- Bagehot, Walter
- (1826–1877)British journalist, economist, political scientist, and editor of The Economist from 1860 to his death. Although Bagehot failed to win election to the British parliament three times, he was influential in mid-nineteenth-century England because of his writings and personal connections. Born into a Unitarian banking family in Langport, Somerset, he initially attended Bristol College and in 1842, at the age of 16, he began his degree studies at University College London. He studied and initially practiced law but soon moved into the family business of banking. He always wrote copiously, however, particularly for the National Review, and from 1860 edited his father-in-law James Wilson’s paper, The Economist.Bagehot is best known for The English Constitution, in which he analyzed the major institutions of British government. He split the functions of government into “digni- fied” and “efficient” parts. The dignified institutions, the monarchy and the House of Lords, were important because they distracted the attention of the uneducated masses, about whom Bagehot was uniformly scathing, and hence bolstered the legitimacy of the system. The efficient institutions, primarily the House of Commons, were important because they appointed the cabinet, which in fact wielded most real power, a fact obscured by the noticeable dignified aspects of the constitution. Written at a time when electoral reform was being hotly debated, Bagehot disapproved of democracy, as he felt it would give the upper hand to the uneducated masses. Bagehot had many interests. Another significant work, Physics and Politics, was translated into seven languages and had already reached its fifth French edition by 1885. Subtitled “Thoughts on the Application of the Principles of ‘Natural Selection’ and ‘Inheritance’ to Political Society,” it was a broad attempt to apply Darwinian ideas to politics. The book described the historical evolution of social groups into nations, and sought to explain why European nations alone were truly progressive. Bagehot argued that these nations had evolved primarily by succeeding in conflicts with other groups. For many political scientists and military strategists, ideas such as these justified overseas expansion during the later nineteenth century. Thus, in common with other nineteenth-century British thinkers, Bagehot’s writings helped to bolster the notion idea of European superiority and of English exceptionalism.FURTHER READING:St John-Stevas, N., ed. The Collected Works of Walter Bagehot. 15 vols. London: The Economist, 1986.PAUL LAWRENCE
Encyclopedia of the Age of Imperialism, 1800–1914. 2014.