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Walter Bagehot

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Walter Bagehot
Portrait by Norman Hirst,
after an unknown artist
Born(1826-02-03)3 February 1826
Langport, Somerset, England
Died24 March 1877(1877-03-24) (aged 51)
Langport, Somerset, England
Alma materUniversity College London
  • Businessman
  • essayist
  • journalist
Political partyLiberal[1]
Elizabeth (Eliza) Wilson
(m. 1858)

Walter Bagehot (/ˈbæət/ BAJ-ət; 3 February 1826 – 24 March 1877) was an English journalist, businessman, and essayist, who wrote extensively about government, economics, literature and race. He is known for co-founding the National Review in 1855, and for his works The English Constitution and Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (1873).


Bagehot was born in Langport, Somerset, England, on 3 February 1826. His father, Thomas Watson Bagehot, was managing director and vice-chairman of Stuckey's Bank. He attended University College London (UCL), where he studied mathematics and, in 1848, earned a master's degree in moral philosophy.[2] Bagehot was called to the bar by Lincoln's Inn, but preferred to join his father in 1852 in his family's shipping and banking business.

In 1858, Bagehot married Elizabeth (Eliza) Wilson (1832–1921), whose father, James Wilson, was the founder and owner of The Economist. The couple were happily married until Bagehot's untimely death at age 51, but had no children.[3] A collection of their love-letters was published in 1933.[4]


In 1855, Bagehot founded the National Review with his friend Richard Holt Hutton.[5][6] In 1861, he became editor-in-chief of The Economist. In the 16 years he served as its editor, Bagehot expanded the reporting of politics by The Economist, and increased its influence among policy-makers. He was widely accepted by the British establishment and was elected to the Athenaeum in 1875.[7]


Title page of the first edition of Bagehot's The English Constitution, 1867.[8]

In 1867, Bagehot wrote The English Constitution,[8] a book that explores the nature of the constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically its Parliament and monarchy. It appeared at the same time that Parliament enacted the Reform Act of 1867, requiring Bagehot to write an extended introduction to the second edition which appeared in 1872.

Bagehot also wrote Physics and Politics (1872),[9] in which he examines how civilisations sustain themselves, arguing that, in their earliest phase, civilisations are very much in opposition to the values of modern liberalism, insofar as they are sustained by conformism and military success but, once they are secured, it is possible for them to mature into systems which allow for greater diversity and freedom.

His viewpoint was based on his distinction between the qualities of an "accomplished man" and those of a "rude man", which he considered to be the result of iterative inheritances by which the "nervous organisation" of the individual became increasingly refined down through the generations.[10] He regarded that distinction as a moral achievement whereby, through the actions of the will, the "accomplished" elite was able to morally differentiate themselves from "rude men" by a "hereditary drill". He equally applied such reasoning to develop a form of pseudoscientific racism, whereby those of mixed race lacked any "inherited creed" or "fixed traditional sentiments" upon which, he considered, human nature depended.

He attempted to provide empirical support for his views by citing John Lubbock and Edward Tylor although, in their writings on human evolution, neither of them accepted arguments for innate hereditary differences, as opposed to cultural inheritance. Tylor, in particular, rejected Bagehot's view of the centrality of physical heredity, or that the modern "savage" mind had become "tattooed over with monstrous images" by which base instincts had been preserved in crevices, as opposed to accomplished European man, for whom such instincts had been smoothed away through the inherited will to exercise reason.[10]

In Lombard Street: A Description of the Money Market (1873) Bagehot seeks to explain the world of finance and banking.[11] His observations on finance are often cited by central bankers, in particular in the period in wake of the global financial crisis which began in 2007. More specifically, there was particular popularity "Bagehot's Dictum" that in times of crisis of the financial system, central banks should lend freely to solvent depository institutions, yet only against sound collateral and at interest rates high enough to dissuade those borrowers that are not genuinely in need.[12]


Lombard Street, 1873.

Bagehot never fully recovered from a bout of pneumonia he suffered in 1867, and he died in 1877 from complications of what was said to be a cold.[13] Collections of Bagehot's literary, political, and economic essays were published after his death. Their subjects ranged from Shakespeare and Disraeli to the price of silver. Every year, the British Political Studies Association awards the Walter Bagehot Prize for the best dissertation in the field of government and public administration.

Minor planet 2901 Bagehot, discovered by Luboš Kohoutek, is named in his honor.[14]

The Economist carries a weekly current affairs commentary entitled "Bagehot", which is named in his honour and is described as "an analysis of British life and politics, in the tradition of Walter Bagehot".[15][16] As of January 2022, the column has been written by Duncan Robinson, political editor of the publication.

Major publications[edit]


  1. ^ Selinger, William; Conti, Greg (2015). "Reappraising Walter Bagehot's Liberalism: Discussion, Public Opinion, and the Meaning of Parliamentary Government". History of European Ideas. 41 (2): 264. doi:10.1080/01916599.2014.926105. S2CID 144027865.
  2. ^ Hutton, Richard Holt (1915). "Memoirs." In: The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, Vol. 1. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., pp. 1–54.
  3. ^ Roberts, David H. "Walter Bagehot: A Brief Biography". The Victorian Web. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  4. ^ "Women's Studies Subject Guide: Eliza Wilson". University Archives. The University of Hull. Retrieved 10 April 2016.
  5. ^ Walter Bagehot by St. Norman John-Stevas The British Council/National Book League/Longmans, Greene & Co. London. (1963)
  6. ^ Andrew King, John Plunkett (2005). Victorian Print Media: A Reader. Oxford University Press. p. https://archive.org/details/victorianprintme00plun/page/n66 50. ISBN 978-0-19-927037-8. Archived from the original on 23 July 2013. National Review (1855–64) one of the most prestigious quarterlies of mid-century
  7. ^ "Walter Bagehot Key dates - A brief chronology of his life, family, work and legacy". Langport Heritage Society. 6 January 2021. Retrieved 12 September 2022.
  8. ^ a b Walter Bagehot (1867), The English Constitution (1st ed.), London: Chapman & Hall, OCLC 60724184.
  9. ^ Bagehot, Walter (November 1867). "Physics and Politics. No. I. The Pre-Economic Age". Hathi Trust. Fortnightly Review. Retrieved 17 July 2018. This three-part article was published over the course of three years in the Fortnightly Review: the first section was published in November, 1867; the second section in April, 1868; and the third in July, 1869.
  10. ^ a b Shilliam, Robbie. "How Black Deficit Entered the British Academy" (PDF). robbieshilliam.wordpress.com. Robbie Shilliam. Retrieved 28 June 2019.
  11. ^ "Bagehot and International Lending". by Professor M. Lipton. The Financial Times (London, England), Tuesday, June 12, 1984; p. 17; edition 29,344.
  12. ^ Paul Tucker, Deputy Governor, Financial Stability, Bank of England, "The Repertoire of Official Sector Interventions in the Financial System: Last Resort Lending, Market-Making, and Capital" Archived 20 February 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Bank of Japan 2009 International Conference, 27–28 May 2009, p. 5
  13. ^ Roger Kimball, "The Greatest Victorian", The New Criterion October 1998.
  14. ^ "(2901) Bagehot". (2901) Bagehot In: Dictionary of Minor Planet Names. Springer. 2003. p. 238. doi:10.1007/978-3-540-29925-7_2902. ISBN 978-3-540-29925-7.
  15. ^ "Adrian Wooldridge". The Economist. Retrieved 19 June 2021.
  16. ^ "What can Britain today learn from Walter Bagehot?". The Economist. 3 January 2020. Retrieved 19 June 2021.


  • Barrington, Emilie Isabel Wilson (1914). Life of Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Buchan, Alastair (1960). The Spare Chancellor: The Life of Walter Bagehot. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
  • Grant, James (2019). Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
  • Orel, Harold (1984). Victorian Literary Critics. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Sisson C.H. (1972). The Case of Walter Bagehot. London: Faber and Faber Ltd.
  • Stevas, Norman (1959). Walter Bagehot a Study of His Life and Thought. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Sullivan, Harry R. (1975). Walter Bagehot. Boston: Twayne Publishers.
  •  "Bagehot, Walter", A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature, 1910 – via Wikisource
  • "Bagehot, Walter" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). 1911.

Further reading[edit]

  • Barrington, Emilie Isabel Wilson (1933). The Love-letters of Walter Bagehot and Eliza Wilson. London: Faber & Faber
  • Baumann, Arthur Anthony (1916). "Walter Bagehot." In: Persons & Politics of the Transition. London: Macmillan & Co., pp. 121–50
  • Birrell, Augustine (1922). "Walter Bagehot." In: The Collected Essays and Addresses of the Rt. Hon. Augustine Birrell, Vol. 2. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, pp. 213–35
  • Briggs, Asa, “Trollope, Bagehot, and the English Constitution,” in Briggs, Victorian People (1955) pp. 87–115. online
  • Brogan, Hugh (1977). "America and Walter Bagehot," Journal of American Studies, Vol. 11, No. 3, pp. 335–56
  • Brinton, Crane (1962). "Walter Bagehot." In: English Plolitical Thought in the 19th Century. New York: Harper Torchbooks
  • Buchan, Alastair. "Walter Bagehot." History Today (Nov 1954) 4#11 pp 764–770
  • Clinton, David (2003). "'Dash and Doubt': Walter Bagehot and International Restraint," The Review of Politics, Vol. 65, No. 1, pp. 89–109
  • Cousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, p. 20
  • Easton, David (1949). "Walter Bagehot and Liberal Realism," The American Political Science Review, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 17–37
  • Edwards, Ruth Dudley (1993). The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843–1993. London: Hamish Hamilton
  • Grant Duff, M.E. (1903). "Walter Bagehot: His Life and Works, 1826–1877." In: Out of the Past. London: John Murray, pp. 1–34
  • Halsted, John B. (1958). "Walter Bagehot on Toleration," Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 19, No. 1, pp. 119–28
  • Hanley, Brian (2004). "'The Greatest Victorian' in the New Century: The Enduring Relevance of Walter Bagehot's Commentary on Literature, Scholarship, and Public Life", Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 167–98
  • Irvine, William (1939). Walter Bagehot. London: Longmans, Green and Co.
  • Kolbe, F.C. (1908). "Walter Bagehot: An Appreciation," The Irish Monthly, Vol. 36, No. 419, pp. 282–87
  • Lanchester, John, "The Invention of Money: How the heresies of two bankers became the basis of our modern economy", The New Yorker, 5 & 12 August 2019, pp. 28–31.
  • Morgan, Forrest (1995). Collected Works of Walter Bagehot. Routledge
  • Ostlund, Leonard A. (1956). "Walter Bagehot—Pioneer Social Psychology Theorist," Social Science, Vol. 31, No. 2, pp. 107–11
  • Spring, David (1976). "Walter Bagehot and Deference," The American Historical Review, Vol. 81, No. 3, pp. 524–31
  • Stephen, Leslie (1907). "Walter Bagehot." In: Studies of a Biographer, Vol. 3. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, pp. 144–74
  • Stevas, Norman, ed. (1986). The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot: Volumes 1–15. New York: Oxford University Press
  • Westwater, S.A.M. (1977). "Walter Bagehot: A Reassessment," The Antioch Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 39–49
  • Wilson, Woodrow (1895). "A Literary Politician," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 76, No. 457, pp. 668–80
  • Wilson, Woodrow (1898). "A Wit and a Seer," The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 82, No. 492, pp. 527–40

External links[edit]