The Magazine

Meet Mr. Bagehot

How ‘the greatest Victorian’ speaks to us.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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Another visit, this time to Paris, brought to the fore the political side of his “doubting temper.” He came there in 1851, at the age of 25, just in time to witness the coup d’état of Louis-Napoleon and report upon it in a series of articles for the Inquirer, a Unitarian weekly. In a mood that might be interpreted, he confessed, as “satiric playfulness,” even “cynicism,” he proceeded to shock his “high-minded” liberal readers by defending the coup. “I am pleased to have seen a revolution, but once is enough,” he told them. 

That “revolution” turned out to be for the young Bagehot what the momentous French Revolution was for Edmund Burke, moving him to entertain ideas that were at odds not only with those of his friends but with those of most of his countrymen. Unlike Burke, however, Bagehot approved of this revolution. “The first duty of society is the preservation of society,” he reminded his readers. It was in the face of a threatening social anarchy that Napoleon was justified in taking over the government and asserting a strong executive power tantamount to dictatorship. 

Almost apologetically, Bagehot introduced another theme to account for the coup: “national character .  .  . the least changeable thing in this ever-changeful world.” It was the distinctive national characters of the two countries that made French politics so volatile and the English so stable. It was at this point that Bagehot “provocatively,” as he said, used the word “stupidity” to explain the character of the English people and thus the stability of their regime: 

The most essential mental quality for a free people whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale, is what I provocatively call stupidity. .  .  . Stupidity [is] the roundabout common sense and dull custom that steers the opinion of most men. .  .  . Nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free. Dullness is the English line, as cleverness is that of the French. 

Many years later, expressed somewhat more delicately, but still provocatively, this was to be one of the leading themes of The English Constitution.

 

Returning from Paris, Bagehot took a position in his father’s bank, a three- or four-day-a-week job that he performed dutifully but unenthusiastically and that permitted him to devote his “spare mind,” as he said, to writing: “Variety is my taste, and versatility my weakness.” In essays about politicians and historians, poets and philosophers, he revealed his ironic sensibility and subtlety. Robert Peel was “a man of common opinions and uncommon abilities, who understands our real public opinion.” Lord Palmerston was “not a common man, but a common man might have been cut out of him.” Gibbon’s history exemplified the “masculine tone” of the age, when men “ceased to write for students, and had not begun to write for women.” Macaulay’s mind was “eminently gifted” but unfortunately wanting in the necessary “uncertainties” and “gradations of doubt.” Burke had been a great man with “the highest gifts of abstract genius,” but for him “great ideas were a supernatural burden, a superincumbent inspiration.” Wordsworth described “the world as we know it,” while Shelley described “not our world, but that which is common to all worlds—the Platonic idea of a world.” These are not merely clever aphorisms. They go to the heart of each man and of his work. 

Bagehot’s marriage in 1858 to Eliza Wilson, daughter of James Wilson, the editor of the Economist, brought him into another world. Urged by his mother to marry, he had flightily responded, “A man’s mother is his misfortune, but his wife is his fault.” In fact, his marriage was a happy one, Eliza and her cheerful sisters providing a satisfying “mixture of chaff and currency .  .  . sense and nonsense .  .  . the medley of great things and little, of things mundane and things celestial,” which appealed to his double nature. With the death of James Wilson two years later, Bagehot succeeded him as editor of the Economist.

But the editor of the Economist—or at least this editor—was occupied with subjects other than economics. One of the issues that dominated public discourse was the movement for parliamentary reform. The Reform Act of 1832 had given the suffrage to much of the middle classes, and, in retrospect, Bagehot saw this as a mixed good. But a new bill, proposing to extend the suffrage much further, was altogether bad. The “admirable dullness” of English government was giving way to the passions of theorists who, invoking doctrines of equality and natural rights, would give power to people unfit for power.