(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

James Bryce served in several capacities that qualified and trained him to write on American political and social institutions. A professor of history at Oxford and a member of Parliament, he also served in numerous political posts and was ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913. His monumental work The American Commonwealth grew out of five visits to the United States and extensive reading about the country.

The book is a shrewd analytical study of the American scene designed for a European audience and obviously written by a man who was prejudiced in favor of America. In Bryce’s opinion, regardless of the many flaws and weaknesses (especially on the local and state levels) in the American political system and institutions, the sum total of American hopes and aspirations created a system of rule that was the best to date, one that offered hope to the world.

The American Commonwealth is divided into six parts. The first concerns the national government, the Constitution, the presidency, the two houses of Congress, the federal courts, the federal system of government, and the relations of the federal government with the state governments. Bryce emphasizes the organic growth of the American political system. He believes that the happy combination of events and thinking that resulted in the system, and especially in the Constitution, stemmed from the fact that the predominant race in America in the eighteenth century was Anglo-American. This race was directly responsible for the Constitution, which, though by no means a perfect instrument, merits the veneration that Americans generally bestow on it. Bryce believed that the greatness of the Constitution derives from the fact that there is nothing new about it, that like all good political documents and all things that deserve to win and hold the obedience and respect of citizens, it has its roots deeply planted in the past and grew slowly through changing periods of history. The men who drew up the Constitution were practical politicians who wanted to walk the paths trod by former successful governments. The path was made easy and its progress assured by the fact that in America during those days there were no reactionary conspirators threatening the nation. The most remarkable feature of the American governmental system, Bryce believes, is the preeminence of the Constitution and the fact that the Constitution can be altered only by the people.

The creation of a president to head the American government was fortuitous. In outlining his role and power, the Framers of the Constitution, fearing the monarchical system and a strong centralized government, nevertheless modified existing offices of leaders; that is, they created the office as one that enlarged the role of the state governor, whose office resembles that of the British king but on a smaller and improved scale. There are many disadvantages to this office and the method of electing its holder, but in practice the responsibility of the position and the...

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Ions, Edmund S. James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870-1922. New York: Humanities Press, 1970. A British scholar uses Bryce’s personal papers to trace his interaction with the United States. Contains much useful information about the writing and impact of The American Commonwealth and Bryce’s subsequent career as ambassador between 1907 and 1913.

Keller, Morton. Affairs of State: Public Life in Late Nineteenth Century America. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977. A late twentieth century historian looks at the period that Bryce’s book examined. Useful for a comparative perspective on what Bryce wrote.

_______. “James Bryce and America.” Wilson Quarterly 12 (Autumn, 1988): 86-95. Keller considers Bryce’s work a century after it was written and finds it “a vivid, affectionate, informed portrait” of the United States and its government during the 1880’s. One of the best short analyses of Bryce’s contribution to the study of American culture.

Seaman, John T., Jr. A Citizen of the World: The Life of James Bryce. London: Tauris Academic Studies, 2006. Chapter 6 of Seaman’s biography is devoted to a discussion of The American Commonwealth.

Shaughnessy, D. F. “Anatomy of the Republic: On Bryce’s Americans.” Encounter 73 (July-August, 1989): 31-37. An interesting analysis of Bryce’s view of the United States and the accuracy of his assessments. Shaughnessy argues that Bryce’s judgments held up very well and that his comments about American political institutions retain contemporary relevance.