Eminent Victorians on American Democracy surveys a wide range of British opinion on the United States in the nineteenth century and highlights the views of John Stuart Mill, Walter Bagehot, Sir Henry Maine, and James Bryce, who wrote extensively on American government and society. America was significant to them not only because it was the world's most advanced democracy, but also because it was a political experiment that was seen to anticipate the future of Britain. The Victorians made a memorable contribution to the continuing debate over the character and origins of democracy through their perceptive examination of issues ranging from the US Constitution to its practical application, from the Supreme Court to the party system. Their trenchant commentary punctures several popular American assumptions, not least the idea of 'exceptionalism'. To Victorian commentators, the bonds of kinship, law, and language were of great significance; and while they did not see the United States as having a unique destiny, they rallied to an 'Anglo-American exceptionalism', which reflected their sense of a shared transatlantic history.
What distinguishes the Victorian writers was their willingness to examine the US Constitution dispassionately at a time when Americans treated it as a sacred document. Although the United States has changed dramatically since they wrote, much of their commentary remains remarkably prescient, if only because the American government retains so much of its eighteenth-century character. Today, when rival American priesthoods see the Constitution in the light of their particular altars, it is worth revisiting what leading Victorians had to say about it. It may come as a shock to American readers.