The Life of Walter Bagehot - Emily Barrington - ebook

The Life of Walter Bagehot ebook

Emily Barrington



Mrs. Emily Barrington was the daughter of James Wilson MP, Liberal politician and founder of The Economist, and sister of Eliza Wilson, who married Walter Bagehot. Her intimate biography is one of the best ever written about the English economist, journalist and prolific author on government and finance.

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The Life of Walter Bagehot


The Life of Walter Bagehot, E. Barrington

Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck

86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9



ISBN: 9783849648541

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An attempt to write the life of Walter Bagehot presents a few rather special difficulties. In the first place, it is thirty-seven years since he died; inevitably, therefore, much material which would have been of great value has already vanished. Most of his political friends, among others Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Lord Goschen, Lord Granville, and Lord Carnarvon, with whom Walter Bagehot corresponded, have long since been dead, and letters which these may have preserved during their lifetime are no longer forthcoming. Moreover, Bagehot himself was in the habit of destroying any letters he received except those from his parents, from my father, and from Mr. Richard H. Hutton. A few from others were saved after his marriage because they chanced to come into my sister’s possession.

In 1852 Walter Bagehot left London and lived for some years with his parents at Herd’s Hill; consequently the correspondence between them ceased. Even after his marriage, when he lived elsewhere, he paid his father and mother a few days’ visit nearly every fortnight up to the time of his death, and would then talk over matters which had formerly been discussed in letters. My father died in 1860; and from 1861, when Bagehot again lived in London, he so frequently saw his friend Hutton that few letters passed between them. Hence the biographer’s best material ceases many years before Bagehot’s death.

There remain but two chief sources, the articles in the Economist and personal reminiscences. Of the former, two as a rule appeared every week during eighteen years (1859 to 1877); but though these are of considerable value, in that they note the subjects which were engaging Walter Bagehot’s attention and embody his opinions on passing public events, they are naturally impersonal in their tone and character. The latter, on the contrary, are of so intimate and personal a nature that the question arises how far they can be brought within the focus of matter suitable for publication?

The Diary which my sister kept for sixty years has been of the greatest service to me in supplying dates and in recalling many events of our family life after Walter Bagehot entered it.

My grateful thanks are due to President Woodrow Wilson for kindly sending me his two brilliant articles on Walter Bagehot which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1895 and 1898, from which I have quoted several passages. I am also greatly indebted to Viscount Bryce, Lord Welby, Colonel Cary Batten, and Mr. Robert Dickinson for their valuable contributions, as also to Viscount Morley, to Sir Edward Fry, and to the executors of the Earl of Carnarvon, Earl Granville, Earl Canning, Viscount Halifax, Sir Charles Trevelyan, the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone, William Caldwell-Roscoe, T. Smith Osler, and R. H. Hutton for their courteous permission to publish the correspondence with Walter Bagehot which still exists.

E. I. B., Herd’s Hill.


Had Walter Bagehot now been alive, he would have reached the age of 86. Every year robs the world of contemporaries who knew him personally. From the time he married my sister in 1858 till his death in 1877, I was constantly living with them, both before and after my own marriage. My sister’s wish is that I should endeavour to give some written record of him as he was known by those who shared his home life, together with selections from the letters which he wrote and received. His mother kept not only all his letters to herself and to his father, but those which they wrote to him from his earliest school-days: and from these a very clear picture of his nature and character, as a boy and as a youth, can be gathered at first hand. His intellect developed early, and from childhood his striking individuality displayed itself. He was worshipped by both his parents, but the manly fibre of his character was enriched and strengthened rather than weakened by this worship.

Those who know Walter Bagehot only through his best-known writings have a way of referring to him, which to our ears has a curiously far-off sound. This is inevitable. The two short memoirs written by his intimate friend, Mr. Richard Holt Hutton, treat but of the bare facts of his family life, and do not even allude—for obvious reasons, Walter Bagehot’s father being still alive when they were written—to a fact which, perhaps, influenced his home life more than any other, namely, his mother’s occasional fits of insanity. The subsequent essays written on Walter Bagehot have a still less personal note. The reviews which Sir Robert Giffen Endnote 002 and Leslie Stephen Endnote 003 wrote, and the address Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff Endnote 004 gave, did not touch on his home life, though all three writers were his personal friends. Mr. Forest Morgan, Endnote 005 Mr. Augustine Birrell, Endnote 006 the Rev. Dr. Kolbe, Endnote 007 the writer of the article “Walter Bagehot and his attitude towards the Church” in the Catholic Magazine and Review, The Month, April, 1896, Mr. Israel Zangwill, Endnote 008 President Woodrow Wilson, who wrote in the November number of the Atlantic Monthly, 1895, the Essay “A Literary Politician,” and in the October number, 1898, another entitled “A Wit and a Seer,” were all personally unknown to Walter Bagehot, belonging, as they did, to a later generation. Mr. Birrell’s estimate does not create a complete picture of him, but as far as it goes the resemblance it recalls is very good. He says: “Every one who has read Mr. Bagehot’s books will agree at once that he is an author who can be known from his books,” and Mr. Birrell’s own paper proves this up to a certain point. He adds: “Give the world time and it will be right, and the last person it will willingly forget is a writer like Mr. Bagehot, who loved life better than books”; and again, “to know Walter Bagehot through his books is one of the good things of life”. It is quite clear that Mr. Birrell’s appreciation of these books is on the same lines as the appreciation which his intimate personal friends accorded to the man. Still there is something wanting even here, for those who knew him in his family life could not, I think, fail to recognise that Walter Bagehot himself was even greater than his books.

With reference to President Wilson’s two estimates of Walter Bagehot, it was surprising to learn that they never met, so strikingly does he portray those attributes in Bagehot’s writings which recall most closely the more personal side of Bagehot’s life; but in a letter written at the time he forwarded the two numbers of the Atlantic Monthly containing his articles, President Wilson writes: “As a matter of fact, I never saw him, but I long had an enlarged drawing of the only likeness I ever saw, hanging in my study,” and adds, “I have had, ever since my boyhood, a great enthusiasm for Mr. Bagehot’s writings and have derived so much inspiration from them”.

These writings speak for themselves. As regards the actual writing, there is scarcely a line which is difficult to understand. It would be true to add, I think, there is hardly a line that is not stimulating to the understanding. A striking point about all his work is that he not only has mastered his subjects exhaustively, but enjoys them keenly. ‘You feel that his sympathy and lively interest are always thoroughly aroused; hence he discourses on every topic that allures him in a familiar, humorous fashion all his own. No author was ever more keenly alive to the folly of pomposity, or of any pose in style. President Wilson, speaking of Bagehot’s writings, says: “They have all the freshness, the vivacity, the penetration of eager talk, and abound in those flashes of insight and discovery which make the speech of some gifted men seem like a series of inspirations. He does not always complete his subjects either, in writing, and their partial incompleteness makes them read the more as if they were a body of pointed remarks, and not a set treatise or essay.”

Again, after quoting Bagehot’s comparison between the English and American political arrangements, President Woodrow Wilson writes: “These are eminently business-like sentences. They are not consciously concerned with style; they do not seem to stop for the turning of a phrase; their only purpose seems to be plain elucidation, such as will bring the matter within the comprehension of everybody. And yet there is a stirring quality in them which operates upon the mind like wit. They are a tonic and full of stimulus. No man could have spoken them without a lively eye. I suppose their ‘secret of utility’ to be a very interesting one indeed—and nothing less than the secret of all Bagehot’s power. Young writers should seek it out and ponder it studiously. It is this: he is never writing ‘in the air’. He is always looking point blank and with steady eyes upon a definite object; he takes pains to see it, alive and natural, as it really is; he uses a phrase, as the masters of painting use a colour, not because it is beautiful,—he is not thinking of that,—but because it matches life, and is the veritable image of the thing of which he speaks. Moreover, he is not writing merely to succeed at that; he is writing, not to describe but to make alive. And so the secret comes to light. Style is an instrument, and is made imperishable only by embodiment in some great use. It is not of itself stuff to last; neither can it have real beauty except when working the substantial effects of thought or vision. Its highest triumph is to hit the meaning; and the pleasure you get from it is not unlike that which you will get from the perfect action of skill. The object is so well and so easily attained! A man’s vocabulary and outfit of phrase should be his thought’s perfect habit and manner of pose. Bagehot saw the world of his day, saw the world of days antique, and showed us what he saw in phrases which interpret like the tones of a perfect voice, in words which serve us like eyes.”

The English Constitution, Lombard Street, and Physics and Politics, the three complete works which have carried Walter Bagehot’s fame far and wide, in no wise suggest the whole range of his powers and sympathies. The early essays do so perhaps to a greater extent; but it is only by taking his writings as a whole that we can recognise fully his many-sided nature and versatile gifts, and also best run to ground what explains the special quality of his genius, the core of its excellence, the power which enabled him to tackle with equal ability the wide range of subjects on which he wrote, the power which has been referred to as Shakesperian in its quality. Whether it was political economy, religion, poetry, metaphysics, politics, or banking—all these various subjects, through his pen, become pungent with the same racy flavour, the same vitality and movement. The same thread can be discerned running through all he wrote, all he did, and all he was. If we seek farther and ask wherein lay the distinctive quality of this stimulating, vitalising power, we are confronted by his own words—“the sense of reality is necessary to excellence”. The force of his imagination was governed and illuminated by this sense of reality. All the facts of life, all his feelings and ideas were lit up with a keen apprehension of it, for though he was a voracious reader he studied Life through contact with Life, rather than from books. Ideas, he felt, must be taken in, first hand; they must be inspired by contact with living creatures, living interests, genuine sympathies, genuine feelings, not diluted with human thought, human theories, or human prejudices, as they are prone to be when conveyed through books. The world was borne in upon him as in reality it passed before his eyes—and an engrossingly interesting world it was to him. He was seldom so completely preoccupied by his own thoughts as to lose the chance of a picture of real life being imaged on his brain. Intuitively and subtly he grasped the ways of this queer world of ours, those ways with all their inconsistencies, their quirks, their surprises; the ways that utterly refuse to be compressed into any rigid theories of what is expected or not expected to be, under any given circumstances. His sense of reality carried him far into strange aspects of things. His own home life with his parents taught him what but few have the chance of learning: indeed he was an emanation of the unusual in many respects. His genius, no less than his power of deep feeling, turned these rare lessons to good account. Into infinitely higher regions than those conceived by ordinary minds, did these lessons carry him, but even these regions he confronted with the same sense of reality. With the same vivid force of conviction with which he could master a fundamental principle of banking or of the English Constitution, he could affirm that “Mysticism is true,” and apprehend the presence of that “Kindly light” which led John Newman, who exercised so strong an influence over him at one time, to seize the reality of the spiritual life. It is by reason of this complete view of reality, learned from looking with unprejudiced vision into the entire world of facts, that Walter Bagehot manages to convey his own ideas to his readers with so much force of conviction.

Sir Robert Giffen, who acted as his assistant editor to the Economist, meeting him as a rule only in that capacity, but becoming intimate with him thereby, wrote in his contribution to the Encyclopædia Britannica: “Bagehot was altogether a remarkable personality. It is impossible to give a full idea of the brightness and life of Bagehot’s conversation, although the conversational style of his writing may help those who did not know him personally to understand it. With winged words he would transfix a fallacy or stamp a true idea so that it could not be forgotten. He was certainly greater than his books, and always full of ideas.” In a letter to my sister, written six months after Walter Bagehot’s death, Lord Morley, referring to Mr. Hutton’s article in the Fortnightly Review, Endnote 009 writes: “The article has recalled to my mind some of my conversations with him (Walter Bagehot), and in musing over them I feel strongly the impossibility of conveying to those who did not know him, the originality, force, acuteness, and, above all, the quaint and whimsical humour, of that striking genius. I am only glad to think that I have never failed to recognise and to enjoy his qualities as they deserve from my earliest literary days when I read the Estimates—a volume, by the way, which I hope you will reprint.”

If this personality impressed his friends who, like Lord Morley and Sir Robert Giffen, met him outside the home life, with how much more force did it stamp itself on those who shared that life. With Mr. Hutton we have “felt somewhat unreasonably vexed that those who appreciated so well what I may almost call the smallest part of him, appeared to know so little of the essence of him. To those who heard of Bagehot only as an original political economist and a lucid political thinker, a curiously false image of him must be suggested.” Endnote 010 To us that false image seems to be the only one that is reflected by many who quote him or speak of him in these quite later days. But how could the present generation, not having known him, conjure up the image of an entity so unique? How could it picture the singular power he had of making everyday matters in everyday life take an exciting, amusing aspect, while at the same time the grave, fundamental view of questions which underlie those everyday aspects, was never felt to be wholly off the scene, and was always to the fore when it was wanted? The idea generally formed of a sound, prudent person, and Walter Bagehot was eminently sound and prudent, is of one whose prudence takes a cautious and somewhat unimaginative direction. But, as Mr. Hutton says, in Walter Bagehot “the imaginative qualities were even more remarkable than the judgment, and were indeed at the root of all that was strongest in the judgment”. The uncommon and unexpected combination of qualities in his nature defies, I fear, any attempt to convey easily to this generation what those who knew him personally felt to be his most marked distinction. The light was distributed so far, yet was so vivid when focussed.

It is notable that Sir Robert Giffen, his intercourse with Walter Bagehot having been restricted mostly to the discussion of economic questions, should have conceived so true an impression of the ever-growing, expanding nature of his interests and inquiries. He wrote: “Mentally Bagehot was at his best when he died, and he looked forward to many years of happy toil, both in finishing the Economic Studies and other work beyond. So far from becoming absorbed in economic science as he grew older, though his later writings happened to be almost all economic, Bagehot to the last gave me the impression of only passing through one mental stage, which being passed through he would again leave political economy behind. To his historical and descriptive account of English political economy he was likely enough to have added a history of political ideas, or at any rate some other work of general philosophy, which had necessarily more attraction for him than the ordinary topics of political economy.” Endnote 011

I believe that before the end Walter Bagehot was rather reverting to earlier grooves of thought, and that, had he lived, he would have included in his future writings a class of subjects and impressions which characterised many of his earlier essays, in the days before his life had become somewhat choked with business. He was getting impatient, I think, of having to devote his best energies to matters from which religion, poetry, and art were excluded. His connection with the Metaphysical Society to which Manning, Ward, and Tennyson belonged, re-awakened trains of thought and speculation more in harmony with the trend of his feelings in those early days when Shelley and Keats were first delicious to him, and when Wordsworth and John Henry Newman were his daily food.

In Physics and Politics, when referring “to the loose conception of morals” which existed in primitive man, Bagehot writes ten years before his death: “In the best cases it existed much as the vague feeling of beauty now exists in minds sensitive but untaught; a still, small voice of uncertain meaning; an unknown something modifying everything else, and higher than anything else, yet in form so indistinct that when you looked for it, it was gone”. More and more did Walter towards the end desire that the still, small voice should become clearer and more often heard, that the something of form so indistinct should become more distinct.

From father and mother alike he inherited a fervent sense of the reality of the spiritual life, and an equally fervent love for the beauty of nature and, so far as opportunity allowed, an appreciation of the best art. “We are souls in the disguise of animals,” he writes in the Essay, “The Ignorance of Man”. From the days when Walter was a very small boy, the three enjoyed together the delights of their West of England scenery. Lynmouth was most often chosen for the seaside holidays because of its great beauty, and together they became intimate with every rock and cranny in the place, appropriating in fancy special spots as their very own. Herd’s Hill, their home, was worshipped by Walter as a boy. Countless letters exist—written by him from Bristol College and from University College, London, and from his parents to him, showing the romantic love they all felt for this Herd’s Hill. His father writes to him in 1843, Walter being then seventeen: “I do not know what you will say when you hear that some unsparing hand has commenced the work of destruction at Wick (one of the many beautiful views seen from the lawns at Herd’s Hill) and is cutting down the trees we have so long valued as one of our greatest ornaments. We shall be able to bear it I dare say; and I live in hope of finding many beauties beyond them. At all events we must have a beautiful home, while a virtuous and happy one.”

A month or two before his death, Walter and I (we were staying with him and my sister in their London house, 8 Queen’s Gate Place) made a compact. I was to administer experiences of an artistic—he, an experience of an intellectual kind. He had not liked any music he had hitherto heard. He had even felt music to be irritating. From babyhood it had been associated in his mind with anything but fertilising influences, having been chiefly allied to a pathetic feature in the family life. But when he was fifty-one he said to me: “You must take me to hear Joachim; I think I might understand Joachim”. A few days before he took his last journey to Herd’s Hill, he said: “You must take me to see Watts—I should like to see the outside of the person who does these things”. Deplorable indeed was it that this visit never came off. Watts, with his quick eye and apt discernment, would not only have wished to paint what in Walter was pictorially noticeable, but would have discovered something of him as he was below the surface—and we might have possessed a portrait which would have suggested that something. In return for the Joachim and Watts’s visits, Walter was to have taken me one Sunday to see George Eliot. I had been asked by Watts to meet her in his studio, but I had not dared on that occasion to propose a visit to her, though I had been inspired by my friend Mrs. Nassau Senior, with a wish to do so. Walter Bagehot was in the habit of attending George Eliot’s gatherings on Sunday afternoons at The Priory, St. John’s Wood. Bagehot recognised the value of William Morris’s art, and my sister and he had their London house furnished and decorated by his firm. It was written of him two years after his death: Endnote 012 “Few men of our own time have combined in so eminent a degree the useful and the beautiful. The value of such a mind is not to be measured by the amount of adulation poured upon it by the press. Thinking men recognise a gap which no other writer fills.”

Life had been a tremendous rush ever since he had married. He spent much of it in the train, between Clevedon and Bristol, London and Langport. Towards the end it quieted down somewhat, and he then felt the want of some echo of these things which had been nurtured in the early days, developed into the expanded form in which they were then revealing themselves to his matured taste. His nature was always annexing—and annexing what was best. To quote a saying of W. R. Greg’s, he was “a spring and not a cistern,”—not as Pitt, who “never grew,—he was cast”. Walter Bagehot had, to use his own expression, above all things an “experiencing nature”. He was always learning, always expanding; and this generation, if it wants to know Walter Bagehot through the only means it can know him, should read all his books—and read them as they were written; remembering always that the record is not quite complete. From circumstances in his life hereafter to be related, he chose banking as his actual profession, and thus placed himself in a groove which narrowed, not his mind or nature, but for a time his opportunities. When later the work of editing and managing the Economist devolved on him, he had so full a life of finance and politics, that it is a marvel his three famous books were ever achieved. But much was left on the lines that in early days found an outlet in literature which remained unrecorded when he died. Hence it is that those who knew him best think of the man as greater even than his books, for in personal contact, and in conversation with him, a vein in that genius was enjoyed which never found a fully developed expression in any book he wrote, whatever hints of it may be traced in the early essays. It would be a forlorn hope for me to attempt to convey any adequate suggestion of this vein in his genius, which those intimate with him felt as still waiting to be expressed in his writing, or to describe to those who never knew him, the rare and stimulating quality of this personal influence on those with whom he lived; but the endeavour to do so may serve as a tribute to the great qualities of his heart and character.

It is perhaps especially desirable at the present time for reasons arising from the political situations of the last few years, and the Constitutional changes which have recently been brought about, that an opportunity also should be given of gathering from the entire range of his writings what in reality was the distinctive trend of Walter Bagehot’s political views. During the various crises of the last two years, hardly a week passed without quotations from his books appearing in the newspapers, for the purpose of enforcing some party argument. But Walter Bagehot was no bigoted partisan of either side—Liberal or Conservative; the Conservative, no less than the Liberal side, would consult him. Sir Stafford Northcote, no less than Mr. Gladstone, would seek his counsel on questions of importance. When Bagehot lost the election at Bridgwater in 1866 he consoled himself with the belief that parliamentary work would not have suited him. Into neither side of the House could he have fitted himself quite comfortably. To use his own words, he was “between sizes in politics”. He was distinctly not a party man, though with eager interest, as will be seen in his letters, he entered into the great contest between the classes which ended in the passing of the Reform Bill, a measure which aroused strong sympathy in his father. On 1st May, 1846, at the age of twenty, he writes to his old school-fellow, Sir Edward Fry: “I do not know whether you are much of a free-trader or not. I am enthusiastic about, am a worshipper of, Richard Cobden. I am not very nervous about Lord Stanley and the House of Lords.” Again in the same letter he writes: “You ask, is England going downhill? I cannot think so. I see a gradual progress in history, especially in the History of England. I cannot suppose that this is now going to stand still. There never yet was a nation while getting freer and freer, more and more intellectually instructed, and morally better and better, which ever stopped. I think England is in this condition; the progress of the Arts of life, of material civilisation, has been for two centuries of unexampled rapidity, and I think that the mental progress has been also vigorously carried forward, though I do not think that it has been equally quick. The lower classes of this country are ignorant, but the last generation is better than the preceding ones, our generation more instructed than the last; it is for us to see to the next. The most hopeful sign of our times is seeing men like Burns and Ebenezer Elliott showing the falsity of that scale of merit, that is graduated according to property, and making the rich to know that there are richer than they.”

Six years after he wrote this letter, Walter Bagehot published his essay on “Shakespeare—The Man,” and in making out what were Shakespeare’s political views he clearly proves what were his own concerning “simple democracy”. After quoting the conversation between “George” and “John” respecting Jack Cade’s notion that the laws should come out of his mouth Endnote 013 ending with John’s exclamation, “I see them! I see them!” he continues: “The English people did see them, and know them, and therefore rejected them. An audience which, bona fide, entered into the merit of this scene, would never believe in everybody’s suffrage. They would know that there is such a thing as nonsense, and when a man has once attained to that deep conviction, you may be sure of him ever after. . . . He (Shakespeare) speaks in praise of a tempered and ordered and qualified polity, in which the pecuniary classes have a certain influence, but no more, and shows in every page a keen sensibility to the large views and high-souled energies, the gentle refinements, and disinterested desires, in which those classes are likely to be especially deficient.”

Fourteen years later Bagehot, with forcible argument, expressed his views on the subject of unduly lowering the franchise. Early in January, 1866, politics were started by Mr. Bright making a speech on reform at Rochdale. Bagehot wrote fifteen articles in the Economist during the course of that year on this subject which was uppermost in people’s minds. The manner in which it was treated by both sides of the House furthered much discussion. Bagehot took objection to Mr. Bright’s speech at Rochdale and reiterated the arguments he had always consistently advanced. He maintained that though every class should be represented in the councils of the nation, by unduly lowering the franchise you commit an injustice towards the class whose interests would thus cease to be represented, owing to the enormous majority of the poorer classes. “You must pass such a Bill,” he writes, “that the class now excluded from the representation shall no longer be excluded; and you must pass such a Bill that the classes now included in the representation shall still be included, and shall be in no danger of gradual exclusion by the further extension of your method. . . . Mr. Bright, like the Radical party in general, in their absurd superstition as to the vote, either forgets or contrives to ignore, the only purpose for which a vote is really useful—representation. He proposes quite rightly to takes guarantees that no class shall be excluded from the polling booths, but he is by no means anxious to take any guarantees that no class shall be excluded from being fully heard in the House.”

Walter Bagehot identified himself completely with the principles of Free Trade, by becoming the editor of the Economist. In 1843, with the co-operation of the then Lord Radnor, my father, Mr. James Wilson, founded the Economist newspaper. The object of this venture, mooted first at Lord Radnor’s dinner-table, was to spread the principles and doctrines of Free Trade. When Bagehot accepted the position of Director of the Economist he carried on the work of the paper entirely on the lines on which my father conducted it, but no passion of partisanship can be traced in any of Walter Bagehot’s articles. He speaks from a different platform, certainly from one commanding the view of a more extended intellectual horizon, than that ever surveyed by party prejudice. The eager, combative spirit, which, as a rule, characterises the discussion of party questions by party men, is never found in any of Walter Bagehot’s political writings. With stimulating vitality, together with a wise impartiality, he treated any subject which commended itself to him. He did not need the incentive of battle to awaken his zeal for elucidating a sound philosophical view of any question of public interest. He advocated great deliberation with regard to all public questions. He was keenly alive to the danger of precipitate, rash action. Two years before his death, Bagehot pronounced very distinctly his opinion on the necessity of deliberation and a long discussion before changes were made in England. He writes: “All changes in England should be made slowly and after long discussion. Public opinion should be permitted to ripen upon them. And the reason is, that all the important English institutions are the relics of a long past; that they have undergone many transformations; that like old houses which have been altered many times, they are full both of conveniences and inconveniences which at first sight would not be imagined. Very often a rash alterer would pull down the very part which makes them habitable, to cure a minor evil or improve a defective outline.” Endnote 014

Some years after Bagehot’s death Lord Goschen wrote in a letter to my sister: “In what dim distance lie the days when we met at Strawberry Hill. How few of the politicians who congregated there still remain. How changed is the whole political and social world. I wonder whether if he were still alive, your husband would think that I had grown ‘too conservative’. I do not think that I have changed much. I still hold most of the opinions which I held when, with your husband, I was classed as moderate left centre Liberal. But Conservatives and Radicals have both shifted their ground entirely.”

At the age of twenty-five Bagehot published “Letters on the French Coup d’Etat of 1851”. In these he explains, very amusingly, the advisability, even the necessity, there had been for Louis Napoleon to take despotic action for the interests of the people at large, being fully impressed by the fact that “people at large” were singularly attached to their own somewhat sordid interests. In the third letter he describes two ideas which must be first got rid of in discussing any constitution. One of these he cites as being the “pernicious mistake which creeps out in conversation and sometimes in writing, that politics are simply a sub-division of immutable ethics; that there are certain rights of men in all places and all times, which are the sole and sufficient foundation of all Government; and that accordingly a single stereotyped Government is to make the tour of the world; that you have no more right to deprive a Dyak of his vote in a ‘possible’ Polynesian Parliament than you have to steal his mat”. Burke, Walter Bagehot goes on to say, taught “the world at large that politics are made of time and place, that institutions are shifting things, to be tried by, and adjusted to, the shifting conditions of a mutable world, that, in fact, politics are but a piece of business, to be determined in every case by the exact exigencies of that case; in plain English, by sense and circumstance”. He continues by saying that of all immutable circumstances “by far and out of all question the most important is National Character”.

Walter Bagehot knew that party government in England must mean a certain amount of compromise, as it is that which suits the national character with regard to all business transactions, and that, however emotional may be the oratory with which measures are manipulated in the House of Commons, “politics are but a piece of business,” and “sense and circumstance” determine the upshot. But he knew also that no genuine passion ever rests satisfied which is treated in a spirit of compromise, and that the evidence of passion, in party political strife, means, as a rule, not a struggle for the ascendancy of any deep conviction or of immutable principles, but for that of passing interests and class prejudice.

Sir Mountstuart Grant Duff was of opinion that the House of Commons was not the right place for Walter Bagehot. “He was,” he said, Endnote 015 “in his proper place as a deeply interested spectator and critic of public affairs.” And as to his seemingly intuitive knowledge of the nature of politics and politicians, Sir Mountstuart continues: “What could have been better, even as the verdict of ‘an old Parliamentary hand,’ for instance, than his words about Sir Robert Peel, written in 1856, when he was only thirty: ‘No man has come so near our definition of a Constitutional Statesman—the powers of a first-rate man and the creed of a second-rate man!’ Or again: ‘A constitutional administrator has to be always consulting others, finding out what this man or that man chooses to think; learning which form of error is believed by Lord B., which by Lord C., adding up the errors of the Alphabet and seeing what portion of what he thinks he ought to do, they will all of them together allow him to do!’ Or again: ‘The most benumbing thing to the intellect is routine, the most bewildering is distraction; our system is a distracting routine’. A young man looking at the House of Commons from the outside rarely thinks of that. I am sure I never did; but I have known even Mr. Gladstone, at the height of his power, when the House had met on a Thursday in February, say when we rose on Friday night: ‘Thank God! there is one week of the session over;’ and a colleague sitting by me on the Treasury Bench once remarked to me: ‘It is wishing one’s life shorter by six months; but does not one wish on this the first night of the session that it were the last’.”

When Walter Bagehot’s old school-fellow was returned for Gloucester as a Conservative, he wrote:—

Walter Bagehot

“My dear Wait,

“I congratulate you most sincerely. It is awful this Conservative reaction; we shall be all in chains directly—nevertheless I congratulate you. I think you will really like the life, which a great many people do not in fact, though no one ever says so.”

“Bagehot,” writes Sir Robert Giffen in his contribution to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “had great city, political, and literary influence, to which all his activities contributed, and much of his influence was lasting. In politics and economics especially his habit of scientific observation affected the tone of discussion, and both the English Constitution and the Money Market have been better understood generally because he wrote and talked and diffused his ideas in every possible way. He was unsuccessful in two or three attempts to enter Parliament, but he had the influence of far more than an ordinary member, as director of the Economist and as the adviser behind the scenes of the Ministers and permanent heads of departments who consulted him.” Walter Bagehot has been called “a sort of supplementary Chancellor of the Exchequer,” and this was equally true whichever party was in power. “Though,” continues Sir Robert Giffen, “he belonged to the Liberal party in politics, he was essentially of conservative disposition, and often spoke with sarcastic boastfulness to his Liberal friends of the stupidity and tenacity of the English mind in adhering to old ways as displayed in city and country alike. He early gave up to literature the energies which might have gained him a large fortune in business or a great position in the political world. To write books a man must give up a good deal; and, as a man of letters, there is no doubt he made the sacrifice for himself willingly and cheerfully, following his true bent without turning to right or left.”

One side of his nature made, I think, this sacrifice the easier. The influence of his genius, the notably independent attitude of his mind, his power of sympathy, and his gifts as a brilliant talker, never led him to disguise to himself the fact that these alone did not necessarily bring the luck of very obvious worldly success, that, unless the aspirant is born under a peculiarly happy star, much of the active working which secures such success is based on a certain contriving and disposing of the events in life, a certain yielding to the weakness of those in power, a certain suppression of independent judgment and action, in other words on a certain abnegation of moral dignity. In every sense Walter Bagehot was finely pointed. He would never have consented to earn any of the good things of this world at the cost of entire independence and freedom of thought and action. Political and social climbers are not unfrequently obliged to lower their standard in order to attain their ends: Walter Bagehot thought such ends hardly good enough to make it worth while to make what to him would have been a repugnant sacrifice.

From Berlin, in 1848, Mr. Hutton wrote a letter to Walter Bagehot—then aged twenty-two—in which he expresses the high expectations he has formed respecting his future career. He assures him that he is by no means blind to his defects and goes on to say: “I do not take a one-sided view of your character. . . . But this does not in the least diminish my faith and expectation that you have a most important influence to exercise over us all, I hope as a Nation, one which I cannot bear to think should be diminished or destroyed either by the modifying or incapacitating influence of bad health on genius such as yours. I think myself I understand your character pretty thoroughly, both its wants and its powers, at least I feel as if I could analyse it as well as any character I know; and certainly I know none so capable of creating the highest permanent influence over England. I think your influence is essentially more fitted to be exerted over bodies of men, than over persons; through institutions, by reason and moral power, rather than through individuals by authority and persuasion and affectionate powers. Even in reasoning you can adapt yourself far better to convince mankind than to alter individual views, because you generally choose the natural universal road to Truths, even Truths the most difficult and obscure and often seem unable to wind along the particular paths of fallacy or truth by which specially contended minds so often reach their own views. . . .

“This is partly what makes me think your genius is fitted for a statesman’s position; and I cannot help trusting that your influence may be so wide and essential in our national distress and need, as to give you a permanent place in our history. It is strange I should feel such confidence as to this; that you are fitted for it, I feel certain. My only fear and anxiety is about your health and prudence.”

Writers of to-day not unfrequently remark that Walter Bagehot’s genius was not recognised during his lifetime. In one sense, but in one sense only, this is true. Undoubtedly it had not so wide a recognition as might have been expected; but what was denied it by the many was most generously accorded by the few who had both the power and opportunity to appreciate it. Now, through the sifting of the mighty sifter, Time, the few have grown into the majority. Why an obvious fame was not more quickly accorded may partly be accounted for by the fact that Walter Bagehot was but fifty-one when he died, and that the quality of his intellect and character were of too original a mould to be taken at their rare value at once by a public who only readily recognises great qualities in the form it is accustomed to value. Moreover Walter Bagehot was callous of undistinguishing praise, and so strong was the influence of his individuality, that his views about himself as a rule, infected his nearest friends. The modest attitude he took with regard to his writings and the effect they produced on the public, was wont to be adopted by those who knew him intimately. His value, they felt, was of a self-contained quality. It neither courted nor desired any fanning by popular applause. Of his old friend Crabbe Robinson, Bagehot writes: “I do not mean that he was universally popular; it would be defacing his likeness to say so”. “The prowling faculties,” he writes in his essay on Bishop Butler, “will have their way. Those who hunger and thirst after riches will have riches, and those who hunger not, will not.” So with reputation—Walter Bagehot was no prowler after popular fame, he did not hunger after it, so had it not during his lifetime, though, to quote Lord Bryce’s words, “it was with no small surprise that those who knew him, perceived how little the world seemed to know the loss it sustained when his keen, bright, fertile intellect left us”. In the rush and tear of an over-crowded world those who are indifferent to the crowd’s applause are not, as a rule, applauded by the crowd, till some one wiser than it starts the drums and trumpets.

Writing to my sister before they married, Bagehot says: “The only thing I maintain is that I have a spring and energy in my mind which enables me to take some hold of good subjects and makes it natural and inevitable that I should write on them. I do not think I write well, but I write, as I speak in the way (I think) that is natural to me, and the only chance in literature, as in life, is to be yourself. If you try to be more you will be less. But do not take up any extravagant notions of my abilities or you will be disappointed when you find out your mistake. . . .”

Speaking of reputation he writes in another letter to my sister from Claverton, our home when we first knew him: “I came here to talk ‘Crises and Currency’ for an article in the next number of the National. I feel I should like much more to have a reputation about these subjects because you would like it. Of course I should have always liked it somewhat; but reputation is not my strongest temptation. I think it a very healthy and proper object of desire—the wish to be estimated at your value is nearly as important for good in a character, as the wish to be estimated at more than your value is for evil; but I am not exceedingly prone to it myself.”

When Walter Bagehot died all the principal newspapers bore witness to his distinguished position among the wise men of his generation. But fame—as the word fame is generally understood—was but tardily accorded. Eighteen years after his death President Wilson writes: “Walter Bagehot is a name known to not a few of those who have a zest for the juiciest things in literature, for the wit that illuminates and the knowledge that refreshes. But his fame is still singularly disproportioned to his charm; and one feels once and again like publishing him at least to all spirits of his own kind. It would be a most agreeable good fortune to introduce Bagehot to men who have not read him. To ask your friend to know Bagehot is like inviting him to seek pleasure. 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.”

Nevertheless twenty-three years after “such a man” died, Mr. Augustine Birrell, when lecturing on him in his own country, had, in a sense, to introduce him to his audience. “My object,” he said, “was not to give a précis of Mr. Bagehot’s books—that must have been dull, or to assign him his true place in the providential order of the world—that would have been impertinent, but merely to shake the tree, so that you might see for yourselves as the fruit fell from it, what a splendid crop it bears.”

Undoubtedly it was in America that the first wide-sounding blast was blown. In 1889—twelve years after Bagehot’s death—the first uniform edition of his works was published by The Travellers’ Insurance Company, Hartford, Conn. To quote from the notice advertising it. “This handsome edition of the works of one of the greatest and most charming writers of the Century is published by The Travellers’ Insurance Company as a souvenir of itself; and its nearly nominal price bringing it easily within reach of the poorest student or the most slenderly endowed library—is due to their not desiring to make profit on it as a merchandise.” This edition comprised all the works which had been reprinted under the editorship of Mr. R. H. Hutton. Mr. Forest Morgan, the editor of this uniform edition, writes: “Once for all, Walter Bagehot’s writings have been to me for many years one of the choicest of intellectual luxuries, and a valued store of sound thought and mental stimulation”. He asks for fair allowance to be made for “one who has made heavy personal sacrifices of leisure, health and chosen pursuits, to carry through an important work”.

When Mr. Hutton expressed his belief that Walter Bagehot’s genius was “fitted for a statesman’s position,” he was evidently conceiving a future fame for him somewhat on different lines from those on which it has been actually attained. His brilliant vitality, his lovable qualities, his originality and humour, might reasonably have led his friends of early days to expect that his genius would have made its mark in the active sphere of political life where the influence of a strong individuality carries with it so much weight. But for reasons of health, and also for other yet more important considerations—again to quote Sir Robert Giffen—“he early gave up to literature the energies which might have gained him a large fortune in business or a great position in the political world”.

The world is the gainer for the sacrifice, if sacrifice it were. Through his writings Walter Bagehot’s stimulating genius is now telling on thousands of minds in many countries. Physics and Politics alone has been translated into seven different languages; and in 1888 it and Lombard Street had reached their eighth editions. During the last eighteen months many thousand copies of one edition alone of the English Constitution have been sold. Through his works, fertile thoughts are being suggested and wise opinions formed on subjects which concern the right development of every community at all times, in rising no less than in passing generations. No personal position he might have achieved during his life could have had a more beneficial effect upon his fellow-creatures. The prophecy Mr. Hutton made nearly thirty years before Walter Bagehot’s death—namely, that his friend was to exercise an important and permanent influence “over us all as a nation” is certainly being fulfilled through his writings, and this influence which Walter Bagehot’s writings have over his posterity, the generation of to-day, is the result of his ideas having sprung into existence in the midst of the work of life, not in the retirement and delicious leisure of the study.

One important service he rendered to the country which ought to be more widely associated with his name than it is. Lord Welby writes:—

“October 5th, 1912. In former days when I was at the head of the Finance Branch of the Treasury, I made the acquaintance (a privilege which I highly value) of Mr. Walter Bagehot. The machinery of our financial administration is complicated and Mr. Bagehot is the only outsider who had thoroughly mastered it. Indeed he understood the machine almost as completely as we who had to work it. This knowledge, added to the soundness of his economical judgment, gave a special value to his opinion and advice. Chancellors of the Exchequer attached great weight to the opinion of Mr. Bagehot, especially Sir Stafford Northcote, who consulted him on several occasions. In 1877 Mr. Bagehot rendered great financial service to the Government by devising a new form of security which enabled the Treasury to borrow quickly and on favourable terms.

“The National Debt is divided into two sections, (1) the Funded Debt; (2) the Unfunded or Floating Debt. The Floating Debt represents money borrowed to meet temporary, sudden, or emergency demands. It is therefore an important part of the financial machine. In the seventies the Treasury was lending largely to local authorities for education, health and other purposes, and it became necessary to obtain money by an increase of the Floating Debt. Ever since the Revolution, the Treasury had raised money under the head of Floating Debt by the sale of a security called ‘Exchequer Bills’. This security, however, was antiquated in form and not suited to the requirements of the modern money market. They had in consequence lost popularity and Sir Stafford Northcote had (1876 and 1877) to consider a new method of borrowing. He desired me to state the case to Mr. Bagehot, as at once a practical Banker and a leading economic authority. Mr. Bagehot replied promptly: ‘The Treasury has the finest security in the world, but has not known how to use it. The market where you borrow deals in Bills of Exchange and is accustomed to that form of security. The security which you offer should resemble as nearly as possible a Bill of Exchange both in form and method of negotiation. Such a Bill would rank before a Bill of Barings’ (then the leading merchants of London). The suggestion was simple, practicable, and intelligible and, although it was not very favourably regarded by the Bank of England, Sir Stafford Northcote adopted it. Since that time (now thirty-five years ago) the Treasury has, for the purpose of Floating Debt, borrowed mainly on the credit of Mr. Bagehot’s invention, known in the market as Treasury Bills. His prophecy as to their popularity has been fulfilled. They are in general demand and always saleable. The price of issue varies of course with the state of the market, but being in favour with lenders, they command good terms. Foreign Governments often invest in them, and they have been imitated in different quarters. At the present moment Japan is meditating the issue of a security on the lines of our Bills. They have not only met ordinary emergency demands, but they have stood the strain of a great war.

“I think that I am the only survivor of those who took part in these consultations of 1876-7, and I have always been anxious that due credit should be given to Mr. Bagehot for the happy advice he then gave. He himself died not long after this event, and I do not think it is mentioned in his works. Indeed he was too modest to talk about his own work. He shares with a famous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Charles Montagu, the invention of the instruments of Credit by which for more than two centuries provision has been made for the Floating Debt. Charles Montagu in 1695 invented ‘Exchequer Bills,’ which served the purpose for 180 years, and when they fell out of favour, Bagehot invented in lieu of them ‘Treasury Bills,’ which still successfully hold the field.”

From boyhood Walter Bagehot was a devourer of history, Greek and Roman, no less than of modern literature, and his sagacity taught him early, through these studies, that no great nation made its mark through political strife, but rather through the quality of its moral temperament, its art and its literature. Likewise he understood business (and he calls politics “a piece of business”) far too well to confound its value with that of those “immutable ethics”—which concern it not. These were really not cynical views, though at times he might express them in cynical phraseology. They were born of the wise power which Walter Bagehot possessed of affixing to things their proportionate value; of awarding, for instance, in those inimitable passages in the “Essay on the First Edinburgh Reviewers,” Endnote 016 the precise species and measure of approval both to a Lord Jeffrey and to a Wordsworth. This power of apportioning the true value of things was, in its turn, born of a depth of nature which could reverence profoundly the greatest things, those whose essence partakes of that of another world. In the letter to Sir Edward Fry, already quoted, he writes: “I am an impatient reader of merely pretty poetry (referring to Longfellow’s ‘Voices of the Night’) though not, I trust, without enthusiasm for the great masters of the poetic art, nor untouched by the beautiful expressions of feelings and aspirations, which earnestly long for what is infinite and eternal”. On entering University College, London, at the age of sixteen, he met the first serious trial in his life. Endnote 017 After facing it with an equal courage and modesty, he writes to his mother: “I hope I have acted right; I have at least the consoling reflection that I tried to do so and that I did not enter upon the performance of a duty to me exceedingly painful in reliance of my own strength, but with the hope of God’s allwise direction. It is my first taste of the troubles of life; henceforth I shall perhaps never be wholly free from them, and although overcoming one, may render the others more easy, I felt the other day with some beautiful lines of Wordsworth:—

·         “Yet why repine we, created as we are for joy and rest

·         To find them only, in the bosom of eternal things.”

This power of measuring aright made him recognise the value of those things which appeal to, and influence, a people’s imagination. In the English Constitution he lays a stress on this influence. Leslie Stephen writes: “He (Bagehot) admitted that the British Constitution was a whole mass of fictions. It was a vast make-believe, invoking an ‘organised hypocrisy,’ and for that reason the best of all possible constitutions.”

Bagehot writes: “We deify a king in sentiment as we once deified him in doctrine. . . . The illusion has been, and still is, of incalculable benefit to the human race.” The “theatrical show of society” impresses the popular imagination; and the “climax of the play is the Queen. Philosophers may deride the superstition but the results are inestimable.” A Cabinet Government is only possible for “deferential nations”: men who can delegate power to “superior persons”. Bagehot delighted in his Somerset clown, who regarded the Crimean War “as a personal struggle between Queen Victoria and the Emperor Nicholas, and he did not see how it could be ended till the Queen had caught the Emperor and locked him up”. Primitive man, he contended, can only understand loyalty to a person. To reach him you must represent general principles by concrete symbols.

Walter Bagehot held that all this was in essence anything but what Leslie Stephen calls it, “a make-believe”. It had a reality behind it—a very truth which has been acknowledged practically, though maybe unconsciously, by all communities since communities existed. Is it not traceable in birds and animals? Is it not the same instinct that makes the peacock who spreads his tail and displays himself as wonderful and beautiful in front of his fellow-peacocks, a very potent person among them? To the unintellectual, unspiritually-minded English man or woman the higher life is conceived appreciably through the visible signs of grandeur and the atmosphere surrounding great people. They appeal also to the peasant as something to be looked up to. Grandeur and luxury fill the place in his imagination which beauty in Nature fills in the soul of the artist, the place a mine of rich ideas fills in the intellectual man, and the place the sense of religion fills in the spiritually minded. “Philosophers may deride the superstition;” the “superior person” may condemn it as beneath contempt; but Walter Bagehot’s revealing sense of reality and ingenious insight into human nature—not as it ought to be according to the “superior person,” but as it is—knew that it existed, and therefore must be counted as one of the elemental forces in social relations.

“We do not mean to insinuate,” Bagehot wrote, Endnote 018 “we would disclaim that party partiality, that this attraction of the lower stratum of the State to the aristocratic is always or mostly a base feeling. We believe, on the contrary, that it is an attraction of the most ignorant people towards the best that they know.”

He knew that to discount any value in appearance as a force acting on the imagination, is to ignore the value of beauty in Nature, as also in the responsive appreciation of that beauty, which is a rudimentary instinct in undistorted human nature. Walter Bagehot was the last to discount the value of such a force. Watts, who desired to teach the ethical importance of such enjoyment of beauty through the eye, would often lament and condemn the modern fashion in the aristocracy of viewing the display of grandeur in everyday life as bad form, of hiding their magnificence from the multitude. “Why,” he would say, “should they not give the poor the indulgence of enjoying the show?” Enjoy it they certainly do, as any grand function, such as a coronation, can prove, and they do not grudge it to the King and Queen, the Lords and Ladies, as long as they have a share in it.

Walter Bagehot believed in the virtue of the existence of a leisured class, which can fulfil the function of being the “theatrical show of society”. The hold on the working class, which the aristocracy possesses, means the hold on certain instincts natural to all classes, though the possibility of developing them exists only in a small minority of the community. Leisure—that is to say, the absence of struggle for material necessities—must be secured before this instinct can take a palpable form, and enable our human existence to be visibly perfected. But this leisure must be “an animated leisure,” used for the benefit of the world at large. The great “Barbarian” must not isolate himself, but must bestow the benefits of his leisure on his admirers. Walter Bagehot was averese to the doings of all agitators who go in primarily for destroying this atmosphere which surrounds the aristocracy. He recognised a great value in this atmosphere. He inherited something of it in his own blood; he possessed the influence of an atmosphere in his own person. His genius would not alone have given his personality the weight or charm it had. The peculiarly leisurely manner in which he would throw out his best sallies, his most whimsical hits, had much to do with securing for them their triumph. His personal refinement and choice taste were singularly innate nor was there any hint in his natural dignity of manner either of formality or pose. He took a lively interest in his fellow-creatures no matter to what class they belonged. With Shakesperian geniality, he showed the tolerance of a philosopher towards all his species. His views of Shakespeare’s nature can be quoted as those which might justly be ascribed to himself. “In his comprehensive mind it was enough if every man hitched well into his own place in human life. If every one were logical and literary, how could there be scavengers, or watchmen or caulkers,—or coopers? Narrow minds will be ‘subdued to what’ they ‘work in’. The ‘dyer’s hand’ will not more clearly carry off its tint, nor will what is moulded more precisely indicate the confines of the mould. A patient sympathy, a kindly fellow-feeling for the narrow intelligence necessarily induced by narrow circumstances—a narrowness which, in some degrees, seems to be inevitable, and is perhaps more serviceable than most things to the wise conduct of life—this, though quick and half-bred minds may despise it, seems to be a necessary constituent in the composition of manifold genius. ‘How shall the world be served?’ asked the host in Chaucer. ‘We must have cart-horses as well as race-horses, draymen as well as poets. It is no bad thing after all, to be a slow man and to have one idea a year. You don’t make a figure, perhaps, in argumentative society, which requires a quicker species of thought, but is that the worse?’ ”