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A Lord Bryce Sampler

March 2023
8min read

ON THE (PRE-IMPERIAL) PRESIDENCY

To a European observer, weary of the slavish obsequiousness and lip-deep adulation with which the members of reigning families are treated on J the eastern side of the Atlantic, fawned on in public and carped at in private, the social relations of an American President to his people are eminently refreshing. There is a great respect for the office, and a corresponding respect for the man as the holder of the office, if he has done nothing to degrade it. There is no servility, no fictitious self-abasement on the part of the citizens, but a simple and hearty deference to one who represents the majesty of the nation....The curiosity of the visitors who throng the White House on reception days is sometimes too familiar; but this fault tends to disappear, and Presidents have now more reason to complain of the persecutions they endure from an incessantly observant journalism. After oscillating between the ceremonious state of George Washington, who drove to open Congress in his coach and six, with outriders and footmen in livery, and the ostentatious plainness of Citizen Jefferson, who rode up alone and hitched his horse to the post at the gate, the President has settled down into an attitude between that of the mayor of a great English town on a public occasion, and that of a European cabinet minister on a political tour. He is followed about and fêted, and in every way treated as the first man in the company; but the spirit of equality which rules the country has sunk too deep into every American nature for him to expect to be addressed with bated breath and whispering reverence. He has no military guard, no chamberlains or grooms-in-waiting; his everyday life is simple; his wife enjoys precedence over all other ladies, but is visited and received just like other ladies; he is surrounded by no such pomp and enforces no such etiquette as that which belongs to the governors even of second-class English colonies, not to speak of the viceroys of India and Ireland....In the United States the most suspicious democrat—and there are democrats who complain that the office of President is too monarchical—cannot accuse the chief magistracy of having tended to form a court, much less to create those evils which thrive in the atmosphere of European courts. No President dare violate social decorum as European sovereigns have so often done. If he did, he would be the first to suffer.

ON THE PRESS

The vigour and brightness of many American newspapers are surprising. Nothing escapes them-, everything is set in the sharpest, clearest light. Their want of reticence and delicacy is regretfully admitted by all educated Americans—the editors, I think, included. The cause of the deficiency is probably to be found in the fact that, whereas the first European journals were written for the polite world of large cities, American journals were, early in their career, if not at its very beginning, written for the bulk of the people, and published in communities still so small that everybody’s concerns were already pretty well known to everybody ehe. They had attained no high level of literary excellence when some forty years ago an enterprising man of unrefined taste created a new type of “live” newspaper, which made a rapid success by its smartness, copiousness, and variety, while addressing itself entirely to the multitude. Other papers were almost forced to shape themselves on the same lines, because the class which desired something more choice was still relatively small; and now the journals of the chief cities have become such vast commercial concerns that they still think first of the mass and are controlled by its tastes, which they have themselves done so much to create. There are cities where the more refined readers who dislike flippant personalities are counted by tens of thousands, but in such cities competition is now too severe to hold out much prospect of success to a paper which does not expect the support of hundreds of thousands.

ON THE PARTIES

 

The great parties are the Republicans and the Democrats. What are their principles, their distinctive tenets, their tendencies?…

This is what a European is always asking of intelligent Republicans and intelligent Democrats. He is always asking because he never gets an answer. The replies leave him in deeper perplexity. After some months the truth begins to dawn upon him. Neither party...has any principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both have certainly war cries, organizations, interests enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of the government. Tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice, have all but vanished. They have not been thrown away but have been stripped away by Time and the progress of events, fulfilling some policies, blotting out others. All has been lost, except office or the hope of it....

It cannot be charged on the American parties that they have drawn towards one another by forsaking their old principles. It is time that has changed the circumstances of the country, and made those old principles inapplicable. They would seem to have erred rather by clinging too long to outworn issues, and by neglecting to discover and work out new principles capable of solving the problems which now perplex the country. In a country so full of change and movement as America new questions are always coming up, and must be answered. New troubles surround a government, and a way must be found to escape from them; new diseases attack the nation, and have to be cured. The duty of a great party is to face these, to find answers and remedies, applying to the facts of the hour the doctrines it has lived by, so far as they are still applicable, and when they have ceased to be applicable, thinking out new doctrines conformable to the main principles and tendencies which it represents.

ON STATE INTERVENTION

 

...It has come to pass that, though the Americans conceive themselves to be devoted to laissez faire in theory, and to be in practice the most self-reliant of peoples, they have grown no less accustomed than the English to cany the action of the State into ever-widening fields. Economic theory did not stop them, for practical men are proud of getting on without theory. The sentiment of individualism did not stop them, because State intervention has usually taken the form of helping or protecting the greater number, while restraining the few; and personal freedom of action, the love of which is strong enough to repel the paternalism of France or Germany, has been infringed upon only at the bidding of a strong moral sentiment, such as that which condemns intemperance....

What has been the result of this legislation? Have the effects which the economists of the physiocratic or laissez aller school taught us to expect actually followed? Has the natural course of commerce and industry been disturbed, has the self-helpfulness of the citizen been weakened, has government done its work ill and a new door to jobbery been opened? It is still too soon to form conclusions....Some few of the experiments have failed, others seem to be succeeding; but the policy of State interference as a whole has not yet been adequately tested. In making this new departure American legislatures are serving the world, if not their own citizens, for they are providing it with a store of valuable data for its instruction, data which deserve more attention than they have hitherto received, and whose value will increase as time goes on.

It is the privilege of these unconscious philosophers to try experiments with less risk than countries like France or England would have to run, for the bodies on which the experiments are tried are so relatively small and exceptionally vigorous that failures need not inflict permanent injury. No people is shrewder than the American in perceiving when a law works ill, nor prompter in repealing it.

ON WOMEN

Some may ask how far the difference between the position of women in America and their position in Europe are due to democracy? or if not to this, then to what other cause?

They are due to democratic feeling in so far as they spring from the notion that all men are free and equal, possessed of certain inalienable rights, and owing certain corresponding duties. This root idea of democracy cannot stop at defining men as male human beings, any more than it could ultimately stop at defining them as white human beings. For many years the Americans believed in equality with the pride of discoverers as well as with the fervour of apostles. Accustomed to apply it to all sorts and conditions of men, they were naturally the first to apply it to women also; not, indeed, as respects politics, but in all the social as well as legal relations of life. Democracy is in America more respectful of the individual, less disposed to infringe his freedom or subject him to any sort of legal or family control, than it has shown itself in Continental Europe, and this regard for the individual enured to the benefit of women.

 

What have been the results on the character and usefulness of women themselves?

Favorable. They have opened to them a wider life and more variety of career. While the special graces of the feminine character do not appear to have suffere, there has been produced a sort of independence and a capacity for self-help which are increasingly valuable as the number of unmarried women increases. More resources are open to an American woman who has to lead a solitary life, not merely in the way of employment, but for the occupation of her mind and tastes, than to a European spinter or widow; while her education has not rendered the American wife less competent for the discharge of household duties....

If women have on the whole gained, it is clear that the nation gains through them. As mothers they mould the characters of their children; while the function of forming the habits of society and determining its moral tone rests greatly in their hands. But there is reason to think that the influence of the American system tells directly for good upon mens as well as upon the whole community. Men gain in being brought to treat women as equals rather than as graceful playthings or useful drudges. The respect for women which every American man either feels or is obliged by public sentiment to profess, has a wholesome effect on his conduct and character, and serves to check the cynicism which some other peculiarities of the country foster. The nation as a whole owes to the active benevolence of its women, and their zeal in promoting social reforms, benefits which the customs of Continental Europe would scarcely have permitted women to confer....Those who know the work they have done and are doing in many a noble cause will admire still more their energy, their self-devotion. No country seems to owe more to its women than America does, nor to owe to them so much of what is best in social institutions and in the beliefs that govern conduct.

ON AMERICAN OPTIMISM

Confidence goes a long way towards success. And the confidence of these [Westerners] is superb. I happened in 1883 to be at the city of Bismark [sic] in Dakota when this young settlement was laying the corner-stone of its Capitol, intended to contain the halls of the legislature and other State offices of Dakota when that flourishing Territory should have become a State, or perhaps, for they spoke of dividing it, two States. The town was then only some five years old, and may have had six or seven thousand inhabitants. It was gaily decorated for the occasion, and had collected many distinguished guests—General U. S. Grant, several governors of neighbouring States and Territories, railroad potentates, and others. By far the most remarkable figure was that of Sitting Bull, the famous Sioux chief, who had surprised and slain a detachment of the American army some years before. Among the speeches made, in one of which it was proved that as Bismark was the centre of Dakota, Dakota the centre of the United States, and the United States the centre of the world, Bismark was destined to “be the metropolitan hearth of the world’s civilization,” there came a short but pithy discourse from this grim old warrior, in which he told us, through an interpreter, that the Great Spirit moved him to shake hands with everybody. However, the feature of the ceremonial which struck us Europeans most was the spot chosen for the Capitol. It was not in the city, nor even on the skirts of the city; it was nearly a mile off, on the top of a hill in the brown and dusty prairie. “Why here?” we asked. “Is it because you mean to enclose the building in a public park?” “By no means; the Capitol is intended to be in the centre of the city; it is in this direction that the city is to grow.” It is the same everywhere from the Mississippi to the Pacific. Men seem to live in the future rather than in the present: not that they fail to work while it is called to-day, but that they see the country not merely as it is, but as it will be, twenty, fifty, a hundred years hence, when the seedlings shall have grown to forest trees.

 

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