Bagehot, Walter

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Bagehot, Walter

I. Economic ContributionsH. S. Gordon


II. Political ContributionsMax Lerner




Walter Bagehot (1826–1877) was one of the last and best of nineteenth-century England’s special breed of versatile men of letters. His literary output was phenomenal, not only for volume and quality, but also for the breadth of its subject matter. He wrote regularly on financial and economic matters with a penetrating knowledge of the inner workings of business affairs, and he was similarly incisive as a student of government and as a literary critic and author of biographical sketches and character studies. His literary style was clean and deft and has lost little of its power and attractiveness over the past hundred years.

Bagehot’s father, Thomas Watson Bagehot, and his mother, Edith Stuckey Bagehot, both came from families of prominent Somerset merchants, and Stuckey’s Bank, in which Thomas Bagehot was a senior officer, was one of the leading banks of the west country. Bagehot was educated at the Langport Grammar School and Bristol College. In 1842 he entered University College, London, where he received his B.A. with first-class honors in 1846 and his M.A. in 1848, winning the university’s Gold Medal for Moral and Intellectual Philosophy. He subsequently read for the bar and was admitted, but he did not practice, deciding instead to enter the family banking business.

In 1857 he became acquainted with James Wilson, founder and editor of the remarkable London weekly newspaper The Economist, and this led to marriage and a career. He married Eliza, the eldest of Wilson’s six daughters, the following year and was designated director of The Economist in 1859, when Wilson left for India on a mission to reform that country’s finances. Upon Wilson’s death, in 1861, Bagehot was offered his post on the Indian viceroy’s council but declined it, primarily for family reasons (his mother, to whom he was devoted, suffered from intermittent fits of insanity), and instead became editor of The Economist. This was his chief occupation until his death, in 1877, although he continued to be active in the management of Stuckey’s Bank as well.

As a schoolboy he seems to have been a rather intense grind. He held aloof from his fellows and was almost universally disliked by them. Yet his adult contemporaries have uniformly represented him as a friendly, easy, and charming man. He was, perhaps, extraordinarily precocious as a youth and reached the full maturity of his powers while he was still quite young. His first publications in economics were remarkable performances for a man of 22, and his later works, although excellent, are not really superior to his first.

Bagehot had a strong desire to enter politics (as a Liberal), but he was unsuccessful in all four of his attempts to secure nomination or election. He was unable to make a strong appeal as a public speaker, and his unwillingness to corrupt voters told against him in close elections. It is indicative of his character that he did not become embittered by these failures but rather developed a deeper and even more objective understanding of the political process. He may indeed have had more influence on government policy as an independent commentator than he would have had as a member of Parliament or even a minister. He was able to occupy the delicate position of both critic and friend of ministers. He was held in high esteem, often made privy to governmental confidences, and his advice was sought. Gladstone is supposed to have referred to him as “a kind of spare Chancellor of Exchequer.” He is credited with the invention of the treasury bill as a governmental borrowing instrument in 1876, in response to a request for advice by the Disraeli government. Undoubtedly his intimate relations with those in high positions, both in government and in finance, were of great importance in enabling him to develop The Economist into the unique institution of economic information and comment it became during, his editorship.

Central banking theory

Although a strong advocate of free trade, Bagehot was not a doctrinaire believer in laissez-faire. In his first published article (1848) he laid down the boundaries of the laissezfaire argument with a perception that stands up well even today, and in particular he criticized his future father-in-law, James Wilson, for applying the principle of laissez-faire to money. Bagehot believed that currency should be created by a government monopoly and that the monetary system should be deliberately managed. These ideas were the foundation of his most important contribution to economics, his theory of central banking, which he advanced first in articles in The Economist and later in a book that became a classic, Lombard Street (1873).

Lombard Street developed two major arguments about central banking. First, it is an institutional fact that British banks, by holding part of their cash reserves in larger and more central banks, produced a pyramid of cash reserves, and that the Bank of England had consequently come to be the holder of the central reserves of the whole system. Second, it is a psychological fact that a banking panic can be broken only by providing people with as much liquidity as they feel they require. From these facts Bagehot drew the conclusion, at that time unorthodox, that the Bank of England was not merely primus inter pares in the banking system, but a special bank with special responsibilities. Bagehot pointed out that in times of crisis the Bank had in fact not acted as if it were merely an ordinary private bank. It had attempted to support other banks that were in difficulty, but it had acted hesitantly and, given the psychology of the liquidity crisis, had thus more often done harm than good. Bagehot concluded that the Bank of England should explicitly acknowledge its central position in the financial system as custodian of the final reserve and lender of last resort; that the Bank of England should increase its reserve to an amount that would inspire full confidence; that the bank rate should be used to regulate external currency drains; and most important of all, that the Bank of England should undertake to lend freely at all times so as to erase all doubt about the availability of bank accommodation. Bagehot’s propositions were accepted immediately by Jevons, Cairnes, and many other economists, but it took another twenty years before the City and the Bank of England were convinced of their merit.

Views on political economy

Despite his great success as an economic journalist and adviser, Walter Bagehot was eager, in later life, to make a contribution to economic science that would be of permanent importance. Unaware of how significant and enduring his journalistic efforts would in fact prove to be, he was strongly motivated to carve his name in the harder stone of economic theory. He projected a large treatise covering many facets of economic theory, including an examination of its methodology and studies of the great economists of the past. His death at the age of 51 left this ambition unfulfilled, but a volume containing such papers as those he had drafted for this treatise was published posthumously under the title Economic Studies in 1880.

Although he thought highly of contemporary “English political economy,” Bagehot regarded it as suffering from three main limitations. It was not, as was often claimed, universally applicable to all societies; second, its proponents were too content with abstract presentations and did not provide sufficient concrete illustrations; third, there was too little effort at empirical verification of economic propositions.

Bagehot regarded the first of these deficiencies as the most important and its theme is to be found reiterated often in his writings. “English political economy” was, according to Bagehot, an analysis of a monetary economy that was organized through the mechanism of competitive markets and powered by the motivations of private gain. Such an analysis was, in Bagehot’s view, applicable only to a highly developed money-exchange economy, like that of England. In other societies, where the basic postulates of the analysis, i.e., the easy mobility of labor and capital, were not to be found, the analysis was inadequate. The new anthropological findings of his time, added to his own strong view of the importance of cultural and psychological factors in economic and political behavior, reinforced his belief that such fundamental differences existed between societies that a universally applicable science of economics was impossible. This view emerges most concretely in his study of labor and capital mobility but more profoundly in his monetary writings: a monetary-exchange economy was for Bagehot not merely an extension or elaboration of a barter-exchange economy but a reflection of basic differences of culture and social psychology.

General economic ideas

Bagehot’s economic thought was founded largely on three general ideas: (1) the existence of a fundamental difference between a monetary economy and a nonmonetary one; (2) the interconnectedness of all economic processes; and (3) the importance of psychological and sociological elements in the analysis of economic behavior. Virtually all his economic writings make use of one or more of these ideas, and his lasting contributions are traceable to his skill in using such ideas as instruments for penetrating complex economic phenomena.

H. S. Gordon

[For discussion of the subsequent development of Bagehot’s economic ideas, seeBanking, Central.]


The bibliography for this article is combined with the bibliography of the article that follows.


Walter Bagehot was not only an economic journalist and theorist but a general social scientist whose ideas cut across the disciplines of politics, psychology, and sociology. He thus belongs to the line of European thinkers that extends from Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century and Alexis de Tocqueville and John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth to Max Weber and Graham Wallas in the early twentieth.

Bagehot’s strength, manifested very early in his “Letters on the French coup d’état of 1851” (1852), lay in his grasp of the interconnectedness between political and economic institutions and the national character. His reports from Paris (for the Inquirer, a Unitarian journal) undercut the assumption, common to the British of his day, that there are principles of representative parliamentary government that are valid everywhere and at all times, just as his later economic studies challenged the assumption of universal economic principles. In his political ideas, as in his economic thought, he was an institutionalist, concerned both with penetrating beyond the outward forms and traditional justifications of social behavior and with discovering what factors shape going institutions within a social system. He had been deeply influenced by the ethnologist J. C. Pritchard and by Sir Henry Maine’s Ancient Law and had developed a more detached anthropological viewpoint than most of his contemporaries. His detachment often made his writings appear iconoclastic and even flippant to his more staid readers.

His analysis of Louis Napoleon’s coup d’état was based on his conception of a kind of congruence between the French national character and French political institutions. Instead of attacking Louis Napoleon for his dictatorial methods and for his liquidation of what might have become a viable democratic regime—as Tocqueville did in discussing the same coup (in his Souvenirs and in his notable letter to the editor of The Times, December 11, 1851)—Bagehot quoted a description of the French as des machines nerveuses. He asked rhetorically: “Can their excitable, volatile, superficial, over-logical, uncompromising character be managed and manipulated as to fit them for entering on a practically uncontrolled system of Parliamentary Government?” ([1852] 1965, p. 433). While his English readers reacted to the Catholicism of the French only with mistrust, Bagehot sought instead to understand the relationship between French religion and French politics. Again, rather than condemning Louis Napoleon’s repression of the French newspapers, Bagehot interpreted this as the necessary action of a strong leader trying to tame the volatile and absolutist elements in the French character. His delight in paradox led him to say (in the third letter) that “the most essential mental quality for a free people, whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent and on a large scale … is much stupidity” ([1852] 1965, p. 403). This was his way of referring to the pragmatic bent of the British national character and its refusal to accept absolute categories or values, as against the ideological bent of the French, along with their “excessive sensibility to present impressions” which contrasts with British obstinacy. Thus, what Bagehot was reaching for, expressed in more recent terminology, was a political sociology and psychology based on the convergence of culture and personality structure, of the functional and institutional with the behavioral. He was more successful, however, in dealing with patterns of national psychology than with patterns of culture.

His favorite medium for analysis of national psychology was the journalistic essay on historical, political, and literary figures. A few examples are Gibbon, Shelley, Arthur Hugh Clough (who influenced him greatly at University College, London), Bolingbroke, Peel, and Disraeli. These were published in various magazines, including the Prospective Review, the National Review, which he founded and edited together with his close friend Richard H. Hutton, and finally and increasingly in The Economist, to which as editor he gave that stamp of a far-ranging and penetrating journal which it still retains.

The underlying theme of his essays on political figures is that great leadership comes from a leader’s ability to establish a responsive relationship with an electorate. An aristocrat at heart, Bagehot himself recoiled from the truckling courtship of the mass. This attitude may help account for his failure to get himself elected to the House of Commons: he made a number of attempts, failed several times to be adopted as a candidate, and when he did stand was twice defeated. He lacked both oratorical ability and the common touch, and his wit and flair for epigram were more disabling than helpful.

Yet Bagehot did have a feeling for the nuances of the changes in social stratification that formed the shifting base of the suffrage demands. In a widely read pamphlet he proposed a limited reform of the suffrage, extending the franchise on a property basis to towns with a population over 75,000, thus reaching the new working classes. He expressed in his writings the deep fears held by the propertied, educated middle class of being overwhelmed by new waves of working-class voters. To these fears, which he rationalized by the contention that property is at least a rough measure of political intelligence, he added the social Darwinist view that the evolutionary process should not be distorted by excessive concern for the unfit. In governing England, he wrote, “the true principle is, that every person has a right to so much political power as he can exercise without impeding any other person who would fitly exercise such power” ([1859] 1965, p. 314). Resigned to the Second Reform Act of 1867, which he had opposed, he turned his attention to adjusting the new electorate to its responsibilities—first, by a lifting of its living standards (which he called comfort) and second, by education. Instead of “Register! Register! Register!” he suggested, “The cry should now be, ‘Educate! Educate! Educate!’”

The passage of the Second Reform Act coincided with the publication of Bagehot’s first, and what has proved to be his most influential, book, The English Constitution (1865–1867). In it Bagehot pierced the rhetoric that commonly obscured the authentic workings of the English constitution and found inside the parliamentary monarchy a functioning republic, if not a democracy. The book explained the realities of British government not only to the new English voting classes but to the whole world. More recently, it has become relevant to the problems facing the small elites of the newly formed African and Asian nations; they may also find significant what Bagehot wrote some ten years later, in an essay on Lord Althorp: “The characteristic danger of great nations … is that they may at last fail from not comprehending the great institutions they have created” ([1876b] 1965, p. 150).

Instead of accepting the traditional analysis that power is divided between king and Commons and Lords, he drew a new dividing line between the “dignified” element of the government (the parliamentary monarchy and its trappings) and the “effective” element (the functioning cabinet). His discussion of the dignified element is both anthropological and psychological; he described the enthrallment of the people by the fanfare and plumage of the monarchy much as an ethnologist might describe the enthrallment of savages by the magical investment of a shaman. Underlying this deference to the dignified element he saw the social structure and aspirations of Victorian England: the dominant bourgeoisie hankered for entrance into the aristocracy, and both in rural England and among the emerging working class the monarch represented a needed continuous tradition. What Bagehot discovered about the English monarchy was what Gibbon had discovered about religion in imperial Rome: both were politically useful. Bagehot saw England as the classic case of the “deferential nation,” where parliamentary institutions worked because a response to what we may call political theater (not only coronations but also elections and orations) had been built, as it were, into the popular mind.

The “effective” element of the English constitution was lodged in the cabinet, which Bagehot described as “a board of control chosen by the legislature, out of persons whom it trusts and knows, to rule the nation …, a combining committee—a hyphen which joins, a buckle which fastens, the legislative part of the State to the executive part of the State” ([1865–1867] 1964, pp. 67–68). He rejected sharply the idea that British government was based on the separation of powers, on a system of checks and balances between the three organs of government, and pointed out that what made a cabinet government work was that the cabinet embodied a fusion rather than a separation of powers. This was the hidden republic inside the monarchy. The hidden republic worked just because it was flexible enough to overcome the formal separation of powers.

In a sense, Bagehot’s book, written just after the end of the American Civil War, was a comparative study of presidential and cabinet government. He found cabinet government far superior to presidential government. Although Bagehot had never visited the United States, he had strong notions about it (notions that were less insightful than those of Tocqueville or James Bryce, who had studied the country at first hand). Bagehot felt that the American system was too rigid: it was cramped by the division between states’ rights and federal power, which created a perennial centrifugal force, and by the separation of the powers of the three branches of government, which resulted in constant deadlocks. The only merit of the American system—that of having a chief executive—the British had also in the form of a prime minister: “We have in England an elective first magistrate as truly as the Americans have an elective first magistrate” ([1865–1867] 1964, p. 66). What Bagehot did not realize was that some of the difficulties he diagnosed would disappear as the United States changed from a checks and balances government to a presidential form of government; nor did he take account, as Tocqueville did, of the positive effect on the political process of the American common voter’s participation in voluntary associations.

Immediately after the publication of The English Constitution in book form (originally, it had been presented in installments in the Fortnightly Review), Bagehot started a new work (also serialized in the same journal). This was Physics and Politics (1872), in which the first term was a metonymy for science and the second for the study of society. Starting from the recent writings on evolution and natural selection, he set as his problem the question of how human societies had developed from the earliest primitive human life. Much of his material was drawn from the writings of anthropologists—Lubbock, McLennan, Maine—but his use of the material was highly original [see LUBBOCK; MCLENNAN; MAINE]. What he shaped in the book, with subtlety and force, was a social psychology of political development, which stressed the role of unconscious habit (reflex action), custom, war, innovation, and imitation. In the fashion characteristic of books based on evolutionary theories, this work traces mankind through three stages: the “preliminary age,” before any developed polity emerged; the “fighting age,” when the desired end was social cohesion, when war was the means employed to achieve it, and when local and family loyalties were transformed through the “cake of custom,” which had the sanction of law; and the “age of discussion,” when the cake of custom has been broken by the innovating forces of the mind and men can make free choices between varying views and policies and fuse order and innovation into an “animated moderation.”

This book, his most seminal, although not his most influential, was Bagehot’s last work in general social science; afterward he turned increasingly to economics. What made his writing on social theory so remarkable was his lack of pomposity in a pompous age, his candor in an age of cant, and his tough-minded facing of political and social reality in an age of moralism.

Max Lerner

[For the historical context of Bagehot’s work, seeConstitutions and constitutionalism; Democracy; National character; Parliamentary government; and the biographies ofBurke; Mill; Tocqueville.]



(1848) 1915 The Currency Monopoly. Volume 8, pages 146–187 in The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans.

(1873) 1927 Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market. New ed. Edited by Hartley Withers. London: Murray. → A paperback edition was published in 1962 by Irwin.

(1876a) 1885 The Postulates of English Political Economy. Preface by Alfred Marshall. New York and London: Putnam. → Originally published in the Fortnightly Review and republished with some other material in Economic Studies. The 1885 edition is an inexpensive students’ edition, published at the instigation of Alfred Marshall.

(1880) 1895 Economic Studies. New ed. Edited by R. H. Hutton. London: Longmans. → Published posthumously. Reprinted in 1953 by Academic Reprints (Stanford, Calif.).

political works

(1852) 1965 Letters on the French coup d’état of 1851. Pages 381–436 in Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

(1852–1877) 1965 Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Edited with an introduction by Norman St. John-Stevas. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

(1859) 1965 Parliamentary Reform. Pages 296–347 in Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.

(1865–1867) 1964 The English Constitution. London: Watts. → First published in the Fortnightly Review.

(1872) 1956 Physics and Politics: Or Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of “Natural Selection” and “Inheritance” to Political Society. Boston: Beacon.

(1876b) 1965 Lord Althorp and the Reform Act of 1832. Pages 147–179 in Bagehot’s Historical Essays. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor.


The Works of Walter Bagehot: With Memoirs by R.H.Hutton. 5 vols. Edited by Forrest Morgan. Hartford, Conn.: Travelers Insurance Co., 1889. → Includes Bagehot’s principal economic works, but no articles from The Economist. The editor has taken some liberties with Bagehot’s original text.

The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot. 10 vols. Edited by Ermilie I. Barrington. London: Longmans, 1915. → Includes the principal economic works but virtually no economic articles from The Economist. Volume 10 contains the Life of Walter Bagehot by Ermilie I. Barrington.

The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot: The Literary Essays. 2 vols. Edited by Norman St. John-Stevas. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1966. → Projected volumes are: Volume 3: Historical Essays. Volumes 4–5: Political Essays. Volumes 6–7: Economic Essays. Volume 8: Letters and Miscellany.


Barnes, Henry A. 1921–1922 Some Typical Contributions of English Sociology to Political Theory. American Journal of Sociology 27:289–324, 442–485, 573–587, 737–757; 28:49–66, 179–204.

Baumann, Arthur A. (1916) 1927 The Last Victorians. London: Benn. → See especially pages 165—183 on “Walter Bagehot.”

Briggs, Asa (1954) 1955 Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851–1867. Univ. of Chicago Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963 by Harper.

Brinton, Clarence Crane (1933) 1949 English Political Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Harper.

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

Dexter, Byron 1945 Bagehot and the Fresh Eye. Foreign Affairs 24: 108–118.

Driver, C. H. (1933) 1950 Walter Bagehot and the Social Psychologists. Pages 194–221 in Fossey J. C. Hearnshaw (editor), The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Easton, David 1949 Walter Bagehot and Liberal Realism. American Political Science Review 43:17–37.

Giffen, Robert 1880 Bagehot as an Economist. Fortnightly 33:549–567.

Halsted, John B. 1958 Walter Bagehot on Toleration. Journal of the History of Ideas 19:119–128.

Hearnshaw, F. J. C. (editor) 1933 The Social and Political Ideas of Some Representative Thinkers of the Victorian Age. London: Harrap.

Hirst, Francis W. (1943) 1944 Walter Bagehot. Pages 64–72 in The Economist, London, The Economist, 1843–1943: A Centenary Volume. Oxford Univ. Press.

Houghton, Walter E. 1957 The Victorian Frame of Mind: 1830–1870. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

Irvine, William 1939 Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans.

Keynes, J. M. 1915 The Works of Bagehot. Economic Journal 25:369–375.

Lerner, Max 1939 Walter Bagehot: A Credible Victorian. Pages 305–314 in Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas. New York: Viking.

Murray, Robert H. 1929 Bagehot’s Seminal Mind. Volume 2, pages 220–273 in Robert H. Murray, Studies in the English Social and Political Thinkers of the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Heffer.

Read, Herbert E. (1938) 1956 Bagehot. Pages 299–314 in Herbert E. Read, The Nature of Literature. New York: Horizon. → First published as Collected Essays in Literary Criticism.

St. John-Stevas, Norman 1959 Walter Bagehot: A Study of His Life and Thought Together With a Selection From His Political Writings. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press.

Stephen, Leslie (1899) 1907 Walter Bagehot. Volume 3, pages 155–187 in Leslie Stephen, Studies of a Biographer. New York: Putnam.

Wilson, Woodrow (1895) 1965 A Literary Politician. Pages 69–103 in Woodrow Wilson, Mere Literature, and Other Essays. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat. → First published in Volume 76 of the Atlantic Monthly.

Wilson, Woodrow 1898 A Wit and a Seer. Atlantic Monthly 82:527–540.

Young, George M. 1948 The Greatest Victorian. Pages 237–243 in George M. Young, Today and Yesterday: Collected Essays and Addresses. London: Hart-Davis.

Bagehot, Walter

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BAGEHOT, WALTER (1826–1877), British writer.

Born in 1826 at Langport, Somerset, the son of the banker Thomas Watson Bagehot and Edith Stuckey, Walter Bagehot was educated at Bristol College, and then at University College, London, where he excelled in classics and philosophy. After completing his MA in 1848, he flirted with a legal career, before following his father into banking. It was, however, a visit to Paris in 1851, coinciding with Louis Napoleon's coup on 2 December, that prompted his first significant literary excursion: a series of letters, published in the Unitarian periodical The Inquirer, defending the usurper. Throughout the second half of the 1850s, he combined responsibility for part of the family business with his role as cofounder and coeditor, with his friend R. H. Hutton, of the National Review. In 1857, Bagehot commenced his long involvement with The Economist, publishing a series of articles on banking. The following year he married Eliza Wilson, the daughter of The Economist 's owner, James Wilson. Bagehot soon succeeded Hutton into the editorial chair in 1861, where he remained until his death in 1877. Bagehot maintained an involvement in banking, but it was literary affairs that henceforth dominated his time.

Bagehot's posthumous fame rests primarily upon The English Constitution, published in serial form between May 1865 and January 1867. Bagehot presented his essay as a necessary corrective to the notion that the constitution was characterized by the separation of powers and the division of sovereignty. He argued that legislative and executive functions were combined in the cabinet, which governed through the House of Commons. In the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, Bagehot was usually credited with the discovery of the cabinet and the demolition of myths about the mixed constitution. Subsequent research has revealed the extent to which Bagehot—no stranger to an arresting literary device—exaggerated his own novelty. The constitutional preeminence of the Commons, and the role of the cabinet, were both recognized well before the publication of The English Constitution. Indeed, Bagehot built upon the foundations of skeptical whigs like the politician Earl Grey, who analyzed the relationship between social structure and the machinery of government. Bagehot has received considerable credit for his claim that "deference" lay at the root of loyalty to the constitution. He distinguished between "dignified" and "efficient" features of the constitution, arguing that it was the glittering appeal of the former—best embodied in the monarchy—that secured the uncomprehending allegiance of the bulk of the populace. The essentially Burkean notion of "deference" has exercised a persistent influence over historical understanding of English politics in the period between the First and the Second Reform Act. Since the 1980s greater emphasis has been laid upon negotiation and contestation in accounts of the relationships between political elite and nation in this period.

There has been much debate over the influence of Bagehot's famous book. Some suggest that the advent of a broader suffrage in 1867 brought the era of Bagehotian parliamentary government to an end, and thus that The English Constitution achieved almost instant obsolescence; while others contend that its analysis of the relation between social forces and political traditions offers lasting insights into the development of the British political system. Dispute has been most acute over Bagehot's legacy. Bagehot has been hailed for the perspicuity of his insights into the operation of power, but also chastised for reinforcing a consequentialist focus on political outcomes that neglects questions of justice and entitlement.

In his own time, Bagehot was as renowned for his other works as for The English Constitution. His evolutionary and psychological study of Physics and Politics (1872) reveals the analytical underpinnings of his work on nineteenth-century Britain. It was much translated in the nineteenth century and influenced the crowd psychologists of the 1890s. His study of Lombard Street (1873) provided a much-cited description of the banking system, and an authoritative account of the duty of the Bank of England as the lender of last resort. His studies in political economy were characterized more by practical expertise than by systematic rigor. The former was evident in his invention in 1876 of the treasury bill. His fascination with the psychology of business is apparent in Postulates of Political Economy (1876) and Economic Studies (1880). In both the variety and the extent of his writing, Bagehot was representative of a particular type and time: the prolific mid-Victorian polymath. Where he excelled, however, was in the brio and verve with which he pursued this role.

See alsoBurke, Edmund; Conservatism; Great Britain.


Primary Sources

Bagehot, Walter. The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot. Edited by Norman St. John-Stevas. 15 vols. London, 1965–1986.

Secondary Sources

Buchan, Alastair. The Spare Chancellor: The Life of Walter Bagehot. London, 1959.

Vile, M. J. C. Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers. Oxford, U.K., 1967.

James Thompson

Walter Bagehot

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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

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). □

Bagehot, Walter

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Bagehot, Walter (1826–77). Journalist. From a banking family in Langport (Som.), his father a unitarian, Bagehot attended University College, London, and began to study law. But he moved into banking, wrote copiously, particularly for the National Review, and from 1860 edited his father-in-law James Wilson's paper The Economist. Though capable of brilliant writing and subtle insights, much of Bagehot's work is marred by a habitual superciliousness towards the ‘stupid’ masses and his inability to resist a bon mot. His best-known work, The English Constitution, which came out in the 1860s, was enormously successful and seriously misleading. Written at the time of Victoria's seclusion after Albert's death, it is understandable that Bagehot should have underestimated both the weakness of the monarchy and its non-party character: ‘the queen must sign her own death warrant if the two Houses unanimously send it up to her’ is more piquant than profound. The distinction between the efficient and the dignified parts of the constitution, so much admired, was hardly novel, and the suggestion that the only rights the monarch had were to ‘be consulted, encourage and warn’ is too pat. But since the book became recommended reading for George V and George VI when princes, it helped to establish the position it claimed to describe. G. M. Young thought Bagehot ‘the wisest man of his generation’, but a less respectful commentator called him merely ‘a television man before his time’.

J. A. Cannon

Bagehot, Walter

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Bagehot, Walter (1826–77) Engish economist and writer. Editor of The Economist (1860–77), he is chiefly remembered for his influential treatise The English Constitution (1867).