Front Page Titles (by Subject) AVERAGE GOVERNMENT. ( From The Saturday Review, 29 th March, 1856.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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AVERAGE GOVERNMENT. ( From “ The Saturday Review, ” 29 th March, 1856.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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Many persons are for ever demanding a great statesman. They should be asked, however, what they want him for? People should consider the use of people. It may be well to think what manner of man a commanding statesman really is. The description of such a personage divides itself into two parts—his disposition and his intellect. What the disposition of a first-rate practical man naturally is, the reading world has just had unusual opportunities of learning. Both ancient and modern times have contributed to its illustration. Mr. Grote has given us a description of Alexander the Great; and Napoleon, in his letters to his brother, has left the picture of himself. Different as were the circumstances and intellect of the two heroes, one might fancy that, in both cases, it was the same overbearing character. “What is the world that it should strive to contend against me?” was the motto of both—in both we see the naturalness of the alliance between imperial talents and an imperious mind. Men who can govern wish to govern—men who can rule will rule. A sense of power animates the powerful. Those who have passed their lives in overcoming enormous obstacles, to whom “difficulty is a helper,” and whom no adversary can rival—cannot avoid feeling their strength. It is proved to them by the whole experience of their lives. An intense self-reliance is natural to men who can prove an overbearing ability by tangible results—who are successful in verifiable action.
It may further be asked, what we can do with the imperial disposition in this country? There are persons who are quite aware. By one of those curious fatalities which give an interest to intellectual history, the University of Oxford has for some years been fertile in novelty and paradox. Such are the designs of men. The English people wished a centre of tradition for their ancestral belief—they built quiet cloisters, they devised dull tutors, they endowed mouldering colleges. They wanted a place where nothing new would ever be discovered, and where only what was old would thrive. The result is a reaction against the past—a marked opposition to English ideas. It is not within our province to speak of the theological speculations of the past twenty years; but it is very material to our present purpose to point out that the last exposed heresy is a hatred of the English constitution. The aged Politics of Aristotle have been introduced into the discussion. A Mr. Congreve has published an edition of them in which he tells us plainly that our constitutional system is “effete”—that “our governing classes are incompetent”—that our hope is a despotism popular with the lower classes, or, as he phrases it, “a monocratic dictatorial power supported by the adhesion of the Proletariat”. The accomplished gentleman is possessed with the idea; and in another work in some lectures at Edinburgh, he bursts forth in the midst of the most arid history, with an aspiration for the rule of the great Protector. We do not know if any gentleman from the banks of the Isis contemplates commencing the career of a Cromwell, but surely, if not, the obvious plan is to apply to Napoleon the Third. He is a shrewd man—he has the talents for empire—and doubtless he would contract to govern England. His taste is lavish, and he might be a little dear; but what is gold to mind? He would not reign without governing; and under his vigorous rule, admirable lecturers might, perhaps, be delicately compressed.
But passing from these original speculations, what place is there just now for the dictatorial disposition under the English Constitution? Surely it would be difficult to find. The English idea is a committee—we are born with a belief in a green cloth, clean pens, and twelve men with grey hair. In topics of belief the ultimate standard is a jury. “A jury,” as a living judge once said, “would decide this, but how they would decide it, I cannot think.” As a jury will discover everything, a board will determine anything. “We speak,” observed Lord Brougham, “of the wisdom of Parliament.” The whole fabric of English society is based upon discussion—all our affairs are decided, after the giving of reasons, by the compromise of opinions. What has the over-weening dictator to do here? He is too clever to give reasons, too proud to compromise his judgment. He is himself alone. A dictator will not save us—we require discussion, explanation, controversy. Of course, at particular crises, all this must be abandoned. At perilous epochs, we need practically uncontrolled power; and even an irritable distrust is best allayed by a fresh confidence in a firm and lofty mind. If, on the 1st of February last year, there had been a Chatham in the country, Chatham would have been Prime Minister; but he would not have been so long. We get tired of being commanded. Long before January, 1857, he would have become an “impracticable man”—an opposition orator.
The intellect of the enormous statesman is just as unfit for our circumstances as his disposition. His characteristic is far-seeing originality. In the recesses of his closet, by the mere force of his own understanding, he evolves a set of measures and a course of policy, years before his age, such as the people about him cannot comprehend, such as only posterity will really appreciate. Of what use is this in the House of Commons? That assembly is alive; and though posterity is going to be born, in the meantime there are the contemporaries of the great statesman, sitting in tedium, discussing the affairs of the nation. The condition of a free Government is that you must persuade the present generation; and the gouvernement des avocats, as the Emperor Nicholas called it, has this for principle—that you must persuade the average man. You do not address the select intellects of the age, or the more experienced intellect of the next age—but the actual rural individual—the dreary ordinary being. “It is all very well,” said an able Whig, “for The Times to talk of the intelligence of public opinion—that only means that the public buy The Times; public opinion, Sir, is the opinion of the bald-headed man at the end of the omnibus.” “Do not tell me of Mr. Pitt,” said a surviving Tory—“Mr. Pitt would have found it a very different thing in these days. Mr. Pitt, Sir, would have had to persuade Joseph Hume.” In truth, one of the dispensations of nature is the opacity of the average man. Nature has provided against the restlessness of genius by the obstinacy of stupidity. The man of genius is an age or two in advance. By incessant industry, subtle arguments, or a penetrating eloquence, he impresses his new ideas,—first, on the highest minds—next, on the next highest—and it is only after his death that they descend to the inferior strata, and become the property of the world. This exactly disqualifies him from agreeing with those about him, from forming a party on a basis of common sympathy, from carrying out what the people wish—from administering, as a statesman must, the creed of his time.
These reflections are a peculiarity of English history. We have always been governed by what Mr. Disraeli has termed “Arch-Mediocrities”. From the days of Lord Burleigh down to those of Lord Liverpool, we have been governed, for the longest periods and with the greatest ease, by men who were essentially common men—men who never said anything which anyone in an omnibus could not understand—men who were never visited by the far-reaching thoughts or exciting aspirations of ardent genius, but who possessed the usual faculties of mankind in an unusual degree—men who were clear upon common points, who knew what people were just going to know, and who could embody in a Bill exactly what the commonalty thought should be embodied in a Bill. Of course, there may be, now and then, exceptions; for in this complicated world, unlimited principles abound in error. A great man who for years has advocated a great truth may at times be at last rewarded by carrying it out; and the punishment of calamity may teach the multitude what, a short time before, it required a great sagacity to foresee. But these events are, in their nature, exceptions. Regular business forms the regular statesman—quiet habits, sober thoughts, common aims are his obvious characteristics. He is what other men would wish to be. “Be as other men,” is the precept, “and you will be above other men—be ordinary, and you will be great.”
Certainly there is nothing at the present moment which emancipates us from the habitual condition of free Government. There are no special questions just now which call for the intervention of a man of genius. Our current domestic questions are a heap of specialities—“Passing tolls,” “Registration of Companies,” “County Constabulary,” “Chancery Reform”—these are the occupations of our life. Fancy Lord Chatham discussing a toll-bill. What a gulf from Bonaparte to a policeman—from Alexander to a Master in Chancery! The details of the interior, “the streets and fountains which we are repairing, and the battlements which we are whitening”—to borrow from the historian of Greece the phrase of the Olynthiacs—cannot afford scope either for the excitable temperament or for the deep discernment of original genius.
In foreign politics, it is different, and yet the same. We are pretty well agreed about principles—the difficulties of fact. We know that we ought to rejoice at freedom, that we should show sympathy with it where it is likely to be stable, and that we should not allow it, even when unstable, to be trodden out by neighbouring despots; but, as the one-armed Captain remarked, “The bearings of them observations lies in the application on ’em”. We wish to know in what particular States is real freedom—where it is likely to be stable—what risk this republic runs from that despot; and these matters of fact are scarcely fit for the man of genius, as we abstractedly conceive him. At least, if we want a genius in foreign policy, it is a genius of investigation—if in domestic, it is a genius of detail.