A National Test

Nearly half a century after Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America, another European observer crossed the Atlantic to assess the state of the American experiment.

James Bryce, the English historian and statesman, arrived in America for an extended tour in the middle of the 1880s, at a time not unlike our own. It was the height of the Gilded Age, and the country was grappling with inequalities of wealth, rising levels of immigration, rapid economic transition and questions about the United States’ role in the world. An astute chronicler—he was a practicing politician, a venerable professor of civil law at Oxford, and would later serve as the British ambassador to the U.S.—Bryce published his reflections in a two-volume work, The American Commonwealth.

Among his insights was a warning of the dangers of a renegade President. To Bryce, the real threat to the Constitution came as much from the people as from the White House. Disaster would strike American

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