James Bryce Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

James Bryce, jurist, historian, and politician, was the oldest son of James Bryce, a schoolmaster and geologist. The younger Bryce evidenced his liberal outlook while in Trinity College, Oxford University, by refusing to qualify for a scholarship by signing the Thirty-Nine Articles, a refusal which was described as “the triumph of liberalism in Oxford.”

After Oxford, where he stood at the head of his class, Bryce studied law at Lincoln’s Inn in 1862 and at Heidelberg the next year. In 1863, Bryce won the Arnold Prize for a historical essay on the Holy Roman Empire, an essay still prized for its clarity of style and simple treatment.

In 1865 and 1866, Bryce was an assistant commissioner on the Schools Inquiry Commission, and he urged the development of better and more comprehensive education for boys and girls. In 1868, he began to teach law at Owens College, where he continued until 1874. In 1870, he became professor of civil law at Oxford, a post that he retained until 1893. He entered Parliament in 1874 from the borough of Wick. Always a liberal, in Parliament he was named “the professor” by Joseph Chamberlain because of his logical and well-informed speeches that disconcertingly looked at both sides of an argument.

Bryce first visited the United States in 1870, a journey that was limited to the northeastern section. In 1881, he made another trip, extending his travels through the South and to the Pacific coast. He made another trip in 1883, this time all the way to Hawaii. He consulted with such notables as Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Charles W. Eliot as he prepared to write a survey of American civilization. The American Commonwealth, Bryce’s most famous book, became an instant classic. It went through several editions and revisions. The work is notable for Bryce’s comments on why great men are not elected president, the role of political parties, and the potential for reform of cities and other institutions. Bryce was a perceptive analyst who admired the American system.

After holding numerous offices in Britain, Bryce returned to Washington, D.C., as ambassador in 1907 and remained until 1913. He contributed to the growing friendship between the United States and Great Britain. After leaving Washington, he remained active in British politics during World War I. Bryce was an important force in Anglo-American affairs for three decades, and his work on the United States continues to have an intellectual impact.