‘Most Versatile Genius’


Walter Bagehot, who was born at Langport, Somerset, on 3 February 1826, died in the same village (in which he had always maintained a base though he spent his most vital years in London) on 24 March 1877 after a brief illness. At his early death he was already in his sixteenth year as editor of The Economist, the periodical whose British edition today carries a commentary bearing his surname by way of tribute. His influence however went well beyond the parish of weekly journalism. In the estimate of his editor St John-Stevas, this banker, economist, political thinker, commentator, critic and man of letters was nothing less than ‘Victorian England’s most versatile genius’ (Works I, 29). He was in his lifetime a confidant of politicians (regarded as Gladstone’s ‘Spare Chancellor’ – the title of Alastair Buchan’s 1959 biography — and after it a hero to an American President, Woodrow Wilson referring to him as his ‘master’ (Wilson, 668).

His very versatility may account for some modern neglect of his reputation. Nevertheless his best known work The English Constitution (1867) (Works, V, 165-410) remains a key text for twenty-first century students of English Constitutional Law and, reputedly, reading recommended to Britain’s young royals by their sovereign. Two other books, Physics and Politics (1872) (Works VII, 17-144) and Lombard Street (1873) (Workss, IX, 48-234) remain in print in modern editions. Testament to Bagehot’s usual method of practice, only the last of these appeared first in book form, the others being collations of journalistic chapters. We may judge the flavour of Bagehot by these three texts but the full journalism gives the true spice.

Bagehot was a devout advocate of a principled pragmatism, what C. H. Sisson, an unenthusiastic twentieth century critic of his attitudes, condemns as the ‘apologetics of “fact”’ (140). That pragmatism was born of an upbringing which conspired to be part orthodox, part heterodox. His father was a strict Unitarian who had married an Anglican widow ten years his senior. Bagehot was stretched between the two modes of worship, spending childhood Sunday mornings at the Unitarian service conducted at home by his father and afternoons at mass with his mother. The tragedy of his mother’s first family (three sons, one a simpleton, the others to die in youth, leading to her own intermittent insanity) seems also to have acted importantly upon him. He balanced with difficulty the duty he felt to his mother (his presence was the greatest comfort to her in her bouts of mental illness) and his personal ambition. There were obstacles on the route to eminence: his early career was marked by indecision as to its proper path and his later record is blemished by his particular failure to earn a seat in the House of Commons. Certainly Bagehot’s eventual and reasoned accommodation of conflicting imperatives would seem to have informed his written style of arguing parenthetically (Haley in Works I, 105) – in short his ‘duomania’ (Kimball).

Bagehot was educated first at Langport Grammar School and then at a Unitarian school, Bristol College, before going as an undergraduate to the determinedly irreligious University College London. His father’s views on the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion (professed adherence to which was still required at the ancient English universities) made Oxford and Cambridge intolerable destinations. At University College he was a brilliant but not altogether untroubled student – winning prizes but missing several terms due to mental exhaustion. He took his Bachelor’s degree in 1846 and a Master’s in 1848. By that time his eventual career had been presaged by the publication of his first professional journalism, a review of Festus in the Prospective Review in 1847. He had not yet however settled on this as his course. Rather he was applying himself (with considerable misgiving as things would transpire) to the career as a London barrister which his father had mapped for him. His mother would have preferred him returned to Somerset to work in the private Stuckey’s Bank, founded by her family and in which Walter’s father worked punctiliously. She would get her way for an interval of nine years pending Bagehot’s journalistic destiny fully asserting itself.

‘Much Spare Mind’

Bagehot completed his pupilage at Lincoln’s Inn in 1851 and promptly took himself for a prolonged break to Paris before any start in earnest at the Bar. Events encountered whilst in Paris were to help set Bagehot’s trajectory as a commentator and political philosopher. Upon his return to London it took him only to the summer of 1852 to resolve to abandon practice at the Bar and instead join Stuckey’s in Somerset – a career as country banker allowing him the intellectual space he required to write – he cheerfully disparaged the banking ‘trade’ thus in Lombard Street, ‘A banker even in a large business, can feel pretty sure that all his transactions are sound, and yet have much spare mind.’ (Works, IX, 184). Moreover he had, thanks to his Parisian excursion, located his distinctive timbre as a voluble observer of events. The improbably fortunate trigger had been Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état which Bagehot witnessed at first hand in December 1851. This proximity to revolutionary politics afforded Bagehot the opportunity to flex his scepticism and draw attention to his racy attitudes. If Bagehot’s mature positions can most easily be surmised from The English Constitution, Physics and Politics and Lombard Street, then the tone of those positions is flagged by the series of letters he addressed from Paris to the readership of the Unitarian paper The Inquirer. Those articles constitute ‘an extraordinary combination of rollicking cynicism and profound good sense.’ (St John-Stevas in Works I, 50). The letters appeared in seven separate editions of the weekly paper (collected together as Volume XI, 1852) and their content was such that the editor was at pains to stress that, ‘The sentiments expressed in this letter render it advisable that we should again declare our own entire dissent from the views of the writer.’ (Inquirer Vol XI, 34). What were these dangerous sentiments? A belief in the importance of national characteristics (Bagehot rather felt the French too intellectually sharp for a parliamentary system such as that which suited the dullard English); a willingness to countenance both the expediency of dictatorship and the temporary suspension of press freedom. As Bagehot himself summarised in the fourth letter

Popular government has many forms, a thousand good modes of procedure: but no one of those modes can be worked, no one of these forms will endure, unless by the continual application of sensible heads and pliable judgements, to the systematic of stiff axioms, rigid principles, and incarnated propositions. [Works, IV, 61]

This is pure, distilled Bagehot and anticipates the elegant pragmatism of all that followed.

‘The Most Intellectual Society’

Comfortable in his critical skin, Bagehot now wrote the bulk of his historical and literary essays in the 1850s. His later concentration, dictated by his position at The Economist, would be on politics, economics, and related philosophy. His first biographer — his sister-in-law Mrs Russell Barrington — conjectures in her Life of Walter Bagehot (1915) that Bagehot would have returned to literature in his later years, but it is upon the output of The Economist years up to his early demise that his reputation largely rests. Just as the rhythm of those later works can be traced to Bagehot’s Parisian experience so the aim of his mature commentaries can be related back to his meeting and befriending James Wilson in 1857. Wilson would be Walter Bagehot’s promoter in London’s political and social scenes. Wilson was the founder and owner of The Economist, Member of Parliament for Devonport, and Financial Secretary to the Treasury. At his invitation Bagehot wrote a series of pieces for The Economist on banking. Bagehot also diligently courted Wilson’s eldest daughter Eliza and was married to her in 1858. The couple’s love letters (first collected and edited by Mrs Russell Barrington in 1933 and also included in volume 13 of his Works) testify to a genuine affection. Eliza Bagehot frequently complained about frail health, but she would survive Walter by forty-four years. They had no children.

In 1859 James Wilson was appointed Finance Member for India and set out for that country having selected Bagehot and his University College friend Richard Holt Hutton as the joint directors of The Economist for the duration of his overseas office. Wilson would never return to England, dying in India in 1860. When Hutton accepted the editorship of The Spectator the following year, Bagehot assumed sole charge of The Economist and the arc of his career was set. In that same year of 1861, Bagehot resigned the Bristol management of Stuckey’s Bank, took up the supervision of its London Branch, and removed his principal residence to the capital. Private banking in London was apparently yet more conducive to writing than its country cousin, complementing the intellectual headroom already alluded to with massive cultural opportunities – ‘And a London banker can also have the most intellectual society in the world if he chooses it. There has probably very rarely ever been so happy a position as that of a London private banker; and never perhaps a happier’ (Works, IX, 184). Thus for fifteen plus years Bagehot was the salaried editor of The Economist, receiving £400 per annum together with a profit related bonus if profits rose above £2000. He also received the standard contributor’s remuneration for each piece that he himself wrote, always at least two per issue but sometimes as many as four. He never held any beneficial proprietorial interest in the publication but served as trustee of the settlement under his father-in-law’s will by which the paper was left in trust for Bagehot’s wife and her five sisters. He combined these duties with his supervision of Stuckey’s London branch. He was mildly affluent but not ostentatiously so, and his greatest legacy was his writing.

A Defeated Candidate

Before consideration of each of Bagehot’s major books something needs to be said of his signal failure to enter Parliament. In varying degrees of earnest he four times sought to become an MP. On only one of those occasions did he get so far as to be a candidate in the ballot. Standing as a Liberal, he lost that 1866 Bridgwater by-election by a mere seven votes to a Conservative opponent. The allure of representing his native county had outweighed knowledge that this was a notoriously corrupt borough. A portion of the mud flung about by an 1869 investigation of the constituency by electoral commissioners is occasionally said to have stuck to Bagehot. That is a minority view propounded by Sisson alone of the biographers but it should not be glossed over. What is certain is that Bagehot vowed to fight a ‘pure’ campaign but that others purporting to act as his agents (he was always adamant that he in no way directed their misfeasance) were not so zealous – nor indeed is there any doubt that his opponent had similar, probably greater, assistance. When the miscreants, after the election, sought indemnity from Bagehot for their unlawful expenditure (£800) he reluctantly paid them. His voluntary testimony to the commission explained his logic in doing so,

The determinate circumstance in my mind was this, that it would be said that I did not pay it because I was beaten, but I should not have paid it otherwise … so far from making a good moral impression, I should only have made the impression that I was a mean person. A successful candidate, at any rate, can clear himself of that by giving up his seat, but a defeated candidate is left to be virtuous at other people’s expense. That was the feeling in my mind. I am not by any means defending it. [Works, XIV, 353]

Certainly there seems to have been no diminution in Bagehot’s contemporary reputation as a result of this unhappy episode. His other failed attempts at election were in Manchester in 1865 (where despite carrying Gladstone’s letter of endorsement he could not win local Liberal support) and twice in seeking nomination for the University of London constituency in 1860 and 1867. On the occasion of the second of those failures a letter distributed to his fellow London alumni saw Bagehot at his best and worst - making stirring avowals of principle and in much the same breath being quite unable to refrain from low blows aimed at the morals of Disraeli’s incumbent government. Those slurs would keep Bagehot from the Liberal nomination in a primary which included the votes of Conservative alumni:

Our University has shown upon what principles a sound and sensible culture can be given to young men sincerely bred in different religious creeds, without sacrificing either the faith to the culture or the culture to the faith … The cry should now be “Educate! Educate! Educate!” [Works, XIII, 617]

Mr Disraeli, indeed, believes that by influence and corruption the mass of the new voters may be made to aid him. But I do not believe that a Government based on influence and corruption is possible in England. [Works, XIII, 619]

The English Constitution

The English Constitution is Bagehot at his most enduring. We still have the rollicking cynicism, tied to acute observation and leavened by the profound good sense. The taste of the thing can be had from this disrespectful but in no way unaffectionate observation,

The use of the Queen, in a dignified capacity, is incalculable. Without her in England, the present English Government would fail and pass away. Most people when they read that the Queen walked on the slopes at Windsor – that the Prince of Wales went to the Derby – have imagined that too much thought and prominence were given to little things. But they have been in error; and it is nice to trace how the actions of a retired widow and an unemployed youth become of such importance. [Works, V, 226]

Bagehot’s premise is that the strength of the English Constitution lies not in its previously theorised separation of powers but in the sovereign co-operation of dignified and efficient parts of the Constitution. Once again we see his love of complementary opposites:

In such constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division): first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population – the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts – those by which it, in fact, works and rules. [Works, V, 206]

Bagehot made no pretence that he was prescribing a perfect and exportable form of government, merely that he was making a forensic and practical analysis of a particular time and country. In doing so he minted thus far imperishable clichés of constitutional theory.

Physics and Politics

In The English Constitution Bagehot was elucidating theories of his own construction. Only ten months after the final instalment of The English Constitution had appeared, Bagehot published the first of the six chapters which comprise Physics and Politics and for this work Bagehot had to master and apply the rudiments of others’ theory, not least Darwin’s theory of evolution. Though not as persistent in modern influence as The English Constitution, Physics and Politics is arguably the greater intellectual achievement. It gives us another cliché of political theory with ‘the cake of custom’ and moves discussion of sovereignty into a new era beyond mere moral contemplation.

Bagehot’s subtitle for this elongated essay tells all we need to know of his objectives – ‘thoughts on the application of the principles of ‘Natural Selection’ and ‘Inheritance’ to political society’. Those thoughts sent Bagehot in search of the ‘political prerequisites of progress.’ (Works V, 144). His conclusions trace the evolution of societies from a ‘Preliminary Age’ to the ‘Age of Discussion’ via ‘Nation Making’ and inter-societal ‘Use of Conflict’. In all of this he posits inherited national characteristics as determinants of differential development between particular states notwithstanding the operation of universal patterns:

Even some very high races, as the French and Irish, seem in troubled times hardly to be stable at all, but to be carried everywhere as the passions of the moment and the ideas generated at the hour may determine. But thoroughly to deal with such phenomena as these, we must examine the mode in which national characters can be emancipated from the rule of custom, and can be prepared for the use of choice. [Works V, 105]

A severe bout of pneumonia interrupted his writing the six instalments or chapters of Physics and Politics, which he produced between November 1867 and January 1872, in which year they were also brought together in book form. In 1873 followed the only one of Bagehot’s completed books not first serialised, Lombard Street: a Description of the Money Market.

Lombard Street

Whereas Bagehot wrote most of his works for immediate consumption, he worked on this book for almost three years — an uncommonly long interval for Bagehot between pen and press. It was to have lasting influence with central bankers as Professor Sayers acknowledges in his assessment of Bagehot as economist: “And when the two outstanding central bankers in the 1920s, Strong and Norman, corresponded across the Atlantic on current policy, Bagehot was the authority they quoted to each other. This is a formidable record” (Works IX, 43).

In an important sense Lombard Street is of a piece with both The English Constitution and Physics and Politics. It is not a treatise advertising the counsel of perfection. It deals with the banking system as Bagehot finds it and suggests how that system should be managed and adapted. There are echoes of the dignified/efficient dichotomy so familiar from The English Constitution in his pragmatic acceptance of the economic sovereignty of the Bank of England: ‘Credit is a power which may grow, but cannot be constructed.’ (Works IX, 81). Bagehot also favours an explanation of the evolution of variegated national money markets which chimes with the analyses favoured in Physics and Politics: “The rough and vulgar structure of English commerce is the secret of its life; for it contains ‘the propensity to variation’, which, in the social as in the animal kingdom, is the principle of progress” (Works IX, 53).


In 1875 Bagehot conceived and started work upon what might have been his masterwork – a comprehensive three volume commentary on economics. Volume One was to have contained his own conclusions on the scope of political economy, concentrating on the lessons applicable to newly developing economies, learning from the English experience. The second volume would comprise a study of classical economic theory. The final volume would contain portraits of the great economists. Bagehot never completed these volumes and his friend Richard Holt Hutton organised the fragments for publication as Economic Studies (in Works XI, 197-394) three years after Walter’s death.

In the last clingings of winter in March 1877 Walter Bagehot caught a chill. He set off from London to the family home at Langport on 20 March. There he died four days later. Woodrow Wilson (670, also Works XV, 154) provides an apt epitaph,

Occasionally a man is born into the world whose mission it evidently is to clarify the thought of his generation , and to vivify it; to give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance where it is out of poise, saving humour where it is dry, — and such a man was Walter Bagehot.

Works Cited

Bagehot, Walter, ed Norman St John-Stevas. Collected Works in Fifteen Volumes London: The Economist, 1965-1986. Print.

Barrington, Mrs Russell. Life of Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1915. Print.

Buchan, Alastair. The Spare Chancellor: The Life of Walter Bagehot. London: Chatto and Windus. 1959. Print.

Irvine, William. Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans, Green and Company. 1939. Print.

Kimball, Roger. "The Greatest Victorian." New Criterion 17.2 (October 1998): 23-28. Print.

St John-Stevas, Norman. Writers and Their Work: Walter Bagehot. London. Longmans, Green and Company, 1963. Print.

Sisson, C.H. The Case of Walter Bagehot. London: Faber, 1972. Print.

Wilson, Woodrow . "A Literary Politician." Atlantic Monthly 76 (November 1895): 668-680. Print.

Further Reading

The St John-Stevas Works cited above contains not only the fullest compilation of Bagehot’s work but also four introductory modern critical essays. The final two volumes (XIV and XV) also bring together contemporary appreciations of Bagehot, various obituaries and twentieth century political commentaries.

Individual editions of The English Constitution, Physics and Politics and Lombard Street are readily found and all are available online at Project Gutenberg, www.gutenberg.org.

Mrs Russell Barrington’s 1915 Life and Collected Works comprises ten volumes. All are available for free download at http://oll.libertyfund.org/. This includes Mrs Barrington’s largely uncritical Life and also a reprint of Richard Holt Hutton’s equally affectionate but more sceptical Memoir originally published in 1877.

For a further recommendation of Bagehot by Woodrow Wilson see his "A Wit and a Seer." Atlantic Monthly LXXXII. October (1898): 527-40

For an attempt to place Bagehot (in particular Physics and Politics) in modern context see Roger Kimball, "The Age of Discussion." New Criterion 31.5 (January 2013): 10-15.

Last modified 24 January 2013