Bryce, James (1838–1922), 1st Viscount Bryce , politician, historian, jurist, and chief secretary for Ireland (1905–7), was born 10 May 1838 in a small terraced house in Arthur St., Belfast, eldest of two sons and two daughters of James Bryce (qv), schoolmaster, and Margaret Bryce (née Young). The family lived with Margaret's father, James Young, near Belfast Lough till 1846, when James Bryce senior became a master in Glasgow High School and they moved to Blantyre, south of Glasgow. James was educated at Glasgow High School (1846–52), Belfast Academy (1852–4) (where his uncle, Reuben John Bryce (1798–1888), was principal), and Glasgow University (1854–7). In 1857 he was elected to a scholarship at Trinity College, Oxford, despite his refusal as a presbyterian to subscribe to the Anglican church's thirty-nine articles. At Trinity he won many prizes, graduated BA (1862) and (DCL 1870), and was elected a fellow of Oriel college in 1862. In 1863 he studied law at Heidelberg and won the Arnold historical prize with an essay that he expanded and published as The Holy Roman empire (1864). A much-admired work, it established his reputation as a historian. An advocate of democratic and liberal causes, he strongly supported Italian reunification (he seriously considered travelling to Italy to fight with Garibaldi) and the North in the American civil war.
Employed as an assistant commissioner on the schools inquiry commission (1865–6), he advocated more coordination between primary schools, secondary schools, and universities, and better education for women, including their admission to universities. He campaigned in the 1860s for the opening of professorships and fellowships at Oxford to men of all faiths and none and also for legal equality for women (although he did not support female suffrage). Called to the bar in 1867, he was regius professor of civil law at Oxford (1870–93), becoming a leading figure among Oxford academic liberals and one of the main founders of the English Historical Review (1885). He gave up his legal practice in 1882 because it interfered with his writing, travelling, and mountaineering. An enthusiastic climber, in his early youth he spent much of his time in the mountains of Ireland and Scotland and he later scaled peaks in the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees, and all over the world. He was a member of the Alpine Club from 1879 and its president 1899–1901; Mount Bryce in the Canadian Rockies was named after him. A slim, wiry man of medium height with a crisp purposeful walk and piercing deep-set eyes, Bryce exuded a sense of energy, liveliness, and movement; his pursuit of knowledge was incessant, his interests ranging over geology, botany, history, politics, law, and philosophy. He carried his great learning lightly and was happy with life's simple pleasures: smoking his pipe, reading, a good walk, or a brisk swim.
He made his first tour of America with his close friend the jurist A. V. Dicey (1835–1922) in 1870 and immediately was taken by the country's energy and openness and fascinated by American society and institutions. After subsequent tours (1881, 1883), he wrote The American commonwealth (1888), a classic elucidation of the American political system. His journey to Russia and the Caucasus (1876) produced Transcaucasia and Ararat (1877). He strongly denounced the massacres of Bulgarians by Turkish troops in 1876 and, convinced that the Ottoman empire was disintegrating, proposed that Britain should do its utmost to protect the empire's Christian subjects. He was a founder and first president of the Anglo–Armenian Society (1879), and protested vehemently against the massacres of Armenians in 1896 and 1915. His last public appearance (20 December 1921) was a meeting at the Mansion House advocating the liberation of Armenian Christians from Turkish rule.
In 1874 he unsuccessfully contested Wick as a liberal, but was later elected liberal MP for Tower Hamlets, London (1880–85) and South Aberdeen (1885–1906). His careful study of Irish grievances led him after much soul-searching in 1882 to support home rule as the only way to pacify Ireland. But he also believed in ‘the unity of the Scottish race on both sides of the channel’ (Fisher, i, 221), and that the north-eastern counties should be allowed to opt out. During the crisis of 1886 he attempted to mediate between supporters and opponents of home rule within the liberal party. He edited the Handbook of home rule (1887) and edited and introduced Two centuries of Irish history (1888). He was under-secretary for foreign affairs (1886), chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster (1892) with a seat in cabinet, and one of the cabinet committee that prepared the second home rule bill (1893). In spring 1893 he was minister in attendance on Queen Victoria on her tour to Florence. The queen liked Bryce, admiring his intelligence and modesty, and he attempted to broach the subject of Irish home rule with her, but found that Gladstone's efforts at conversion had irretrievably soured her against it. In 1894 he became president of the Board of Trade: his economic views were rooted in Gladstonian notions of laissez-faire and free trade, and he had little sympathy for trade unions or government interference in the economy. He chaired the Bryce commission on secondary education (1894–5), which recommended the establishment of a ministry of education. In parliament his speeches were generally ordered and logical, although some found them excessively pedantic. His liberal colleague Henry Campbell-Bannerman (qv) regarded him as the ‘most accomplished man’ in the commons: ‘He has been everywhere, he has read almost everything and he knows everybody’ (Fisher, i, 16).
His travels in Africa (1895–6) resulted in his Impressions of South Africa (1897). Before the Boer war he accused Chamberlain and Milner of aggravating tensions, and during it he criticised the severity employed by British forces. He opposed imperialism, believing that expansionist policies could only lead to war among competing powers. He regarded racial prejudice as irrational (the theme of his 1902 Oxford Romanes lecture) and denounced prevailing notions of social Darwinism. A strong internationalist and an inveterate traveller, he regarded himself as a citizen of the world rather than as an Irishman or a Scot.
With the liberal victory in the 1905 election he became chief secretary for Ireland on 14 December 1905, and held the post to 29 January 1907. He began to prepare a legislative programme by appointing commissions of inquiry into the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, the Belfast RIC, university education, railways, inland waterways, forestry, arterial drainage, the poor law system, and congested districts. He was responsible for the Labourers (Ireland) Act, 1906, which allowed district councils to provide cottages and small plots of land for 25,000 farm labourers. Given the peaceful state of the country, he allowed the Peace Preservation (Ireland) Act (1881), controlling the possession and importation of arms, to lapse. After the inconclusive recommendations of the Fry commission in January 1907, Bryce proposed the creation of a single national university, containing TCD, a new catholic college, and the existing queen's colleges. Trinity protested against its loss of autonomy, the queen's colleges feared domination by Trinity, and unionists objected to the establishment of a sectarian catholic college, and the proposal was abandoned.
Nationalists had expected much from his appointment, but soon became disappointed by his cautious approach. Although Bryce consulted them on the appointment of commissioners, he did not always take their advice and they grew increasingly aggrieved at their under-representation on government bodies. He was on particularly poor terms with John Redmond (qv), who was deeply disappointed at the limited scope of legislation introduced, and believed Bryce to be overly influenced by his energetic under-secretary, Sir Antony MacDonnell (qv). With the liberal party lukewarm on home rule, Bryce proposed to proceed gradually to Irish self-government, and assisted MacDonnell in preparing an Irish council bill, under which a partly nominated and partly elected council was to manage certain Irish administrative affairs. On receiving a draft bill in October 1906, nationalist leaders immediately denounced its limited powers and rounded on Bryce, destroying the possibility of future co-operation. Frustrated by his failed efforts to conciliate nationalists, Bryce resigned in January 1907 to become ambassador to America.
His American ambassadorship (1907–13) was largely successful. Mostly concerned with improving relations between the USA and Canada, he worked hard to resolve outstanding difficulties – boundary disputes in Alaska, tariff arguments, and fishing rights – and did much to bring about the Britain–USA arbitration treaty of 1911. He was respected by Americans for his frankness and erudition, and his frequent addresses to American public bodies were published as University and historical addresses (1913). When Roger Casement (qv) was returning to England from Peru in January 1912 with his findings on the Putamayo rubber atrocities, Bryce met him in Washington and arranged an unofficial interview with President Taft. Bryce persuaded both governments to support publication of the report and to take concerted action to prevent further abuses.
In January 1914 he was created Viscount Bryce, and became a member of the International Court of Justice at the Hague. He presided over the commission established in September 1914 to investigate allegations of German atrocities in Belgium. His controversial report (May 1915) documented several atrocities and concluded they were carried out systematically to demoralise Belgian civilians and soldiers. To prevent such horrors recurring, he urged the formation of a league of nations. After the war, he attempted to persuade the USA to join (travelling to America for the last time in July 1921) and was desperately disappointed by its refusal to do so. Distressed by the violence in Ireland (1920–21), he believed that since all major Irish grievances had been redressed there was no real demand in Ireland for outright independence, and that Sinn Féin would accept dominion home rule. In December 1921 he addressed the lords for the last time, urging the adoption of the Irish treaty.
His physical and mental faculties remained strong to the end: even in his eighties his brisk pace could leave younger men trailing, and he continued to produce scholarly works, notably Modern democracies (1921), an extensive study of democratic governments across the globe. He was widely honoured, receiving the order of merit (1907) and honorary degrees from thirty-one universities, and was president of the British Academy (1913–17). He died at Sidmouth 22 January 1922, and his ashes were buried in the Grange cemetery, Edinburgh, alongside his parents. King George V paid tribute to ‘an old friend and trusted counsellor to whom I could always turn’ (Fisher, ii, 292).
He married (July 1889) Marion (1858–1939), daughter of Thomas Ashton, a wealthy Manchester merchant. They lived mostly at Hindleap, Forest Row, Sussex. Marion shared Bryce's love of travel and his devotion to liberal causes, and their marriage was very happy; they had no children.