- - Wednesday, July 6, 2016


With the exoneration by the FBI of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, of any email misdeeds, it brings to mind the perceptions of Scottish visitor to the United States, James Bryce (1838-1922), in the late 19th century. Like French visitor Alexis deTocqueville earlier, Bryce spent no little time in his visits, even serving as ambassador to the United States from 1907 to 1913. Earlier, he served in Parliament.

But there’s more: Bryce was one of Britain’s most distinguished public figures. He was a superb scholar at Trinity College, Oxford, and at the age of 26 wrote a brilliant legal analysis of the ancients, the Holy Roman Empire. He then served as a lawyer, returned to Oxford as a professor of civil law, then became undersecretary of foreign affairs. His initial interest in the United States began in an unusual manner — a climbing expedition in 1876.

His most famous work, “The American Commonwealth,” 1,500 pages long, published in 1888, nailed the defects of the American political system, even though Bryce was a great admirer of the U.S. Constitution. Indeed, he was overwhelmed by the fact that the United States had “already achieved many things which the Old World had longed for in vain.”

But there were problems in the New World. Bryce noted that the election of judges, for example, was a travesty in terms of rendering unbiased opinions. Scandals were rife in America: “No European city” he wrote, “has … witnessed scandals approaching those of New York or Philadelphia, where the public till has been robbed on a vast scale and accounts have been systematically cooked to conceal the thefts.”

“A politician,” he noted, “is a term of reproach,” a conclusion arrived at after observing the 1884 presidential election in which successful Democratic Party candidate, Grover Cleveland, who sired an illegitimate child as a sheriff in Buffalo, N.Y., was ridiculed in a positive way for his transgression, while his Republican opponent, House Speaker James G. Blaine, was noteworthy for filling his private coffers with backdoor deals with businessmen.

The American nation “suffers more often from apathy or short-sightedness in the upper classes, who ought to lead, than from ignorance or recklessness in the humbler classes, who are generally ready to follow when they are wisely and patriotically led.”

And why are there few great leaders in the United States? Because “eminent men make more enemies, and give those enemies more assailable points, than obscure men do. They are therefore insofar less desirable candidates.” So if there’s a choice between a “brilliant man and a safe man, the safe man is preferred.”

Unfortunately, for most of these “safe” men, “a political career brings out the basest qualities in human nature.” Worse, safe men evolve into professional politicians, which “has tended to keep the amateurs” out of politics. And these pros simply fail “to discover and work out new principles capable of solving the problems which now perplex the country.”

A new generation of leaders, concluded Bryce, was needed: “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 than 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.”

• Thomas V. DiBacco is professor emeritus at American University.

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