Eminent Victorians on American Democracy: The View from Albion Hardcover – 2 Feb 2012
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Frank Prochaskas new book is something of a manifesto. (Robert Saunders, The English Historical Review. Volume 128, Issue 533.)
... a succinct, elegantly written and insightful piece ... a stimulating, erudite, and startlingly perceptive read. (Patrick M. Kirkwood, H-Empire.)
this admirably accessible study should realise Prochaska's aim of encoraging his readers to 'return to the writings of these exceptional thinkers'. (James Owen, History)
The book is well-written and thoroughly researched; it is accessible to a broad, educated audience; and it contributes valuably to the study of the American Constitution and its reception and influence abroad. (Alex Zakaras, History)
About the Author
Frank Prochaska was born and educated in America but has lived much of his life in England. His previous books include The Eagle and the Crown: Americans and the British Monarchy (2008); Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain (2006); The Republic of Britain 1760-200 (2000); Royal Bounty: The Making of a Welfare monarchy (1995); The Voluntary Impulse (1988), and Women and Philanthropy in Nineteenth-Century England (1980). He taught British history at Yale for many years and is an Honorary Fellow of the Institute of Historical Research, London University.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
The author opens with a fine introduction: "Transatlantic Attitudes" that lays out the principal themes the book discusses. Then individual chapters are devoted to each of the "big four". In a conclusion, "Anglo-American Exceptionalism," the author ties all these themes together. In fact, the conclusion is so effective, a reader might profit by reading it first. Generally speaking, while these Victorians were highly interested in American developments, since they assumed that whatever good had resulted came about due to our English roots, they were also a touchy and critical group as well. They disputed American exceptionalism seeing instead the Constitution as highly derivative of English experience; did not feel the Constitution was as close to perfection as could be; were concerned (probably due to the French Revolution more for themselves than us) about the increasing spread of democracy that was becoming evident evident in the American system; and were generally quite despairing of the quality of American political leaders and especially parties.
Mill while generally sympathetic to American government, did see some major faults. While he approved of judicial power, he was simply disappointed (as were all four to an extent) with America not having things simply run by a well-educated aristocracy, such as the House of Lords--this is why they all liked the Senate very much. Bagehot was probably the harshest critic of the four. His target was the Constitution itself, which he felt was inflexible, could not adapt rapidly enough, and was viewed with religious reverence by Americans. Too many barriers to strong and effective government blocked progress. For him, the written Constitution just rendered the government too stodgy. Maine, so incisive in his jurisprudential work, authored a major attack on democracy in "Popular Government." Unlike historian George Bancroft, he hardly saw God guiding the destiny of the American republic. Rather, the "great unwashed" were increasingly making a mess of things.
The strongest supporter of the American system was Bryce, author of the classic "American Commonwealth"(1888). Bryce was the only one of the four who had spent much time in the U.S.; in fact he was the UK's ambassador just before the first war and did much to unify the two countries. Bryce liked the Constitution and embraced spreading democracy and equality, though with some reservations. He feared plutocratic control rather than democratic. His approach was also broader, since he focused on national character as a factor. His famous book is still worth reading today.
All of these folks had numerous suggestions for improving the American system, and given the situation today, it is probably a good time to take a careful look at some of them. Especially, these four were concerned about the delay accruing when replacing a president, preferring the parliamentary system which made substitutions quickly. Their detailed critiques of the system surprisingly seem often still to be on target even today. For those such as myself interested in Victorian intellectual history, as well as students of the American governing process, this highly informative book well merits careful attention.