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Lord Bryce

July 2024
9min read

Few men—foreign or native born—have ever understood us better than this infinitely curious, inveterate Visitor from England

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American affairs even in the United States, and his work was taught in schools and colleges here until it was finally out of date.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.

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.”

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.


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