A Masterpiece of Political Thought: Bryce’s The American Commonwealth
by Mark Malvasi
The best that E. L. Godkin, the editor of the liberal journal The Nation, could say about United States congressmen in 1874 was that “we underrate their honesty, but we overrate their intelligence.” Henry Adams, another patrician critic of late nineteenth-century American politics, remarked that to disprove Darwin’s theory of evolution one need only study the history of the presidency from George Washington to Ulysses S. Grant.
American politics during the last three decades of the nineteenth century invited such rebukes. In The American Commonwealth, the most encyclopedic and discerning critique of American political life in this tumultuous era, James Bryce unquestionably concurred with the judgments of Godkin, Adams, and others. Bryce, however, was no congenital pessimist, nor was he like the host of nineteenth-century English visitors to the United States who found little to admire about American customs, institutions, or citizens. On the contrary, Bryce remained optimistic about the future of the United States and identified numerous aspects of American government and society worthy of attention and respect. His encouraging assessment notwithstanding, Bryce also addressed fundamental problems that, if unsolved, would temper his hopeful predictions.
In Bryce’s view, American politics at the end of the nineteenth century was dominated not by virtuous statesmen but by venal politicians who conspired to feast at the great barbecue of government subsidies. Republicans and Democrats alike regularly bought votes and saw to it that their partisans cast more than one ballot in critical municipal, state, and national elections. In the absence of a professional civil service required to administer federal programs, public policy became synonymous with the pursuit of private gain. Access to the spoils of victory quickly replaced any lingering intention to govern while in office. Electoral triumph apparently provided its own rewards.
The period that Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner labeled the “Gilded Age” signaled for Bryce an epoch in American history when the old was dying and the new was struggling to be born. In the past lay an isolated republic of farms and villages, with a traditional emphasis on hard work, self-sacrifice, the patriarchal family, and strict Protestant morality. The population was predominantly English, Scotch-Irish, and northern European in origin. In the future was an imperial nation of cities and factories, with a cosmopolitan population drawn from every corner of the earth.
The vast social, political, economic, and cultural changes that the United States experienced during the Gilded Age strained traditional social arrangements as well as established political institutions. Bryce understood that economic growth and social innovation brought both progress and disorder. In their quest for stability and security, Americans increasingly turned to government. Government on every level, however, was ill-equipped to deal with the new challenges that confronted the nation. Consequently, party politicians, according to Bryce, responded with passivity or confusion.
In his estimation, most political leaders were mediocrities. The issues that preoccupied the major parties were either tangential or irrelevant to the problems at hand. Both Democrats and Republicans avoided taking positions on the great questions of the day: the rise of corporate monopolies, the conflicts between capital and labor, the decline of the agricultural economy, and the defects of a financial system that produced a major economic crisis approximately every twenty years. “Neither party,” Bryce insisted, “has anything definite to say on these issues”:
…neither party has any clean-cut principles, any distinctive tenets. Both have traditions. Both claim to have tendencies. Both have certainly war cries, organizations, interests enlisted in their support. But those interests are in the main the interests of getting or keeping the patronage of government. Distinctive tenets and policies, points of political doctrine and points of political practice, have all but vanished…. All has been lost, except office or the hope of it.
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