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Book of the Week — The American Commonwealth

“…why in heaven’s name the haste? You have time enough. No enemy threatens you. Ages and ages lie before you. Why sacrifice the present to the future, fancying that you will be happier when your fields teem with wealth and your cities with people? In Europe we have cities wealthier and more populous than yours, and we are not happy. You dream of your posterity; but your posterity will look back to yours as the golden age, and envy those who first burst into this silent splendid Nature, who first lifted up their axes upon these tall trees and lined these waters with busy wharves. Why then complete in a few decades what the other nations of the world took thousands of years over the older continents? Why in your hurry to subdue and utilize Nature, squander her splendid gifts?” — James Bryce, “The Temper of the West” from The American Commonwealth

The American Commonwealth

James Bryce (1838-1922)
London and New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888
First edition
JK246 B9 1888

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.

Bryce, noted scholar and author of The Holy Roman Empire (a bestselling book based on a school essay), wrote about the political, social, and economic distinctions of what he called “the nation of the future.” The three volume work deals with the three branches of the United States federal government (executive, legislative, and judiciary), surveying the powers and limitations of each, and the relationship between these and the state governments; state governments in detail; political machinery and the party system, giving a history of their origins and growth; and public opinion, its nature and tendencies. Bryce continues with a discussion of the nation’s strengths and weaknesses as an example of a democratic state. “Democracy really means nothing more or less than the rule of the whole people expressing their sovereign will by their votes,” he wrote. He concludes with an overview of society and citizens – the intellectual and spiritual forces guiding generations of Americans and future generations: “…though the ascent of man may be slow it is also sure; …if we compare each age with those which preceded it we find that the ground which seems for a time to have been lost is ultimately recovered, we see human nature growing gradually more refined, institutions better fitted to secure justice, the opportunities and capacities for happiness larger and more varied, so that the error of those who formed ideals never yet attained lay only in their forgetting how much time and effort and patience under repeated disappointment must go to that attainment.”

Bryce’s writing is lucid and fluent, easy to understood by a lay reader. The American Commonwealth was much admired by its American readership. From 1907 to 1913, Bryce served as British ambassador to the United States, with great popularity.

Rare Books copy is uncut and accompanied by a letter from James Bryce to Reverend John Carvell Williams (1821-1907) declining an invitation to contribute to a work being put together by a “Committee.” The letter is dated Oxford, Dec. 17th, but no year indicated. Williams became the editor of The Liberator, a journal promoting Liberal Party politics in 1855 right after its launch. As editor he signed his name “J. Carvell Williams” the signature used on this letter. It is unclear what “Committee” is being referred to.

Rare Books copy is a gift from Dr. Ronald Rubin.

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