Saturday, March 31, 2012

Frank Prochaska's "Eminent Victorians on American Democracy"

Frank Prochaska taught British history at Yale for many years and is now a member of the History Faculty of Oxford University. He is the author of several books, including The Republic of Britain, 1760-2000 and The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Eminent Victorians on American Democracy: The View from Albion, and reported the following:
Ford Madox Ford would have had a particular interest in what his fellow Victorians had to say about the political culture across the Atlantic. On page 99 of Eminent Victorians on American Democracy, James Bryce, the popular British Ambassador to the United States between 1907 and 1913, explains his purpose in writing The American Commonwealth (1888), a book often compared to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. It was to provide an objective record of the United States government, free of American piety.

Bryce is but one of a succession eminent Victorians, including John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, and Sir Henry Maine, who wrote extensively about American democracy. For them, the United States Constitution raised universal questions about political behavior. Their critical analyses provided trenchant appraisals of America’s federal system and its electoral process. Distance lent perspective and much of their criticism remains remarkably prescient today, if only because the US government retains so much of its 18th-century character.

The nineteenth century was a battleground of ideas and the Victorians glimpsed the future of Britain across the Atlantic. They wished to know whether the American experiment was a success and whether it prefigured the political fate of Britain’s aristocratic government, which was increasingly under threat from political reform at home. If democracy were the future they wished to know how its vices might be attenuated and its virtues bestowed. In their search for answers to the critical issue of democracy, the Victorians provided some of the most penetrating studies of the evolution of American government and society. Their writings may also be seen as part of the ongoing Anglo-Saxon debate over the origins and soul of democracy.
Learn more about the book and author at Frank Prochaska's website.

--Marshal Zeringue