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american commonwealth

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.

Instead of assuming an active role in the dramatic transformation that the nation was undergoing, American politi­cal leaders and American political par­ties remained locked in a rigid stale­mate, watching the remarkable changes that were taking place in their midst but doing little to affect, shape, direct, or control them.

To Bryce, American politicians were more concerned with winning elections, retaining office, and distributing ‘patron­age than with clarifying issues, defend­ing principles, or solving problems. Bryce was only partially correct in this assess­ment, for the lethargy of the party sys­tem was more the symptom than the cause of the political impasse of the late nineteenth century. Rather than a whole­sale decline in public morality after the Civil War, the spectacular increase in the demands placed on government en­gendered the vast free-for-all at the pub­lic trough. The real crisis of late nine­teenth-century American political life arose because public policy could not keep pace with rapidly changing eco­nomic conditions and social realities. The result was a political system in which grievances festered and grew without relief.

Throughout more than 1,500 pages of observation and analysis, Bryce offered few specifically political remedies to counter these unfortunate develop­ments. So many politicians, business­men, and interest groups benefitted from corruption that Bryce foresaw little pos­sibility of reforming the American political system from within. The Ameri­can Commonwealth is, as a result, a su­perbly anti-political book. American poli­tics could be rescued, Bryce asserted, only by “a succession of men like the prophets of Israel to rouse the people out of their self-complacency, to refresh their moral ideals, to remind them that the life is more than meat, and the body more than raiment, and that to whom much is given of them shall much also be required.”

Bryce was quick to point out that the United States had no prophets of this sort. Yet the nation had been blessed with “two classes of men who maintain a wholesome irritation such as that which Socrates thought it his function to apply to the Athenian people”: informed crit­ics to identify public ills and philan­thropic reformers eager to develop and administer the antidote. In these thought­ful and determined experts Bryce placed a singular confidence.

There was thus much in Bryce’s ma­ture political thought that reflected the emerging Progressive movement. Like Bryce, progressive reformers did not seek political solutions to the problems of the urban-industrial world. If Progres­sivism was anything, it was a revolt against politics. Instead, progressives wanted to turn the management of gov­ernment and society over to scientifi­cally trained experts isolated from parti­san conflicts, who could engineer a more efficient, more productive, more disci­plined, and more stable order. Bryce applauded their efforts.

Sooner or later, however, the progressives required the involvement of government to attain their objectives. Only government, most reformers agreed, could effectively curb the powerful private interests that threatened the welfare of the nation. The progressives also concluded that Ameri­can government at the turn of the cen­tury was miserably unprepared to ex­ecute such an ambitious program. At every level, political institutions were outmoded, inefficient, corrupt. Before they could reform society, the progressives discovered that they would have to reform government itself. Ini­tially, they directed their attention against the political parties, which they considered undemocratic and reaction­ary.

Like the progressive reformers whom he esteemed, Bryce contended that the major political parties undermined the constitutional foundation of the United States government. He welcomed any measure designed to weaken the influ­ence of parties on American politics. Bryce, for example, extolled the adop­tion of the secret ballot that made it virtually impossible for party managers to dictate the voting behavior of their constituents. He also praised such inno­vations as the direct primary, the initia­tive, the referendum, and the recall, each of which was likely to limit the power of political parties and to improve the qual­ity of candidates for office.

Making government more democratic and more responsive to the will of the people, Bryce concluded, was but one way in which party rule could be broken. Equally important was placing power in the hands of nonelected, nonpartisan officials insulated from political agita­tion and trained to negotiate the grow­ing complexities of modern life. Bryce lauded the campaign against partisan politics in municipal government, espe­cially the operations of the urban politi­cal machines. The exposure of “machine government” and “boss rule” in cities as diverse as St. Louis, Minneapolis, Chi­cago, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Philadel­phia, and New York helped to remove city government from the domination of the political parties and to stimulate a general demand for political reform. Bryce found these advancements both salutary and reassuring.

He had reason to be optimistic. When Bryce published the first edition of The American Commonwealth in 1888, America stood near the zenith of its preeminence, wealth, and power. In America during this period cultivated tastes and civilized values prevailed. More than political, social, and economic theories and institutions, Bryce recog­nized that it was the interior richness of American life that would determine the future of the nation.

The historian John Lukacs has char­acterized the years between 1895 and 1955 as “the bourgeois interlude” in American history. By the middle of the nineteenth century a distinct bourgeois culture was already taking shape, at least in the northern states. As astute an ob­server of American affairs as Alexis de Tocqueville argued that the ascendancy of bourgeois standards, values, and in­stitutions was the most important and dynamic aspect of antebellum society.

The nineteenth-century definition of “bourgeois” was more moral than eco­nomic. The term referred to the culture of an aggregate of individuals who, though ambitious and acquisitive, had learned to restrain their ardor for eco­nomic gain and material comfort. The marriage of moralism and materialism was the distinguishing characteristic of the American bourgeoisie. An ethic of moderation, discipline, and virtue was essential to the bourgeois social and political vision. Nowhere was this as­pect of civilization in the United States more evident to Bryce than in the atti­tudes, manners, aspirations, and lives of American women.

Like Tocqueville, Bryce admired the spirit, rectitude, and civility of American women. He regarded the women even more than men of the bourgeoisie as the agents of culture and the pillars of civili­zation. Husbands made money; wives determined how to spend it, patronizing the arts, the theater, the symphony or­chestra, the opera, the ballet, and a multitude of other cultural activities in addition to promoting and supporting a legion of benevolent reform movements. The feminization of culture during the late nineteenth century may have made the United States something of a matri­archal society. Bryce, nevertheless, rea­soned that

The respect for women which every American man either feels or is obliged by public sentiment to profess has a wholesome effect on his conduct and character, and serves to check the cyni­cism which some other peculiarities of the country foster…. No country seems to owe more to its women than America does, nor to owe them so much of what is best in social institutions and in the be­liefs that govern conduct.

Bryce looked forward to the future of the United States “with a hope that [was] stronger than anxiety,” for America marked “the highest level, not only of material well-being, but of intelligence and happiness, which the race has yet attained.” Could Bryce have guessed that little more than a century after he wrote The American Commonwealth, many thoughtful Americans would look back on this bygone era with a mixture of longing, admiration, nostalgia, and re­gret? Despite the unsettling social changes and rampant political corrup­tion, countless Americans now regard the last decades of the nineteenth cen­tury as the “Age of Innocence.” Ameri­cans living in the late twentieth century have witnessed, and contributed to, a growing disrespect for law, property, women, family, learning, religion, and, indeed, civilization itself. They have at the same time paradoxically embraced a past that represents all that was durable, familiar, and wholesome about American life.

Ironically, it is the worship of bound­less progress and the belief in uncondi­tional freedom that have relaxed man­ners and morals, loosened the bonds of family, and generally dimmed the pros­pects for the future. Bryce no doubt would have objected to this judgment. He admired above all the confidence and vigor of Americans, who felt “in their veins the pulse of youthful strength” and who had “already achieved many things which the Old World has longed for in vain.” The Americans, Bryce contended, had kept alive the faith in progress and the hope for a better world.

Yet Bryce could not have endorsed, or even imagined, ambition without lim­its or freedom without responsibility. George Santayana, a younger contempo­rary of Bryce, once declared that “abso­lute liberty and English liberty are in­compatible and mankind must make a painful and brave choice between them.” That many, perhaps most, Americans no longer recognize the necessity of such a distinction is astonishing, perplexing, and disheartening. The new edition of The American Commonwealth has thus appeared at a critical hour,[1] for Bryce’s masterpiece inspires the imaginative reconstruction of the past and the sober assessment of the future that we today so desperately require.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted here with gracious permission, this essay was originally published in the Winter 1998 40th Anniversary Edition Issue of Modern Age.

Notes:

1. The American Commonwealth, 2 vols., by James Bryce (Indianapolis, 1995) Vol. I: 720 pp. Vol. IL 992 pp.

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