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The English Historical Review/Volume 37/Lord Bryce

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Lord Bryce

IT may be said of Lord Bryce multis ille bonis flebilis occidit. In the pages of this Review we may justly, and with a natural piety, add nullis flebilior quam historicis. He was a man 'universal in all things', touching life at many points, and adorning what he touched: he was traveller, jurisprudent, statesman, and publicist; but there are many to whom he will always be remembered most especially as a lover of history and historical knowledge. It may almost seem that it was by an accident—the winning of the Arnold Prize, nearly sixty years ago, by an essay on the Holy Roman Empire—that his thoughts were turned to history. If it were so, it was a most fortunate and auspicious accident; for through all the course of a long life history was henceforward to be an abiding possession and a perennial interest in his mind. Busily occupied as he was in multifarious activities, historical studies were rather the occupation of his leisure than the business of his working day. But the occupations of leisure can be the noblest of occupations; and the pursuits to which the mind turns in moments of freedom may be followed with a zest and a fervour which it is hard to maintain in the dull recurrence of daily routine. It is certain, at any rate, that Lord Bryce always brought an eager and alert vitality to the study of historical problems, and always found a genuine delight in the company of historians. Two instances occur to the mind which deserve to be recorded. Some eighteen years ago Lord Bryce was engaged in the preparation of a new edition of the Holy Roman Empire, and it was the good fortune of the present writer to be associated with him as his assistant. At the end of August 1904 he was just about to leave London for the United States, but his mind was running with unabated energy on medieval questions. A letter of 19 August, written on the eve of his departure, raises a crop of quaestiones—the date of Nicolaus Burgundus; what is to be said about Isaac Angelus and Bonaventura; what is the best edition of Gerhoh; what manner of bibliography should be appended; whether a chronological table of events is desirable, and how it should be constructed. The second instance is curiously analogous, and much more striking. A dinner was being arranged at the end of 1905, in honour of Mr. R. L. Poole, to celebrate the completion of twenty years of the Review. Bryce was to take the chair. Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman was forming a ministry; he had asked Bryce to become Irish secretary; and he was forced to pay a flying visit to Ireland two days before the date fixed for the dinner. Just as he was about to leave England he wrote a postcard from Holyhead: 'I have had to cross over to Ireland, but hope to return on Thursday night and to be at the dinner on Friday. Should anything occur to prevent my arriving, I will telegraph; but I have done everything in my power to secure my being free to come.' He came.

Sixty years of unflagging and versatile work lay between the date at which he took his Oxford degree, in 1862, and the date of his death. He was called to the bar in 1867, and practised for the next fifteen years. Occupied as he was in London, he still maintained a close connexion with Oxford. He had been scholar of Trinity and fellow of Oriel; in 1870 he became regius professor of civil law, and he held the chair, though without residing in Oxford, till 1893. But by 1880, when he became member of parliament for Tower Hamlets, he had already turned to politics. He was under-secretary of state for foreign affairs in Mr. Gladstone's brief ministry in 1886: he was successively chancellor for the duchy of Lancaster and president of the board of trade in the liberal ministry of 1892–5; he was chief secretary for Ireland under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman from 1905 to 1907. A new epoch of his life began in 1907. Recognized as a foremost authority on the affairs of the United States after 1888, when he published his American Commonwealth, he was appointed ambassador at Washington; and he held that office, with unqualified success and universal approbation, till 1913. The last nine years of his life he divided between his house at Forest Row and his flat in Buckingham Gate. They were in no sense years of retirement. He served as chairman of the committee on Belgian atrocities; he advocated the cause of Armenia; he played no small part in the thinking and the discussions which helped to bring into life the League of Nations. He was often to be seen, and he often spoke, at public gatherings in London—at the opening of the Institute of Historical Research, at the unveiling of the bust of George Washington in St. Paul's; at any gathering which touched the many interests he cherished. Only a fortnight before he died he delivered the inaugural address at the annual meeting of the Historical Association in King's College, London.

It was a busy life of action; but he found abundant time for the life of contemplation also. The list of his published works embraces some fifteen different items. He ranged from the Flora of the Island of Arran, on which he published a work in 1859. at the age of 21, to Modern Democracies, on which he published two volumes in 1921, when he was 83. He wrote books of travel; books of descriptive politics (with which his name will perhaps be specially associated); studies in law, and studies in history. Two of his books—the Holy Roman Empire and the American Commonwealth—are permanent classics; two others—his Studies in History and Jurisprudence and his Modern Democracies—are mines of solid learning and searching observation. If he did not write on the classics, he was a sound classical scholar, with a classical scholar's gift of happy quotation. If he was a politician, he was also an educationalist. One of his early writings was a report on the condition of education in Lancashire, published in 1867; and he rendered an even greater service when he acted as chairman of a royal commission on secondary education in 1894. If any man ever did, he may seem to have filled his life and fulfilled his plans. Yet he had his unachieved ambitions. The work on Modern Democracies was originally planned as a History of Democracy; but the mass of material proved too abundant for the potter's hand. And there was a work on Justinian of which he sometimes spoke, and of which, it may be, some portions are to be found among his unpublished papers.

He was a spare figure, with eyes that you could not but associate with a rapid and piercing vision, set deep under bushy brows. His voice was not resonant, and it had no large compass; but he persuaded and convinced by the weight of what he said. He had a great discourse in conversation. He had seen many countries, and lived through many years; and his retentive memory gave him a rich material on which he readily drew. There were times when his wealth was his own embarrassment; and discursiveness might on occasion be the penalty of his width of range. But he had a shrewd judgement: he never missed the point, even if he turned aside for the moment to follow the many suggestions of association which his memory conjured before him; and you could trust him to reach with a just precision the conclusion of the whole matter. He had the encyclopaedic mind which is vouchsafed to a chosen few among scholars. He could readily have joined the company of Scaliger or Casaubon or Grotius. Perhaps he was not, in the strict modern sense, a researcher; but he was, to a very high degree, an inquirer. He was an eager traveller in many lands, with a zest for climbing; and he travelled in the mind as he travelled in the body, with no less zest for reaching peaks and points of vantage. He had that abundant curiosity which is the mother of observation and wisdom; and it was joined with an unassuming and natural simplicity of manner, which enabled him to talk easily and associate readily with all the men whom he met. All the qualities of his mind conspired to win him instant and lasting success in the years in which he was ambassador at Washington. Americans honoured the encyclopaedic range of the scholar: they admired the observer who had written the classical work on their own commonwealth; they had an affection for the man himself, with whom it was so easy to talk, on a footing of simple equality, whether at receptions, or in clubs, or in the Pullman car of the railway train, or in any other place where men were gathered together. He was simple in a land that loved simplicity; and of all the phases of his political activity that of his embassy was perhaps the one in which all his gifts worked most harmoniously together to achieve an unparalleled success.

In the pages of this Review it is fitting that Lord Bryce should be more especially mentioned as a political observer and as an historian. As a political observer he had for his forerunners Montesquieu and Tocqueville, as he has for his successor (if we may speak of a successor) Mr. Lawrence Lowell, the author of a work on the Government of England which gives back to England in good measure what Lord Bryce gave to America in his volumes on the American Commonwealth. The cultivation of this field of descriptive politics is a matter of no small moment in the modern world. To explain to one country the genius of the institutions of another is to act as an intellectual ambassador, and to lay the foundations of international understanding. There is an internal logic which connects the work of Lord Bryce as a master of descriptive politics both with his embassy at Washington and with his labours in later years in the cause of a League of Nations. He was, indeed, following the most native and the most strongly marked of all his inclinations when he wrote on the institutions of other lands the United States, France, Switzerland, South Africa, and South America; for here the traveller was at one with the scholar, as the scholar was at one with the statesman. Not only had he, as a traveller, seen what he described face to face; not only did he, as a scholar, know the past of what he described, and the past of other things similar: he had also, as a statesman, played his part in active politics, and he knew with an internal knowledge the actual working of institutions. His books in this field must remain for long years the original and authoritative sources from which scholars will draw their accounts of the nature of the political institutions of a large part of the world at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century.

In political theory, as distinct from political institutions, he was less interested and less versed. There are pregnant passages in the Holy Roman Empire on the medieval theory of the empire; there are essays in the Studies in History and Jurisprudence on matters of political theory such as Obedience, the Nature of Sovereignty, and the Law of Nature. But his mind inclined to the concrete rather than to the abstract; he had not that passion for 'seeing things together' which makes the philosopher. He was less interested in what the state should be than in what it was; he wished to know what it did rather than what it should do. He believed, indeed, that a knowledge of the past and the present was a guide to the future; but he did not, perhaps, investigate the implications or the validity of that belief, nor did he reckon very greatly with the part which ideals—ideals that stand above time and experience—may play in the lives of men. He was an Aristotelian rather than a Platonist; he turned to the 'polity of the Athenians' more than to 'the polity which is laid up in the heavens'.

As an historian he gave to his fellows a book which has been a profound influence for nearly sixty years and will be a profound influence for many more; an essay on the Life of Justinian by Theophilus, which appeared in the second volume of this Review; and a number of historical addresses and studies which range from the ancient Roman empire to primitive Iceland. His book on the Holy Roman Empire appeared in 1864, with a motto on the front page, which disappeared in later editions, verso Tiberim regit ordine Rhenus. It was a slim volume of 176 pages; but already, as is stated in its preface, it had been 'greatly changed and enlarged since it was composed for the Arnold Prize at Oxford'. It continued to be greatly changed and enlarged. In forty years there were four new editions (one of which—that of 1875—was reprinted no fewer than fourteen times), as well as translations into French, German, and Italian. It is curious to compare the edition of 1904 with that of 1864. It contains 571 pages in place of 176; and it contains in addition some 70 pages of prefatory matter. New chapters have been added, especially the fine chapter on the theory of the medieval empire; a profounder learning has given a new substance, and a deeper understanding has informed the whole theme. Yet we must not undervalue the original edition. Appearing in the same decade as Maine's Ancient Law (1861), it was no less of a landmark and perhaps even more of an influence. It suggested a new interpretation of the course of the development of the modern world; and instead of tracing, like Gibbon, the decline and fall of civilization from the happy age of the Antonines, scholars were henceforward able to regard the imperial scheme as something which survived, as a living idea and an active force, through all barbarian invasions and dark ages and tumults, and maintained the conception of an ordered polity until the days in which Europe was able to organize itself on new and original lines of its own.

The author of the Holy Roman Empire was pledged to history by his own firstfruits, and he never failed to redeem the pledge. He was always prepared to take any pains which might advance the cause of historical study. Of the English Historical Review itself, as Mr. Poole has testified in a recent number, he was, if not the father, at any rate the godfather. As early as 1867 he had been planning a purely Historical Review; and when in 1885 the foundation of this Review was taken in hand by a group of scholars at Oxford—acting, Mr. Poole believes, under the inspiration of York Powell, who had talked the matter over with Bryce—he was invited to become its editor. Already immersed in politics, he was unable to accept the invitation; but it was through him that Creighton became the first editor; it was he who gave a dinner-party at which the policy of the Review was settled; and it was he who wrote the preface for the first number. One of the articles which he contributed has already been mentioned; another, which appeared in volume vii, was a memorial notice of Freeman. And now, thirty years afterwards, in this thirty-seventh volume, it is of Bryce himself that a memorial notice falls to be written. Few as are the titles of the present writer to compose that notice, he has at any rate one—which he shares with many others—that he found in Bryce a generous inspiration and encouragement. For he was kind with a great kindness to young students: he would write to welcome their 'prentice efforts; he would gather them round his table, and encourage them by his suggestion and advice. He has left many monuments behind him. His books are possessions for ever in the student's library; the work which he did in politics is a permanent part of national, and indeed of international, history. Among other monuments there stands the remembrance and the affection of those whom he helped and encouraged. There are nations which call him benefactor (testis Armenia); but among other and larger cares he always remembered the service of scholarship, and was always ready to aid any student concerned with those studies of history and politics of which he was so eminent a master.

Ernest Barker.