringing the United States into alliance with Britain in World War I.
The rest of Bryce’s story is soon told. During the war he headed a committee to investigate German atrocities in Belgium. This was his last important public work. He died in 1922. To the very end he continued to be engaged in his voluminous reading and wide correspondence in an effort simply to understand the whole world.