Popular Science Monthly/Volume 12/February 1878/Sketch of Walter Bagehot
WALTER BAGEHOT was born February, 1826, in the west of England, where his father, who survives him, was a leading partner in an old-established bank. A student in the University of London, he took the mathematical scholarship with his Bachelor's degree in 1846, and the gold medal in intellectual and moral philosophy with his Master's degree in 1848. He then studied law at Lincoln's Inn, and was called to the bar; he thoroughly liked but never practised this profession, being induced to abandon it by considerations of his health. Always delicate, the excessive work by which alone the position of a successful barrister can be won and maintained would doubtless have shortened the already too-brief life.
He early developed remarkable talent, but in his youth philosophy, poetry, and theology, had a larger share of his attention than the narrower and more prosaic studies which occupied him later, and upon which his fame will rest. In deciding, as he wisely did, to join his father in business, he was conscious of defects which might hinder his career as a banker and merchant. He was absent-minded about minutiæ, inattentive to trifles—he used to declare that he could never "add up," and habitual inaccuracies marked his mathematical exercises in college. He proved, however, to be very successful in business, and was gratified with this success won in practical pursuits, in spite of the metaphysical and poetic tendency which at one time earned for him the reputation of a dreamer. He somewhere says: "The great pleasure in life is doing what people say you can't do. Why did Mr. Disraeli take the duties of Chancellor of the Exchequer with so much relish? Because people said he was a novelist—an ad captandum man who could not add up. No doubt it pleased his inmost soul to do the work of red-tape people better than those who could do nothing else."
He was always busy with his pen. During the early part of his life he wrote for the National Review, the Inquirer, and other periodicals, and proved himself to be a brilliant and able critic in various departments—finance, politics, and literature. His first book, called "Estimates of Some Englishmen and Scotchmen," published twenty years ago, and now long out of print, was a very remarkable volume of essays, that for some reason, perhaps the unfortunate title, failed to receive the attention it deserved.
In 1858 Bagehot married the eldest daughter of James Wilson, proprietor of the Economist. The marriage was a happy one, and led to the production of his most popular and original books; it brought him into connection with the higher world of politics; and eventually, on the death of his father-in-law, to the ownership and editorial control of the Economist, which paper he carried to the position of great ower which it now has.
His first political work, a new edition of which was recently reviewed in The Popular Science Monthly, is an analysis and explanation of that elaborate piece of mechanism—or rather, of that complex organism—"The English Constitution." He dispels many illusions and corrects many misconceptions concerning constitutions generally, and demonstrates the impossibility of framing a written document that will fulfill the functions discharged by the unwritten Constitution of England—the inevitable defects and weaknesses of made-to-order instruments being illustrated by examples drawn from the workings of our own much-vaunted ordinances, and the more recent instrument under which France is now governed.
In "Physics and Politics," Mr. Bagehot's first American book, the the growth of societies and states is treated according to the method of the evolution philosophy; it is a book which could only have been written by a man having a thorough knowledge of practical affairs, and' a firm hold upon the theories of Spencer and Darwin. It is pronounced "clever" by the critics who do not accept those theories, but it is much more.
"Lombard Street," as its name indicates, deals with that abstruse and wayward subject, the "money-market," and is one of the best sources from which to learn the differences which exist between the realities of the "street" and the hypotheses of economists.
At the time of his death, March 24, 1877, he was engaged upon a book, some of the earlier chapters of which were published in the Fortnightly Review (February and May, 1876) under the title of "The Postulates of Political Economy;" they were able and timely, and it is to be hoped that the surmise that other of the chapters were so far forwarded as to warrant publication is correct.
Since his death his articles in the Economist upon the silver question have been reprinted, making a thin octavo volume; they lack completeness and finish, but are still the most valuable contribution to the subject, for he was the first to seek out and correctly correlate the causes that led to the decline and fluctuations in the price of silver.
This brief list comprises all that will be remembered as his "works," for, though a busy writer, his labor was mostly given to the leading articles in his paper. It is as a journalist that he will be chiefly missed. Though dealing with abstruse and technical topics, he never failed to make himself understood by men of ordinary cultivation and intelligence. His knowledge was so accurate and his grasp so strong as to command the respect of specialists, and yet his articles had the attention and interest of men whose only concern in or knowledge of the subjects was that obtained from Mr. Bagehot himself. In the abstract science with which he dealt he had the rare combination of a conversancy with the abstractions and a knowledge of the facts. He had the guessing faculty and the solid judgment of the man of business, and the trained reasoning power with which to test his guesses and value his conclusions.