Walter Bagehot

The English economist, social theorist, and literary critic Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) was virtually the founder in England of political psychology and political sociology.

Walter Bagehot, born on Feb. 23, 1826, at Langport, Somerset, came of well-to-do, middle-class banking stock with literary leanings. At Bristol College (1839-1842) he was deeply influenced by studying anthropology with J. C. Prichard. He then spent 4 years at University College, London, where he and some friends formed a debating society. They also wandered about London in search of the great free-trade and Chartist orators. Even more crucial was his year of reading for a master's degree, especially in moral philosophy and political economy and in the early-19th-century English poets. Out of this reading came his first published essays, literary and economic, in a Unitarian journal, the Prospective Review. Yet he fumbled in finding his vocation, spending several wretched years reading for the bar at Lincoln's Inn before he decided against law as a career.

Bagehot sent letters back from a holiday trip in Paris which were published in seven installments as "Letters on the French Coup d'Etat of 1851." He was absorbed with the problem of national character and saw the convergence between culture, social structure, and personality structure.

Victorian England was neither the time nor the place for a free-wheeling writer's career, except perhaps in fiction. Bagehot was too closely in touch with the reality principle to forsake a day-to-day base for a career as a man of letters. He decided upon a life as a banker.

In 1857, his life changed. He met James Wilson, founder and editor of the Economist, a political, literary, and financial weekly. Bagehot married Wilson's daughter, and when Wilson died suddenly, Bagehot became managing director and then editor, a post he held until his death. Every week he wrote several leaders, or editorials, on the money market and political trends.

Three Great Books

The new direction of his writings bore fruit in the three great books of his career. The first, The English Constitution (1867), is the one for which he is best known. It described and analyzed not how the Constitution was supposed to work but how it did actually work, especially in its fusion of powers rather than formal separation of powers, with stress on the Cabinet as "a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens" the legislative and executive parts of the state.

His second book, Physics and Politics (1872), made less of a splash but dug deeper. From his reading in the evolutionists and anthropologists Bagehot asked what the new sciences could show about the source of political societies and their development from primitive human life. He used as an evolutionary frame a scheme of three stages: the preliminary age, when the problem was to get any sort of government started; the fighting age, when cohesion was sought through enlarging loyalties and through custom and law; and the age of discussion, when innovation broke the "cake of custom" and offered freer choices to the members of society.

His third book, Lombard Street (1873), a classic in financial writing, was an exposition of how the money market actually works. In the last decade of his life Bagehot became immersed not only in the normal functioning of the money market but also in its neuroses, pathology, and therapy, so that his suggestions for getting greater liquidity by enlarging the central gold reserves and his invention of the treasury bill as a means of government borrowing were taken seriously.

Bagehot died at Langport on March 24, 1877. The only unfulfilled part of his life lay in the frustration of his ambition to be a member of Parliament. A man of ironic detachment and biting wit, he lacked any warmth of relation to an audience and the needed "common touch."

His pamphlet "Parliamentary Reform" clearly shows that, while he was formally a liberal, his deeper instincts were those of a Burkean conservative; that he had little enchantment with the liberal and radical cult of the common man; and that membership in the polity was for him not a "leaves-of-grass" abstraction but an operational fact which depended on political education and intelligence. His viability rests with his profound understanding of political psychology.

Further Reading on Walter Bagehot

Norman St. John-Stevas, ed., The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot (4 vols., 1965-1968), supersedes the editions by R. H. Hutton (1889) and by Mrs. Russell Barrington (1915). Bagehot's The English Constitution has been reprinted many times; see the editions by Lord Balfour (1933) and R. H. S. Crossman (1963). Good editions of Bagehot's Physics and Politics are by Jacques Barzun (1948) and Hans Kohn (1956). Hartley Withers's edition of Bagehot's Lombard Street (1915) is also recommended. A selection of Bagehot's political and historical essays, including "Letters on the French Coup d'Etat of 1851," is in Norman St. John-Stevas, ed., Bagehot's Historical Essays (1965).

The best biography of Bagehot is Alastair Buchan, The Spare Chancellor: The Life of Walter Bagehot (1959). The best bibliography is in Norman St. John-Stevas, Walter Bagehot: A Study of His Life and Thought (1959). See also Leslie Stephen, Studies of a Biographer, vol, 3 (1902; published in one volume, 1907); C. H. Driver, "Walter Bagehot and the Social Psychologists," in Fossey John Cobb Hearnshaw, ed., The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age (1933); Herbert Read, Collected Essays in Literary Criticism (1938; 2d ed. 1951); Max Lerner, "Walter Bagehot: A Credible Victorian," in his Ideas Are Weapons (1939); George Malcolm Young, Today and Yesterday (1948); Asa Briggs, Victorian People (1954); and Walter Edwards Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957).