Walter Bagehot — pronounced Badge-it — was first called “the greatest Victorian” by that capaciously learned historian of 19th-century England, G.M. Young. The phrase has been attached to Bagehot’s name ever since and is again used by James Grant in the subtitle of this new biography, even though it would be more accurate to call its subject “the most versatile Victorian.”
Born the son of a country banker, Bagehot (1826-1877) attended University College London, where he received the gold medal for outstanding work in intellectual and moral philosophy. Soon after, he joined his father at Stuckey’s Bank, where he eventually became one of its directors. Seemingly tireless, young Walter simultaneously established himself as a journalist, initially making his name with irreverent essays about Shakespeare, Dickens and other canonical figures of English literature and history but eventually specializing in critical articles about economic and financial subjects.
These last mainly appeared in the Economist newspaper, which had been recently founded by James Wilson. In due course, Bagehot married the eldest of Wilson’s six daughters and, after his father-in-law’s sudden death, took over the management of his affairs, including editorship of the Economist. So masterful were his weekly articles that he was soon advising and arguing with prime ministers about banking and economic policy. Bagehot’s actual books are mainly collections of this journalism, but they include such classic studies as “The English Constitution” and “Lombard Street,” the latter an improbably scintillating overview of Victorian banking and investing. Always in wonky health, Bagehot died at the young age of 51.
Today, it’s impossible to read his biography without comparing and contrasting mid-19th-century England with 21st-century America. The British Empire reached its apogee under the guidance of men — and except for the Queen, it was men — who were not only able politicians but also intellectuals. Grant includes deft portraits of many of them. Prime Minister William Gladstone was a classical scholar with a library of over 30,000 books; his rival Benjamin Disraeli wrote witty novels that we still read; the parliamentarian Robert Lowe knew Sanskrit and, though he had albinism and was half-blind, rose to become chancellor of the exchequer. These were statesmen you could admire even when you disagreed with them.
In some ways, Bagehot’s England was just as divided as our own America. Take the question of who should be allowed to vote. As Grant tells us, on May 20, 1867, philosopher John Stuart Mill made what he regarded as his only important public service while a member of Parliament: “He proposed substituting ‘person’ for ‘man’ in Disraeli’s suffrage bill.” Alas, the amendment failed. Bagehot’s editorials on this and other political issues generally reflected a conservative prudence: For instance, he accepted a moderate but gradual extension of voting rights to the working classes and bewailed the foolhardiness of investing in unstable Latin American countries or getting entangled with the volatile Middle East.
No rapt idolater of his subject, Grant — a financial journalist himself and founder of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer— never shies away from pointing out Bagehot’s personal failings, such as priggishness and a supercilious condescension toward the uneducated. As a banker-journalist, he nonetheless brought a piercing intelligence to his arguments, whether writing about the abuse of credit, how over-speculation leads to chicanery and malfeasance, or the market’s swings between get-rich-quick mania and lemming-like panic. Not that he was always right. For example, Bagehot concluded that the Bank of England should be the provider of a safety net for lesser financial institutions and be “the lender of last resort.” To Grant, this argument sanctions fiscal irresponsibility, culminating 150 years later in bailouts by our own federal government and the contemporary doctrine that some institutions are too big to be allowed to fail.
Throughout his book, Grant quotes abundantly from Bagehot’s economic thought but slightly shortchanges the essays and biographical sketches. These “estimations” are a delight. For starters, Bagehot can be downright funny — “No real English gentleman, in his secret soul, was ever sorry for the death of a political economist”— or aphoristically cynical: “A man’s mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault.” Sometimes he sounds as wisely paradoxical as G.K. Chesterton: “Dullness in government is a good sign, and not a bad one. . . . In particular, dullness in parliamentary government is a test of its excellence, an indication of its success.” In fact, “the essence of civilization . . . is dullness.” After “abolishing the fierce passions, the unchastened enjoyments, the awakening dangers, the desperate conflicts, to say all in one word, the excitements of a barbarous age,” civilization replaces them with “indoor pleasures, placid feelings, and rational amusements.” One detects a certain ambivalence about all this.
In a superb, deliberately contrarian piece about Edward Gibbon, Bagehot neatly mocks English prejudice when he describes the future historian’s temporary conversion to Catholicism:
“It would have probably created less sensation if ‘dear Edward’ had announced his intention of becoming a monkey. The English have ever believed that the Papist is a kind of creature; and every sound mind would prefer a beloved child to produce a tail, a hide of hair, and a taste for nuts, in comparison with transubstantiation, wax-candles, and a belief in the glories of Mary.”
Did Bagehot mean for us to remember that a gibbon is a kind of monkey? Later he contends that Gibbon’s highly polished prose in “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” leads to flatness and monotony: “The ages change, but the varnish of the narrative is the same.”
Bagehot approvingly dubbed modern civilization “the Age of Discussion.” These days, when insults and shaming, rabid factionalism and self-puffery characterize our civic life, it’s hard not to wish for a return to dullness and “the age of discussion.” We still have much to learn from Walter Bagehot.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By James Grant
Norton. 334 pp. $29.95