Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XIII.: THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION. - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 10 (The Life)
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CHAPTER XIII.: “THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.” - Mrs. Russell Barrington, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 10 (The Life) 
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. 10.
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“THE ENGLISH CONSTITUTION.”
On Sunday, 26th February, 1865, the Diary states: “Walter called on Mr. Lewes to talk over the Fortnightly Review, and saw Mrs. Lewes”. This was the first of the many visits he paid to The Priory, St. John’s Wood, which visits continued till the year of Walter’s death. As a rule very reserved, Mrs. Lewes (George Eliot) would at times speak intimately to Walter Bagehot of her own personal experiences. In him she could count on an understanding of no ordinary quality. Walter described how she would discuss with him what she designated “the pain of composition”. He liked her, and she interested him greatly. Beyond appreciating her genius he also regarded her as a rare physiological study. She seemed somewhat unfitted for ordinary society, he said. She was too big, too weighty a being for the usual world and its ways, and somewhat strange in respect to its small amenities. He discussed with Mr. Lewes during these first visits to The Priory the starting and prospects of the Fortnightly Review. Mr. Lewes, as the editor, was anxious to obtain contributions from him.
The Fortnightly Review made its début on 15th May, 1865. The first chapter of Walter Bagehot’s English Constitution headed the list of contents. At intervals, during a year and a half the nine chapters of this work appeared under the titles—(1) “The Cabinet,” (2) “The Monarchy,” (3) “The Monarchy (continued),” (4) “The House of Lords,” (5) “The House of Commons,” (6) “On Change of Ministry,” (7) “Its supposed Cheques and Balances,” (8) “The Pre-Requisites of Cabinet Government, and the Peculiar Form which They Assumed in England,” (9) “Its History and the Effects of that History (conclusion).” The last chapter came out on 1st January, 1867, after Mr. Lewes had ceased to edit the Fortnightly Review. It would be superfluous to make any comments on the worth of this book, or the appreciation it has won for itself. In 1872, from The Poplars, Wimbledon, Bagehot wrote a rather lengthy introduction to the second edition, explaining the difficulty a writer experiences in attempting “to sketch a living Constitution—a Constitution that is in actual work and power. The difficulty is that the object is in constant change.” He describes that the best plan, considering what has altered in the working of the Constitution since the book first appeared is, “to keep the original sketch in all essentials as it was first written, and to describe shortly such changes either in the Constitution itself or in the Constitutions compared with it, as seem material!”
Mr. George Lewes gave up the editorship of the Fortnightly Review at the end of 1866. The number in which the last chapter of the English Constitution appeared was unedited. On 10th February, 1867, the Diary states that “Mr. John Morley, the new editor of the Fortnightly Review, and Mr. Sanford dined with us”.
About this time Mr. Goschen wrote to Bagehot: “I sent you some time ago an essay of Morier on local government.1 I ought to tell you, he was very anxious that you should see it, as he says, ‘I admire Bagehot’s writings more than anybody’s, the more so as they form such a delicious contrast to the only mode I can find of attacking a subject’. I hope I am not violating a confidence in telling you this.”
Also referring to the English Constitution, Mr. A. V. Dicey writes to Mr. Hutton: “The more, by the way, I study Bagehot’s book the more I admire it, though it so happens that the legal aspect of the Constitution with which I am mainly concerned is that side of it which did not fall within the scope of his work. I only wish one could accomplish a tenth as much for the explanation of the law as he did for the illustration of the Constitution. I do not think any one has read Bagehot’s works more carefully than I have. They really fill one with despair, for he seems to explain with perfect ease the kind of things which one can, after the greatest labour, only make clear (if at all) in language which is so stiff and pedantic that it disgusts oneself as much as it is likely to disgust one’s readers.”
On Sunday, 2nd April, 1865, there is this entry in the Diary: “Walked in Eaton Square, called on Mrs. Moffatt. While with her Mr. Moffatt came in from attending Mr. Cobden’s deathbed.” At the age of twenty, as already quoted, Bagehot had written 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.” When students together at University College, London, Mr. Hutton and he would fly about London to any gathering where they had the chance of hearing Cobden speak. Twenty-one years later Bagehot embodied the vivid impressions of those days in the first leader in the Economist of 8th April, 1865. “Twenty-three years ago—and it is very strange that it should be so many years—when Mr. Cobden first began to hold Free-Trade meetings in the Agricultural districts, people there were much confused. They could not believe the Cobden they saw to be the ‘Mr. Cobden that was in the papers’. They expected a burly demagogue from the North, ignorant of rural matters, absorbed in manufacturing ideas, appealing to class-prejudices—hostile and exciting hostility. They saw a sensitive and almost slender man, of shrinking nerve, full of rural ideas, who proclaimed himself the son of a farmer, who understood and could state the facts of agricultural life far better than most agriculturalists, who was most anxious to convince every one of what he thought the truth, and who was almost more anxious not to offend any one. . . . The tradition is dying out, but Mr. Cobden acquired, even in those days of Free-Trade agitation, a sort of agricultural popularity. He excited a personal interest—he left what may be called a sense of himself among his professed enemies. They were surprised at finding that he was not what they thought; they were charmed to find that he was not what they expected; they were fascinated to find what he was. The same feeling has been evident at his sudden death—death at least which was to the mass of occupied men sudden. Over political Belgravia—the last part of English society Mr. Cobden ever cultivated—there was a sadness. Every one felt that England had lost an individuality which it could never have again, which was of the highest value, which was in its own kind altogether unequalled. . . . He was a sensitive agitator. Generally an agitator is a rough man of the O’Connell type, who says anything himself, and lets others say anything. You ‘peg into me and I will peg into you, and let us see which will win,’ is his motto. But Mr. Cobden’s habit and feeling were utterly different. He never spoke ill of any one. He arraigned principles but not persons. We fearlessly say that after a career of agitation of thirty years, not one single individual has—we do not say a valid charge, but a produceable charge—a charge which he would wish to bring forward, against Mr. Cobden. . . . Very rarely, if even ever in history, has a man achieved so much by his words—been victor in what was thought at the time to be a class struggle—and yet spoken so little evil as Mr. Cobden. There is hardly a word to be found, perhaps, even now, which the recording Angel would wish to blot. We may on other grounds object to an agitator who lacerates no one, but no watchful man of the world will deny that such an agitator has vanquished one of life’s most imperious and difficult temptations.
“Perhaps some of our readers may remember as vividly as we do a curious instance of Mr. Cobden’s sensitiveness. He said in Drury Lane Theatre, in tones of feeling, almost of passion, curiously contrasting with the ordinary coolness of his nature: ‘I could not serve with Sir Robert Peel’. After more than twenty years, the curiously thrilling tones of that phrase still live in our ears. Mr. Cobden alluded to the charge which Sir Robert Peel had made, or half made, that the Anti-Corn Law League and Mr. Cobden had by their action and agitation, conduced to the actual assassination of Mr. Drummond, his secretary, and the intended assassination of himself,—Sir Robert Peel. No excuse or palliation could be made for such an assertion, except the most important one, that Peel’s nerves were as susceptible and sensitive as Mr. Cobden’s. But the profound feeling with which Mr. Cobden spoke of it is certain. He felt it as a man feels an unjust calumny, an unfounded stain upon his honour. . . . There has never, perhaps, been another time in the history of the world when excited masses of men and women hung on the words of one talking political economy. The excitement of these meetings was keener than any political excitement of the last twenty years,—keener infinitely than any which there is now. It may be said, and truly, that the interest of the subject was Mr. Cobden’s felicity, not his mind; but it may be said with equal truth, that the excitement was much greater when he was speaking than when any one else was speaking. By a kind of keenness of nerve, he said the exact word to touch, not the bare understanding, but the quick individual perception of his hearers. . . . He did not possess the traditional education of his country, and did not understand it. . . . The late Mr. Wilson used to say, ‘Cobden’s administrative powers I do not think much of, but he is most valuable in counsel, always original, always shrewd, and not at all extreme’. . . . He has left us, quite independently of his positive works, of the repeal of Corn Laws, of the French Treaty, a rare gift—the gift of unique character. There has been nothing before Richard Cobden like him in English history, and perhaps there will not be anything like it.”
It was ever the personality—the man himself—the woman herself—distinctive from their opinions, their achievements, their position, which stirred in Bagehot his most vivid sympathies. Having that within himself which passed beyond what is expected of most people,—beyond classifications of any sort, he felt those who likewise were thus separated from ordinary people as his nearest fellow-creatures, with whose natures he could feel a real intimacy. It requires genius to feel quite at home with genius.
“Sunday, 9th June, 1867. Great Marlow. We strolled by the river bank opposite Bisham Abbey. Rowed down the river. Evening. I went to church afternoon, and Walter began his article on Hazlitt for the Fortnightly Review.” No record can be found of this article.
While Bagehot was at this time leading a stirring social and family life, and at the same time one of pressing business,—while he was watching every public event at home and abroad, weighing the rights and wrongs of every current question of importance and giving judgment thereon in the pages of The Economist,—interviewing and advising statesmen respecting measures to be brought before Parliament, a subtle machinery was at work in his brain weaving into some leading ideas borne in upon him certain new aspects of thought and science which had been evolved during the past fifty years or so, and turning these new aspects on to his own special subjects. The first chapter of Physics and Politics appeared in the Fortnightly Review on 1st November, 1867, ten months after the conclusion of The English Constitution.1
As in the case of the English Constitution it would be superfluous to make many comments on a book which for many years, in many countries, has taken its place as a classic. It is at once short, original, easy and profound. Perhaps more than any other of Bagehot’s writings, Physics and Politics evinces signs of his multifarious gifts, and of the power he possessed of bringing first principles to bear on practical usages.
Sir Henry Maine writes:—
“My dear Bagehot,
“Thank you very sincerely for your book on Physics and Politics. It is practically an old friend. I do not know that I was ever more struck with anything than with the essays when they first appeared. I don’t think it was your handsome allusions to me which influences me—but I am much obliged to you for them all the same.
“Very sincerely yours,
“H. I. Maine. ”
President Woodrow Wilson wrote:—
“Bagehot’s thought is not often constructive. Its business is generally analysis, interpretation, but in Physics and Politics it is distinctly creative and architectonic. It was always his habit to go at once to the Concrete reality of a subject, lingering scarcely a moment upon its conventionalities: he sees always with his own eyes, never with another’s; and even analysis takes from him a certain creative touch. The object of his thought is so vividly displayed that you seem to see all of it, instead of only some of it. But here, in speaking of ages past and gone, his object is reconstruction, and that direct touch of his imagination makes what he says seem like the report of an eye-witness. You know, after reading this book, what an investigator the trained understanding is, a sort of original authority in itself. Nor is his humour gone or exiled from these solemn regions of thought. There is an intermittent touch of it even in what he says of the political force of religion. ‘Those kinds of morals and that kind of religion which tend to make the firmest and most effectual character,’ he explains, ‘are sure to prevail’ in every struggle for existence between organised groups or nations of men, ‘all else being the same; the creeds or systems that conduce to a soft limp mind tend to perish, except some hard extrinsic force keep them alive. Thus Epicureanism never prospered at Rome, but Stoicism did; the stiff, serious character of the great prevailing nation was attracted by what seemed a confirming creed. The inspiriting doctrines fell upon the ardent character, and so confirmed its energy. Strong beliefs win strong men, and then make them stronger. Such is no doubt one cause why Monotheism tends to prevail over Polytheism; it produces a higher, steadier character, calmed and concentrated by a great single object; it is not confused by competing rites, or distracted by miscellaneous duties. Mr. Carlyle has taught the present generation many lessons, and one of these is that ‘God-fearing’ armies are the best armies. Before his time people laughed at Cromwell’s saying ‘Trust God, and keep your powder dry’. But we now know that the trust was of as much use as the powder, if not of more. That high concentration of steady feeling makes men dare everything and do anything.”
Bagehot’s reputation as an authority on finance was already widespread on the Continent in the middle of the sixties. In the spring of 1865 when M. Rouher was Finance Minister in France, he invited Bagehot to give evidence before the Enquéte sur les Principes et les Faits generaux qui regissent la Circulation monetaire et fiduciaire he was about to hold in Paris. On February 5th Walter and my sister arrived in Paris where they took rooms in the Grand Hotel. There they entertained at breakfast many political and financial magnates. They dined with notable people, attended evening parties, balls and concerts, and saw much of M. and Mme. Mohl. The Political Economy Society held their dinner in the Grand Hotel on the evening after the Bagehots’ arrival, and M. Wolowski fetched Bagehot to introduce him to the Society, placing him at dinner next M. Passy, the President. A very interesting three weeks in Paris followed. The Emperor opened the Corps Legislatif on the 15th, and Bagehot went to the Grande Salle of the Conseil d’état on the 17th to give evidence before the “Conseil Supérieur charged with the inquiry into the principles and general facts which regulate the circulation of money”. The manner in which he was entertained in Paris was flattering and agreeable to him. He found that in the best Paris society people knew how to talk, moreover that they had found out that he also could talk. The briskness and the finish notable in the intellect of the French savant had an exhilarating effect on Bagehot’s nerves, ever most sensitive to the mental atmosphere about him.
Louis Napoleon had recently published his life of Julius Cæsar, and Bagehot while in Paris wrote the article for the Economist to which he gave the title Cæsarism.1
In May, 1865, Bagehot was approached with a view of his standing in the Liberal interest for Dudley in opposition to Mr. Sheridan. This he declined doing, but in the following month he was asked to stand for Manchester and consented. Mr. Charles Villiers, an old friend of my father’s, and other leading Liberals were interested in Bagehot’s prospects of success, and Mr. Gladstone wrote him the following letter:—
“11 Carlton House Terrace, S.W.,
“Dear Mr. Bagehot,
“It would be very great presumption on my part, in expressing an opinion as to your qualifications for Parliament, were I to connect that opinion with any particular constituency. But of the qualifications themselves neither I, nor, as I believe, anyone who knows you can have any doubt whatever; and undoubtedly they point, of themselves, to the class of our great commercial and manufacturing constituencies in an especial degree. If thorough acquaintance with economic science, extensive and accurate knowledge, ready and practical habits of business and a conciliatory disposition, go to fit a man for the representation of these great national interests, it certainly appears to me that your fitness must stand without dispute in the first rank.”
The diary, however, narrates: “Walter spoke at a meeting in the Town Hall at Manchester to about 400 people, but was badly received and gave up standing”.
In a family letter Walter wrote: “I tried to get into Parliament for Manchester this year, but Manchester could not ‘see it’. I had a letter from Mr. Gladstone recommending me, but it was of no use. They said, ‘If he is so celebrated, why does not Finsbury elect him?’ ”
The lack of success which attended the three attempts Bagehot made to get into Parliament was a fact which puzzled many of his friends. Manchester was severely criticised in some of the newspapers for having rejected him, but these criticisms did not explain the reason why Manchester had done so. Walter Bagehot was known among his friends as a brilliant talker, but the success of his talk depended much on what the person was like to whom he was talking. As noted before, he never monologued, and when he made a speech he seemed to have failed in rhetorical power. His voice was not adapted to public speaking. Still, many men get into Parliament who are not successful public speakers and who have no distinguished powers such as Bagehot possessed. To those who knew him most intimately, the puzzle that presented itself was, not why he did not succeed in getting a seat in the House, but why he ever attempted to do so; why he ever thought of complicating his existence with duties which in nowise would aid his inner life of thought already finding expression in such work as that of the English Constitution. The answer to this puzzle would be found, I believe, in the fact that strong home ties still influenced Bagehot’s actions. His father, though deeply interested in politics, would not have attached much importance to any worldly prominence which Bagehot’s gifts might have obtained for him, but his mother would have thoroughly enjoyed distinction of that kind for him. His position was not sufficiently defined to please her. That distinguished politicians held a high opinion of him was not enough, she wished him to be a distinguished politician himself. Bagehot would have done much to give his mother any pleasure. He felt so sorely for her in her saddest of troubles; but he could not put much real zest into his attempts to get a seat. He was expected to get into Parliament, and he went so far as to take the necessary measures when pressed by others to do so, but he had no fervent faith in the advantages of a Parliamentary career, no belief that it could aid the higher life—at all events not his higher life. There was a grain of cynicism in his attitude towards the electors which doubtless crept out and which tended to damp enthusiasm when it came to a contest. Many candidates may view with cynicism the part they have to play at an election, and feel that a little acting is necessary in their intercourse with the Philistine elector, and forthwith they set about to act their part. But acting was not in Bagehot’s line.
Much more to his liking were the wonders of the Alps. Twenty-one years had passed since he had been ravished by the beauty of the mountains of Switzerland in company with his Uncle and Aunt Reynolds. In August, 1865, he found himself there again with my sister, driving over passes, riding mules on long day excursions, rowing in boats on the Lake of Geneva, watching storms and rainbows—marvels of light and colour on the heights of Mont Blanc—walking by moonlight along the lake, reading Ruskin’s rapturous utterances on mountain forms in Modern Painters.
Diary, “9th September, 1865, Chamonix. Studied Ruskin’s chapter on Aiguilles with the examples under my own eyes from the window. 10th. We had mules and went to the ‘Source de l’Arderon’ and into the grotto of ice at the foot of the glacier des Bos. (the writing is interrupted here and there by a dried piece of heather and tiny flowers picked that day—still staining the page of Pawsey’s London Diary). 14th. Walter wrote all day for the Fortnightly—English Constitution. 16th. Sat in the garden reading nearly all day. We rowed on the lake in the afternoon.” Many days, the diary relates, it was sitting in the garden all day and rowing on the lake, with now and then an article sent off for the Economist.
From Geneva, Walter writes: “We are here amusing ourselves on the lake in as idle a manner as it is possible to conceive. So far from climbing mountains, we object to walk up a hill, and if we stay long enough, shall order a carriage to cross a molehill. I never can enjoy scenery when I am racketted; I like to sit down quietly in some charming place and let it sink into my mind.”
By the middle of October, when the Bagehots and the rest of our family, after being scattered for the autumn months, had collected together again in Upper Belgrave Street, an event of great public importance occurred, one which also awakened in us many personal memories connected with my father. On the 18th October, 1865, Lord Palmerston died at Brockett Hall, Herts. From the year 1846, when my father first entered Parliament to the time of his leaving for India, he had had constant intercourse with Lord Palmerston, and the family attended Lady Palmerston’s parties, which were expected to take place as regularly as Court functions, and were the most notable gatherings for all who moved in the so-called London world. Bagehot had had no personal intercourse with Lord Palmerston, but had studied his career as he did that of all contemporary and past statesmen, and wrote an article on him in the Economist three days after his death.
In the previous year in the article entitled “The Tribute at Hereford to Sir G. C. Lewis,” is to be found the following passage relating to Lord Palmerston: “It is very curious that Lord Palmerston, who spoke, so to say, Sir George Lewis’s epitaph, should have had the slowest, and that Sir George Lewis should have had the most rapid political rise of our time. Unquestionably, Lord Palmerston is in some sense a buoyant man, and Sir George Lewis was in some sense a heavy man, yet the latter came to the surface far quicker. Lord Palmerston was a quarter of a century in Parliament before he was anything at all—before he was more than a subaltern official; Sir George Lewis was only thirteen years in Parliament altogether, and in that time he was Secretary of the Treasury, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Secretary for War, and had acquired the perfect respect and confidence of the House of Commons. He finished his whole career as a statesman in about half the number of years that it took Lord Palmerston to become a statesman at all.”
In the Economist of 28th October, 1865, an article appeared by Bagehot on “The New Ministry,” commencing with the following passages: “The Queen acted wisely in desiring that Lord Palmerston might be buried in Westminster Abbey. As we trace these lines his remains are being borne thither. It is easy to scoff at these great national ceremonies, for such they are. But such jests are weak and harmless. It will be centuries before Englishmen are indifferent to Westminster Hall or Westminster Abbey—‘the place,’ Lord Macaulay said, ‘where the great men of twenty generations have contended, the place where they sleep together.’
“The best epitaph on Lord Palmerston is the effect of his death. It is the end of a political period. It has been said that the new Government would be Lord Palmerston’s Government minus Lord Palmerston; it would be as wise to propose a solar system minus the sun. Lord Palmerston was the centre of attraction of his system. He had an influence, not over any single party or set of men, for he was disliked, or but half-liked, by the real zealots of every party; but over the common, sensible, uncommitted mass of the nation who now-a-days do not strictly or rigidly adhere to any party. Through all the divisions of our present England there is a common element which consists of fair, calm, sensible persons, who have something to lose, who have no intention of losing it, who hate change, who love improvement, who will be ruled in a manner they understand. The business of the nation in all departments is transacted by such men as these. These are the men who really rule in all localities, in all undertakings, in all combinations; and it was over these that Lord Palmerston possessed unequalled and marvellous influence”.
Early in the following spring Bagehot made friends with one who was a typical example of the “careful, quiet, practical” Englishman (Bagehot’s description of Lord Palmerston’s admirers), though distinguished on important lines apart from most Englishmen. Bagehot had previously met Lord Avebury (then Sir John Lubbock) frequently in the City, but it was in February, 1866, that they first became intimate.
Diary, 15th February, narrates: “Walter and I dined at Mr. Greg’s and met Sir John and Lady Lubbock, the Froudes, Henrys, Brodhursts, and Dr. Martineau,” and on the 17th, “Walter and I went to Chiselhurst afternoon where we found Sir John Lubbock’s carriage and drove to High Elms to stay with him and Lady Lubbock. Four brothers were there, Mr. Fergusson, and others.” 18th. “Walter walked with Sir John Lubbock and Mr. Fergusson to a Roman camp afternoon. Mr. Hurst, the mathematician, and Mr. Herbert Spencer joined the house party. Sir John showed us his collection of flint implements.”
Concern in certain lines of science having been early awakened in Bagehot through intercourse with his relative Dr. Prichard, he soon found subjects of mutual interest with Lord Avebury beyond banking. In one respect there was a notable similarity in their natures. Both were remarkable for great kindliness of disposition; both were essentially human in their sympathies in a very marked degree.1
In June, 1866, Lord Russell’s Government was beaten on the Reform Bill. The week after the Queen accepted his resignation and Lord Derby came in. In the Economist of 10th November, 1866, Bagehot wrote, “Ought the Tories to touch a Reform Bill”. He was distinctly of opinion that they ought not to touch a Reform Bill. In February, 1867, Lord Derby’s Government brought forward their proposals on Reform, and in the same week Bagehot’s friend Lord Carnarvon, and also Lord Cranbourne, resigned office.
Notwithstanding Manchester’s discouraging verdict Bagehot’s friends in Somerset pressed him to stand for Bridgwater in the summer of 1866. On May 3rd he saw Mr. Brand and settled to do so. Deputations arrived at Upper Belgrave Street from the borough, and Bagehot promised to come forward as the Liberal candidate when the writ was issued, but not before. Bagehot’s friend Mr. Kinglake, the author of Eothen, and others who knew him well in Somerset, came to London to talk over electioneering matters with him, and he certainly became interested in the prospects which were decidedly favourable to him. The writ was issued on 31st May, and Bagehot travelled down to Bridgwater on 1st June, where, the diary says, “He was met by 4000 people, banners and four grey horses, and addressed the people from the carriage”. Here, among his own people, he was supported with enthusiasm, and Mr. Hutton writes, “was completely at his ease, and his canvass and public speeches were decided successes”. But it was not to be. Diary, 6th June: “Nomination at Bridgwater election. Show of hands given in Mr. Patton’s (the Conservative candidate’s) favour. The Mayor a Tory. 7th June. Poll at Bridgwater—
Walter lost by 7.”
On Mr. Patton being appointed Lord Advocate a few weeks later, he had to be re-elected and lost the seat, Mr. Vanderbeyl beating him by a majority of thirty-seven. In 1868 Bagehot had written in the Economist on the Bribery Debate in the House of Commons, and later an article on “The True Way to Prevent Bribery”. In the following spring—the General Election having taken place in the late autumn of 1868—Mr. Kinglake and Mr. Vanderbeyl were unseated for bribery at Bridgwater by Mr. Justice Blackburne, who reported that corrupt practices extensively prevailed in that borough. In October, 1869, Commissioners were sent down to Bridgwater to inquire into this corrupt state of things. A tragic incident occurred, connected with accusations made against candidates who had stood for the borough, which pointed somewhat to the necessity of the Commission being held. The Bagehots were abroad at the time but immediately returned to England, and Walter wrote to the Bridgwater Commissioners asking to be examined, and on 13th October he gave his evidence. Mr. Hutton writes: “His examination before the Commissioners was a great success. He not only entirely defeated the somewhat eagerly pressed efforts of one of the Commissioners, Mr. Anstey, to connect him with the bribery, but he drew a most amusing picture of the bribable electors whom he had seen only to shun.
“ ‘42,018 (Mr. Anstey). Speaking from your experience of those streets, when you went down them canvassing, did any of the people say anything to you, or in your hearing, about money?—Yes, one, I recollect, standing at the door who said, “I won’t vote for gentlefolks unless they do something for I. Gentlefolks do not come to I unless they do something of I, and I won’t do nothing for gentlefolks, unless they do something for me.” Of course, I immediately retired out of that house.
“ ‘42,019. That man did not give you his promise?—I retired immediately; he stood in the doorway sideways, as these rustics do.
“ ‘42,020. Were there many such instances?—One or two, I remember. One suggested that I might have “a place”. I immediately retired from him.
“ ‘42,021. Did anybody of a better class than these voters, privately, of course, expostulate with you against your resolution to be pure?—No, nobody ever came to me at all.
“ ‘42,022. But those about you, did any of them say anything of this kind: “Mr. Bagehot, you are quite wrong in putting purity of principles forward. It will not do if the other side bribes”?—I might have been told that I should be unsuccessful in the stream of conversation; many people may have told me that; that is how I gathered that if the other side was impure and we were pure, I should be beaten.
“ ‘42,023. Can you remember the names of any who told you that?—No, I cannot, but I dare say I was told by as many as twenty people, and we went upon that entire consideration.’ ”
“In his address to the Bridgwater Constituency,” again writes Mr. Hutton, “he criticised most happily the sort of bribery which ultimately resulted in the disfranchisement of the place. ‘I can make allowance,’ he said, ‘for the poor voter; he is most likely ill-educated, certainly ill-off, and a little money is a nice treat to him. What he does is wrong, but it is intelligible. What I do not understand is the position of the rich, respectable, virtuous members of a party which countenances these things. They are like the man who stole stinking fish; they commit a crime, and they get no benefit.’ ” After the Commission was over Bagehot writes to Mr. Hutton: “You will like to hear that my reputation for ability is much raised at Bridgwater since my examination. They say, ‘Ah! Mr. Bagehot was too many for them. They broke Westropp but they could not break him.’ They regard it as a kind of skill, independent of fact or truth. ‘You win if you are clever, and you lose if you are stupid,’ is their idea at bottom.
“Constantine Prichard is dead, leaving a large family not well off, I fear. The old world of our youth breaks up, and the best people get the worst of it.”
In the autumn of 1866, the year of the Bridgwater election, Walter’s mother became very ill—so ill that she had to leave home. Walter went down at once to see her at the doctor’s house to which she had been taken. When his father failed in his endeavours to help her Walter often succeeded. On a second visit he found her very depressed physically as well as mentally. He saw Dr. Symonds, the famous adviser in mental cases, who gave his approval to Mrs. Bagehot being moved to Sidmouth. Walter and my sister changed the plans they had made to go elsewhere, and Walter met his mother at Bristol and took her to Sidmouth, and Mr. Bagehot and my sister arrived there the same day. This plan of Walter’s was entirely successful, his mother becoming quite reasonable in mind and well in body under these more cheerful conditions. Underlying the strenuous active life which Bagehot was habitually leading, two realities acted as magnets to the deeper feelings of his nature—the home trouble, and the desire to express in literature the rich crop of ideas ever germinating in his brain. Compared to these, other interests seemed to him tame.
Yet another attempt was made by Bagehot’s friends in 1867 to secure a seat for him in the House of Commons. Mr. Hutton was in this case the moving spirit, and the seat was the University of London. A very long list of influential supporters was printed and circulated with the following letter from Walter Bagehot which served as an address to the electors:—
“Unquestionably we are on the eve of a great change in our politics. Our University is the most considerable creation—I was about to say the only considerable creation—of the ‘Parliament of 1832’. The labours of that Parliament have been excellent and fruitful; but by far the greater part of them were labours of demolition. It found a great heritage of bad laws, and it was energetic in repealing them. But most of those laws are gone. And upon that account we every day hear middle-aged politicians say that ‘everything great has already been carried, and that the new Parliament will have nothing to do’. I am sure that this is a mistake. The work of demolition (though not complete) is more than half over, but the work of reconstruction is yet to begin. Our work is more difficult, more delicate, more gradual, perhaps, than that of our fathers; they had mostly to pull down that they knew to be evil; we have tentatively and slowly to erect what we hope will be good.
“The very name of our University of itself suggests the greatest and most urgent of our tasks. Thirty years ago we founded a University for an excluded class; now we have to frame, upon the very same principles, an education which will suit the whole nation. Our University has shown upon what principles a sound and sensible culture can be given to young men sincerely bred in different religious creeds, without sacrificing either the faith to the culture or the culture to the faith. For myself, I believe that the experiment is capable of indefinite development. The sudden extension of the franchise is one of those facts ‘of the first magnitude’ which are never long resisted. After the first Reform Act the cry was, ‘Register! Register! Register!’ The cry should now be, ‘Educate! Educate! Educate!’ The State will have to intervene far more widely than is as yet thought ere the problem of wide education in a mixed society is solved, and before the principles of our University are developed to their proper limit.
“The now secure predominance of popular power must greatly mitigate our traditional jealousy of the Executive Government. The English State is but another name for the English people, and to be afraid of it, is to be alarmed at ourselves. From countless causes the age of great cities requires a strong government. The due extension of the functions of the State in superintending the health and in lessening the vice and misery of our large towns must receive speedy attention from a Parliament in which most of the inhabitants of those towns are for the first time directly represented.
“The co-operative, if not the compulsory agency, of the State ought, too, to be used far more than now in applying to our complicated society those results of science which are new to this age, and in aiding such investigations as require combined and costly effort, lasting, perhaps, a long time, and distributed over many countries. The relation of a free and intelligent Government to practical science is a new subject, because such science is very modern, and such Government almost inconceivably rare.
“But there yet remain ‘organic’ questions which are not as yet set at rest. We have still not only to discuss how we shall use our Government, but also, in part at least, what shall be the shape and structure of our Government. Few indeed will at once again wish—I certainly should not wish—to alter the franchise, but the size and place of our constituencies have now been altered just enough to upset old prestige and not enough to satisfy new events. The growing North of England has still far too little weight as compared with the stationary South, and whatever may once have been the uses of little boroughs, they will now become wretched nests of dangerous corruption, which will introduce into Parliament no remarkable mind and represent there no peculiar interests. A statesman should sweep away such pernicious remnants of an extinct organisation, and seek a modern substitute capable of the useful function which they once performed.
“I fear the abolition of these boroughs will cost much time and many quarrels. Corruption is costly, and it dies hard.
“But another subject more fruitful of strife yet remains. In Ireland we still maintain a Church of one religion, though the country is of a different religion. The pretence of its being a missionary Church has now been given up. Its advocates have not yet answered the question of Sir Robert Peel, ‘Do you think you can claim a balance of three hundred converts in three hundred years?’ The Irish Church is no longer supported by argument, and only lives from day to day because the old school of Liberal politicians never forget that they once hurt their party by endeavouring to touch it. But a better day is, I hope, beginning. A new, and therefore more impulsive, Parliament will sweep away the cobwebs of old politicians. The last Liberal Government gave to Ireland the benefit of a University just like our own; let us hope that comparatively small gift may be the beginning of a wiser mode of dealing with her highest and best interests.
“The first duty, in my judgment, of the next Parliament will be to restore Mr. Gladstone to power. He is the natural leader of the Liberal party, and if the Reform Act be a true improvement, it will strengthen the progressive mind of Parliament and augment the Liberal party. I believe that, in spite of the present triumphs of subterfuge and artifice, Mr. Gladstone will return to power. His wonderful gifts have already charmed the nation. In amplitude of knowledge, in intensity of labour, in a flexible eloquence suited either to the highest discussions or to the meanest details of public business, he has no living equal; and it is no light matter that he will lead the House of Commons with an eager and noble morality which tends to raise it and awaken all the nation.”
Again, however, it was not to be. The University of London chose Mr. Robert Lowe as her member, and from that time Bagehot gave up all idea of entering Parliament.
The following year the Liberal party in Somerset, especially the voters in Yeovil, were very desirous that Bagehot should stand for the county, but he declined doing so. In the Economist of 7th February, 1874, Bagehot wrote on “The Advantages and Disadvantages of becoming a Member of Parliament”. He enumerates the advantages, but concludes by saying there is a good deal to be said on the other side.
The great financial crisis took place in May, 1866. Bagehot in the first leader of the Economist of 12th May writes: “The failure of Overend, Gurney & Co. has given occasion to a panic more suitable to their historical than to their recent reputation”. Dated 11th May are notes by Walter Bagehot written to Mr. Gladstone and preserved by him marked “W. Bagehot on the City Crisis”.
“A complete collapse of credit in Lombard Street and a greater amount of anxiety than I have ever seen. Large orders for notes are sent from the country by country Bankers and the notes are going down this evening.
“The English Joint Stock Bank has failed. It is small, but it has scattered branches in different localities and there are demands for notes for each locality.
“The Banks are said to have discounted largely to-day, and this would tend to reduce their reserve, but if the notes do not go into the country, they will come in again.
“There is much foreign money in London invested in bills, many due in May; I fear this money will be withdrawn from a general apprehension that English credit is not to be relied on.—W. Bagehot, 11th May.”
“We may congratulate our readers,” he writes in the Economist of 19th May, “and we own that we rejoice ourselves that the Friday on which we write is not like last Friday. Last week, Lombard Street looked more like a country fair than its usual self; most people were asking—Will the Act be broken? What will Mr. Gladstone do?” Mr. Gladstone suspended the Bank Charter Act, and Bagehot writes further in the same article: “The whole mercantile community quite assents to the infraction of the Act; indeed, if it had not been broken this month, it would have been repealed next. The matter resembled what Mr. Lowe so happily said of the cattle plague report. He remarked that all the press wrote down the recommendations of the Commissioners, but the disease ‘took the matter’ into its own hands and showed that they were right. Just so the ‘panic’ took the matter into its own hands and proved that the Act could be no longer maintained,—proved it not to theoretical minds or by fine argument, but to the great bulk of ordinary men, and by the palpable argument which strikes the massive common sense of the world.”
Bagehot wrote lengthily on the panic in the Economist, and the following to Mr. Gladstone:—
“12 Upper Belgrave Street, S.W.,
“You said to me a few days since that you thought late events proved the necessity of legislation as to the country issues, and I am not prepared to deny the truth of the observation or at all to contend that the country as a nation is in a fit state abstractedly; but at the same time I very much wish to bring before you what I think is the true relation of the country issues to the late panic, as it is a little different from what the first appearance of the facts might suggest.
“I have no doubt at all that the panic of last Friday week was 80 per cent. at least of a deposit panic and not more than 20 per cent of a note panic. I believe I might use with truth figures debiting even more to the deposits and less to the issues. In my own mind I doubt if 5 per cent. was owing to the issues. My reasons are:—
“1st. That Banks not of circulation supplied themselves on the whole as much as Banks of circulation. The National Provincial, which now has no notes of its own, took down, I know, half a million to their various branches, and a great deal went to the north of England to districts where no notes but those of the Bank of England ever circulate.
“2ndly. That the magnitude of the deposit liability is now-a-days so enormously greater than that of the note liability that in a panic provision it is much more thought of. I cannot doubt that the country deposits are much more than thirty times the country issues, and naturally the idea of the greater in time of fear a good deal absorbs the less.
“3rdly. I believe that in the present day the note liability is a less delicate liability and less liable to be affected by distant events than that for deposits. In the recent very severe drain on Gurney’s Bank in Norfolk—one of the heaviest, I apprehend, that any country bank ever successfully met—almost the whole demand was for the deposits. And theory would suggest that this was likely. A considerable number of depositors has sums of considerable value to them at their bankers of which the loss would be inconvenient, and even a momentary non-payment disagreeable. But no ordinary educated person now-a-days holds notes to any such amounts. Nobody would care if he could not pass the £10 or £5 which is all he ever possesses in notes. Years ago large hoards of notes existed, the savings of rural districts were largely held in them, and in those days a note drain was more fearful than a deposit drain. Such events too as have recently occurred affect more the minds of the richer class than those of the poorer. Of those, if I may say so, above the banking line—the line at which people begin to keep bank accounts—than below the banking line. The poorer people in Somersetshire never heard of Overends or Peto and they do not care for their failure. But all depositors almost have heard of them and it might not unreasonably be expected that they might care.
“There are still some little hoards of notes about £20 or £30 each about among dairymen and other little people. But this is a very opaque class, and though they might cause a secondary run sometimes after the primary, they would almost certainly be too late for the latter.
“I am very sorry to have written at such length, but I wished to show fully the reasons for my opinion such as it is. If it is true, it is important, because it follows that almost the whole of the late panic, and the suspension of Peel’s Act, would have taken place, if there had been no country issues and if the whole circulation of the country had been supplied either by the Bank of England or by the State.”
According to his custom, Bagehot did not preserve the answer to this letter, but on the 28th May a note which Mr. Gladstone did preserve runs: “Might I breakfast with you on Thursday next, as you were so kind as to ask me?” and the discussion was doubtless concluded viva voce. In this way it will be seen Bagehot often guided the actions and the opinions of Chancellors of the Exchequer. He not only gave them reliable information on City affairs but helped to guide their judgment in taking action on the events.
Other officers of State also knew that the Economist was Bagehot, and not unfrequently interceded with him when they wanted his help in guiding public opinion.
In July, Mr. Charles Villiers wrote confidentially to Bagehot enclosing “a memorandum relating to the memorable Poor Law Bill which after much difficulty has just passed the House of Commons, but which is now probably in jeopardy in the House of Lords owing to the same interested objects that obstructed its progress in the Commons”. Having seen “a very able notice of this Bill in the Economist as far back as April last recommending its enactment strongly,” Mr. Villiers expressed a hope that Bagehot would insert, if he thought right, “a few lines in the paper favourable to the measure, believing it would be of use while the Bill was under discussion in the Lords.”
Again Mr. Charles Villiers writes at the time of the American War and the consequent distress in Ireland:—
“I do not know if any notice will be taken in the Economist of Lancashire distress this week, but, in case there should be, I merely send this document, which was prepared for the Cabinet only, that any figures might be corrected by it if that was thought worth while. The reason why it was not deemed expedient to make it public as official at present, is, that as we are as uncertain as ever about the termination of the war, it is not an object that the subscriptions to the Distress should cease, and the account here given would lead people to think that we now have enough—which we have till March next no doubt! but will the distress end then? Perhaps you will have the goodness to let me have it back after examining it, which, as it is quite correct, you might wish to do.