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The American Commonwealth
By James Bryce in three volumes (1888)

Book Review taken from the Edinburgh Review of 1889

Mr. Bryce's three elaborate volumes on the political institutions of the United States will be read with attention and eagerness by all who take an interest in politics, and more especially by those who are in the habit of regarding the political institutions of America as in every way superior to our own, and of admiring them as combining in themselves the best forms of popular government, and as reflecting on the whole the nearest approach to ideal perfection. An attentive perusal of Mr. Bryce’s pages may probably tend to diminish this admiration, while with those who are somewhat sceptical as to the perfection of the American Constitution, it may have the effect of confirming their suspicions and of strengthening their belief that however admirably the institutions of America may be adapted to the requirements of the American people, those under which we live on this side of the Atlantic, are more elastic and in some respects superior. Mr. Bryce is not only an enlightened, he is also a very candid critic, and has answered the question Americans so persistently put to strangers with an elaborate frankness which, though perhaps at times a little galling, they can scarcely fail to admire. Of course the book which Mr. Bryce’s will most readily suggest to an English reader is M. de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, but the two works are conceived on quite different lines. Mr. Bryce’s object, as he tells us, has been less to discuss the merits of democracy than to paint the institutions and people of America as they are, and to trace what is peculiar in them not merely to the sovereignty of the masses, but also to the history and traditions of the race, to its fundamental ideas, and to its material environment. The European work of which the three volumes remind us most, is Von Hoist’s Constitutional Law of the United States, though as compared with this they are much fuller, more critical, more popular, and less legal. Taking the American Commonwealth as it is, Mr. Bryce proceeds to describe its framework and constitutional machinery, the methods by which it is worked and the forces which move it and direct its course, and divides his work into six parts. The first contains an account of the several Federal authorities, the President, Congress, and the Courts of Law, describes the relations of the National or central power to the several States, and discusses the nature of the Constitution as a fundamental supreme law, showing how in a few points it has been expressly, and in many others tacitly and half unconsciously modified. The second deals in a similar way with the State Governments and gives some account of the systems of rural and city governments which have been created in the various States, and which form, to say the least, an extremely interesting subject of study. The Third deals with the political parties, and sketches the organizations which have been instituted for winning elections and securing office. The object of the Fourth Part is to sketch the leading political ideas, habits and tendencies of the people and to show how they express themselves in action. Part V. contains a number of illustrations, drawn from recent American history, of the working of the political institutions and public opinion, together with a number of very pregnant reflections on the merits and demerits of American democracy. The Sixth and last Part is devoted to the Social Institutions of the United States and deals with many topics of great interest, such, for instance, as the Bar and Bench, the Universities, the Churches, the Clergy, the influence of Religion, the position of women, the influence of democracy on thought, the relation of the United States to Europe, American oratory, the pleasantness and uniformity of American life. But to indicate all the topics of interest on which Mr. Bryce dwells is here impossible. There is not a chapter in the whole of his three bulky volumes which is not instructive. Description and criticism occur in almost every chapter and several are devoted wholly to the latter. There are three chapters in the last volume which will be read with special attention, but more particularly the last of them which discusses the question—How far American experience is available for Europe. From this it will be seen that Mr. Bryce’s admiration of the American institutions is very qualified, and that even the Americans, proud of their institutions as they are, are alive to the fact that they have still some things to learn from the older countries, and that their own experiments are not in every respect to be imitated. Of the literary ability which the volumes exhibit it is needless to speak. In this country, at least, Mr. Bryce’s work is without a rival, and its excellence will make it a standard work on the subject wherever the English language is spoken or understood.


As the introductory chapter of this work contains such explanations as seem needed of its scope and plan, the Author has little to do in this place except express his thanks to the numerous friends who have helped him with facts, opinions, and criticisms, or by the gift of books or pamphlets. Among these he is especially indebted to the Hon. Thomas M. Cooley, now Chairman of the Inter-State Commerce Commission in Washington; Mr. James B. Thayer of the Harvard Law School, Cambridge, Mass.; Hon. Seth Low, formerly Mayor of Brooklyn ; Mr. Theodore Roosevelt of New York; Mr. G. Bradford of Cambridge, Mass.; and Mr. Theodore Bacon of Rochester, N.Y.; by one or other of whom the greater part of the proofs of these volumes have been read. He has also received valuable aid from Mr. Justice Holmes of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts; Mr. Theodore Dwight, late Librarian of the State Department at Washington; Mr. H. Villard of New York; Dr. Albert Shaw of Minneapolis; Mr. Jesse Macy of Grinnell, la.; Mr. Simeon Baldwin and Dr. George P. Fisher of New- haven, Conn.; Mr. Henry C. Lea of Philadelphia; Col. T. W. Higginson of Cambridge, Mass.; Mr. Bernard Moses of Berkeley, Cal.; Mr. A. B. Houghton of CornČ ing, N.Y. ; Mr. John Hay of Washington ; Mr. Henry Hitchcock of St. Louis, Mo.; President James B. Angell of Ann Arbor, Mich. ; Hon. Andrew D. White of SyraČ cuse, N.Y.; Mr. Frank J. Goodnow of New York; Hr. Atherton of the State College, Pennsylvania; and the U. S. Bureau of Education. No one of these gentlemen is, however, responsible for any of the facts stated or views expressed in the book.

The Author is further indebted to Mr. Low and Mr. Goodnow for two chapters which they have written, and which contain, as he believes, matter of much interest relating to municipal government and politics.

He gladly takes this opportunity of thanking for their aid and counsel four English friends : Mr. Henry Sidgwick, who has read most of the proofs with great care and made valuable suggestions upon them; the Eev. Stopford A. Brooke, whose literary criticisms have been very helpful; Mr. Albert V. Dicey, and Mr. W. Robertson Smith.

He is aware that, notwithstanding the assistance rendered by friends in America, he must have fallen into not a few errors, and without asking to be excused for these, he desires to plead in extenuation that the book has been written under the constant pressure of public duties as well as of other private work, and that the difficulty of obtaining in Europe correct information regarding the constitutions and laws of American States and the rules of party organizations is very great.

When the book was begun, it was intended to conČ tain a study of the more salient social and intellectual phenomena of contemporary America, together with descriptions of the scenery and the aspects of nature and human nature in the West, all of whose States and Territories the Author has visited. But as the work advanced, he found that to carry out this plan it would be necessary either unduly to curtail the account of the government and politics of the United States, or else to extend the book to a still greater length than that which, much to his regret, it has now reached. He therefore reluctantly abandoned the hope of describing in these volumes the scenery and life of the West. As regards the non-political topics which were to have been dealt with, he has selected for discussion in the concluding chapters those of them which either were comparatively unfamiliar to European readers, or seemed specially calculated to throw light on the political life of the country, and to complete the picture which he has sought to draw of the American Commonwealth as a whole.

October 22, 1888.

Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3

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