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Walter Bagehot

Walter Bagehot (1826-77), an Englishman, once called "the Greatest Victorian", deserves to be better known in the United States. Curiously, it was an American company, The Travelers' Insurance Company, which in 1889 published a five-volume edition of his works and gave policy holders a set. Woodrow Wilson, the most erudite of American presidents, was a great admirer of Bagehot. He is still known to American scholarly American critics, as this book shows. The introduction provides a fascinating account of the intellectual life of nineteenth-century England.

Baghot joined his family-owned West England banking business, and in 1873 he published an influential book on banking, Lombard Street. However, his interests were wider. In 1867 he published his classic The English Constitution. From 1860 until his death he served as editor of The Economist, which he transformed into what it is today, the most influential journal in the world today.

I knew little about his Physics and Politics (1872) until Roger Kimball, the Managing Editor of The New Criterion who was briefly at Stanford as a media fellow, presented me with a copy of his 1999 edition with an informative forty-page introduction. Jacques Barzun had written an introduction for a 1948 edition and in 1968 published an essay "Bagehot as Historian".The word "Physics" in the strange title referred to science, as is explained in the subtitle Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of "Natural Selection" and "Inheritance" to Political Society.

However influential Bagehot may have been, the modern reader is still unconvinced by the things which offended his critics: his belief that English stupidity was the basis of its political life, his admiration for French intelligence whose restlessness justified the coup by which Louis Napoleon became Napoleon III, his favorable attitude toward the Catholic Church which supported him. It was really inconsistent with his general outlook. Bagehot thought civilization was nurtured by militarism. He died in 1877. I wonder what he thought of the defeat of Napoleon III and the end of his military glory, and the subsequent misery France endured. The first six essays in this book were written in 1867, but the last was added in 1872, after the defeat of Napoleon III. The deposed emperor took refuge in England in 1871 and died there in 1873, yet the last chapter makes no reference to his defeat and abdication. Bagehot apparently made no effort to contact him. Perhaps he was embarrassed by his previous attitude. His critics must have thought they were vindicated.

Ronald Hilton - 6/3/01