The British historian, jurist, and statesman James Bryce, Viscount Bryce (1838-1922), is best known for "The American Commonwealth," a significant study of United States political institutions. He also fostered a revival of interest in Roman law.
James Bryce was born on May 10, 1838, in Belfast, Ireland, the son of a Scottish schoolmaster. In 1846 the family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, where James attended secondary school and studied at the university. In 1857 he entered Trinity College, Oxford, where he had a brilliant scholastic career. In 1862 he was elected a fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and was the first fellow who did not take the Anglican oaths.
Bryce's The Holy Roman Empire (1864) established his reputation as a legal historian. After practicing law in London for several years, he returned to Oxford in 1870 as regius professor of civil law, a post he held until 1893. His lectures at Oxford (published in 1901 as Studies in History and Jurisprudence) led to a revival in the study of Roman law.
An avid traveler, Bryce made the first of many trips to the United States in 1870. His interest in the life of the Armenians, which was acquired during a climbing holiday in 1876, led him to write Transcaucasia and Ararat (1877). A close friend and adviser of William Gladstone, Bryce entered the House of Commons in 1880 and from 1885 to 1907 sat as a Liberal member. During this period he completed his most important work, The American Commonwealth (1888). In this classic study, Bryce's legal training, historical knowledge, and firsthand experience of American life contribute to his cogent and influential analysis of the governmental process in the United States.
After serving as undersecretary for foreign affairs in 1886 and again in 1892, Bryce served as president of the Board of Trade and chairman of the Royal Commission on Secondary Education in 1894-1895. His visit to South Africa in 1895 led him to protest the handling of negotiations with the Boer republics, and his Impressions of South Africa (1897) influenced the Liberal position on the Boer War.
After serving as chief secretary for Ireland (1905-1906), Bryce was the British ambassador to the United States (1907-1913). During his ambassadorship he dealt with many United States-Canadian problems. He was elevated to the peerage on his return to England in 1913. During the remaining 9 years of his life, Bryce served on the International Court at The Hague, supported the establishment of the League of Nations, and published Modern Democracy (1921). He died on Jan. 22, 1922.
Further Reading on James Bryce
The best book on Bryce is H. A. L. Fisher, James Bryce (2 vols., 1927). It emphasizes Bryce's connections with the United States but also discusses his parliamentary career, writings, and influence on legal studies. See also Edmund S. Ions's study, James Bryce and American Democracy, 1870-1922 (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Bernard, Burton C., James Bryce and St. Louis: a bibliographic introduction to the writings of James Bryce, May 10, 1988, Granite City, Ill.: B.C. Bernard, 1988.
Bernard, Burton C., The James Bryce Collection at Washington University, St. Louis, October 22, 1988, Granite City, Ill.: B.C. Bernard, c1988.