In Democracy in America (1835) the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville interpreted American society through the lens of democratic political theory. A half-century later the Scotsman James Bryce examined "the institutions and the people of America as they are." Bryce presented his findings in The American Commonwealth, first published in London in three volumes in 1888. This Liberty Fund two-volume edition is based on the updated third edition of 1941, which encompassed all the changes, corrections, and additions that Bryce entered into the previous editions. Its expanded appendix includes Bryce's 1887 essay, "The Predictions of Hamilton and De Tocqueville," and contemporaneous (1889) reviews of The American Commonwealth by Woodrow Wilson and Lord Acton.
The great merit of Bryce's work is that it is based on close observation of the actual operation of American political institutions, including political parties and municipal and state governments. Consequently, Bryce provides what Professor Gary McDowell describes as "a grand atlas of American politics and society."
Indeed, Bryce was able to discern enduring characteristics of American society and politics. Therefore, as Robert Nisbet has written, "we still go to Bryce for piquant and cogent answers to the questions of why great men are not chosen presidents and why the best men do not go into politics in America."
"The Nation and the States
Some years ago the American Protestant Episcopal Church was occupied at its triennial convention in revising its liturgy. It was thought desirable to introduce among the short sentence prayers a prayer for the whole people; and an eminent New England divine proposed the words “O Lord, bless our nation.” Accepted one afternoon on the spur of the moment, the sentence was brought up next day for reconsideration, when so many objections were raised by the laity to the word “nation,” as importing too definite a recognition of national unity, that it was dropped, and instead there were adopted the words “O Lord, bless these United States.”
To Europeans who are struck by the patriotism and demonstrative national pride of their transatlantic visitors, this fear of admitting that the American people constitute a nation seems extraordinary. But it is only the expression on its sentimental side of the most striking and pervading characteristic of the political system of the country, the existence of a double government, a double allegiance, a double patriotism. America—I call it America (leaving out of sight South America, Canada, and Mexico), in order to avoid using at this stage the term United States—America is a commonwealth of commonwealths, a republic of republics, a state which, while one, is nevertheless composed of other states even more essential to its existence than it is to theirs.
This is a point of so much consequence, and so apt to be misapprehended by Europeans, that a few sentences may be given to it."
James Bryce, 1st Viscount Bryce (1838 – 1922) was a British academic, jurist, historian and Liberal politician.
Bryce was an ardent Liberal in politics, and in 1880 he was elected to parliament for the Tower Hamlets constituency in London. In 1885 he was returned for South Aberdeen, where he was re-elected on succeeding occasions and remained a Member of Parliament until 1907.
In 1885 he was made Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs under William Ewart Gladstone, but he had to leave office after the electoral defeat the same year. In 1892 he joined Gladstone's last cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and was sworn of the Privy Council at the same time. In 1894 he was appointed President of the Board of Trade in the new cabinet of Lord Rosebery.
In 1897, after a visit to South Africa, Bryce published a volume of Impressions of that country, which had considerable weight in Liberal circles when the Second Boer War was being discussed. He was one of the harshest critics of British repressive policy against Boer civilians in the South African partisan War. Taking the risk of being very unpopular for a certain moment, he condemned the systematic burning of farms and the imprisonment of old people, women and children in British concentration camps. Bryce was made Chief Secretary for Ireland in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet in 1905.
However, even this time Bryce's cabinet post was held only for a brief period, because as soon as February 1907 he was appointed British Ambassador to the United States of America. He kept this diplomatic office until 1913 and was very efficient in strengthening the Anglo-American friendship. Bryce made many personal friends in American politics, amongst them US President Theodore Roosevelt. The German ambassador in Washington, Graf Heinrich von Bernstorff, later admitted how relieved he felt that Bryce was not his competitor for American sympathies during the World War period, when Bernstorff managed to secure the neutrality of the USA at least until 1917.
After his retirement as ambassador and his return to Great Britain he was raised to the peerage as Viscount Bryce, of Dechmount in the County of Lanark, in 1914. Thus he became a member of the House of Lords - that contested parliamentary body his own Liberal Party had bitterly fought the previous years, the powers of which had been curtailed in the Liberal Parliamentary Reform of 1911. Following the outbreak of the First World War, Lord Bryce was commissioned by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith to give the official Bryce Report on alleged German atrocities in Belgium. The report was published in 1915, and was damning of German behaviour against civilians; Lord Bryce's accounts were confirmed by Vernon Lyman Kellogg, director of the American Commission for Relief in Belgium, who told the New York Times that the German military enslaved hundreds of thousands of Belgian workers, and abused and maimed many of them in the process.
Bryce also strongly condemned the Armenian Genocide that took place in the Ottoman Empire mainly in the year 1915. Bryce was the first to speak on that subject in The House of Lords, in July 1915, and later - with the assistance of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee - he produced a documentary record of the massacres, published by the British government in 1916 as the Blue Book. In 1921, Lord Bryce wrote that the Armenian genocide had also claimed half of the population of Assyrians in the Ottoman Empire, because "similar cruelties" were perpetrated upon them.
During the last years of his life, Bryce served at the International Court at The Hague, supported the establishment of the League of Nations, and published a book about Modern Democracy in 1921 with quite critical remarks about post-war mass democracy; e.g. he strongly opposed the new right to vote for women.
Bryce received numerous academic honors from home and foreign universities. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1894. His Studies in History and Jurisprudence (1901) and Studies in Contemporary Biography (1903) were republications of essays. In earlier life he was a notable mountain climber, ascending Mount Ararat in 1876, and publishing a volume on Transcaucasia and Ararat in 1877; in 1899–1901 he was president of the Alpine Club. From his Caucasian journey he brought back a deep distrust of Ottoman rule in Asia Minor and a distinct sympathy for the Armenian people. In 1907 he was made a Member of the Order of Merit by King Edward VII. He was also President of the British Academy from 1913 to 1917.