Walter Bagehot, a memoir by Richard Holt Hutton
Source: Walter Bagehot, 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. 1. Chapter: MEMOIR.
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MEMOIR by RICHARD HOLT HUTTON.
It is inevitable, I suppose, that the world should judge of a man chiefly by what it has gained in him, and lost by his death, even though a very little reflection might sometimes show that the special qualities which made him so useful to the world implied others of a yet higher order, in which, to those who knew him well, these more conspicuous characteristics must have been well-nigh merged. And while, of course, it has given me great pleasure, as it must have given pleasure to all Bagehot’s friends, to hear the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s evidently genuine tribute to his financial sagacity in the Budget speech of 1877, and Lord Granville’s eloquent acknowledgments of the value of Bagehot’s political counsels as Editor of the Economist, in the speech delivered at the London University on May 9, 1877, I have sometimes felt somewhat unreasonably vexed that those who appreciated so well what I may almost call the smallest part of him, appeared to know so little of the essence of him,—of the high-spirited, buoyant, subtle, speculative nature in which the imaginative qualities were even more remarkable than the judgment, and were, indeed, at the root of all that was strongest in the judgment,—of the gay and dashing humour which was the life of every conversation in which he joined,—and of the visionary nature to which the commonest things often seemed the most marvellous, and the marvellous things the most intrinsically probable. To those who hear of Bagehot only as an original political economist and a lucid political thinker, a curiously false image of him must be suggested. If they are among the multitude misled by Carlyle, who regard all political economists as “the dreary professors of a dismal science,” they will probably conjure up an arid disquisitionist on value and cost of production; and even if assured of Bagehot’s imaginative power, they may perhaps only understand by the expression, that capacity for feverish preoccupation which makes the mention of “Peel’s Act” summon up to the faces of certain fanatics a hectic glow, or the rumour of paper currencies blanch others with the pallor of true passion. The truth, however, is that the best qualities which Bagehot had, both as economist and as politician, were of a kind which the majority of economists and politicians do not specially possess. I do not mean that it was in any way an accident that he was an original thinker in either sphere; far from it. But I do think that what he brought to political and economical science, he brought in some sense from outside their normal range,—that the man of business and the financier in him fell within such sharp and welldefined limits, that he knew better than most of his class where their special weakness lay, and where their special functions ended. This, at all events, I am quite sure of, that so far as his judgment was sounder than other men’s—and on many subjects it was much sounder—it was so not in spite of, but in consequence of, the excursive imagination and vivid humour which are so often accused of betraying otherwise sober minds into dangerous aberrations. In him both lucidity and caution were directly traceable to the force of his imagination.
Walter Bagehot was born at Langport on February 3, 1826. Langport is an old-fashioned little town in the centre of Somersetshire, which in early days returned two members to Parliament, until the burgesses petitioned Edward I. to relieve them of the expense of paying their members,—a quaint piece of economy of which Bagehot frequently made humorous boast. The town is still a close corporation, and calls its mayor by the old Saxon name of Portreeve, and Bagehot himself became its Deputy-Recorder, as well as a Magistrate for the County. Situated at the point where the river Parret ceases to be navigable, Langport has always been a centre of trade; and here in the last century Mr. Samuel Stuckey founded the Somersetshire Bank, which has since spread over the entire county, and is now the largest private bank of issue in England. Bagehot was the only surviving child of Mr. Thomas Watson Bagehot, who was for thirty years Managing Director and Vice-Chairman of Stuckey’s Banking Company, and was, as Bagehot was fond of recalling, before he resigned that position, the oldest joint-stock banker in the United Kingdom. Bagehot succeeded his father as Vice-Chairman of the Bank, when the latter retired in his old age. His mother, a Miss Stuckey, was a niece of Mr. Samuel Stuckey, the founder of the Banking Company, and was a very pretty and lively woman, who had, by her previous marriage with a son of Dr. Estlin of Bristol, been brought at an early age into an intellectual atmosphere by which she had greatly profited. There is no doubt that Bagehot was greatly indebted to the constant and careful sympathy in all his studies that both she and his father gave him, as well as to a very studious disposition, for his future success. Dr. Prichard, the well-known ethnologist, was her brother-in-law, and her son’s marked taste for science was first awakened in Dr. Prichard’s house in Park Row, where Bagehot often spent his half-holidays while he was a schoolboy in Bristol. To Dr. Prichard’s Races of Man may, indeed, be first traced that keen interest in the speculative side of ethnological research, the results of which are best seen in Bagehot’s book on Physics and Politics.
I first met Bagehot at University College, London, when we were neither of us over seventeen. I was struck by the questions put by a lad with large dark eyes and florid complexion to the late Professor De Morgan, who was lecturing to us, as his custom was, on the great difficulties involved in what we thought we all understood perfectly—such, for example, as the meaning of o, of negative quantities, or the grounds of probable expectation. Bagehot’s questions showed that he had both read and thought more on these subjects than most of us, and I was eager to make his acquaintance, which soon ripened into an intimate friendship, in which there was never any intermission between that time and his death. Some will regret that Bagehot did not go to Oxford; the reason being that his father, who was a Unitarian, objected on principle to all doctrinal tests, and would never have permitted a son of his to go to either of the older Universities while those tests were required of the undergraduates. And I am not at all sure that University College, London, was not at that time a much more awakening place of education for young men than almost any Oxford college. Bagehot himself, I suspect, thought so. Fifteen years later he wrote, in his essay on Shelley: “A distinguished pupil of the University of Oxford once observed to us, ‘The use of the University of Oxford is that no one can over-read himself there. The appetite for knowledge is repressed.’ ” And whatever may have been defective in University College, London—and no doubt much was defective—nothing of the kind could have been said of it when we were students there. Indeed, in those years London was a place with plenty of intellectual stimulus in it for young men, while in University College itself there was quite enough vivacious and original teaching to make that stimulus available to the full. It is sometimes said that it needs the quiet of a country town remote from the capital to foster the love of genuine study in young men. But of this, at least, I am sure, that Gower Street, and Oxford Street, and the New Road, and the dreary chain of squares from Euston to Bloomsbury, were the scenes of discussions as eager and as abstract as ever were the sedate cloisters or the flowery rivermeadows of Cambridge or Oxford. Once, I remember, in the vehemence of our argument as to whether the so-called logical principle of identity (A is A) were entitled to rank as “a law of thought” or only as a postulate of language, Bagehot and I wandered up and down Regent Street for something like two hours in the vain attempt to find Oxford Street:—
- “And yet what days were those, Parmenides,
- When we were young, when we could number friends
- In all the Italian cities like ourselves,
- When with elated hearts we joined your train,
- Ye sun-born virgins, on the road of truth!
- Then we could still enjoy, then neither thought
- Nor outward things were closed and dead to us,
- But we received the shock of mighty thoughts
- On single minds with a pure natural joy;
- And if the sacred load oppressed our brain,
- We had the power to feel the pressure eased,
- The brow unbound, the thoughts flow free again
- In the delightful commerce of the world.”1
Bagehot has himself described, evidently from his own experience, the kind of life we lived in those days, in an article on Oxford Reform: “So, too, in youth, the real plastic energy is not in tutors, or lectures, or in books ‘got up,’ but in Wordsworth and Shelley, in the books that all read because all like; in what all talk of because all are interested; in the argumentative walk or disputatious lounge; in the impact of young thought upon young thought, of fresh thought on fresh thought, of hot thought on hot thought; in mirth and refutation, in ridicule and laughter; for these are the free play of the natural mind, and these cannot be got without a college”.2
The late Professor Sewell, when asked to give his pupils some clear conception of the old Greek Sophists, is said to have replied that he could not do this better than by referring them to the Professors of University College, London. I do not think there was much force in the sarcasm, for though Professor T. Hewitt Key, whose restless and ingenious mind led him many a wild dance after etymological Will-o’-the-wisps—I remember, for instance, his cheerfully accepting the suggestion that “better” and “bad” (melior and malus) came from the same root, and accounting for it by the probable disposition of hostile tribes to call everything bad which their enemies called good, and everything good which their enemies called bad—may have had in him much of the brilliance, and something also, perhaps, of the flightiness, of the old sophist, it would be hard to imagine men more severe in exposing pretentious conceits and dispelling dreams of theoretic omniscience, than Professors De Morgan, Malden, and Long. De Morgan, who at that time was in the midst of his controversy on formal logic with Sir William Hamilton, was, indeed, characterised by the great Edinburgh metaphysician as “profound in mathematics, curious in logic, but wholly deficient in architectonic power”; yet, for all that, his lectures on the Theory of Limits were a far better logical discipline for young men than Sir William Hamilton’s on the Law of the Unconditioned or the Quantification of the Predicate. Professor Malden contrived to imbue us with a love of that fastidious taste and that exquisite nicety in treating questions of scholarship, which has, perhaps, been more needed and less cultivated in Gower Street than any other of the higher elements of a college education; while Professor Long’s caustic irony, accurate and almost ostentatiously dry learning, and profoundly stoical temperament, were as antithetic to the temper of the sophist as human qualities could possibly be.
The time of our college life was pretty nearly contemporaneous with the life of the Anti-Corn-Law League and the great agitation in favour of Free-trade. To us this was useful rather from the general impulse it gave to political discussion, and the literary curiosity it excited in us as to the secret of true eloquence, than because it anticipated in any considerable degree the later acquired taste for economical science. Bagehot and I seldom missed an opportunity of hearing together the matchless practical disquisitions of Mr. Cobden—lucid and homely, yet glowing with intense conviction,—the profound passion and careless, though artistic, scorn of Mr. Bright, and the artificial and elaborately ornate periods, and witty, though somewhat ad captandum, epigrams of Mr. W. J. Fox (afterwards M.P. for Oldham). Indeed, we scoured London together to hear any kind of oratory that had gained a reputation of its own, and compared all we heard with the declamation of Burke and the rhetoric of Macaulay, many of whose later essays came out and were eagerly discussed by us while we were together at college. In our conversations on these essays, I remember that I always bitterly attacked, while Bagehot moderately defended, the glorification of compromise which marks all Macaulay’s writings. Even in early youth Bagehot had much of that “animated moderation” which he praises so highly in his latest work. He was a voracious reader, especially of history, and had a far truer appreciation of historical conditions than most young thinkers; indeed, the broad historical sense which characterised him from first to last, made him more alive than ordinary students to the urgency of circumstance, and far less disposed to indulge in abstract moral criticism from a modern point of view. On theology, as on all other subjects, Bagehot was at this time more conservative than myself, he sharing his mother’s orthodoxy, and I at that time accepting heartily the Unitarianism of my own people. Theology was, however, I think, the only subject on which, in later life, we, to some degree at least, exchanged places, though he never at any time, however doubtful he may have become on some of the cardinal issues of historical Christianity, accepted the Unitarian position. Indeed, within the last two or three years of his life, he spoke on one occasion of the Trinitarian doctrine as probably the best account which human reason could render of the mystery of the self-existent mind.
In those early days Bagehot’s manner was often supercilious. We used to attack him for his intellectual arrogance—his ?βρις we called it, in our college slang—a quality which I believe was not really in him, though he had then much of its external appearance. Nevertheless his genuine contempt for what was intellectually feeble was not accompanied by an even adequate appreciation of his own powers. At college, however, his satirical “Hear, hear,” was a formidable sound in the debating society, and one which took the heart out of many a younger speaker; and the ironical “How much?” with which in conversation he would meet an over-eloquent expression, was always of a nature to reduce a man, as the mathematical phrase goes, to his “lowest terms”. In maturer life he became much gentler and mellower, and often even delicately considerate for others; but his inner scorn for ineffectual thought remained, in some degree, though it was very reticently expressed, to the last. For instance, I remember his attacking me for my mildness in criticising a book which, though it professed to rest on a basis of clear thought, really missed all its points. “There is a pale, whitey-brown substance,” he wrote to me, “in the man’s books, which people who don’t think take for thought, but it isn’t;” and he upbraided me much for not saying plainly that the man was a muff. In his youth this scorn for anything like the vain beating of the wings in the attempt to think, was at its maximum. It was increased, I think, by that which was one of his greatest qualities, his remarkable “detachment” of mind—in other words, his comparative inaccessibility to the contagion of blind sympathy. Most men, more or less unconsciously, shrink from even thinking what they feel to be out of sympathy with the feelings of their neighbours, unless under some strong incentive to do so; and in this way the sources of much true and important criticism are dried up, through the mere diffusion and ascendency of conventional but sincere habits of social judgment. And no doubt for the greater number of us this is much the best. We are worth more for the purpose of constituting and strengthening the cohesive power of the social bond, than we should ever be worth for the purpose of criticising feebly—and with little effect, perhaps, except the disorganising effect of seeming ill-nature—the various incompetences and miscarriages of our neighbours’ intelligence. But Bagehot’s intellect was always far too powerful and original to render him available for the function of mere social cement; and full as he was of genuine kindness and hearty personal affections, he certainly had not in any high degree that sensitive instinct as to what others would feel, which so often shapes even the thoughts of men, and still oftener their speech, into mild and complaisant, but unmeaning and unfruitful, forms.
Thus it has been said that in his very amusing article on Crabb Robinson, published in the Fortnightly Review for August, 1869, he was more than a little rough in his delineation of that quaint old friend of our earlier days. And certainly there is something of the naturalist’s realistic manner of describing the habits of a new species, in the paper, though there is not a grain of malice or even depreciatory bias in it, and though there is a very sincere regard manifested throughout. But that essay will illustrate admirably what I mean by saying that Bagehot’s detachment of mind, and the deficiency in him of any aptitude for playing the part of mere social cement, tended to give the impression of an intellectual arrogance which—certainly in the sense of self-esteem or self-assertion—did not in the least belong to him. In the essay I have just mentioned he describes how Crabb Robinson when he gave his somewhat famous breakfast-parties, used to forget to make the tea, then lost his keys, then told a long story about a bust of Wieland, during the extreme agony of his guests’ appetites, and finally, perhaps, withheld the cup of tea he had at last poured out, while he regaled them with a poem of Wordsworth’s or a diatribe against Hazlitt. And Bagehot adds: “The more astute of his guests used to breakfast before they came, and then there was much interest in seeing a steady literary man, who did not understand the region, in agonies at having to hear three stories before he got his tea, one again between his milk and his sugar, another between his butter and his toast, and additional zest in making a stealthy inquiry that was sure to intercept the coming delicacies by bringing on Schiller and Goethe”. The only “astute” person referred to was, I imagine, Bagehot himself, who confessed to me, much to my amusement, that this was always his own precaution before one of Crabb Robinson’s breakfasts. I doubt if anybody else ever thought of it. It was very characteristic in him that he should have not only noticed—for that, of course, any one might do—this weak element in Crabb Robinson’s breakfasts, but should have kept it so distinctly before his mind as to make it the centre, as it were, of a policy, and the opportunity of a mischievous stratagem to try the patience of others. It showed how much of the social naturalist there was in him. If any race of animals could understand a naturalist’s account of their ways and habits, and of the devices he adopted to get those ways and habits more amusingly or instructively displayed before him, no doubt they would think that he was a cynic; and it was this intellectual detachment, as of a social naturalist, from the society in which he moved, which made Bagehot’s remarks often seem somewhat harsh, when, in fact, they were animated not only by no suspicion of malice, but by the most cordial and earnest friendliness. Owing to this separateness of mind, he described more strongly and distinctly traits which, when delineated by a friend, we expect to find painted in the softened manner of one who is half disposed to imitate or adopt them.
Yet, though I have used the word “naturalist” to denote the keen and solitary observation with which Bagehot watched society, no word describes him worse, if we attribute to it any of that coldness and stillness of curiosity which we are apt to associate with scientific vigilance. Especially in his youth, buoyancy, vivacity, velocity of thought, were of the essence of the impression which he made. He had high spirits and great capacities for enjoyment, great sympathies indeed with the old English Cavalier. In his Essay on Macaulay he paints that character with profound sympathy:—
“What historian, indeed,” he says, “has ever estimated the Cavalier character? There is Clarendon, the grave, rhetorical, decorous lawyer—piling words, congealing arguments—very stately, a little grim. There is Hume, the Scotch metaphysician, who has made out the best case for such people as never were, for a Charles who never died, for a Strafford who could never have been attainted, a saving, calculating North-countryman, fat, impassive, who lived on eightpence a day. What have these people to do with an enjoying English gentleman? . . . Talk of the ways of spreading a wholesome Conservatism throughout the country . . . . as far as communicating and establishing your creed is concerned, try a little pleasure. The way to keep up old customs is to enjoy old customs; the way to be satisfied with the present state of things is to enjoy that state of things. Over the ‘Cavalier’ mind this world passes with a thrill of delight; there is an exultation in a daily event, zest in the ‘regular thing,’ joy at an old feast.”1
And that aptly represents himself. Such arrogance as he seemed to have in early life was the arrogance as much of enjoyment as of detachment of mind—the insouciance of the old Cavalier as much at least as the calm of a mind not accessible to the contagion of social feelings. He always talked, in youth, of his spirits as inconveniently high; and once wrote to me that he did not think they were quite as “boisterous” as they had been, and that his fellow-creatures were not sorry for the abatement; nevertheless he added, “I am quite fat, gross, and ruddy”. He was, indeed, excessively fond of hunting, vaulting, and almost all muscular effort, so that his life would be wholly misconceived by any one who, hearing of his “detachment” of thought, should picture his mind as a vigilantly observant, far-away intelligence, such as Hawthorne’s, for example. He liked to be in the thick of the mélée when talk grew warm, though he was never so absorbed in it as not to keep his mind cool.
As I said, Bagehot was a Somersetshire man, with all the richness of nature and love for the external glow of life which the most characteristic counties of the South-west of England contrive to give to their most characteristic sons:—
“This north-west corner of Spain,” he wrote once to a newspaper from the Pyrenees, “is the only place out of England where I should like to live. It is a sort of better Devonshire; the coast is of the same kind, the sun is more brilliant, the sea is more brilliant, and there are mountains in the background. I have seen some more beautiful places and many grander, but I should not like to live in them. As Mr. Emerson puts it, ‘I do not want to go to heaven before my time’. My English nature by early use and long habit is tied to a certain kind of scenery, soon feels the want of it, and is apt to be alarmed as well as pleased at perpetual snow and all sorts of similar beauties. But here, about San Sebastian, you have the best England can give you (at least if you hold, as I do, that Devonshire is the finest of our counties), and the charm, the ineffable, indescribable charm of the South too. Probably the sun has some secret effect on the nervous system that makes one inclined to be pleased, but the golden light lies upon everything, and one fancies that one is charmed only by the outward loveliness.”
The vivacity and warm colouring of the landscapes of the South of England certainly had their full share in moulding his tastes, and possibly even his style.
Bagehot took the mathematical scholarship with his Bachelor’s degree in the University of London in 1846, and the gold medal in Intellectual and Moral Philosophy with his Master’s degree in 1848, in reading for which he mastered for the first time those principles of political economy which were to receive so much illustration from his genius in later years. But at this time philosophy, poetry, and theology, had, I think, a much greater share of his attention than any narrow and more sharply defined science. Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth, Coleridge, Martineau and John Henry Newman, all in their way exerted a great influence over his mind, and divided, not unequally, with the authors whom he was bound to study—that is, the Greek philosophers, together with Hume, Kant, J. S. Mill, and Sir William Hamilton—the time at his disposal. I have no doubt that for seven or eight years of his life the Roman Catholic Church had a great fascination for his imagination, though I do not think that he was ever at all near conversion. He was intimate with all Dr. Newman’s writings. And of these the Oxford sermons, and the poems in the Lyra Apostolica afterwards separately published—partly, I believe, on account of the high estimate of them which Bagehot had himself expressed—were always his special favourites. The little poetry he wrote—and it is evident that he never had the kind of instinct for, or command of, language which is the first condition of genuine poetic genius—seems to me to have been obviously written under the spell which Dr. Newman’s own few but finely-chiselled poems had cast upon him. If I give one specimen of Bagehot’s poems, it is not that I think it in any way an adequate expression of his powers, but for a very different reason, because it will show those who have inferred from his other writings that his mind never deeply concerned itself with religion, how great is their mistake. Nor is there any real poverty of resource in these lines, except perhaps in the awkward mechanism of some of them. They were probably written when he was twenty-three or twenty-four.
“To the Roman Catholic Church.
- “ ‘Casta inceste.’—Lucretius.
- “Thy lamp of faith is brightly trimmed,
- Thy eager eye is not yet dimmed,
- Thy stalwart step is yet unstayed,
- Thy words are well obeyed.
- “Thy proud voice vaunts of strength from heaven,
- Thy proud foes carp, ‘By hell’s art given’:
- No Titan thou of earth-born bands,
- Strange Church of hundred hands.
- “Nursed without knowledge, born of night,
- With hand of power and thoughts of light,
- As Britain seas, far reachingly
- O’er-rul’st thou history.
- “Wild as La Pucelle in her hour,
- O’er prostrate realms with awe-girt power
- Thou marchest steadfast on thy path
- Through wonder, love, and wrath.
- “And will thy end be such as hers,
- O’erpowered by earthly mail-clad powers
- Condemned for cruel, magic art,
- Though awful, bold of heart.
- “Through thorn-clad Time’s unending waste
- With ardent step alone thou strayest,
- As Jewish scape-goats tracked the wild,
- Unholy, consecrate, defiled.
- “Use not thy truth in manner rude
- To rule for gain the multitude,
- Or thou wilt see that truth depart,
- To seek some holier heart;
- “Then thou wilt watch thy errors lorn,
- O’erspread by shame, o’erswept by scorn,
- In lonely want without hope’s smile,
- As Tyre her weed-clad Isle.
- “Like once thy chief, thou bear’st Christ’s name;
- Like him thou hast denied his shame,
- Bold, eager, skilful, confident,
- Oh, now like him repent!”
That has certainly no sign of the hand of the master in it, for the language is not moulded and vivified by the thought, but the thought itself is fine. And there is still better evidence than these lines would afford, of the fascination which the Roman Catholic Church had for Bagehot. A year or two later, in the letters on the coup d’état, to which I shall soon have to refer, there occurs the following passage. (He is trying to explain how the cleverness, the moral restlessness, and intellectual impatience of the French, all tend to unfit them for a genuine Parliamentary government):—
“I do not know that I can exhibit the way these qualities of the French character operate on their opinions better than by telling you how the Roman Catholic Church deals with them. I have rather attended to it since I came here. It gives sermons almost an interest, their being in French, and to those curious in intellectual matters, it is worth observing. In other times, and even now in out-of-the-way Spain, I suppose it may be true that the Catholic Church has been opposed to inquiry and reasoning. But it is not so now and here. Loudly from the pens of a hundred writers, from the tongues of a thousand pulpits, in every note of thrilling scorn and exulting derision, she proclaims the contrary. Be she Christ’s workman or Antichrist’s, she knows her work too well. ‘Reason, reason, reason!’ exclaims she to the philosophers of this world. ‘Put in practice what you teach if you would have others believe it. Be consistent. Do not prate to us of private judgment, when you are but yourselves repeating what you heard in the nursery, ill-mumbled remnants of a Catholic tradition. No; exemplify what you command; inquire and make search. Seek, and we warn ye that ye will never find, yet do as ye will. Shut yourselves up in a room, make your mind a blank, go down (as you speak) into the depth of your consciousness, scrutinise the mental structure, inquire for the elements of belief,—spend years, your best years, in the occupation,—and, at length, when your eyes are dim, and your brain hot, and your hands unsteady, then reckon what you have gained. See if you cannot count on your fingers the certainties you have reached; reflect which of them you doubted yesterday, which you may disbelieve to-morrow; or, rather, make haste—assume at random some essential credenda,—write down your inevitable postulates, enumerate your necessary axioms, toil on, toil on, spin your spider’s web, adore your own soul, or, if ye prefer it, choose some German nostrum; try an intellectual intuition, or the pure reason, or the intelligible ideas, or the mesmeric clairvoyance, and when so, or somehow, you have attained your results, try them on mankind. Don’t go out into the byeways and hedges; it is unnecessary. Ring a bell, call in the servants, give them a course of lectures, cite Aristotle, review Descartes, panegyrise Plato, and see if the bonne will understand you. It is you that say Vox populi, vox Dei. You see the people reject you. Or, suppose you succeed,—what you call succeeding. Your books are read; for three weeks, or even a season, you are the idol of the salons. Your hard words are on the lips of women; then a change comes—a new actress appears at the Théâtre Français or the Opera; her charms eclipse your theories; or a great catastrophe occurs; political liberty, it is said, is annihilated. Il faut se faire mouchard, is the observation of scoffers. Anyhow you are forgotten. Fifty years may be the gestation of a philosophy, not three its life. Before long, before you go to your grave, your six disciples leave you for some newer master, or to set up for themselves. The poorest priest in the remotest region of the Basses-Alpes has more power over men’s souls than human cultivation. His ill-mouthed masses move women’s souls—can you? Ye scoff at Jupiter, yet he at least was believed in, you have never been. Idol for idol, the dethroned is better than the unthroned. No, if you would reason, if you would teach, if you would speculate,—come to us. We have our premises ready; years upon years before you were born, intellects whom the best of you delight to magnify, toiled to systematise the creed of ages. Years upon years after you are dead, better heads than yours will find new matter there to define, to divide, to arrange. Consider the hundred volumes of Aquinas. Which of you desire a higher life than that;—to deduce, to subtilise, discriminate, systematise, and decide the highest truth, and to be believed? Yet such was his luck, his enjoyment. He was what you would be. No, no, credite, credite. Ours is the life of speculation. The cloister is the home for the student. Philosophy is stationary, Catholicism progressive. You call. We are heard, etc.’ So speaks each preacher, according to his ability. And when the dust and noise of present controversies have passed away, and, in the interior of the night, some grave historian writes out the tale of half-forgotten times, let him not forget to observe that, profoundly as the mediæval Church subdued the superstitious cravings of a painful and barbarous age, in after-years she dealt more discerningly still with the feverish excitement, the feeble vanities, and the dogmatic impatience of an over-intellectual generation.”1
It is obvious, I think, both from the poem, and from these reflections, that what attracted Bagehot in the Church of Rome was the historical prestige and social authority which she had accumulated in believing and uncritical ages for use in the unbelieving and critical age in which we live,—while what he condemned and dreaded in her was her tendency to use her power over the multitude for purposes of a low ambition.
And as I am on this subject, this will be, I think, the best opportunity I shall have to say what I have got to say of Bagehot’s later religious belief, without returning to it when I have to deal with a period in which the greatest part of his spare intellectual energy was given to other subjects. I do not think that the religious affections were very strong in Bagehot’s mind, but the primitive religious instincts certainly were. From childhood he was what he certainly remained to the last, in spite of the rather antagonistic influence of the able, scientific group of men from whom he learned so much—a thorough transcendentalist, by which I mean one who could never doubt that there was a real foundation of the universe distinct from the outward show of its superficial qualities, and that the substance is never exhaustively expressed in these qualities. He often repeats in his essays Shelley’s fine line, “Lift not the painted veil which those who live call life,” and the essence at least of the idea in it haunted him from his very childhood. In the essay on “Hartley Coleridge”—perhaps the most perfect in style of any of his writings—he describes most powerfully, and evidently in great measure from his own experience, the mysterious confusion between appearances and realities which so bewildered little Hartley,—the difficulty that he complained of in distinguishing between the various Hartleys,—“picture Hartley,”—“shadow Hartley,” and between Hartley the subject and Hartley the object, the enigmatic blending of which last two Hartleys the child expressed by catching hold of his own arm, and then calling himself the “catch-me-fast Hartley”. And in dilating on this bewildering experience of the child’s, Bagehot borrows from his own recollections:—
“All children have a world of their own, as distinct from that of the grown people who gravitate around them, as the dreams of girlhood from our prosaic life, or the ideas of the kitten that plays with the falling leaves, from those of her carnivorous mother that catches mice, and is sedulous in her domestic duties. But generally about this interior existence children are dumb. You have warlike ideas, but you cannot say to a sinewy relative, ‘My dear aunt, I wonder when the big bush in the garden will begin to walk about; I’m sure its a Crusader, and I was cutting it all the day with my steel sword. But what do you think, aunt? for I’m puzzled about its legs, because you see, aunt, it has only one stalk—and besides, aunt, the leaves.’ You cannot remark this in secular life, but you hack at the infelicitous bush till you do not wholly reject the idea that your small garden is Palestine, and yourself the most adventurous of knights.”1
They have a tradition in the family that this is but a fragment from Bagehot’s own imaginative childhood, and certainly this visionary element in him was very vivid to the last. However, the transcendental or intellectual basis of religious belief was soon strengthened in him, as readers of his remarkable paper on Bishop Butler will easily see, by those moral and retributive instincts which warn us of the meaning and consequences of guilt:—
“The moral principle,” he wrote in that essay, “whatever may be said to the contrary by complacent thinkers, is really and to most men a principle of fear. . . . Conscience is the condemnation of ourselves; we expect a penalty. As the Greek proverb teaches, ‘Where there is shame, there is fear’. . . . How to be free from this is the question. How to get loose from this—how to be rid of the secret tie which binds the strong man and cramps his pride, and makes him angry at the beauty of the universe, which will not let him go forth like a great animal, like the king of the forest, in the glory of his might, but which restrains him with an inner fear and a secret foreboding that if he do but exalt himself he shall be abased, if he do but set forth his own dignity he will offend One who will deprive him of it. This, as has often been pointed out, is the source of the bloody rites of heathendom.”1
And then, after a powerful passage, in which he describes the sacrificial superstitions of men like Achilles, he returns, with a flash of his own peculiar humour, to Bishop Butler, thus:—
“Of course it is not this kind of fanaticism that we impute to a prelate of the English Church; human sacrifices are not respectable, and Achilles was not rector of Stanhope. But though the costume and circumstances of life change, the human heart does not; its feelings remain. The same anxiety, the same consciousness of personal sin, which lead, in barbarous times, to what has been described, show themselves in civilised life as well. In this quieter period, their great manifestation is scrupulosity;”2
which he goes on to describe as a sort of inexhaustible anxiety for perfect compliance with the minutest positive commands which may be made the condition of forgiveness for the innumerable lapses of moral obligation. I am not criticising the paper, or I should point out that Bagehot failed in it to draw out the distinction between the primitive moral instinct and the corrupt superstition into which it runs; but I believe that he recognised the weight of this moral testimony of the conscience to a divine Judge, as well as the transcendental testimony of the intellect to an eternal substance of things, to the end of his life. And certainly in the reality of human free-will as the condition of all genuine moral life, he firmly believed. In his Physics and Politics—the subtle and original essay upon which, in conjunction with the essay on the English Constitution, Bagehot’s reputation as a European thinker chiefly rests—he repeatedly guards himself (for instance, pp. 9, 10) against being supposed to think that in accepting the principle of evolution, he has accepted anything inconsistent either with spiritual creation, or with the free-will of man. On the latter point he adds:—
“No doubt the modern doctrine of the ‘conservation of force,’ if applied to decision, is inconsistent with free-will; if you hold that force is ‘never lost or gained,’ you cannot hold that there is a real gain, a sort of new creation of it in free volition. But I have nothing to do here with the universal ‘conservation of force’. The conception of the nervous organs as stores of will-made power, does not raise or need so vast a discussion.”1
And in the same book he repeatedly uses the expression “Providence,” evidently in its natural meaning, to express the ultimate force at work behind the march of “evolution”. Indeed, in conversation with me on this subject, he often said how much higher a conception of the creative mind, the new Darwinian ideas seemed to him to have introduced, as compared with those contained in what is called the argument from contrivance and design. On the subject of personal immortality, too, I do not think that Bagehot ever wavered. He often spoke, and even wrote, of “that vague sense of eternal continuity which is always about the mind, and which no one could bear to lose,” and described it as being much more important to us than it even appears to be, important as that is; for, he said, “when we think we are thinking of the past, we are only thinking of a future that is to be like it”. But with the exception of these cardinal points, I could hardly say how much Bagehot’s mind was or was not affected by the great speculative controversies of later years. Certainly he became much more doubtful concerning the force of the historical evidence of Christianity than I ever was, and rejected, I think, entirely, though on what amount of personal study he had founded his opinion I do not know, the Apostolic origin of the fourth Gospel. Possibly his mind may have been latterly in suspense as to miracle altogether, though I am pretty sure that he had not come to a negative conclusion. He belonged, in common with myself, during the last years of his life, to a society in which these fundamental questions were often discussed; but he seldom spoke in it, and told me very shortly before his death that he shrank from such discussions on religious points, feeling that, in debates of this kind, they were not and could not be treated with anything like thoroughness. On the whole, I think, the cardinal article of his faith would be adequately represented even in the latest period of his life by the following passage in his essay on Bishop Butler:—
“In every step of religious argument we require the assumption, the belief, the faith, if the word is better, in an absolutely perfect Being; in and by whom we are, who is omnipotent as well as most holy; who moves on the face of the whole world, and ruleth all things by the word of his power. If we grant this, the difficulty of the opposition between what is here called the natural and the supernatural religion is removed; and without granting it, that difficulty is perhaps insuperable. It follows from the very idea and definition of an infinitely perfect Being, that he is within us as well as without us,—ruling the clouds of the air and the fishes of the sea, as well as the fears and thoughts of men; smiling through the smile of nature as well as warning with the pain of conscience,—‘sine qualitate, bonum; sine quantitate, magnum; sine indigentiâ, creatorem; sine situ, præsidentem; sine habitu, omnia continentem; sine loco, ubique totum; sine tempore, sempiternum; sine ullâ sui mutatione, mutabilia facientem, nihilque patientem’. If we assume this, life is simple; without this, all is dark.”1
Evidently, then, though Bagehot held that the doctrine of evolution by natural selection gave a higher conception of the Creator than the old doctrine of mechanical design, he never took any materialistic view of evolution. One of his early essays, written while at college, on some of the many points of the Kantian philosophy which he then loved to discuss, concluded with a remarkable sentence, which would probably have fairly expressed, even at the close of his life, his profound belief in God, and his partial sympathy with the agnostic view that we are, in great measure, incapable of apprehending, more than very dimly, His mind or purposes:—“Gazing after the infinite essence, we are like men watching through the drifting clouds for a glimpse of the true heavens on a drear November day; layer after layer passes from our view, but still the same immovable grey rack remains”.
After Bagehot had taken his Master’s degree, and while he was still reading Law in London, and hesitating between the Bar and the family bank, there came as Principal to University Hall (which is a hall of residence in connection with University College, London, established by the Presbyterians and Unitarians after the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapel Act), the man who had, I think, a greater intellectual fascination for Bagehot than any of his contemporaries—Arthur Hugh Clough, Fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and author of various poems of great genius, more or less familiar to the public, though Clough is perhaps better known as the subject of the exquisite poem written on his death in 1861, by his friend Matthew Arnold—the poem to which he gave the name of “Thyrsis”—than by even the most popular of his own. Bagehot had subscribed for the erection of University Hall, and took an active part at one time on its council. Thus he saw a good deal of Clough, and did what he could to mediate between that enigma to Presbyterian parents—a college-head who held himself serenely neutral on almost all moral and educational subjects interesting to parents and pupils, except the observance of disciplinary rules—and the managing body who bewildered him and were by him bewildered. I don’t think either Bagehot or Clough’s other friends were very successful in their mediation, but he at least gained in Clough a cordial friend, and a theme of profound intellectual and moral interest to himself which lasted him his life, and never failed to draw him into animated discussion long after Clough’s own premature death; and I think I can trace the effect which some of Clough’s writings had on Bagehot’s mind to the very end of his career. There were some points of likeness between Bagehot and Clough, but many more of difference. Both had the capacity for boyish spirits in them, and the florid colour which usually accompanies a good deal of animal vigour; both were reserved men, with a great dislike of anything like the appearance of false sentiment, and both were passionate admirers of Wordsworth’s poetry; but Clough was slightly lymphatic, with a great tendency to unexpressed and unacknowledged discouragement, and to the paralysis of silent embarrassment when suffering from such feelings, while Bagehot was keen, and very quickly evacuated embarrassing positions, and never returned to them. When, however, Clough was happy and at ease, there was a calm and silent radiance in his face, and his head was set with a kind of stateliness on his shoulders, that gave him almost an Olympian air; but this would sometimes vanish in a moment into an embarrassed taciturnity that was quite uncouth. One of his friends declares that the man who was said to be “a cross between a schoolboy and a bishop,” must have been like Clough. There was in Clough, too, a large Chaucerian simplicity and a flavour of homeliness, so that now and then, when the light shone into his eyes, there was something, in spite of the air of fine scholarship and culture, which reminded one of the best likenesses of Burns. It was of Clough, I believe, that Emerson was thinking (though, knowing Clough intimately as he did, he was of course speaking mainly in joke) when he described the Oxford of that day thus: “ ‘Ah,’ says my languid Oxford gentleman, ‘nothing new, and nothing true, and no matter’ ”. No saying could misrepresent Clough’s really buoyant and simple character more completely than that; but doubtless many of his sayings and writings, treating, as they did, most of the greater problems of life as insoluble, and enjoining a self-possessed composure under the discovery of their insolubility, conveyed an impression very much like this to men who came only occasionally in contact with him. Bagehot, in his article on Crabb Robinson, says that the latter, who in those days seldom remembered names, always described Clough as “that admirable and accomplished man—you know whom I mean—the one who never says anything”. And certainly Clough was often taciturn to the last degree, or if he opened his lips, delighted to open them only to scatter confusion by discouraging, in words at least, all that was then called earnestness—as, for example, by asking: “Was it ordained that twice two should make four, simply for the intent that boys and girls should be cut to the heart that they do not make five? Be content; when the veil is raised, perhaps they will make five! Who knows?”1
Clough’s chief fascination for Bagehot was, I think, that he had as a poet in some measure rediscovered, at all events realised, as few ever realised before, the enormous difficulty of finding truth—a difficulty which he somewhat paradoxically held to be enhanced rather than diminished by the intensity of the truest modern passion for it. The stronger the desire, he teaches, the greater is the danger of illegitimately satisfying that desire by persuading ourselves that what we wish to believe, is true, and the greater the danger of ignoring the actual confusions of human things:—
- “Rules baffle instincts, instincts rules,
- Wise men are bad, and good are fools,
- Facts evil, wishes vain appear,
- We cannot go, why are we here?
- “Oh, may we, for assurance’ sake,
- Some arbitrary judgment take,
- And wilfully pronounce it clear,
- For this or that ’tis, we are here?
- “Or is it right, and will it do
- To pace the sad confusion through,
- And say, it does not yet appear
- What we shall be—what we are here?”
This warning to withhold judgment and not cheat ourselves into beliefs which our own imperious desire to believe had alone engendered, is given with every variety of tone and modulation, and couched in all sorts of different forms of fancy and apologue, throughout Clough’s poems. He insists on “the ruinous force of the will” to persuade us of illusions which please us; of the tendency of practical life to give us beliefs which suit that practical life, but are none the truer for that; and is never weary of warning us that a firm belief in a falsity can be easily generated:—
“Action will furnish belief,—but will that belief be the true one? This is the point, you know. However, it doesn’t much matter. What one wants, I suppose, is to predetermine the action, So as to make it entail, not a chance belief, but the true one.”
This practical preaching, which Clough urges in season and out of season, met an answering chord in Bagehot’s mind, not so much in relation to religious belief as in relation to the over-haste and over-eagerness of human conduct, and I can trace the effect of it in all his writings, political and otherwise, to the end of his life. Indeed, it affected him much more in later days than in the years immediately following his first friendship with Clough. With all his boyish dash, there was something in Bagehot even in youth which dreaded precipitancy, and not only precipitancy itself, but those moral situations tending to precipitancy which men who have no minds of their own to make up, so often court. In later life he pleased himself by insisting that, on Darwin’s principle, civilised men, with all the complex problems of modern life to puzzle them, suspend their judgment so little, and are so eager for action, only because they have inherited from the earlier, simpler, and more violent ages, an excessive predisposition to action unsuited to our epoch and dangerous to our future development. But it was Clough, I think, who first stirred in Bagehot’s mind this great dread of “the ruinous force of the will,” a phrase he was never weary of quoting, and which might almost be taken as the motto of his Physics and Politics, the great conclusion of which is that in the “age of discussion,” grand policies and high-handed diplomacy and sensational legislation of all kinds will become rarer and rarer, because discussion will point out all the difficulties of such policies in relation to a state of existence so complex as our own, and will, in this way, tend to repress the excess of practical energy handed down to us by ancestors, to whom life was a sharper, simpler, and more perilous affair.
But the time for Bagehot’s full adoption of the suspensive principle in public affairs was not yet. In 1851 he went to Paris, shortly before the coup d’état. And while all England was assailing Louis Napoleon (justly enough, as I think) for his perfidy, and his impatience of the self-willed Assembly he could not control, Bagehot was preparing a deliberate and very masterly defence of that bloody and high-handed act. Even Bagehot would, I think, if pressed judiciously in later life, have admitted—though I can’t say he ever did—that the coup d’état was one of the best illustrations of “the ruinous force of the will,” in engendering, or at least crystallising, a false intellectual conclusion as to the political possibilities of the future, which recent history could produce. Certainly, he always spoke somewhat apologetically of these early letters, though I never heard him expressly retract their doctrine. In 1851 a knot of young Unitarians, of whom I was then one, headed by the late Mr. J. Langton Sanford—afterwards the historian of the Great Rebellion, who survived Bagehot barely four months—had engaged to help for a time in conducting the Inquirer, which then was, and still is, the chief literary and theological organ of the Unitarian body. Our régime was, I imagine, a time of great desolation for the very tolerant and thoughtful constituency for whom we wrote; and many of them, I am confident, yearned, and were fully justified in yearning, for those better days when this tyranny of ours should be overpast. Sanford and Osler did a good deal to throw cold water on the rather optimist and philanthropic politics of the most sanguine, because the most benevolent and open-hearted, of Dissenters. Roscoe criticised their literary work from the point of view of a devotee of the Elizabethan poets; and I attempted to prove to them in distinct heads, first, that their laity ought to have the protection afforded by a liturgy against the arbitrary prayers of their ministers; and next, that at least the great majority of their sermons ought to be suppressed, and the habit of delivering them discontinued almost altogether. Only a denomination of “just men” trained in tolerance for generations, and in that respect, at least, made all but “perfect,” would have endured it at all; but I doubt if any of us caused the Unitarian body so much grief as Bagehot, who never was a Unitarian, but who contributed a series of brilliant letters on the coup d’état, in which he trod just as heavily on the toes of his colleagues as he did on those of the public by whom the Inquirer was taken. In those days he not only, as I have already shown, eulogised the Catholic Church, but he supported the Prince-President’s military violence, attacked the freedom of the Press in France, maintained that the country was wholly unfit for true Parliamentary government, and—worst of all, perhaps—insinuated a panegyric on Louis Napoleon himself, asserting that he had been far better prepared for the duties of a statesman by gambling on the turf, than he would have been by poring over the historical and political dissertations of the wise and the good. This was Bagehot’s day of cynicism. The seven letters which he wrote on the coup d’état were certainly very exasperating, and yet they were not caricatures of his real thought, for his private letters at the time were more cynical still. Crabb Robinson, in speaking of him, used ever afterwards to describe him to me as “that friend of yours—you know whom I mean, you rascal!—who wrote those abominable, those most disgraceful letters on the coup d’état—I did not forgive him for years after”. Nor do I wonder, even now, that a sincere friend of constitutional freedom and intellectual liberty, like Crabb Robinson, found them difficult to forgive. They were light and airy, and even flippant, on a very grave subject. They made nothing of the Prince’s perjury; and they took impertinent liberties with all the dearest prepossessions of the readers of the Inquirer, and assumed their sympathy just where Bagehot knew that they would be most revolted by his opinions. Nevertheless, they had a vast deal of truth in them, and no end of ability, and I hope that there will be many to read them with interest now that they are here republished. There is a good deal of the raw material of history in them, and certainly I doubt if Bagehot ever again hit the satiric vein of argument so well. Here is a passage that will bear taking out of its context, and therefore not so full of the shrewd malice of these letters as many others, but which will illustrate their ability. It is one in which Bagehot maintained for the first time the view (which I believe he subsequently almost persuaded English politicians to accept, though in 1852 it was a mere flippant novelty, a paradox, and a heresy) that free institutions are apt to succeed with a stupid people, and to founder with a ready-witted and vivacious one. After broaching this, he goes on:—
“I see you are surprised. You are going to say to me as Socrates did to Polus, ‘My young friend, of course you are right, but will you explain what you mean, as you are not yet intelligible?’ I will do so as well as I can, and endeavour to make good what I say, not by an a priori demonstration of my own, but from the details of the present and the facts of history. Not to begin by wounding any present susceptibilities, let me take the Roman character, for, with one great exception—I need not say to whom I allude—they are the great political people of history. Now is not a certain dulness their most visible characteristic? What is the history of their speculative mind? A blank. What their literature? A copy. They have left not a single discovery in any abstract science, not a single perfect or well-formed work of high imagination. The Greeks, the perfection of human and accomplished genius, bequeathed to mankind the ideal forms of self-idolising art; the Romans imitated and admired. The Greeks explained the laws of nature; the Romans wondered and despised. The Greeks invented a system of numerals second only to that now in use; the Romans counted to the end of their days with the clumsy apparatus which we still call by their name. The Greeks made a capital and scientific calendar; the Romans began their month when the Pontifex Maximus happened to spy out the new moon. Throughout Latin literature this is the perpetual puzzle—Why are we free and they slaves?—we prætors and they barbers? Why do the stupid people always win and the clever people always lose? I need not say that in real sound stupidity the English people are unrivalled. You’ll have more wit, and better wit, in an Irish street-row than would keep Westminster Hall in humour for five weeks. . . . These valuable truths are no discoveries of mine. They are familiar enough to people whose business it is to know them. Hear what a douce and aged attorney says of your peculiarly promising barrister. ‘Sharp? Oh! yes, yes: he’s too sharp by half. He isn’t safe, not a minute, isn’t that young man.’ ‘What style, sir,’ asked of an East India Director some youthful aspirant for literary renown, ‘is most to be preferred in the composition of official despatches? ‘My good fellow,’ responded the ruler of Hindostan, ‘the style as we like, is the Humdrum.’ ”1
The permanent value of these papers is due to the freshness of their impressions of the French capital, and their true criticisms of Parisian journalism and society; their perverseness consists in this, that Bagehot steadily ignored in them the distinction between the duty of resisting anarchy, and the assumption of the Prince-President that this could only be done by establishing his own dynasty, and deferring sine die that great constitutional experiment which is now once more, no thanks to him or his Government, on its trial; an experiment which, for anything we see, had at least as good a chance then as now, and under a firm and popular chief of the executive like Prince Louis, would probably have had a better chance then than it has now under MacMahon. I need hardly say that in later life Bagehot was by no means blind to the political shortcomings of Louis Napoleon’s régime, as the article republished from the Economist, sufficiently proves. Moreover, he rejoiced heartily in the moderation of the republican statesmen during the severe trials of the months which just preceded his own death, in 1877, and expressed his sincere belief—confirmed by the history of the last year and a half—that the existing Republic has every prospect of life and growth.
During that residence in Paris, Bagehot, though, as I have said, in a somewhat cynical frame of mind, was full of life and courage, and was beginning to feel his own genius, which perhaps accounts for the air of recklessness so foreign to him, which he never adopted either before or since. During the riots he was a good deal in the streets, and from a mere love of art helped the Parisians to construct some of their barricades, notwithstanding the fact that his own sympathy was with those who shot down the barricades, not with those who manned them. He climbed over the rails of the Palais Royal on the morning of 2nd December to breakfast, and used to say that he was the only person who did breakfast there on that day. Victor Hugo is certainly wrong in asserting that no one expected Louis Napoleon to use force, and that the streets were as full as usual when the people were shot down, for the gates of the Palais Royal were shut quite early in the day. Bagehot was very much struck by the ferocious look of the Montagnards.
“Of late,” he wrote to me, “I have been devoting my entire attention to the science of barricades, which I found amusing. They have systematised it in a way which is pleasing to the cultivated intellect. We had only one good day’s fighting, and I naturally kept out of cannon-shot. But I took a quiet walk over the barricades in the morning, and superintended the construction of three with as much keenness as if I had been clerk of the works. You’ve seen lots, of course, at Berlin, but I should not think those Germans were up to a real Montagnard, who is the most horrible being to the eye I ever saw,—sallow, sincere, sour fanaticism, with grizzled moustaches, and a strong wish to shoot you rather than not. The Montagnards are a scarce commodity, the real race—only three or four, if so many, to a barricade. If you want a Satan any odd time, they’ll do; only I hope that he don’t believe in human brotherhood. It is not possible to respect any one who does, and I should be loth to confound the notion of our friend’s solitary grandeur by supposing him to fraternise,” etc. “I think M. Buonaparte is entitled to great praise. He has very good heels to his boots, and the French just want treading down, and nothing else—calm, cruel, business-like oppression, to take the dogmatic conceit out of their heads. The spirit of generalisation which, John Mill tells us, honourably distinguishes the French mind, has come to this, that every Parisian wants his head tapped in order to get the formulæ and nonsense out of it. And it would pay to perform the operation, for they are very clever on what is within the limit of their experience, and all that can be ‘expanded’ in terms of it, but beyond, it is all generalisation and folly. . . . So I am for any carnivorous government.”
And again, in the same letter:—
“Till the Revolution came I had no end of trouble to find conversation, but now they’ll talk against everybody, and against the President like mad—and they talk immensely well, and the language is like a razor, capital if you are skilful, but sure to cut you if you aren’t. A fellow can talk German in crude forms, and I don’t see it sounds any worse, but this stuff is horrid unless you get it quite right. A French lady made a striking remark to me: ‘C’est une révolution qui a sauvé la France. Tous mes amis sont mis en prison.’ She was immensely delighted that such a pleasing way of saving her country had been found.”
Of course the style of these familiar private letters conveys a gross caricature not only of Bagehot’s maturer mind, but even of the judgment of the published letters, and I quote them only to show that at the time when he composed these letters on the coup d’état, Bagehot’s mood was that transient mood of reckless youthful cynicism through which so many men of genius pass. I do not think he had at any time any keen sympathy with the multitude, i.e., with masses of unknown men. And that he ever felt what has since then been termed “the enthusiasm of humanity,” the sympathy with “the toiling millions of men sunk in labour and pain,” he himself would strenuously have denied. Such sympathy, even when men really desire to feel it, is, indeed, very much oftener coveted than actually felt by men as a living motive; and I am not quite sure that Bagehot would have even wished to feel it. Nevertheless, he had not the faintest trace of real hardness about him towards people whom he knew and understood. He could not bear to give pain; and when, in rare cases by youthful inadvertence, he gave it needlessly, I have seen how much and what lasting vexation it caused him. Indeed, he was capable of great sacrifices to spare his friends but a little suffering.
It was, I think, during his stay in Paris that Bagehot finally decided to give up the notion of practising at the Bar, and to join his father in the Somersetshire Bank and in his other business as a merchant and shipowner. This involved frequent visits to London and Liverpool, and Bagehot soon began to take a genuine interest in the larger issues of commerce, and maintained to the end that “business is much more amusing than pleasure”. Nevertheless, he could not live without the intellectual life of London, and never stayed more than six weeks at a time in the country without finding some excuse for going to town; and long before his death he made his home there. Hunting was the only sport he really cared for. He was a dashing rider, and a fresh wind was felt blowing through his earlier literary efforts, as though he had been thinking in the saddle, an effect wanting in his later essays, where you see chiefly the calm analysis of a lucid observer. But most of the ordinary amusements of young people he detested. He used to say that he wished he could think balls wicked, being so stupid as they were, and all “the little blue and pink girls, so like each other,”—a sentiment partly due, perhaps, to his extreme shortness of sight.
Though Bagehot never doubted the wisdom of his own decision to give up the law for the life of commerce, he thoroughly enjoyed his legal studies in his friend the late Mr. Justice Quain’s chambers, and in those of the present Vice-Chancellor, Sir Charles Hall, and he learnt there a good deal that was of great use to him in later life. Moreover, in spite of his large capacity for finance and commerce, there were small difficulties in Bagehot’s way as a banker and merchant, which he felt somewhat keenly.1 He was always absentminded about minutiæ. For instance, to the last, he could not correct a proof well, and was sure to leave a number of small inaccuracies, harshnesses, and slipshodnesses in style, uncorrected. He declared at one time that he was wholly unable to “add up,” and in his mathematical exercises in college he had habitually been inaccurate in trifles. I remember Professor Malden, on returning one of his Greek exercises, saying to him, with that curiously precise and emphatic articulation which made every remark of his go so much farther than that of our other lecturers: “Mr. Bagehot, you wage an internecine war with your aspirates”—not meaning, of course, that he ever left them out in pronunciation, but that he neglected to put them in in his written Greek. And to the last, even in his printed Greek quotations, the slips of this kind were always numerous. This habitual difficulty—due, I believe, to a preoccupied imagination—in attending to small details, made a banker’s duties seem irksome and formidable to him at first; and even to the last, in his most effective financial papers, he would generally get some one else to look after the precise figures for him. But in spite of all this, and in spite of a real attraction for the study of law, he was sure that his head would not stand the hot Courts and heavy wigs which make the hot Courts hotter, or the night-work of a thriving barrister in case of success; and he was certainly quite right. Indeed, had he chosen the Bar, he would have had no leisure for those two or three remarkable books which have made his reputation,—books which have been already translated into all the literary and some of the unliterary languages of Europe, and two of which are, I believe, used as text-books in some of the American Colleges.1 Moreover, in all probability, his life would have been much shorter into the bargain. Soon after his return from Paris he devoted himself in earnest to banking and commerce, and also began that series of articles, first for the Prospective and then for the National Review (which latter periodical he edited in conjunction with me for several years), the most striking of which he republished in 1858, under the awkward and almost forbidding title of Estimates of some Englishmen and Scotchmen—a book which never attracted the attention it deserved, and which has been long out of print. In republishing most of these essays as I am now doing,—and a later volume1 containing those essays on statesmen and politicians which are omitted from these volumes,—it is perhaps only fair to say that Bagehot in later life used to speak ill, much too ill, of his own early style. He used to declare that his early style affected him like the “jogging of a cart without springs over a very rough road,” and no doubt in his earliest essays something abrupt and spasmodic may easily be detected. Still, this was all so inextricably mingled with flashes of insight and humour which could ill be spared, that I always protested against any notion of so revising the essays as to pare down their excrescences.
I have never understood the comparative failure of this volume of Bagehot’s early essays; and a comparative failure it was, though I do not deny that, even at the time, it attracted much attention among the most accomplished writers of the day, and that I have been urged to republish it, as I am now doing, by many of the ablest men of my acquaintance. Obviously, as I have admitted, there are many faults of workmanship in it. Now and then the banter is forced. Often enough the style is embarrassed. Occasionally, perhaps, the criticism misses its mark, or is over-refined. But, taken as a whole, I hardly know any book that is such good reading, that has so much lucid vision in it, so much shrewd and curious knowledge of the world, so sober a judgment and so dashing a humour combined. Take this, for instance, out of the paper on “The First Edinburgh Reviewers,” concerning the judgment passed by Lord Jeffrey on the poetry of Bagehot’s favourite poet, Wordsworth2 :—
“The world has given judgment. Both Mr. Wordsworth and Lord Jeffrey have received their rewards. The one had his own generation—the laughter of men, the applause of drawing-rooms, the concurrence of the crowd; the other, a succeeding age, the fond enthusiasm of secret students, the lonely rapture of lonely minds. And each has received according to his kind. If all cultivated men speak differently because of the existence of Wordsworth and Coleridge; if not a thoughtful English book has appeared for years without some trace for good or for evil of their influence; if sermon-writers subsist upon their thoughts; if ‘sacred’ poets thrive by translating their weaker portions into the speech of women; if, when all this is over, some sufficient part of their writing will ever be fitting food for wild musing and solitary meditation, surely this is because they possessed the inner nature—an ‘intense and glowing mind’—‘the vision and the faculty divine’. But if, perchance, in their weaker moments the great authors of the Lyrical ballads did ever imagine that the world was to pause because of their verses, that ‘Peter Bell’ would be popular in drawing-rooms, that ‘Christabel’ would be perused in the City, that people of fashion would make a hand-book of the Excursion, it was well for them to be told at once that it was not so. Nature ingeniously prepared a shrill artificial voice, which spoke in season and out of season, enough and more than enough, what will ever be the idea of the cities of the plain concerning those who live alone among the mountains; of the frivolous concerning the grave; of the gregarious concerning the recluse; of those who laugh concerning those who laugh not; of the common concerning the uncommon; of those who lend on usury concerning those who lend not; the notions of the world, of those whom it will not reckon among the righteous. It said, ‘This won’t do’. And so in all times will the lovers of polished Liberalism speak concerning the intense and lonely ‘prophet’.”1
I choose that passage because it illustrates so perfectly Bagehot’s double vein, his sympathy with the works of high imagination, and his clear insight into that busy life which does not and cannot take note of works of high imagination, and which would not do the work it does, if it could. And this is the characteristic of all the essays. How admirably, for instance, in his essay on Shakespeare, does he draw out the individuality of a poet who is generally supposed to be so completely hidden in his plays; and with how keen a satisfaction does he discern and display the prosperous and practical man in Shakespeare—the qualities which made him a man of substance and a Conservative politician, as well as the qualities which made him a great dramatist and a great dreamer. No doubt Bagehot had a strong personal sympathy with the double life. Somersetshire probably never believed that the imaginative student, the omnivorous reader, could prosper as a banker and a man of business, and it was a satisfaction to him to show that he understood the world far better than the world had ever understood him. Again, how delicate is his delineation of Hartley Coleridge; how firm and clear his study of “Sir Robert Peel”;1 and how graphically he paints the literary pageant of Gibbon’s tame but splendid genius! Certainly the literary taste of England never made a greater blunder than when it passed by this remarkable volume of essays with comparatively little notice.
In 1858, Bagehot married the eldest daughter of the Right Honourable James Wilson, who died two years later in India, whither he had gone as the financial member of the Indian Council, to reduce to some extent the financial anarchy which then prevailed there. This marriage gave Bagehot nineteen years of undisturbed happiness, and certainly led to the production of his most popular and original, if not in every respect his most brilliant books. It connected him with the higher world of politics, without which he would hardly have studied and written as he did on the English Constitution; and by making him the Editor of the Economist, it compelled him to give his whole mind as much to the theoretic side of commerce and finance, as his own duties had already compelled him to give it to the practical side. But when I speak of his marriage as the last impulse which determined his chief work in life, I do not forget that he had long been prepared both for political and for financial speculation by his early education. His father, a man of firm and deliberate political convictions, had taken a very keen interest in the agitation for the great Reform Bill of 1832, and had materially helped to return a Liberal member for his county after it passed. Probably no one in all England knew the political history of the country since the peace more accurately than he. Bagehot often said that when he wanted any detail concerning the English political history of the last half-century, he had only to ask his father, to obtain it. His uncle, Mr. Vincent Stuckey, too, was a man of the world, and his house in Langport was a focus of many interests during Bagehot’s boyhood. Mr. Stuckey had begun life at the Treasury, and was at one time private secretary to Mr. Huskisson; and when he gave up that career to take a leading share in the Somersetshire Bank, he kept up for a long time his house in London, and his relations with political society there. He was fond of his nephew, as was Bagehot of him; and there was always a large field of interests, and often there were men of eminence, to be found in his house. Thus, Bagehot had been early prepared for the wider field of political and financial thought, to which he gave up so much of his time after his marriage.
I need not say nearly as much on this later aspect of Bagehot’s life as I have done on its early and more purely literary aspects, because his services in this direction are already well appreciated by the public. But this I should like to point out, that he could never have written as he did on the English Constitution, without having acutely studied living statesmen and their ways of acting on each other; that his book was essentially the book of a most realistic, because a most vividly imaginative, observer of the actual world of politics—the book of a man who was not blinded by habit and use to the enormous difficulties in the way of “government by public meeting,” and to the secret of the various means by which in practice those difficulties had been attenuated or surmounted. It is the book of a meditative man who had mused much on the strange workings of human instincts, no less than of a quick observer who had seen much of external life. Had he not studied the men before he studied the institutions, had he not concerned himself with individual statesmen before he turned his attention to the mechanism of our Parliamentary system, he could never have written his book on the English Constitution.
I think the same may be said of his book on Physics and Politics, a book in which I find new force and depth every time I take it up afresh. It is true that Bagehot had a keen sympathy with natural science, that he devoured all Mr. Darwin’s and Mr. Wallace’s books, and many of a much more technical kind, as, for example, Professor Huxley’s on the Principles of Physiology, and grasped the leading ideas contained in them with a firmness and precision that left nothing to be desired. But after all, Physics and Politics could never have been written without that sort of living insight into man which was the life of all his earlier essays. The notion that a “cake of custom,” of rigid, inviolable law, was the first requisite for a strong human society, and that the very cause which was thus essential for the first step of progress—the step towards unity—was the great danger of the second step—the step out of uniformity—and was the secret of all arrested and petrified civilisations, like the Chinese, is an idea which first germinated in Bagehot’s mind at the time he was writing his cynical letters from Paris about stupidity being the first requisite of a political people; though I admit, of course, that it could not have borne the fruit it did, without Mr. Darwin’s conception of a natural selection through conflict, to help it on. Such passages as the following could evidently never have been written by a mere student of Darwinian literature, nor without the trained imagination exhibited in Bagehot’s literary essays:—
“No one will ever comprehend the arrested civilisations unless he sees the strict dilemma of early society. Either men had no law at all and lived in confused tribes, hardly hanging together, or they had to obtain a fixed law by processes of incredible difficulty. Those who surmounted that difficulty soon destroyed all those that lay in their way who did not. And then they themselves were caught in their own yoke. The customary discipline which could only be imposed on any early men by terrible sanctions, continued with those sanctions, and killed out of the whole society the propensities to variation which are the principle of progress. Experience shows how incredibly difficult it is to get men really to encourage the principle of originality;”1
and, as Bagehot held, for a very good reason, namely, that without a long accumulated and inherited tendency to discourage originality, society would never have gained the cohesion requisite for effective common action against its external foes. No one, I think, who had not studied as Bagehot had in actual life, first, the vast and unreasoning Conservatism of politically strong societies, like that of rural England, and next, the perilous mobility and impressibility of politically weak societies, like that of Paris, would ever have seen as he did the close connection of these ideas with Mr. Darwin’s principle of natural selection by conflict. And here I may mention, by way of illustrating this point, that Bagehot delighted in observing and expounding the bovine slowness of rural England in acquiring a new idea. Somersetshire, he used to boast, would not subscribe £1000 “to be represented by an archangel”; and in one letter which I received from him during the Crimean War, he narrated with great gusto an instance of the tenacity with which a Somersetshire rustic stuck to his own notion of what was involved in conquering an enemy. “The Somersetshire view,” he wrote, “of the chance of bringing the war to a successful conclusion is as follows:—Countryman: ‘How old, zir, be the Zar?’—Myself: ‘About sixty-three’.—Countryman: ‘Well, now, I can’t think however they be to take he. They do tell I that Rooshia is a very big place, and if he doo goo right into the middle of ’n, you could not take he, not nohow.’ I talked till the train came (it was at a station), and endeavoured to show how the war might be finished without capturing the Czar, but I fear without effect. At last he said, ‘Well, zir, I hope, as you do say, zir, we shall take he,’ as I got into the carriage.” It is clear that the humorous delight which Bagehot took in this tenacity and density of rural conceptions, was partly the cause of the attention which he paid to the subject. No doubt there was in him a vein of purely instinctive sympathy with this density, for intellectually he could not even have understood it. Writing on the intolerable and fatiguing cleverness of French journals, he describes in one of his Paris letters the true enjoyment he felt in reading a thoroughly stupid article in the Herald (a Tory paper now no more), and I believe he was quite sincere. It was, I imagine, a real pleasure to him to be able to preach, in his last general work, that “a cake of custom,” just sufficiently stiff to make innovation of any kind very difficult, but not quite stiff enough to make it impossible, is the true condition of durable progress.
The coolness of his judgment, and his power of seeing both sides of a question, undoubtedly gave Bagehot’s political opinions considerable weight with both parties, and I am quite aware that a great majority of the ablest political thinkers of the time would disagree with me when I say, that personally I do not rate Bagehot’s sagacity as a practical politician nearly so highly as I rate his wise analysis of the growth and rationale of political institutions. Everything he wrote on the politics of the day was instructive, but, to my mind at least, seldom decisive, and, as I thought, often not true. He did not feel, and avowed that he did not feel, much sympathy with the masses, and he attached far too much relative importance to the refinement of the governing classes. That, no doubt, is most desirable, if you can combine it with a genuine consideration for the interests of “the toiling millions of men sunk in labour and pain”. But experience, I think, sufficiently shows that they are often, perhaps even generally, incompatible; and that democratic governments of very low tone may consult more adequately the leading interests of the “dim common populations” than aristocratic governments of very high calibre. Bagehot hardly admitted this, and always seemed to me to think far more of the intellectual and moral tone of governments, than he did of the intellectual and moral interests of the people governed.
Again, those who felt most profoundly Bagehot’s influence as a political thinker, would probably agree with me that it was his leading idea in politics to discourage anything like too much action of any kind, legislative or administrative, and most of all anything like an ambitious colonial or foreign policy. This was not owing to any doctrinaire adhesion to the principle of laissez-faire. He supported, hesitatingly no doubt, but in the end decidedly, the Irish Land Bill, and never belonged to that straitest sect of the Economists who decry, as contrary to the laws of economy, and little short of a crime, the intervention of Government in matters which the conflict of individual self-interests might possibly be trusted to determine. It was from a very different point of view that he was so anxious to deprecate ambitious policies, and curb the practical energies of the most energetic of peoples. Next to Clough, I think that Sir George Cornewall Lewis had the most powerful influence over him in relation to political principles. There has been no statesman in our time whom he liked so much or regretted so deeply; and he followed him most of all in deprecating the greater part of what is called political energy. Bagehot held with Sir George Lewis that men in modern days do a great deal too much; that half the public actions, and a great many of the private actions of men, had better never have been done; that modern statesmen and modern peoples are far too willing to burden themselves with responsibilities. He held, too, that men have not yet sufficiently verified the principles on which action ought to proceed, and that till they have done so, it would be better far to act less. Lord Melbourne’s habitual query, “Can’t you let it alone?” seemed to him, as regarded all new responsibilities, the wisest of hints for our time. He would have been glad to find a fair excuse for giving up India, for throwing the Colonies on their own resources, and for persuading the English people to accept deliberately the place of a fourth or fifth-rate European power—which was not, in his estimation, a cynical or unpatriotic wish, but quite the reverse, for he thought that such a course would result in generally raising the calibre of the national mind, conscience, and taste. In his Physics and Politics he urges generally, as I have before pointed out, that the practical energy of existing peoples in the West, is far in advance of the knowledge that would alone enable them to turn that energy to good account. He wanted to see the English a more leisurely race, taking more time to consider all their actions, and suspending their decisions on all great policies and enterprises till either these were well matured, or, as he expected it to be in the great majority of cases, the opportunity for sensational action was gone by. He quotes from Clough what really might have been taken as the motto of his own political creed:—
- “Old things need not be therefore true,
- O brother men, nor yet the new;
- Ah, still awhile, th’ old thought retain,
- And yet consider it again”.
And in all this, if it were advanced rather as a principle of education than as a principle of political practice, there would be great force. But when he applied this teaching, not to the individual but to the State, not to encourage the gradual formation of a new type of character, but to warn the nation back from a multitude of practical duties of a simple though arduous kind, such as those, for example, which we have undertaken in India—duties, the value of which, performed even as they are, could hardly be overrated, if only because they involve so few debatable and doubtful assumptions, and are only the elementary tasks of the hewers of wood and drawers of water for the civilisation of the future—I think Bagehot made the mistake of attaching far too little value to the moral instincts of a sagacious people, and too much to the refined deductions of a singularly subtle intellect. I suspect that the real effect of suddenly stopping the various safety-valves, by which the spare energy of our nation is diverted to the useful work of roughly civilising other lands, would be, not to stimulate the deliberative understanding of the English people, but to stunt its thinking as well as its acting powers, and render it more frivolous and more vacant-minded than it is.
In the field of economy there are so many thinkers who are far better judges of Bagehot’s invaluable work than myself, that I will say a very few words indeed upon it. It is curious, but I believe it to be almost universally true, that what may be called the primitive impulse of all economic action, is generally also strong in great economic thinkers and financiers—I mean the saving, or at least the anti-spending, instinct. It is very difficult to see why it should be so, but I think it is so. No one was more large-minded in his view of finance than Bagehot. He preached that, in the case of a rich country like England, efficiency was vastly more important than the mere reduction of expenditure, and held that Mr. Gladstone and other great Chancellors of the Exchequer made a great deal too much of saving for saving’s sake. None the less he himself had the anti-spending instinct in some strength, and he was evidently pleased to note its existence in his favourite economic thinker, Ricardo. Generous as Bagehot was—and no one ever hesitated less about giving largely for an adequate end—he always told me, even in boyhood, that spending was disagreeable to him, and that it took something of an effort to pay away money. In a letter before me, he tells his correspondent of the marriage of an acquaintance, and adds that the lady is a Dissenter, “and therefore probably rich. Dissenters don’t spend, and quite right too.” I suppose it takes some feeling of this kind to give the intellect of a man of high capacity that impulse towards the study of the laws of the increase of wealth, without which men of any imagination would be more likely to turn in other directions. Nevertheless, even as an economist, Bagehot’s most original writing was due less to his deductions from the fundamental axioms of the modern science, than to that deep insight into men which he had gained in many different fields. The essays, published in the Fortnightly Review for February and May, 18761 —in which he showed so powerfully how few of the conditions of the science known to us as “political economy” have ever been really applicable to any large portion of the globe during the longest periods of human history—furnish quite an original study in social history and in human nature. His striking book, Lombard Street, is quite as much a study of bankers and bill-brokers as of the principles of banking. Take, again, Bagehot’s view of the intellectual position and value of the capitalist classes. Every one who knows his writings in the Economist, knows how he ridiculed the common impression that the chief service of the capitalist class—that by which they earn their profits—is merely what the late Mr. Senior used to call “abstinence,” that is, the practice of deferring their enjoyment of their savings in order that those savings may multiply themselves; and knows too how inadequate he thought it, merely to add that when capitalists are themselves managers, they discharge the task of “superintending labour” as well. Bagehot held that the capitalists of a commercial country do—not merely the saving, and the work of foremen in superintending labour, but all the difficult intellectual work of commerce besides, and are so little appreciated as they are, chiefly because they are a dumb class who are seldom equal to explaining to others the complex processes by which they estimate the wants of the community, and conceive how best to supply them. He maintained that capitalists are the great generals of commerce, that they plan its whole strategy, determine its tactics, direct its commissariat, and incur the danger of great defeats, as well as earn, if they do not always gain, the credit of great victories.
Here again is a new illustration of the light which Bagehot’s keen insight into men, taken in connection with his own intimate understanding of the commercial field, brought into his economic studies. He brought life into these dry subjects from almost every side; for instance, in writing to the Spectator, many years ago, about the cliff scenery of Cornwall and especially about the pretty harbour of Boscastle, with its fierce sea and its two breakwaters—which leave a mere “Temple Bar” for the ships to get in at—a harbour of which he says that “the principal harbour of Liliput probably had just this look,”—he goes back in imagination at once to the condition of the country at the time when a great number of such petty harbours as these were essential to such trade as there was, and shows that at that time the Liverpool and London docks not only could not have been built for want of money, but would have been of no use if they had been built, since the auxiliary facilities which alone made such emporia useful did not exist. “Our old gentry built on their own estates as they could, and if their estates were near some wretched little haven, they were much pleased. The sea was the railway of those days. It brought, as it did to Ellangowan, in Dirk Hatteraick’s time, brandy for the men and pinners for the women, to the loneliest of coast castles.” It was by such vivid illustrations as this of the conditions of a very different commercial life from our own, that Bagehot lit up the “dismal science,” till in his hands it became both picturesque and amusing.
Bagehot made two or three efforts to get into Parliament, but after an illness which he had in 1868 he deliberately abandoned the attempt, and held, I believe rightly, that his political judgment was all the sounder, as well as his health the better, for a quieter life. Indeed, he used to say of himself that it would be very difficult for him to find a borough which would be willing to elect him its representative, because he was “between sizes in politics”. Nevertheless in 1866 he was very nearly elected for Bridgewater, but was by no means pleased that he was so near success, for he stood to lose, not to win, in the hope that if he and his party were really quite pure, he might gain the seat on petition. He did his very best, indeed, to secure purity, though he failed. As a speaker, he did not often succeed. His voice had no great compass, and his manner was somewhat odd to ordinary hearers; but at Bridgewater he was completely at his ease, and his canvass and public speeches were decided successes. His examination, too, before the Commissioners sent down a year or two later to inquire into the corruption of Bridgewater was itself 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. I will quote a little bit from the evidence he gave in reply to what Mr. Anstey probably regarded as homethrusts:—
“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 want 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 those voters, privately, of course, expostulate with you against you 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 daresay I was told by as many as twenty people, and we went upon that entire consideration.”
To leave my subject without giving some idea of Bagehot’s racy conversation would be a sin. He inherited this gift, I believe, in great measure from his mother, to those stimulating teaching in early life he probably owed also a great deal of his rapidity of thought. A lady who knew him well, says that one seldom asked him a question without his answer making you either think or laugh, or both think and laugh together. And this is the exact truth. His habitual phraseology was always vivid. He used to speak, for instance, of the minor people, the youths or admirers who collect around a considerable man, as his “fringe”. It was he who invented the phrase “padding,” to denote the secondary kind of article, not quite of the first merit, but with interest and value of its own, with which a judicious editor will fill up, perhaps, three-quarters of his review. If you asked him what he thought on a subject on which he did not happen to have read or thought at all, he would open his large eyes and say, “My mind is ‘to let’ on that subject, pray tell me what to think”; though you soon found that this might be easier attempted than done. He used to say banteringly to his mother, by way of putting her off at a time when she was anxious for him to marry: “A man’s mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault”. He told me once, at a time when the Spectator had perhaps been somewhat more eager or sanguine on political matters than he approved, that he always got his wife to “break” it to him on the Saturday morning, as he found it too much for his nerves to encounter its views without preparation. Then his familiar antitheses not unfrequently reminded me of Dickens’s best touches in that line. He writes to a friend, “Tell— that his policies went down in the Colombo, but were fished up again. They are dirty, but valid.” I remember asking him if he had enjoyed a particular dinner which he had rather expected to enjoy, but he replied, “No, the sherry was bad; tasted as if L— had dropped his h’s into it”. His practical illustrations, too, were full of wit. In his address to the Bridgewater constituency, on the occasion when he was defeated by eight votes, 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.”
But perhaps the best illustration I can give of his more sardonic humour was his remark to a friend who had a church in the grounds near his house:—“Ah, you’ve got the church in the grounds! I like that. It’s well the tenants shouldn’t be quite sure that the landlord’s power stops with this world.” And his more humorous exaggerations were very happy. I remember his saying of a man who was excessively fastidious in rejecting under-done meat, that he once sent away a cinder “because it was red”; and he confided gravely to an early friend that when he was in low spirits, it cheered him to go down to the bank, and dabble his hand in a heap of sovereigns.1 But his talk had finer qualities than any of these. One of his most intimate friends—both in early life, and later in Lincoln’s Inn—Mr. T. Smith Osler, writes to me of it thus:—
“As an instrument for arriving at truth, I never knew anything like a talk with Bagehot. It had just the quality which the farmers desiderated in the claret, of which they complained that though it was very nice, it brought them ‘no forrader’; for Bagehot’s conversation did get you forward, and at a most amazing pace. Several ingredients went to this; the foremost was his power of getting to the heart of the subject, taking you miles beyond your starting-point in a sentence, generally by dint of sinking to a deeper stratum. The next was his instantaneous appreciation of the bearing of everything you yourself said, making talk with him, as Roscoe once remarked, ‘like riding a horse with a perfect mouth’. But most unique of all was his power of keeping up animation without combat. I never knew a power of discussion, of co-operative investigation of truth, to approach to it. It was all stimulus, and yet no contest.”
But I must have done; and, indeed, it is next to impossible to convey, even faintly, the impression of Bagehot’s vivid and pungent conversation to any one who did not know him. It was full of youth, and yet had all the wisdom of a mature judgment in it. The last time we met, only five days before his death, I remarked on the vigour and youthfulness of his look, and told him he looked less like a contemporary of my own than one of a younger generation. In a pencil-note, the last I received from him, written from bed on the next day but one, he said: “I think you must have had the evil eye when you complimented me on my appearance. Ever since, I have been sickening, and am now in bed with a severe attack on the lungs.” Indeed, well as he appeared to me, he had long had delicate health, and heart disease was the immediate cause of death. In spite of a heavy cold on his chest, he went down to his father’s for his Easter visit the day after I last saw him, and he passed away painlessly in sleep on the 24th March, 1877, aged fifty-one. It was at Herds Hill, the pretty place west of the river Parret, that flows past Langport, which his grandfather had made some fifty years before, that he breathed his last. He had been carried thither as an infant to be present when the foundation stone was laid of the home which he was never to inherit; and now very few of his name survive. Bagehot’s family is believed to be the only one remaining that has retained the old spelling of the name, as it appears in Doomsday Book, the modern form being Bagot. The Gloucestershire family of the same name, from whose stock they are supposed to have sprung, died out in the beginning of this century.
Not very many perhaps, outside Bagehot’s own inner circle, will carry about with them that hidden pain, that burden of emptiness, inseparable from an image which has hitherto been one full of the suggestions of life and power, when that life and power are no longer to be found; for he was intimately known only to the few. But those who do will hardly find again in this world a store of intellectual sympathy of so high a stamp, so wide in its range and so full of original and fresh suggestion, a judgment to lean on so real and so sincere, or a friend so frank and constant, with so vivid and tenacious a memory for the happy associations of a common past, and so generous in recognising the independent value of divergent convictions in the less pliant present.
1st November, 1878.
[1 ] Matthew Arnold.
[2 ]Prospective Review, No. 31, for August, 1852. Reprinted in this work, vol. i., p. 138.
[1 ] See vol. ii., pp. 99, 100, of this work.
[1 ] See “Letters on the Coup d’État of 1851,” vol. i., p. 108.
[1 ] See vol. i., p. 189.
[1 ] See vol. i., p. 273.
[2 ]Ibid., p. 274.
[1 ]Physics and Politics, p. 10.
[1 ] Vol. i., p. 278.
[1 ]Poems and Prose Remains of Arthur Hugh Clough, vol. i., p. 175.
[1 ] See “Letters on the Coup d’État,” vol. i., pp. 100, 102.
[1 ] In a letter to me of this date, he says: “I write this in my father’s counting-house. It is a queer life and takes much will doing the sums, but not more than I looked for. It must do anyhow.”
[1 ] Since the first edition of this work was published, the Oxford Board of Studies has made a text-book of Mr. Bagehot’s English Constitution for that University, and his Economic Studies is a text-book in the University of Cambridge.
[1 ]Biographical Studies.
[1 ] See vol. ii., p. 76.
[1 ] See Biographical Studies.
[1 ]Physics and Politics, p. 57.
[1 ] “The Postulates of Political Economy,” etc., published in his Economic Studies after his death.
[1 ] Since the last edition of this work was published I have been reminded of more good sayings of my husband’s. After a little accident, when his head was caught between a cart and a lamp-post in the city, he said: “Now I know what a nut feels like when it is going to be cracked”. He used to say that “children’s holidays are parents’ schooltime,” and “business is more amusing than pleasure”.—E. Bagehot.