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The American Commonwealth
By James Bryce


Historical students everywhere were saddened at the opening of the present year (January 22) by the announcement of the death of James Bryce—Viscount Bryce, to speak more accurately—but he will always be remembered affectionately in America as James Bryce. Bryce like so many of the familiar British type was a manysided public man but he will be most widely known in America perhaps because of his studies in history and government. Son of a school teacher, born in Ireland, educated in Scotland and England, he began life as a lawyer and was then called back to Oxford as Regius professor of civil law. At the age of 26 he made a name for himself by his prize composition, The Holy Roman Empire, which is still the standard work in its field. His great work The American Commonwealth (1888, revised 1910) was the first serious study of the American government from the standpoint of the historian and constitutional lawyer. It became a classic at once and was very widely used as a text book in colleges and universities. Serious scientific study of our government may be said to begin with Bryce. His Studies in History and Jurisprudence appeared in 1901, followed two years later by Studies in Contemporary Biography. In 1897 following a visit to South Africa he published a volume of Impressions that had a large influence in Liberal circles when the Boer War was being discussed. A similarly illuminating volume on South America recorded his observations there. Perhaps his crowning work was Modern Democracies which was produced at the age of eighty-three . As late as August 1921 Bryce delivered eight lectures before the Institute of Politics at Williams College on International Relations, and in the same year as first occupant of the Chair of American History, Literature and Institutions founded by the Anglo-American Society rendered a brilliant interpretation on The Study of American History.

The versatility of the man is evidenced by activities in other lines. In early life he became an expert alpinist, and published a scientific volume on The Flora of the Island of Arran. In 1880, Bryce was elected to Parliament as a Liberal, later he became in rapid succession, under secretary for foreign affairs, chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, president of the Board of Trade, chairman of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education, chief secretary for Ireland, and finally British Ambassador at Washington.

As Ambassador Bryce took leave of party politics and his work in this capacity entitled him to be regarded as one of the real builders of a better civilization. “If every nation could send to every other nation an ambassador who understood and loved both his home country and the country to which he was accredited as James Bryce knew and loved Great Britain and the United States, nothing could be more difficult than to start a war * * * With Bryce there could be neither patronizing nor obsequiousness; any class melted away in the sun of his geniality, his humor, his common sense, and his abiding friendliness.”

As Americans we owe him an additional measure of gratitude for his pioneer work in the study of our institutions. Every thoughtful student should read his American Commonwealth and hold in grateful remembrance its author’s name—James Bryce, scholar, historian, statesman.

The Right Hon. James Bryce, O.M.

AN article upon Bryce is a large order indeed. Tho1 small in stature he knows so much, has done so much, and is still doing. At present he is going round the world and undoubtedly is “ taking notes, and, faith, he’ll prent them ”.

He spent the year before last making a tour thru 1 the Southern American Republics, and the result is a book cramed full of knowledge; little or

nothing is passed over. One of the many needed lessons he demonstrates is that the Monroe Doctrine has done its work. This was not news to some of us. The 60,000,000 of our southern nabors are quite assured that no European Power is so bold as to attempt the acquisition of territory in that domain. Upon another point they are equally confident—if any did, it would be a failure. They are quite able to defend themselves and would unite in driving out the invader. The attempt of Napoleon some years ago which ended in a gentle intimation that Mexico was a good place for the French to migrate from was sufficient. The Americans should take due notice of the fact that our southern brethren, especially of the leading nations, are quite able to expel intruders.

Mr. Bryce has added one branch of knowledge to another all his days. He is master of agriculture, botany, horticulture and other branches, even the tiniest flower that grows. Walking thru the woods, or over the heather, or in gardens, he rarely fails to discover something new or unexpected. Once at Skibo he heard of the Linncza borealis having been seen some miles from us and never rested until he found it, but find it he did.

His greatest work so far—I don’t vouch for the future—is by common consent “The American Commonwealth,” which he revised recently. It is a standard, I may say the standard, book and is destined to last. Much good has it done by spreading a true knowledge of ourselves, from which both native and foreigner may derive advantage. We hear of his intention to favor the world with another book, but this so far is only hearsay. It will be looked for with deep and widespread interest.

His reputation, as a statesman is founded upon many years of public service in his native land. I may mention that he is Scotch, a point not to be overlooked in studying him, but beyond all his many qualifications his fame as an ambassador to our country in recent years has broadened him into the international citizen, who is a bond of union uniting the two branches of the English-speaking race as no living man ever has done or is likely ever to do.

Were the mother and child land ever to have a serious difference, seemingly insoluble, it would not be surprising if the intelligent citizens of both countries were to look to Bryce for advice, confident that he was an international statesman, the admirer and lover of both branches of our race, devoted to both, and above all such is his high character that all men would feel that nothing but riteous judgment would be conscientiously given, in the form of friendly counsel. The intelligent, conscientious citizen on both sides of the Atlantic would inevitably accept Bryce’s counsel as sincere—fortunately it is not within the bounds of probability that there ever will be a serious quarrel between the two nations in which Shakespeare’s tongue is spoken there, And songs of Burns are in the air.

Let us keep our eyes upon Bryce as one of the foremost men of our day and may his example stir others. So far he is a model for all of us to follow. He points the way to permanent, genuine ascendancy among his fellows, and the lesson comes to us in three words—“Beware thou character ”.


American Commonwealth
By James Bryce (1906) (pdf)

James Bryce
(Viscount Bryce of Dechmont) by H. A. L. Fisher (1927) (pdf)

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