Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bagehot, Walter

682191Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 02 — Bagehot, Walter1885Richard Holt Hutton

BAGEHOT, WALTER (1826–1877), an English economist and journalist, was born at Langport, in Somersetshire, on 3 Feb. 1826; he died at the same place on 24 March 1877. For the last seventeen years of his life he edited the 'Economist' newspaper, which was established by the late Right Hon. James Wilson during the anti-corn law agitation to represent free-trade principles. Mr. Bagehot, who married in 1858 Mr. Wilson's eldest daughter, became in 1860, on the departure of his father-in-law to India as financial member of the supreme council, the editor and manager of that journal, and continued in that position till his death. He was a considerable authority in all questions of banking and finance, and consulted by chancellors of the exchequer of both parties on such matters at critical moments; but in the literary world he was even better known for his lively, vivid, and humorous criticisms. The works published during his own lifetime were:

  1. 'The English Constitution,' a book used at Oxford and in more than one of the North American universities as a textbook on the subject; it has also been translated into German, French, and Italian.
  2. 'Physics and Politics,' an attempt to apply the princiciples of 'natural selection,' as explained by Mr. Darwin, to the explanation of the competitions and struggles of states; this volume, which is one of the International Scientific Series, has gone through four editions, and has been translated into six or seven different languages.
  3. 'Lombard Street,' now in its seventh edition; a study of the money market. He also published during his lifetime a volume of essays, 'Estimates of some Englishmen and Scotchmen,' now out of print, the whole of which, however, is included in either the two volumes of 'Literary Studies,' or the single volume of 'Biographical Studies,' published after his death.

Besides these works a volume on the 'Depreciation of Silver,' which discusses the causes of the fall in silver between 1866 and 1875, and which was corrected for the press by himself, appeared immediately after his death in 1877; and a volume of essays on political economy, called 'Economic Studies,' part of which had been published during his lifetime, while part was found among his papers, was published in 1880; Bagehot also published some essays on parliamentary reform, which were republished in 1883.

Langport, where Walter Bagehot was born and died, and with which he was connected both personally and by business ties during the whole of his life, is a little Somersetshire town with a 'portreeve' of its own, and a characteristically sober constitutional history. So long ago as in the reign of Edward I, Langport begged to be relieved of the onerous duty of sending burgesses to the House of Commons, for at that time sending representatives to parliament also involved remunerating them for their responsibilities, dangers, and expenses. This frugality and this rather ostentatious indifference to patriotic pretensions pleased Bagehot, who often boasted of it to his friends as a note of true political sobriety. It was at Langport that the Somersetshire bank was founded by Mr. Samuel Stuckey in the eighteenth century, and with this bank Bagehot, whose father, Mr. Thomas Watson Bagehot, had married Mrs. Estlin, a niece of Mr. Stuckey's, became early connected, and he succeeded his father as vice-chairman of the bank on the latter's retirement. Bagehot was sent to school in Bristol, where his mother's brother-in-law, Dr. Prichard, lived: and the influence of this relative, who wrote a book of great note on the 'Races of Man,' is visible enough in Bagehot's own subsequent writings. In 1842 he entered University College, London, where he became a good mathematician under the late Professor De Morgan, and read very widely in all branches of general literature. Poetry, metaphysics, and history — of which last study he never shirked what are usually thought the dry parts — were his favourite studies. The late Professor Long, who was a learned and accurate student of Roman law, as well as of Roman history, had almost as much influence over his course of studies as Professor De Morgan himself. Bagehot took his B.A. degree in the university of London, with the mathematical scholarship, in 1846, and his M.A. degree in the same university, with the gold medal in intellectual and moral philosophy and political economy, in 1848. Then he began to read law, in the chambers, first, of Mr. Charles Hall (afterwards Vice-Chancellor Sir Charles Hall), and then of his friend, Mr. Quain (afterwards the late Mr. Justice Quain), where he took a great liking for the art of special pleading, an art of which lawyers have now abandoned at least the technical and scientific use. Bagehot always professed to regret greatly the abolition of special pleas. 'The only thing I ever really knew,' he once wrote, 'was special pleading, and the moment I had learnt that, the law reformers botched and abolished it.' Nevertheless, though called to the bar in the autumn of 1852, he had already made up his mind not to pursue the law as his profession, but to join his father in his shipowning and banking business at Langport.

Before doing this, however, Bagehot spent some months in Paris, and happened to be living there at the time of the coup d'etat in December 1851. He adopted keenly at the time the side of the prince-president, and horrified some of his liberal friends in London by addressing seven letters on the subject of the coup d'etat to a little weekly paper, called the 'Inquirer.' These letters have since been republished in an appendix to the first volume of his 'Literary Studies,' which appeared after his death. They are letters of singular force and vivacity, though marked by more of that cynicism not uncommon in young men than any of his later writings. His great thesis was that 'stupidity' is the essential condition of political freedom, and that the French were a great deal too clever to be free. He held that the only security for people's doing their duty was 'that they should not know anything else to do,' and that the only guarantee for political stability was that they should be incapable of comprehending any other condition of political life than that to which they had been accustomed. It is easy to see that this notion, less paradoxically expressed, pervaded the essay on 'Physics and Politics' conceived and written some twenty years later.

In 1852 Bagehot plunged into business; but he had always spare energy for literature, and contributed first to the 'Prospective Review,' and from 1855 onwards to the 'National Review' (of which he was, throughout the existence of that quarterly, one of the editors), a series of essays which attracted very general attention by their brilliancy of style and lucidity of thought. Bagehot's great characteristic as a writer, whether on economic or literary subjects, was a very curious combination of dash and doubt, great vivacity in describing the superficial impressions produced on him by every subject-matter with which he was dealing, and great caution in yielding his mind to that superficial impression — one might almost say great distrust of it, if only because he was always disposed to believe in the illusiveness of a first impression. His face reflected both phases of his mind. He had heavy black hair, flashing black eyes, a florid complexion, a lissome figure, and the look of high animal spirits; but he had also something of good-natured mockery in his glance, and his face reflected that habitual reserve of judgment which has been called 'detachment' of mind — in other words, a power of holding himself aloof from the influence of his own first impressions till he had checked and criticised them. Perhaps the essays which would best represent his peculiar genius are those on the 'First Edinburgh Reviewers,' on 'Hartley Coleridge,' and on ' Bishop Butler.' In those essays you get a glimpse of Bagehot's ultimate creed, such as you hardly reach in any of his more elaborate works.

Of these more elaborate works, probably the most adequate to his own conception was that on the 'English Constitution,' in which he tries to get rid of all the formal theory of 'checks and balances,' and to show where the centre of power in the United Kingdom really is, and why the House of Commons is so much more powerful than other representative assemblies of the same class. His view was that the throne and the House of Lords are of the highest use, not in directly checking the House of Commons, but in affecting the wishes of the people as to what the commons should do and what they should not do. He regarded 'the dignified parts,' or, as he also calls them, 'the theatrical parts,' of the constitution, as useful chiefly to inspire in the people political confidence, to give a fuller significance to the sense of national unity, and to incline the people to look above themselves in education and social rank for the leaders by whom they would be guided. But the effective part of our constitution is, in Bagehot's view, the very close unity between the executive government and the legislature, produced by the machinery of the cabinet, which is at once responsible for every administrative act and for the legislation which enlarges, or contracts, or alters the scope of, both the administration and the legislature. He contrasts, at great length, the fusion of the administrative and legislative functions in the English cabinet with their formal and careful separation in the American constitution, and he maintains that the House of Commons gains enormously in efficiency by its power of dismissing and virtually nominating the cabinet; for that is the power, according to Bagehot, which gives so much importance to its debates, and which brings home to the electors their responsibility for sending to parliament the right kind of men, and for making their dissatisfaction felt when their representatives do not speak and vote in the manner best calculated to lend weight to the party which they are pledged to support. Bagehot held that a representative assembly which, like the House of Representatives in the United States, cannot effect any great and notable change by its resolutions, is bound to be something of a cipher, and that the people will never care enough about what such an assembly does, to take the pains requisite for selecting the best men. Nay, more, the best men themselves will not fix their ambition on becoming members of an assembly which exerts so little conspicuous influence on the course of national events. Bagehot was the first to bring out powerfully the paradox in 'government by public meeting,' as he called it, though he did not live to see all the practical illustrations of that paradox which we have witnessed of late years since the rise of Mr. Parnell's Irish party into its present importance. But he had fully grasped the absolute impossibility of conducting such a government as ours unless the House of Commons, in whom all power is centred, is really docile to its leaders on both sides. And Bagehot held that nothing could make it docile to its leaders on both sides except a profound popular conviction that deference to leaders is of the very essence of parliamentary government.

Bagehot, though no admirer of the House of Lords, is, on the whole, a decided partisan of the House of Lords as a revising assembly; but he earnestly desired its reconstitution by the help of a considerable number of distinguished life-peers. 'Most lords,' he said pithily, 'are feeble and forlorn.' The young peers are seldom aware that 'business is really more agreeable than pleasure.' Moreover, they are timorous creatures, who do not know when it is safe to resist an apparent current of popular opinion any more than they know when it is fatal to attempt to resist it. But with all this depreciation of the peers, Bagehot thought that the existence of the House of Lords tended to maintain the respect of the English people at large for the influence of wealth and culture in the community, and to prevent hungry and ignorant men from dictating foolish revolutionary measures to hungry and ignorant crowds of followers. While the House of Lords remains, the people will be insensibly influenced by their liking for the wealth and splendour of the aristocracy, and this liking will act as a sedative to keep them from rash and violent measures, and to confine reform to the removal of clear and visible grievances.

'Physics and Politics' was described by Bagehot as 'an attempt to apply the principles of natural selection and inheritance to political society.' His general view was that in early times the value of government chiefly consisted in the drill of a society into fixed habits, customs, preferences, and rules of its own, so as to subdue arbitrary personal caprice, and to create a common mind and character, a common groove of thought and feeling. He held that for this purpose a good habit or rule was better than a bad habit or rule; but that even a bad habit or rule thoroughly impressed on the whole people, and inducing a common life, was better than a good habit or rule which had not bitten deeply into the life of the people and effectually moulded them in a single mould. The race of men who cannot help acting together if they would, are sure to get the better over any race whose combination for co-operative actions is loose and imperfect; hence his preference for what he called political stupidity — the dull fixed habit of acting all in one way as the English do — to the sprightly divergences and differences of opinion which make it so difficult for the French to know what they really wish, or whether they have any wish in common by which the masses are profoundly affected. In the same way Bagehot explained, of course, the triumph of Rome over Greece and other indifferently welded, though cleverer and more reflective communities. He maintained, however, that this drill may be too effective, may go too far, and that, when it does so, we have cases of what he called 'arrested civilisations.' Such an arrested civilisation we have in China, where the common drill completely trampled out that disposition for cautious criticism and review of national prejudices, which ought to come sooner or later if there is ever to be an age of progress and discussion. Bagehot held that in our own day that respect for action which was characteristic of the times when action was needed to form and mould the national character, is excessive. He thought that reserve of judgment, and especially reserve of resolve, is not half common enough. Men are over-eager to be doing what they are not sure of approving even when they have done it. The military instincts inherited from the age of drill precipitate us into all sorts of premature action, where we really want discussion and suspense of judgment till discussion has done its perfect work. 'Physics and Politics' is a very remarkable illustration of the dread of eagerness inspired by the doubts of a reflective mind. The eager nations, he held, had had their day. The time for deliberating, hesitating and slowly resolving nations, had arrived.

As an economist Bagehot belonged decidedly to the Ricardo school; but he held that the Ricardo political economy does not apply to any country in which the larger commerce and the system of open competition have not been more or less introduced. He denied altogether, for instance, that in such a country as India it is true that capital flows towards any occupation in which a high rate of profit is to be made, or that the Ricardo theory of rent is true in India. He regarded political economy as a science of tendencies only, these tendencies being approximately true in countries like England, though not more than approximately true even there, while in the older world they are absolutely invisible.

Bagehot was one of the best conversers of his day. He was not only vivid, witty, and always apt to strike a light in conversation, but he helped in every real effort to get at the truth, with a unique and rare power of lucid statement. One of his friends said of him: 'I never knew a power of discussion, of co-operative investigation of truth,' to approach to his. 'It was all stimulus, and yet no contest.'

[The books mentioned above, and the memoir prefixed to the two volumes of Literary Studies.]

R. H. H.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.12
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line
394 i 6 f.e. Bagehot, Walter: after of thought insert He was the unsuccessful liberal candidate for Bridgewater against George Patton [q. v.] in 1866