The Wilson Quarterly

Second only to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America as a statement of what makes America American, James Bryce’s masterpiece, The American Commonwealth, made its debut in 1888. It has been regularly republished — if not necessarily read — ever since. Between 1910 and 1917 alone, it was reprinted nine times. Almost a century later, electronic editions are freely available online.

What makes a classic a classic? Over the course of two volumes and 123 chapters, the author surveys virtually everything Americans do in public, with a particular soft spot for buttons — feminism, higher education, immigration, race relations — that remain as hot now as they were in his own time. Chapter 108 addresses American oratory. “The House of Representatives has at no period of its history shone with lights of eloquence,” the author notes. Chapter 119 addresses the pleasantness of American life. “It is impossible not to be infected by the buoyancy and hopefulness of the people,” the author reports. Those were the days.

But chapter eight, “Why Great Men Are Not Chosen Presidents,” has consistently stood out in the crowd. Its title alone — a statement, not a question — has been catnip for commentators ever since Benjamin Harrison (who was never accused of being a great man) beat Grover Cleveland in the Electoral College. This side of “Cruelty and Clemency, Whether it is better to be feared than loved, or vice versa,” chapter 17 of Machiavelli’s The Prince, it is hard to think of another to match it. Even without the chapter title, the section has earned a place of honor as an uncommonly qualified observer’s answer to an unstated but perennially interesting question of American governance.

Half favorite uncle, half interested visitor to the zoo, Bryce’s measured tone is reason enough to read The American Commonwealth. Like the rest of us, he missed a few. “I need not say that I am and always have been opposed to the Women’s Suffrage,” Bryce told a friend, the historian Goldwin Smith, in the high summer of the movement. In fact, Bryce was a firm supporter of women’s education — but it still had some way to go, he declared. A political liberal in Britain, he understood the importance of the enfranchisement of classes, but he neither would nor could regard women as a class.

Whether as a historian, jurist, parliamentarian, diplomat, or mountain climber, he was nonetheless among the more far-sighted public figures of his time — even literally. "You all know the spot at which Wisconsin Avenue intersects Massachusetts Avenue,” he observed in 1913 as he prepared to leave Washington after six productive years as Britain’s ambassador to the United States. “At that point of intersection, just opposite where the Episcopal Cathedral is to stand, there is one spot commanding what is one of the most beautiful general views of Washington.” The National Cathedral now towers over the site, but at the time of Bryce’s writing, its construction had just begun. “All that land is being now cut up, and after two years nobody will ever see that view again except from the tower of the cathedral when erected,” he noted presciently. “Can it be saved?" The answer was effectively no, Undersecretary of the Interior John A. Carver conceded ex officio in 1965. But it was at least possible to dedicate Bryce’s “little open space triangle” as Bryce Park.

A different testimonial to Bryce’s views and vision, a bronze bust by Sir William Reid Dick, who later did an FDR for London’s Grosvenor Square and a Lady Godiva for Coventry, has meanwhile graced the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol since 1922, the year of Bryce’s death. “Most Americans,” wrote Bryce, considered the Senate “one of the successes of their Constitution, a worthy monument of the wisdom and foresight of its founders.” Of hundreds who pass the statue every day, few are likely to notice, and fewer still to recognize it. Its expression can be read as dignified and statesmanly, but a plausible alternative reading suggests more sorrow than anger.

Still, for most of us, chapter eight, with its emblematic title, is not only his most significant monument, but a welcome counterweight to the quadrennial crush of caucuses, primaries, blogs, podcasts, talking heads, 24/7 news cycles, algorithm–targeted mailbox stuffers, e-mail solicitations, and dinnertime phone calls we live with today. Much of Bryce’s argument, in fact, looks disarmingly familiar.

Given the constraints on the presidency — term limits, limited authority, and few resources to reward both friends and the faithful — Bryce seems pleasantly surprised that the institution works as well as it does. With Hayes-Tilden still resounding in his time (in ways likely to resonate with a generation that still recalls Bush-Gore), he devotes several pages to the baroque eccentricities of the Electoral College.

He also appreciates why and how the dynamics of campaign ticket-building may favor vice presidential candidates who advocate shooting wolves from helicopters or can’t spell potato. “The trivial and mechanical parts of his work leave too little leisure for framing large schemes of policy,” he notes, “while in carrying them out he needs the cooperation of Congress, which may be jealous, or indifferent, or hostile.” No president before or after Bryce would likely quarrel with that. “Yet it has often been the fashion in America to be jealous of the president’s action,” he adds a few sentences later, “and to warn citizens against what is called ‘the one man power.’”

While he considers policy failures the fault of the individual leader, he has no illusions about the fault lines in both the institution and the electoral process. The “ordinary American voter does not object to mediocrity,” he notes en route.

Aspiring candidates, as he sees it, are strongly tempted to avoid making enemies or, to put it less charitably, to pander. Every four years, an election campaign screws up governance from midsummer to November — and what Bryce referred to was an inconvenience extending over one year, not the two we now take for given. “There is some political education in the process,” he acknowledges fair-mindedly, “but it is bought dearly, not to add that business, and especially finance, is disturbed and much money spent unproductively.” Classics don’t become classics for nothing. Prescient again, he notes that term limits systemically lead to government by lame duck, a problem not associated with kings and prime ministers.

Classics don’t become classics for nothing.

So why was it that great presidents seemed to have vanished with the founding fathers, with nothing to match them again till Lincoln? “Who now knows or cares to know anything about the personality of James K. Polk or Franklin Pierce?” he asks demonstratively. “The only thing remarkable about them is that being so common place, they should have climbed so high.”

A major reason for America’s unimposing presidents, he suggested, was an unimposing political class. In France, he argued, public life was both accessible and exciting. In Germany, a highly professional civil service offered on-the-job training and respected careers in public administration. In Britain, the “burning questions” of political life attracted “many persons of wealth and leisure,” himself included. In America, on the other hand, “much of the best ability” went into business, not least, as the legendary Willy Sutton might have added, because that too was where the money was.

A second reason for endemic mediocrity, as Bryce saw it, could be found in “the methods and habits of Congress, and indeed of political life generally,” that offered so few opportunities to shine. It was ritually claimed that any boy could become president — so long, at least, as he was white and Protestant. To a point that was even true, But no reader of Henry Adams’s Democracy, one of America’s few notable political novels by an author who knew his Washington and considered government his family business, would necessarily see this as a strong case for a career in politics. Nor would readers of Horatio Alger. To a boy, his little heroes — Paul the Peddler, Ben the Luggage Boy, Phil the Fiddler, et al. — aspire to perform a heroic deed, get the attention of a Daddy Longlegs, and make good. What they don’t do is aspire to be speaker of the House or the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Nearly a century before the coming of Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, or even Matt Drudge, Bryce saw a third reason why great men aren’t presidents: the stress of public life. “Fiercer far than the light which beats upon a throne is the light which beats upon a presidential candidate, searching out all the recesses of his past,” he observed. “Hence, when the choice lies between a brilliant man and a safe man, the safe man is preferred.”

Two more potential banana peels complete the list. The first was essentially personal: a potentially good president might not be a good candidate. As Lyndon Johnson famously said, you can’t be a statesman until you get elected. The other hazards were systemic. Did the candidate, irrespective of merit, come from a swing state or one with a heap of electoral votes? Was he a Roman Catholic? Until Kennedy, it was a net handicap. Was he black? Until Obama, it was hopeless. From Grant to McKinley, on the other hand, service in the Union Army was not only a plus, it was practically a prerequisite. Distinguished service in World War II was another asset — at least until George McGovern.

For all that, Bryce’s prognosis is bleakly hopeful. “Unfortunate the country that has no heroes,” says one of Galileo’s protégés in Brecht’s mid-20th-century masterpiece, The Life of Galilei. “No,” Galileo replies. “Unfortunate the country that needs heroes.” Bryce was already ahead of him by at least half a century.

Great presidents may be rare, he wrote, because great men — and women — are rare in politics. They may be rare because the system is uncongenial to their particular greatness. But they may also be rare, he concluded, “because they are not, in quiet times, absolutely needed.”

“Of Presidents since 1900, it is not yet time to speak,” he added in a prudent footnote. We can only wonder – but can probably guess - what he would consider it not yet time to speak of their successors a century later.

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David Schoenbaum is the author of The Violin: A Social History of the World’s Most Versatile Instrument and a former scholar at the Wilson Center.

Cover photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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