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Bryce on America

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Source: Editor's Introduction to The American Commonwealth, with an Introduction by Gary L. McDowell, 2 vols (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995). Vol. 1.


He knew us better than we know ourselves, and he went about and among us and gave us the boon of his illuminating wisdom derived from the lessons of the past.

Chief Justice William Howard Taft

James Bryce’s The American Commonwealth is a classic work, not only of American politics but of political science. Eschewing the theoretical depths of democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville had plumbed, and lacking the partisan purposes for which Alexander Hamilton and his colleagues had penned The Federalist, Bryce sought to capture the America of his time, to present “within reasonable compass, a full and clear view of the facts of today.” 1 As Bryce’s biographer would later put it, The American Commonwealth “was a photograph taken and exhibited by a political philosopher, not a history, not a picture of what was, not an account of how it had come to be.” 2 But, as with photographs that aspire to art, the more one studies Bryce’s snapshot of a long-vanished America, the more one sees.

Bryce’s fascination with America began in earnest on his first visit to the United States in 1870. It is worth remembering that the country he first saw was only five years past the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and but a year after the first transcontinental railway had been completed; it would be another seven years before the last of the federal troops of Reconstruction were finally withdrawn from the South in 1877. The America of which Bryce first took note was a geographically sprawling society kept only loosely in touch by telegraph and newspapers—telephones and radios being still decades away.

When The American Commonwealth appeared in 1888, America was the youngest nation in a world still defined by ancient orders. The British Empire bustled beneath Victoria’s scepter and Russia creaked beneath the feudal splendor of Tsar Alexander III. The devastation of the Great War and the loss of innocence it would bring was more than a quarter of a century away; Lenin was but a schoolboy of eighteen, and Hitler would not be born until 1889.

The America of Bryce’s observations has long since passed; indeed, it was already gone by the time of his death in 1922. When he first published The American Commonwealth, the population of the entire country, then only thirty-eight states strong, was a mere sixty million; New York took the lead with 5,082,871, while California boasted a meager 864,694 spread across its 155,980 square miles. Nevada peaked at 62,266 isolated souls. Dakota (which would be divided the next year into North Dakota and South Dakota), Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona were all still territories; and Oklahoma was Indian Territory, not to become a state until 1907.

By the end of Bryce’s life, the 1920 census had sketched a nation with a population of 105,710,620 (not including the territories of Alaska and Hawaii) divided among forty-eight states. New York’s population had nearly doubled to 10,385,000; California’s had quadrupled to 3,427,000. Even Nevada had grown to 77,000. By 1920, America was an increasingly urban nation with problems Bryce could not have envisioned when he began writing The American Commonwealth in 1884.3

Demographic changes were not all; nor were they the most important changes. Constitutionally and politically, The American Commonwealth of 1922 was much changed from that of the 1880s. Between the publication of the first edition of The American Commonwealth and Bryce’s death there had been four constitutional amendments, three serious and one frivolous. In addition to the ill-fated 18th Amendment prohibiting intoxicating liquors (repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933), the fundamental structure of the Constitution was altered by allowing the income tax (16th Amendment in 1913), by providing for the direct election of Senators (17th Amendment, also in 1913), and by giving women the right to vote (19th Amendment in 1920). The politics of the Gilded Age that Bryce first chronicled had passed into the Progressive Era, and with that passage had come a plethora of social reform legislation. The creation of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887 had been but a foreshadowing of the coming age of national regulation: the Sherman Anti-Trust Act (1890); the Pure Food and Drug Act (1906); and the Child Labor Act (1916), among many others, quickly followed.

The America that Bryce first saw was also a nation of buoyant optimism, a country fairly bursting with the democratic zeal and commercial impatience Tocqueville had celebrated half a century earlier. Like Tocqueville before him, but for different reasons, Bryce saw in America more than America. “The institutions of the United States,” he wrote, “are something more than an experiment, for they are believed to disclose and display the type of institutions towards which, as if by a law of fate, the rest of civilized mankind are forced to move, some with swifter, others with slower, but all with unresting feet.” The United States was a nation of “enormous and daily increasing influence.” 4 It was essential, Bryce believed, that the world be given a clear account of what made up this robust and rambunctious republic. For good or ill, America was simply the most exceptional nation in the history of the world. And James Bryce was just the man to capture that exceptionalism in all its glory.


James Bryce was a Scotsman of sturdy Presbyterian stock, born on May 10, 1838, in Belfast, Ireland. In 1846 the family moved from its beloved Ulster when Bryce’s father took up duties back in Scotland at the High School in Glasgow. From his earliest days, young James was consumed by his curiosity about natural history, geography, and politics. When he turned sixteen, after his high school studies in Glasgow and, for a period, back in Belfast, Bryce matriculated at Glasgow University, where he spent three years steeped in the study of the classics, logic, and mathematics. Glasgow was “deficient” when it came to offering the atmosphere of intellectual camaraderie students would enjoy in Oxford or Cambridge; yet Bryce would later recall “not a few long arguments over the freedom of the will and other metaphysical topics to which the Scottish mind was prone.” Moreover, there were occasions aplenty for “an incessant sharpening of wits upon one another’s whetstones.” 5 When he left Glasgow in 1857, Bryce was more than ready for the illustrious academic career that awaited him at Oxford.

When Bryce went up to Oxford to stand for a scholarship at Trinity College in May 1857, he found himself confronted by the demands of the Church of England. The young Scots Presbyterian could not bring himself to sign the Thirty-nine Articles of the Established Church, as was required of all Trinity scholars. Better to forego an Oxford education and all the advantages it would bring, Bryce believed, than to turn his back on the faith of his fathers and submit to the Anglican sacrament; to have done so would have been “dishonourable.” Bryce persevered “in the cause of liberty and dissent” with an eye toward breaking up the “obnoxious statute altogether.” When he finally succeeded in winning the scholarship without agreeing to the Thirty-nine Articles, Bryce’s stance won praise as nothing less than “the triumph of liberalism in Oxford.” Even so, Bryce was never awarded his M.A. because of his refusal; he did, however, earn his B.A. and a D.C.L.6

At Oxford, Bryce distinguished himself as an extraordinary student, sweeping up first-class degrees and an assortment of scholarly honors in his academic wake. Having taken his degree from Trinity in 1862, Bryce won a fellowship in Oriel College, a position that would allow him the flexibility of pursuing an Oxford academic career or being called to the bar in London. Soon after beginning to teach in Oxford, Bryce despaired that the place was “dolorous,” lacking any semblance of “motion and progress.” In time, Oxford would prove too stultifying a place for the young scholar, once described by his friend and colleague Albert V. Dicey as “the life of our party.” 7

London beckoned. By 1864, Bryce would insist that the capital was “the best place in the world for anyone to learn his own insignificance.” 8 With its sheer drudgery, the legal training to which he had turned in Lincoln’s Inn bored Bryce.

Streaming down Oxford Street, about 11 every morning to the Inn; then books, very dreary books it must be said, most of them interminable records of minute facts through which it is not easy to trace the course of a consistent and clarifying principle till 1:30; then lunch often in some man’s company and dropping about a little, then more books till 5:30; then dinner in the hall of Lincoln’s Inn, disagreeable in this that one rises from table to walk two miles through narrow dirty streets homeward.9

It did not take long, however, for Bryce to look up from his legal studies and discover the great and vibrant intellectual universe that was London. His key to this world came with the publication of his first book, the revision of his essay for which he had been awarded the Arnold Prize at Oxford in 1862. When it appeared in 1864 as The Holy Roman Empire, it was quickly praised as having placed Bryce—then but twenty-six years old— “on a level with men who have given their lives to historical study.” 10 James Bryce, the public scholar, had begun his ascent.

In 1870 Bryce’s labors in Roman history, as well as the law, paid a substantial dividend. On April 11, William Gladstone wrote to him offering him the Regius Chair of Civil Law in the University of Oxford. Founded by King Henry VIII, the Regius Professorship had once been filled by the great civilian Alberic Gentile.11 Bryce would serve as Regius Professor of Civil Law until 1893, and from that illustrious post he contributed greatly to the revival of scholarly interest in Roman law and the civilian tradition in the British universities. The same year that Bryce assumed his professorship was the year that he and Dicey set off for the United States.

Bryce’s introduction to the nation he would come to know so well was enhanced through the efforts of Leslie Stephen, who kindly opened the very best doors for the two young Englishmen. Through Stephen, Bryce and Dicey met Charles Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and both the senior and the junior Oliver Wendell Holmes. The young English legal scholars were especially interested in conversations they had with the leading lights of the Harvard Law School, Christopher Columbus Langdell, James Barr Ames, and James Bradley Thayer.12 America was an intellectually vibrant place, and Bryce was smitten: “It was almost a case of love at first sight.” 13 Upon his return to England, Bryce committed his enthusiasm to print, publishing several articles on American society in English periodicals.14

Neither the practice of law nor the scholarly pursuits of Oxford was sufficient to satisfy Bryce’s restless and robust nature. In 1880 he stood for Parliament and was elected as a member of the Liberal Party to represent Tower Hamlets in London’s East End. It was a poor and working-class constituency and gave Bryce the opportunity to learn a great deal about the social structures of Britain.15 But for all his gifts, he was not at the start a very distinguished legislator.

A certain lack of pliability, an insistent voice, a temperament somewhat deficient in the good-humoured composure which is one of the most valuable of Parliamentary gifts, a turn of phrase incisive rather than humorous, a prevailingly serious outlook coupled with the defect . . . of excessive indulgence in historical disquisitions and analogies, these little blemishes of manner and method concealed from his fellow Members of Parliament the remarkable qualities which belonged to him.16

Years of public service would wear away those rough edges until, in the end, Bryce was deemed “one of the best and more graceful public speakers in the country.” 17 Yet in his early political career, he was often seen, as his more radical parliamentary critic Joseph Chamberlain disparagingly dubbed him, as the “professor.”

It was during these busy years as lawyer, scholar, and Member of Parliament that Bryce began to focus in a serious way on what would become his greatest legacy. He returned to the United States for his second visit in 1881, during which he crossed the continent and swept through the South. In the decade since his first visit, James Bryce had become a man of some renown in both the scholarly and the political worlds.18 In 1883 he returned for his third tour, and it was at that point that he began assiduously to collect material for The American Commonwealth, to sort through the mass of details he assembled, and to draw conclusions worth reporting. The more he learned, the more selective he became. “When I first visited America eighteen years ago,” he warned his readers in the introduction to The American Commonwealth, “I brought home a swarm of bold generalizations. Half of them were thrown overboard after a second visit in 1881. Of the half that remained, some were dropped into the Atlantic when I returned across it after a third visit in 1883–84: and although the two later journeys gave birth to some new views, these views are fewer and more discreetly cautious than their departed sisters of 1870.” That caution manifested itself in an approach that was coolly analytical. “I have striven,” Bryce insisted, “to avoid the temptations of the deductive method, and to present simply the facts of the case, arranging and connecting them as best I can, but letting them speak for themselves rather than pressing upon the reader my own conclusions.” Bryce saw himself as a chronicler, a reporter, not as a political philosopher; it would be far better if his readers created grand theories from the facts he presented than if he presented them with “theories ready made.” 19 It was precisely such “elevated thinking” and grand “speculative views of democracy” which, in Bryce’s view, had rendered Tocqueville’s Democracy in America something less than a practical treatise for men of the real world. It was for this reson that Bryce endeavored to shun the abstract in favor of the concrete.20

The differences between Democracy in America and The American Commonwealth are immediately seen. Whereas Tocqueville saw fit to spend but a single chapter on state and municipal governments, a mere 38 pages, Bryce devoted seventeen chapters, 255 densely packed pages, to the same topic. Similarly, on political parties, Tocqueville provided yet another single chapter, and this no more than 6 pages. Bryce, on the other hand, offered twenty-three chapters totalling 243 pages. And when it came to the structure and functions of the national government, Bryce produced a staggering 392 pages in thirty-four chapters; Tocqueville mustered only 75 pages in four chapters.


One cannot fully appreciate either Bryce’s scholarly objective or his literary achievement without first understanding his rejection of Tocqueville. The greatest weakness of Democracy in America, in Bryce’s judgment, was that it was decidedly unscientific, filled as it was with the Frenchman’s moral musings about democracy generally. Tocqueville himself had confessed as much: “I admit that I saw in America more than America; it was the shape of democracy itself which I sought, its inclinations, character, prejudices, and passions; I wanted to understand it so as at least to know what we have to fear or hope therefrom.” 21 Such a venture as that undertaken by Tocqueville led inevitably to “fanciful” pictures being drawn, “plausible in the abstract . . . [but] unlike the facts which contemporary America sets before us.” Bryce’s alternative was to “bid farewell to fancy” and endeavor to see things as they actually were in nineteenth-century America.22 Specificity, not generalization, was what was demanded; empiricism was the essence of Bryce’s science of politics.23

When and where Bryce first came across the works of Tocqueville is not clear. However, by the time of his third trip to the United States in 1883, he was sufficiently familiar with Democracy in America to conduct a seminar at Johns Hopkins University under the direction of Professor Herbert Baxter Adams. Adams’s graduate history seminar was a preeminent academic gathering, and among the students in Bryce’s class were John Dewey, John Franklin Jameson, and Woodrow Wilson.24 The seminar focused on Democracy in America; the concern was Tocqueville’s interpretation of America and his predictions about democratic government. Bryce pushed his students to question the assumptions that lay at the foundation of Tocqueville’s monumental and influential work.25 The fruit of the seminar was the publication in 1887 of “The Predictions of Hamilton and de Tocqueville” in the Johns Hopkins Studies in Historical and Political Science.26

In this important study, Bryce praised Tocqueville and his work. The author was “a singularly fair and penetrating European philosopher” whose work was one of “rare literary merit.” Democracy in America, observed Bryce, is “one of the few treatises on the philosophy of politics which has risen to the rank of a classic.” The great work was nothing less than “a model of art and a storehouse of ethical maxims.” 27

Niceties aside, Bryce plunged his critical dagger: “The first observation [about Democracy in America ] is that not only are its descriptions of democracy as displayed in America no longer true in many points, but that in certain points they were never true. That is to say, some were true of America, but not of democracy in general, while others were true of democracy in general but not true of America.” The weaknesses of Tocqueville were three. First, he had opted for the deductive method Bryce deplored: Tocqueville’s “power of observation, quick and active as it was, did not lead but followed the march of his reasonings . . . [so that] the facts he cites are rather illustrations than the sources of his conclusions.” 28

The second defect of Tocqueville’s study is that while he wrote about America “his heart was in France, and the thought of France, never absent from him, unconsciously colored every picture that he drew.” The result of this narrow view is that he “failed to grasp the substantial identity of the American people with the English.” Bryce was blunt: “he has not grasped, as perhaps no one but an Englishman or an American can grasp, the truth that the American people is an English people, modified in some directions by the circumstances of its colonial life and its more popular government, but in essentials the same.” Coupled with his deductive bent, this focus on France led Tocqueville into simple errors: “Much that he remarks in the mental habits of the ordinary American, his latent conservatism, for instance, his indifference to amusement as compared with material comfort, his commercial eagerness and tendency to take a commercial view of all things, might have been just as well remarked of the ordinary middle-class Englishman, and has nothing to do with a Democratic government.” 29

The third problem with Tocqueville’s work is the result of the first two: “ Democracy in America is not so much a political study as a work of edification.” As such, it is simply not an accurate “picture and criticism of the government and people of the United States.” In Bryce’s steely scientific view, Democracy in America failed the test of objectivity. “Let it be remembered that in spite of its scientific form, it is really a work of art rather than a work of science, and a work suffused with strong, though carefully repressed emotion.” The most damning deficiency, Bryce argued, is that Tocqueville “soars far from the ground and is often lost in the clouds of his own sombre meditations.” 30 As a result, his treatise offered more a colorful “landscape” than an accurate “map” of America. And whatever its great artistic and philosophic achievement, there was still the need for a map. It was precisely Bryce’s desire “to try and give [his] countrymen some juster views than they have had about the United States” that led him to craft The American Commonwealth as a grand atlas of American politics and society.31

The deficiencies Bryce found in Democracy in America spawned in him a sense of caution and modesty. Lest he fall into the same trap as Tocqueville, he was determined never to mistake “transitory for permanent causes.” While there was nothing in Tocqueville’s account that was “simply erroneous,” there was much distortion. Tocqueville tended to build too great a “superstructure of inference, speculation and prediction” on too slight a foundation: “The fact is there, but it is perhaps a smaller fact than he thinks, or a transient fact, or a fact whose importance is, or shortly will be, diminished by other facts which he has not adequately recognized.” 32 In Bryce’s estimation, the real world was far too untidy for such lofty generalizations as those Tocqueville offered. This was especially true when it came to his understanding of democracy itself.

For Bryce, the issue was simple: “Democracy really means nothing more or less than the rule of the whole people expressing their sovereign will by their votes.” 33 In his view, Tocqueville had painted with too broad a brush. Rather than speak of democracy as a form of government, he was wont to speak of democracy as a spirit of the age, something as irresistible as it was intangible. This Bryce rejected:

Democratic government seems to me, with all deference to his high authority, a cause not so potent in the moral and social sphere as he deemed it; and my object has been less to discuss its merits than to paint the institutions and the people of America as they are, tracing what is peculiar to them not merely to the sovereignty of the masses, but also to the history and traditions of the race, to its fundamental ideas, to its material environment.34

Bryce was only incidentally concerned with what Tocqueville had called the mores of the people; the Englishman cared more about institutions than ideology, more about the mechanics of politics than the manners of society.

Bryce conceded that part of Tocqueville’s problem—but only a part—was the time in which he wrote. The sober republicanism of Founders such as Alexander Hamilton had given way to the democratic intoxication of the Jacksonians. “The anarchic teachings of Jefferson had borne fruit,” Bryce explained. “Administration and legislation, hitherto left to the educated classes, had been seized by the rude hands of men of low social position and scanty knowledge.” 35 Thus, what Tocqueville took to be the inherent characteristics of the democratic spirit of the modern age were, in fact, merely the manifestations of a peculiarly perverted exercise of democratic governance during a particularly vulgar and raucous period of American history. The “brutality and violence” of those days had skewed Tocqueville’s account of his grand theory of the tyranny of the majority.36

Tocqueville’s study was influential and generated in his followers the belief that “democracy is the child of ignorance, the parent of dullness and conceit. The opinion of the greatest number being the universal standard, everything is reduced to the level of vulgar minds. Originality is stunted, variety disappears, no man thinks for himself, or, if he does, fears to express what he thinks.” This unhealthy view had been spawned by Tocqueville’s exaggeration of the effect forms of government actually have on society; such an exaggeration ignored the complexity of the relationship between “the political and the intellectual life of a country.” All this Bryce denied: “It is not democracy that had paid off a gigantic debt and raised Chicago out of a swamp. Neither is it democracy that had hitherto denied the United States philosophers like Burke and poets like Wordsworth.” 37

The “narcotic power of democracy” of which Tocqueville warned was, in fact, the result not merely of the form of government in the United States, but of “a mixed and curiously intertwined variety of other causes which have moulded the American mind during the past two centuries.” Many of the attributes of the Americans “must be mainly ascribed to the vast size of the country, the vast numbers and intellectual homogeneity of its native white population, the prevalence of social equality, a busy industrialism, a restless changefulness of occupation, and the absence of a leisured class dominant in matters of taste—conditions that have little or nothing to do with political institutions.” 38

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America had to be taken with great caution by those other nations who might seek prescriptions for their own political ills in its pages. By focusing on what he considered to be the general truths of democracy, Tocqueville seemed to be suggesting that his “new political science . . . for a world itself quite new” 39 was indeed a political manual for the rest of the world. By ignoring the mundane particulars of America for his more dazzling generalizations, Tocqueville had glossed over the deep and abiding significance of the differences between nations.

In Bryce’s view, “although the character of democratic government in the United States is full of instruction for Europeans, it supplies few conclusions directly bearing on the present politics of any European country, because both the strong and the weak points of the American people are not exactly repeated anywhere in the Old World.” 40 To Bryce, the most important thing about similarities was the difference they implied; history could not be as prescriptive as Tocqueville implied: “A thinker duly exercised in historical research will carry his stores of the world’s political experience about with him, not as a book of prescriptions or recipes from which he can select one to apply to a given case, but rather as a physician carries a treatise of pathology which instructs him in the general principles to be followed in observing the symptoms and investigating the causes of the maladies that come before him.” 41 It long remained an article of faith for Bryce that while “prediction in physics may be certain, in politics it can be no more than probable.” 42


Bryce “proposed to himself the aim of portraying the whole political system of the country, in its practice as well as its theory, of explaining not only the national government but the state governments, not only the Constitution but the party system, not only the party system but the ideas, temper, habits of the sovereign people.” 43 By striving to go behind the formal legal and institutional structures to the “ideas, temper, habits” of the people, Bryce was, of course, edging closer to Tocqueville than he was willing to acknowledge. Moreover, he was not without his own ulterior motives. As Tocqueville sought to instruct France about lessons to be gleaned from America, so did Bryce seek to teach his countrymen—and in ways not dissimilar. If Tocqueville wrote with France in mind, Bryce most assuredly wrote with England in mind. For Tocqueville, the great virtue of American federalism and the “incomplete” national government created by the Constitution of 1787 was to teach the importance of decentralized institutions in fending off the bureaucratic tyranny of centralized power, albeit democratic power. For Bryce, the lessons of American federalism were also useful; they tended to support the idea of home rule for Ireland as against the pressures of unionism in resolving the problems posed by Irish independence.44

Bryce had an overarching pedagogic political purpose that went beyond particular British policy battles of the day, however. He was concerned about the ignorance of the United States displayed by his countrymen; even in those most attentive to the great international issues of the day Bryce detected a worrying condescension born of misunderstanding. Assuming America still to be merely a rustic and vulgar outpost of uncultured country folk, Bryce’s colleagues failed to grasp the increasing industrialization and urbanization that were coming to characterize the United States. It was these factors that were rendering America of “enormous and daily increasing influence,” an influence Britain could ill afford to ignore.45 It is this concern to encourage a proper understanding of America in England, above all others, that reveals The American Commonwealth as the intellectual threshold of the “special relationship” between Britain and America that has been of such importance throughout the twentieth century.

Bryce’s study of America ultimately fell short of the scientific standard he had set for himself. He was as much a prisoner of his methodology as Tocqueville had been of his. While Bryce visited on three separate occasions between 1870 and 1883, his time in America amounted only to nine months, the same length of time Tocqueville had roamed the nation half a century earlier. As a result, Bryce was as dependent on anecdotal information about the United States as Tocqueville was; in some ways, Bryce’s dependence is even more obvious. Bryce’s network of friendships and acquaintances, though arguably larger than Tocqueville’s, was better defined, which meant that the lens through which he observed American society and politics had been ground to a certain curve. Indeed, “the America he entered did not centre on the ward districts or working man’s clubs, or immigrant aid societies, but rather on civil service commissions, universities, reform clubs and the editorial offices of genteel journals.” 46 As one critic put it at the time: “Mr. Bryce sees America through the rim of a champagne glass, to the strains of soft music, and in the smiles of fair women.” 47

For all his pretensions of objectivity, Bryce was very much the prisoner of his class. His view was colored by his basic liberalism, whether of the Gladstone variety at home or the establishment liberals with whom he associated in the United States. Nearly to a man, these were East Coast activists of progressive instincts; nary a one of them was close to being a Southerner or a defender of the rights of states against the increasing presence of the national government. The liberal nationalism they displayed, their confidence in the power of government to reform the inconveniences of the human condition, fit in well with Bryce’s own prejudices about the purposes of government. The circle of American friends in whom he put so much confidence ensured that Bryce’s work, in the end, would inevitably suffer from the subjectivity he sought so strenuously to avoid.

The biases one perceives in The American Commonwealth are largely the result of Bryce’s method of actively involving these acquaintances in the creation of the book. The list of those who served him as de facto research assistants is nothing less than an intellectual and political honor roll of the age. Among those who contributed to The American Commonwealth were Thomas Cooley (on constitutional issues), Oliver Wendell Holmes (on legal education), Senator Carl Schurz (on the Senate), Theodore Roosevelt (on municipal government and civil service reform), Woodrow Wilson (on Congress), Arthur Sedgwick (on the Erie Ring), and Frank Goodnow (on municipal government and the Tweed Ring.)48 The assistance they gave Bryce was not limited to culling facts for his use or to reading and commenting on early drafts and later revisions. Goodnow, for example, actually wrote in his own name the chapter in the first edition entitled “The Tweed Ring in New York City,” as did Seth Low the chapter entitled “An American View of Municipal Government in the United States.” In part, these farmed-out chapters were given over to Goodnow and Low “to prevent the pirating of the work by American publishers, who at that time were not constrained by copyright laws except where the author was an American citizen.” 49 But whatever the legal reasons, the contributions of Low and Goodnow are only the most visible of debts Bryce incurred in writing The American Commonwealth.

In a speech before the Pilgrims’ Society in 1907, Bryce, by then Ambassador to the United States, recollected the sources for his great book.

I am a good listener . . . and I wrote [ The American Commonwealth ] out of conversations to which I listened. I talked to everybody I could find in the United States, not only to statesmen in the halls of Congress, not only at dinner parties, but on the decks of steamers, in smoking cars, to drivers of wagons upon the Western prairies, to ward politicians and city bosses.50

The itineraries of Bryce’s first three journeys through America suggest he was not exaggerating.51 While his closest friends, and those who ultimately exerted the greatest influence on the work as a whole, may have been one or two steps removed from the political fray, Bryce was never inclined to sidestep the nitty and the gritty of American life; he rubbed shoulders with all kinds, from the gun-toting prospectors of Leadville, Colorado, and waitresses in a hotel in the White Mountains to the cigar-chomping pols he met at the New York State Democratic Party Convention, complete with Boss Tweed himself, “a fat, largish man, with an air of self-satisfied good humour and a great deal of shrewd knavery in eye and mouth.” 52 At every turn, Bryce’s methods for getting his original and impressionistic information were “unorthodox.”

He read all parts of newspapers: noting the rates of interest on mortgage loans; counting eighteen advertisements of clairvoyants and soothsayers in a San Francisco newspaper and concluding that they were a sign of a “tendency of this shrewd and educated people to relapse into the oldest and most childish forms of superstition.” He smelt dollar bills in Wisconsin and detected that they had the odor of skins and furs used by the newly arrived Swedes and Norwegians. In a town of the Far West he borrowed a locomotive engine from the stationmaster, in order to run out a few miles to see “a piece of scenery.” He heard or read all sorts of speeches—in legislatures, political party meetings, court trials, Fourth of July celebrations, and at funerals and dinners—and concludes that American oratory was as bad as that of the rest of the world, except that the toasts at public dinners seemed slightly fewer and better than in England.53

Such methods, however unorthodox in a scholarly sense, were essential if Bryce, like Tocqueville before him, were to peek behind the institutional facade of The American Commonwealth and capture the great and motive force of the American people. While Bryce relied for his facts on everything from the great works of the American political order, such as The Federalist, to more practical publications, such as the Ohio Voters’ Manual, in rounding out his picture of America he simply had to move beyond mere “books and documents.” 54 For the deeper, less tangible aspects of American life, Bryce had to “trust to a variety of flying and floating sources, to newspaper paragraphs, to the conversation of American acquaintances, to impressions formed on the spot from seeing incidents and hearing stories and anecdotes, the authority of which, though it seemed sufficient at the time, cannot always be remembered.” 55 Bryce himself estimated that “five-sixths of [ The American Commonwealth ] was derived from conversations with Americans in London and the United States and only one-sixth from books.” 56 His broad purpose was to make America come alive for his readers; words could not always be trusted: “ [T]he United States and their people . . . make on the visitor an impression so strong, so deep, so fascinating, so interwoven with a hundred threads of imagination and emotion, that he cannot hope to reproduce it in words, and to pass it on undiluted to their minds.” 57 While it might be, strictly speaking, impossible to capture such feelings, Bryce was determined to come as close as possible. Through his sprawling collection of hard facts and figures joined with colorful anecdotal recollections, he sought to convey to his readers the basic belief to which he would always cling: “America excites an admiration which must be felt upon the spot to be understood.” It was this emotion, this excitement that Bryce wanted to transport to the common rooms of Oxford, the ministerial cubicles of Whitehall, and the drawing rooms of Mayfair. The immediate success of The American Commonwealth suggests that he did just that.

Bryce’s study was greeted with high praise, both in England and the United States. Woodrow Wilson in the Political Science Quarterly hailed it as “a great work . . . a noble work.” 58 Lord Acton in the English Historical Review (which Bryce had helped to found) thought that Bryce’s “three stout volumes” were indeed “a far deeper study of real life” than Tocqueville had achieved.59 It was, Acton wrote to Bryce, “resolutely actual” in its account of America.60 Gladstone viewed it as nothing less than “an event in the history of the United States.” 61

For all the praise The American Commonwealth enjoyed, there were criticisms. Both Acton and Wilson, for instance, complained that the book was oddly ahistorical. Acton voiced his regret that Bryce had chosen “to address the unhistoric mind,” while Wilson concluded that the primary weakness of the work—its failure to move beyond facts toward any “guiding principles of government” —was the result of Bryce’s “sparing use of history.” 62 Other critics were harsher. The seemingly ever-curmudgeonly Spectator scoffed that “human nature revolts at two thousand large-octavo pages about anything, even though it be the American republic.” 63 There were other problems that, once alerted to the concerns of his critics, Bryce endeavored to correct in later editions, including his treatment of blacks, the American South, immigration, and foreign policy. He also turned to new developments (in the third edition, the most complete revision), such as tendencies in current legislation and the increasing importance of universities in American life.

The greatest weakness of The American Commonwealth, however, turned out to be a feature that its author reckoned was its greatest strength. Bryce’s determination to get his facts straight and present them clearly rendered the book more time-bound than he may have imagined when he undertook the project; as a concrete account of America, it had no shelf life.64 The facts and figures which he had so carefully gathered quickly faded into inaccuracy and irrelevance. It was simply impossible to keep up. Moreover, Bryce “resolutely declined” to undertake a complete revision of the work. While new editions appeared in 1889, 1893, and 1910 (and additional revisions in 1913, 1914, and 1920), The American Commonwealth was doomed to be seen primarily as a tract for its time.65 All or most of the revisions were at best marginal, seeking merely to keep the book up-to-date with statistical changes and new laws and major policies. Bryce never reconsidered the fundamental assumptions which underlay the work as a whole. The result was that the gulf widened between its facts and its teachings about democracy in America.66 This led Harold Laski to indict Bryce for his “insatiable appetite for facts and his grotesque inability to weigh them.” 67 This was the result, as Woodrow Wilson had pointed out, of Bryce having taken as his task “rather exposition than judgment.” 68 By 1920, the scholarly consensus among Bryce’s friends was that The American Commonwealth was “altogether out of focus.” Rather than revise it, it was thought best to leave it “undisturbed,” an artifact of a bygone era. All that remained of value, Charles Beard concluded, were its “philosophic views.” 69

It is when Bryce moves away from the details of government to his reflections on American society that the lasting virtues of The American Commonwealth shine most clearly, unobscured by the mists of time. Even though many of his more abstract observations are rooted in the concrete circumstances of the world around him—in such chapters as “Why the Best Men Do Not Go Into Politics,” “Corruption,” and “Laissez Faire” —Bryce cuts through the particular facts of his day to expose something more timeless about the nature of the American people. Surely there has never been a more perennial subject in American politics than the one Bryce described simply as “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents.” Beneath the structures of government, behind the mechanics of checks and balances and federalism, Bryce captured essential truths about what the American Founders frequently called the genius of the American people.

But that is not all. There is yet greater depth to Bryce’s study than simply the permanent characteristics of democracy in America. Not unlike Tocqueville, Bryce also drew out the lessons of democracy for the modern age on whose threshold he stood. His reflections on such problems as “The Fatalism of the Multitude” and “The Influence of Religion” reveal his deepest teachings to be much closer to Tocqueville than he would have cared to admit. But the reason is clear: America herself refuses to be reduced to the sterile formalism of value-free discourse; scientific explanation cannot capture the political whole that lies beyond the sum of the institutional parts. If America is not an ideal democracy, it is at least one that has always aspired to idealism. From the very beginning, it has been a nation that demands moral reflection to be truly understood. Ultimately, Bryce, like Tocqueville, did indeed see more in America than America herself; he, too, saw democracy writ large, in spite of himself, he, too, understood there were surely lessons to be drawn for the benefit of the world, both in his day and in the unforeseeable future. In the end, his most abiding teachings, those still-relevant “philosophic views,” echo Tocqueville’s warnings about the problems and the prospects of the democratic age. “The more democratic republics become,” Bryce wrote, “the more the masses grow conscious of their own power, the more do they need to live, not only by patriotism, but by reverence and self-control, and the more essential to their well being are those sources whence reverence and self-control flow.” 70


The American Commonwealth was not the totality of James Bryce’s life. He published ten other books and dozens of articles and reviews, and contributed numerous chapters to edited volumes on topics that ranged from the Ottoman Empire to the League of Nations. All the while he continued to travel the world and maintain a vigorous correspondence with the great and the good of his day.

Although he relinquished his chair of law at Oxford in 1893, Bryce’s political career continued unabated. In 1885 he stood again for Parliament, this time to represent South Aberdeen; he went on to represent that constituency for twenty-one uninterrupted years, standing down only when he became the British ambassador to the United States in 1906. He held that post until 1913. Upon his retirement from Washington, James Bryce became Viscount Bryce of Dechmont and entered the House of Lords, where he remained an active participant in the great debates of the day.

Of all Lord Bryce’s public accomplishments, none was perhaps as important as his service as ambassador to the nation he so loved. During his seven diplomatic years, Bryce built upon his great reputation and his legions of friends to pull the United States and the United Kingdom ever closer together.71 He never faltered in his belief that the Americans were, at heart and in their history, Englishmen. As such, the two nations had a natural attachment that set them apart from the rest of the world. The unity of their interests went beyond the expediency of the moment; they were linked at the deepest, most moral level of politics. They shared too much in common—law, literature, and religion—to be too long separated by the wedge of disagreement. By both his pen and his politics, James Bryce shored up the foundation of the “special relationship” between Britain and America that would see them through the calamitous twentieth century as the bastions of freedom.

James Bryce died quietly and unexpectedly in his sleep on January 22, 1922, in Sidmouth, Devon, where he and Marion, his wife of thirty-three years, had gone for a holiday. He was mourned in both London and Washington as a man unsurpassed in his devotion to democracy and liberty, ever guided by “the deep moral purpose which directed every thought and action of his life.” 72 He was buried next to his parents in the Grange Cemetery in Edinburgh. On October 12, 1922, a bronze bust of James Bryce was placed in the Capitol of the United States with an inscription that no doubt would have pleased him: “James, Viscount Bryce, Friend and Ambassador to the American People and Interpreter of their Institutions.”

  • Institute of United States Studies
  • University of London

[1]James Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:4.

[2]H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce: Viscount Bryce of Dechmont, O.M., 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1927), I:234–35. In addition to Fisher’s biographical narrative, this work contains a selection of letters to and from Bryce.

Two excellent critical accounts of Bryce are Edmund Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870–1922 (London: Macmillan, 1968), and Hugh Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth”: The Anglo-American Background (London: Royal Historical Society, 1988).

[3]By way of comparison, in 1992 the population of the United States had reached 255,082,000; New York, 18,119,000; California had far outstripped the Empire State, reaching 30,867,000. Nevada had exploded to 1,327,000.

[4]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:1.

[5]Fisher, James Bryce, I:22; 25.

[6]Ibid., 42; 40; 43; 38.

[7]Ibid., 55; 58; 59.

[8]Ibid., 63.


[10]Ibid., 65.

[11]Ibid., 130.

[12]Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 125.

[13]Fisher, James Bryce, I:137.

[14]For a superb bibliography of works by and about Bryce, see Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 244–65.

[15]Fisher, James Bryce, I:173–74.

[16]Ibid., 176.

[17]Ibid., 178.

[18]Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 90.

[19]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:4.

[20]Bryce’s judgment about Democracy in America is “far more important for what it discloses about Bryce and his time than for what it says about Tocqueville. It enunciated two basic points about The American Commonwealth and its author. Bryce’s model of social science prescribed his method. His Anglo-American outlook prescribed his substance. Each was of course a function of the other. Together . . . they gave Bryce the grounds for his case against Tocqueville.” Abraham S. Eisenstadt, “Bryce’s America and Tocqueville’s,” in Abraham S. Eisenstadt, ed., Reconsidering Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1988), 269.

[21]Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, J. P. Mayer and Max Lerner, eds., trans. George Lawrence (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 12. For a thorough treatment of Bryce’s reaction to Tocqueville, see Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 62–70.

[22]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, II:1426.

[23]“In emphasizing the particularity and distinctiveness of the United States he not only provided a more authentic picture of America, but also suggested that ‘democratic’ evils were neither inevitable nor ineradicable; specific American evils could be remedied by applying specifically American antidotes.” Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 63–64.

[24]For a detailed account of the seminar, see Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 118.

[25]Ibid., 118–19.

[26]The article is in Volume II of this Liberty Fund edition, pp. 1530–70.

[27]Ibid., 1531; 1543; 1543.

[28]Ibid., 1544; 1544.

[29]Ibid., 1544; 1546; 1546. Bryce went so far as to refer to the Americans as “the English of America.” The American Commonwealth, I:317.

[30]Bryce, “The Predictions of Hamilton and de Tocqueville,” Volume II of this edition, 1547; 1543; 1547; 1548.

[31]As quoted in Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 121.

[32]Ibid., 447; 447; 447.

[33]James Bryce, Modern Democracies, 2 vols. (London: Macmillan, 1921), I:viii.

[34]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:3–4.

[35]Ibid., II:992.


[37]Ibid., 1423; 1424; 1425.

[38]Ibid., 1428; 1429; 1427.

[39]Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 6.

[40]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, II:1274.

[41]Ibid., 1273–74.

[42]Bryce, Modern Democracies, II:16.

[43]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:2.

[44]“Bryce . . . no less than his reader, moved in a political atmosphere obsessed with the Irish Question, and . . . the example of the United States held peculiar relevance to this debate.” Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 78–79.

[45]Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 126–28; Bryce, The American Commonwealth, I:1.

[46]Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 90.

[47]As quoted in Francis W. Coker, “How Bryce Gathered His Materials and What Contemporary Reviewers Thought of the Work,” in Robert C. Brooks, ed., Bryce’s “American Commonwealth”: Fiftieth Anniversary (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939), 167.

[48]For biographical sketches of those who assisted Bryce, see Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 234–42.

[49]Ibid., 136. The Goodnow chapter was dropped from the second edition because one of the Tweed Ring, Oakey Hall, had sued for libel. See pp. 91–94.

[50]As quoted in Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 58.

[51]A superb account of Bryce’s trips and meetings is to be found in Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 39–132.

[52]As quoted in Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 71.

[53]Coker, “How Bryce Gathered His Materials and What Contemporary Reviewers Thought of the Work,” 157–58.

[54]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, II:683.

[55]Ibid., 683–84.

[56]Fisher, James Bryce, I:238.

[57]Ibid., 10.

[58]See pp. 1571 and 1584 in Volume II of this edition.

[59]Ibid., 1587 and 1586.

[60]As quoted in Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 6.

[61]As quoted in Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 79.

[62]Volume II of this edition, pp. 1587; 1579.

[63]As quoted in Coker, “How Bryce Gathered His Materials and What Contemporary Reviewers Thought of the Work,” 162.

[64]At one level, however, it seems Bryce appreciated the futility of any factual profile of America from the moment he set pen to paper: “America changes so fast that every few years a new crop of books is needed to describe the new face which things have put on, the new problems that have appeared, the new ideas germinating among her people, the new and unexpected developments for evil as well as for good of which her established institutions have been found capable.” The American Commonwealth, I:2.

[65]Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 189–90.

[66]“Things change very fast in America and a picture which was true in 1888 was no longer a likeness twenty-five years later, so that the more verisimilar the original portrait the more injury it was likely to suffer from the superimposition of certain features of a likeness taken at a later date.” Fisher, James Bryce, I:239.

[67]As quoted in Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 190.

[68]Volume II of this edition, p. 1572.

[69]As quoted in Tulloch, James Bryce’s “American Commonwealth,” 194.

[70]Bryce, The American Commonwealth, II:1398.

[71]Bryce spoke throughout the country during his tenure as Ambassador to the United States. See James Bryce, University and Historical Addresses (London: Macmillan, 1913).

[72]As quoted in Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 293.

Last modified April 10, 2014