James Bryce (1838-1922) was an eminent British legal historian and statesman who had a high regard for the American republic. First Viscount Bryce served as Ambassador to the United States from 1907-1913. In 1888, he published The American Commonwealth, a thorough examination of our founding documents and political system.

One of the most oft-quoted passages in his work had to do with the question of how Europeans regard the mediocrity of successful candidates for the highest office in our country, and how it is that truly great men do not accede to that position.

Bryce lists several observations.

The first claims that “the proportion of first-rate ability drawn into politics is smaller in America than in most European countries.” Having never been to Europe, and born nearly sixty years after Bryce wrote this book, I cannot comment on the truth of his observation at the time, or for that matter presently. Potential cultural slight in his words aside, his point is not that America is lacking in men and women of first-rate abilities, but that these in America are somehow more averse to the political task than their colleagues in Europe. See below in my comments.

The second holds that the manner of conducting the people’s business in Congress and lower-levels of political life “give fewer opportunities for personal distinction” than in Europe. He notes that after the passing of the Founding Fathers, few indeed were of any superior intellect, cultural creativity or moral fortitude until Abraham Lincoln.

Bryce’s third observation is that “eminent men make more enemies, and give those enemies more assailable points, than obscure men do.” This is undeniably true. Someone who may make an outstanding president might be absolutely awful as a candidate and prospect for his or her party’s victory.


Per the first point, Bryce’s phrase “drawn into politics” may be read in diverse ways. Are the more suitable prospects for office not drawn by their understandable desire to protect their reputations and their families from the blood sport arena of politics, the flames of which are daily fueled and fanned by the media? Or are these not being drawn intentionally, not sought after and brought to the fore by their respective parties as pre-judged to lose in a general election? Regarding the former, I read long ago that great men do not run for office because they are not willing to allow their established characters and their loved ones to be sullied and subjected to the sins of false witness, conniving, etc. As for the latter, the extant parties are now not so much about the party as they are about the party winning. Substance has been discarded by a desire for victory at any cost.

Bryce’s comment on the opportunities for “personal distinction” per the second point above may be applicable, as the prior representative in my own congressional district retired with a long and honorable history of service to his district. But I do not recall that he ever once made what I am naming the “big news”. Given our current media saturation become domination, we experience our attentions directed to those who make the news for reasons other than the quality of their service to us. Simply doing their jobs is not sufficient to distinguish them on the national scene.

Also on this point, I understand that in England especially the MPs stand for office, while in America our politicians run for office. The language proper implies that candidates elsewhere might present themselves and their abilities to their respective electorates in a manner quite apart from the cutthroat tactics employed in our country. The words of Jesus in St. Matthew 20 to the effect that the rulers of the earth should adopt the posture of servants if they desire greatness of position are lost on the partisan wheeler-dealers when party power is in view. Personal distinction rising above the routine machinations of lower levels of government is perhaps best cultivated in the business world or in military service, or another sphere where it is notable to the general populace.

Another problem here is that the USA in one of the few nations in the free world having the “winner-take-all” system where only the victorious party and its constituents have representation. Additionally I have a friend from a Eastern European nation who informs me that people in his country are appalled at how we run our electoral process, seeing clearly the opportunities for electoral fraud. He tells me that no government is absent some corruption, not even his own.

But my own conclusion is that our system invites corruption, and is in desperate need of tightening per a general reform.   

On the third point, the concentration of the system again is no longer oriented toward the public good, but on the party’s successes and preservation of its own power. It also passes judgment on the intelligence and morality of the individual voter who is regarded as unable to notice the difference between a candidate put forward merely for electability instead of visionary promise. In my own lifetime the exceptions were the ‘Roman Catholic’ John F. Kennedy and the ‘party turncoat and actor’ Ronald Reagan. The people saw through the purported obstacles, called forth and elected the visionary. The rest is history.

Bryce’s words may be dated and viewed through the lenses of the European culture. But dated words have a habit of becoming relevant to times and places other than their own. Ours is among them, and we do well to listen to the voices of the past so as to correct our course and transform our future.

Father David+

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