Saturday, June 28, 2014

WW1: James Bryce, Oxonian in USA Who Was Missed

Lord Bryce (1838-1922)
June 28, 2014–This day World War I started, and eventually claimed 17 million lives.

James Bryce, 1st Viscount, was an Oxford-trained  historian and diplomat. He was a major British presence in Washington in 1907-1913, the years immediately before World War I broke out, 100 years ago today. Some think he might have delayed or contained the war if he had still be in Washington in 1914.

Born in Belfast in 1838, Bryce was educated at the University of Glasgow and at Oxford. At Trinity College, Oxford, he earned both a B.A. in 1862 and a doctorate in civil law in 1870. While at Oxford he wrote a prize essay published as a book, The Holy Roman Empire (1864). His subsequent research interests focused on the British Empire in America and South Africa, and on law and education as public equalizers in Britain.

In 1867 he was called to the bar, practiced law in London for a few years, and in 1870-1893 was Regius Professor of Civil Law at Oxford, where he founded the English Historical Review (1885) with fellow Trinitarian Lord Acton. Meanwhile, from 1880 to 1907 he was elected to Parliament as a Liberal M.P., rising in Parliament to undersecretary of state for foreign affairs (1886), chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (1892), and president of the Board of Trade (1894-95).

Bryce visited the United States and updated or debunked (depending on how you want to see it) de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. One view is that his The American Commonwealth (1888) showed that de Tocqueville's portrayal of the United States as egalitarian was no longer accurate because the United States had changed, degenerating like Europe into extreme inequality during the half-century since de Tocqueville's book was published (the era of "robber barons"). As Bryce says:
Sixty years ago, there were no great fortunes in America... Now there is a greater number of gigantic fortunes than in any other country of the world.
Another view is that the United States was never as egalitarian as de Tocqueville perceived through his rose-tinted glasses, and Bryce was not fooled. However, Bryce was impressed with the U.S. educational system, which became his own special interest during the next few years:
[U.S.] elementary schools ... raise the mass to a higher point than in Europe...[while] an increasing class ... has studied at the best universities."
He presided (1894-96) over a UK Commission on Education, called the Bryce Commission, and it recommended creating a Ministry of Education.

Bryce was made Chief Secretary for Ireland in Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman's cabinet in 1905 and was then appointed H.M. Ambassador to the United States, where he stayed for six years starting in 1907. His previous studies paid off. He was a success in Washington, strengthening the Anglo-American friendship at a crucial time. Bryce made many personal friends in American politics, among them U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. Bryce was created a peer in 1914, on his return to Britain.


In 1897, after a visit to South Africa, Bryce published a volume of Impressions of that country, critical of British repression of the Boers. In this he agreed with my great-grandfather Charles Boissevain, who also supported the underdog cause of the Boers. Bryce's views were influential with British Liberals during the Second Boer War.

Bryce was a great admirer of fellow Scotsman James Wilson, one of six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution:
The speeches of James Wilson in the Pennsylvania ratifying Convention, as well as in the great [U.S.] Convention of 1787, display an amplitude and profundity of view in matters of constitutional theory which place him in the first rank of the political thinkers of his age. 
The German Ambassador in Washington, Graf Heinrich von Bernstorff, later said how glad he was that Lord Bryce had left Washington by this day, June 28, 1914 when World War I broke out. Bernstorff's assignment was to keep the United States neutral. This he did, until the Germans sank the Lusitania in 1917.

Sources: H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce  (2 vol., 1927, reprinted 1973). E. S. Ions, James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870–1922 (1968, reprinted 1970). Encyclopedia Britannica. John Haldane, “Scots Thinkers Who Forged New Democracy from the Colonies," The Scotsman, April 10, 2008. 

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