Walter's wise words

12 JANUARY 2015



“I fear you will laugh when I tell you what I conceive to be about the most essential mental quality for a free people, whose liberty is to be progressive, permanent, and on a large scale; it is much stupidity. … In fact, what we opprobriously call stupidity, though not an enlivening quality in common society, is Nature’s favourite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion. It enforces concentration; people who learn slowly, learn only what they must. The best security for people’s doing their duty is, that they should not know anything else to do; the best security for fixedness of opinion is, that people should be incapable of comprehending what is to be said on the other side….. I extend this, and advisedly maintain that nations, just as individuals, may be too clever to be practical, and not dull enough to be free.” [3RD Letter from Paris, 20 Jan 1852]

24 DECEMBER 2014


 “This strikes me more and more in law, that its difficulties are mainly difficulties of quantity.  No one thing is to a mind that has been properly disciplined, very difficult to grasp and master in and by itself: but unless great care is taken, while new matter is being laid hold of, the old matter slips away.  So that the great requisite for success in law is roominess of mind, to take in and hold at once a large number of considerations. I find the work rather fatiguing at present.  My eye is not practised enough to see easily the contents of a law paper.  I do not know what are the material and what the immaterial parts; and groping all through masses of papers is a tiring operation, and a capital way of picking up a headache… Reading law treatises however is much easier and pleasanter.”  [Letter to his father, when studying law in London, December 1848]

23 DECEMBER 2014


 "I am very glad to hear that you enjoyed your Norwegian tour. It moves my bitter envy to hear of a man's daring to go to a country where the post is such as you describe. My best idea of a holiday is half a dozen letters daily" [Letter to CH Pearson, academic historian, 1 September 1862]

16 DECEMBER 2014


when the use to which we are putting an old thing is a new use, in common sense we should think whether the old thing is quite fit for the use to which we are setting it. 'Putting new wine into old bottles' is safe only when you watch the condition of the bottle, and adapt its structure most carefully. 'Putting new wine into old bottles' is safe only when you watch the condition of the bottle, and adapt its structure most carefully.”  [Lombard Street, 1873]

21 January 2014


The distinguishing quality of Parliamentary government is, that in each stage of a public transaction there is a discussion; that the public assist at this discussion; that it can, through Parliament, turn out an administration which is not doing as it likes, and can put in an administration which will do as it likes. But the characteristic of a Presidential government is, in a multitude of cases, that there is no such discussion; that when there is a discussion the fate of Government does not turn upon it, and, therefore, the people do not attend to it; that upon the whole the administration itself is pretty much doing as it likes, and neglecting as it likes, subject always to the check that it must not too much offend the mass of the nation. The nation commonly does not attend, but if by gigantic blunders you make it attend, it will remember it and turn you out when its time comes; it will show you that your power is short, and so on the instant weaken that power; it will make your present life in office unbearable and uncomfortable by the hundred modes in which a free people can, without ceasing, act upon the rulers which it elected yesterday, and will have to reject or re-elect to-morrow.

[The English Constitution. Introduction to the Second Edition, 1872]

19 January 2014

"The mere notion, the bare idea, that poetry is a deep thing, a teaching thing, the most surely and wisely elevating of human things, is even now to the coarse public mind nearly unknown."  ['Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Browning Or Pure, Ornate, and Grotesque Art In English Poetry', 1864]

12 January 2014


"Youth has a principle of consolidation. We begin with the whole. Small sciences are the labours of our manhood; but the round universe is the plaything of the boy. His fresh mind shoots out vaguely and crudely into the infinite and eternal. Nothing is hid from the depth of it; there are no boundaries to its vague and wandering vision. Early science, it has been said, begins in utter nonsense; it would be truer to say that it starts with boyish fancies. " [‘Edward Gibbon’, 1856]

20 December 2013


From a letter of December 1856, just before Christmas, it seems that Bagehot, aged 30, was a workaholic, sceptical of holidays if they interfered with career: “As to holidays, it is one of the lessons of life to learn to be independent of them.”


His friend Richard Holt Hutton had written to Bagehot that he had been offered the editorship of The Economist, but he wanted to travel abroad before taking up the post.  Bagehot responded rather severely:


“I have thought over very carefully what you tell me of Greg’s offer, but I cannot think you are acting rightly. You have now an opportunity which may not occur again of fixing yourself in an established post, likely to be useful and permanent, and give you a fulcrum and position in the world which is what you have always wanted and is quite necessary to comfort in England. I do not think you ought to risk it for the sake of holiday. You may have been right to ask it as a beginning of the negotiation for it may be a gain to you to get it, but it seems to me quite out of the question to make it a sine qua non. Offers of this kind are not to be picked up in the street every day. As to holidays, it is one of the lessons of life to learn to be independent of them. They are scarcely to be obtained by people in regular employment except in very fortunate circumstances. I have some right to say this myself for except when I was at Roscoe’s last autumn, I have not been a week without doing some business. I do not say very much, but still some—enough to deaden the mind for more than four years. I assure you, if you seriously mean to work hard in England, and you require a good deal of work to keep your mind healthy, you must not hope for any such long gaps. At any rate, I feel very strongly that you ought not to make the having one an essential condition of obtaining so good a position.”



posted 24 Nov 2013, 06:20 by Janet Seaton   [ updated 24 Nov 2013, 06:31 ]

Extracts from letters to his future wife:

“I do not quite believe in my happiness yet.  One requires detail to make one believe anything so strange.” [Letter to Eliza Wilson, 10.11.1857]


"I have just read your letter in that light, and I go about murmuring ‘I have made that dignified person commit herself. I have, I have,’ and then I vault over the sofa with exultation. Those are the feelings of the person you have connected yourself with. Please do not be offended at my rubbish. Sauciness is my particular line. I am always rude to everybody I respect. I could write to you of the deep and serious feelings which I hope you believe really are in my heart, but my pen jests of itself and always will…" [Letter to Eliza Wilson, 19.11.1857]


"What nonsense it is about love being blind.  It sees so distinctly..” [Letter to Eliza Wilson, 9.12.1857]


posted 10 Nov 2013, 03:34 by Janet Seaton   [ updated 13 Nov 2013, 01:09 ]

10 NOVEMBER 2013
As the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination approaches, and the media commemorations gather pace around the world, it is fitting to recall that almost exactly a century before that fateful day in 1963, another US President at the height of his fame and powers was assassinated.  Walter Bagehot had been a frequent critic of both American politics and of Abraham Lincoln's conduct of the horrific Civil War, but on hearing of the assassination in April 1865, he penned a moving and heartfelt piece for The Economist.  To what extent Bagehot's views of Lincoln expressed here can be ascribed also to John F Kennedy is for others to judge, but his words certainly resonate at this time of reflection.  For example, Kinser summed up Bagehot's view of Lincoln, in the light of his assassination, "Bagehot recognised the growth of a leader who was deified almost immediately and on both sides of the Atlantic." [Brent E Kinser, "Walter Bagehot: the case against America", chap 3 of The American Civil War in the Shaping of British Democracy, 2011, p118].

"The murder of Mr. Lincoln is a very great and very lamentable event, perhaps the greatest and most lamentable which has occurred since the coup d’état, if not since Waterloo. It affects directly and immensely the welfare of the three most powerful countries in the world, America, France, and England, and it affects them all for evil. Time, circumstances, and agent have all conspired as by some cruel perversity to increase the mischief and the horror of an act which at any moment, or under any circumstances, would have been most mischievous and horrible. It is not merely that a great man has passed away, but he has disappeared at the very time when his special greatness seemed almost essential to the world, when his death would work the widest conceivable evil, when the chance of replacing him, even partially, approached nearest to zero, and he has been removed in the very way which almost alone among causes of death could have doubled the political injury entailed by the decease itself.  His death destroys one of the strongest guarantees for continued peace between his country and the external world ….


The head of the Executive may, by an infinitesimal chance, be a man so exactly representative of the people, that his acts always represent their thoughts, so shrewd that he can steer his way amidst the legal difficulties piled deliberately in his path, and so good that he desires power only for the national ends. The chance of obtaining such a man was, as we say, infinitesimal; but the United States, by a good fortune, of which they will one day be cruelly sensible, had obtained him. Mr. Lincoln, by a rare combination of qualities—patience, sagacity, and honesty—by a still more rare sympathy, not with the best of his nation but the best average of his nation, and by a moderation rarest of all, had attained such vast moral authority that he could make all the hundred wheels of the Constitution move in one direction without exerting any physical force."

[“The assassination of Mr. Lincoln”, The Economist, 29th April, 1865]


For the full article, see here

Untitled Post

posted 4 Nov 2013, 08:12 by Janet Seaton

4 November 2013

“The events for which one generation cares most, are often those of which the next knows least. They are too old to be matters of personal recollection, and they are too new to be subjects of study: they have passed out of memory, and they have not got into the books.” [“Lord Althorp and the Reform Act of 1832” Fortnightly Review, November 1876]

Untitled Post

posted 25 Jul 2013, 08:37 by Janet Seaton

25 July 2013
'Posterity cannot take up little people, there are so many of them' (1858)
The full quotation - in a letter to his fiancée, Eliza Wilson, on 4 January 1858 - deals more completely with the nature of fame and reputation:
“I am afraid I am callous, possibly proud, and do not care for mere general reputation.  Of course it wd. be a pleasure if it shd. come, but it is a thing which no sane man ought to make necessary to his happiness, or think of but as a temporary luxury, even if it shd. come to him.  First rate fame – the fame of great productive artists - is a matter of ultimate certainty, but no other fame is.  Posterity cannot take up little people, there are so many of them – reputation must be acquired at the moment and the circumstances of the moment are matters of accident”

Untitled Post

posted 30 Jun 2013, 07:07 by Janet Seaton

30 JUNE 2013



It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations. (The English constitution, 1867)

Untitled Post

posted 22 May 2013, 06:26 by Janet Seaton

22 MAY 2013
The Rich and the Poor

In truth, poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell. One half of the world, according to the saying, do not know how the other half lives. Accordingly, nothing is so rare in fiction as a good delineation of the poor. Though perpetually with us in reality, we rarely meet them in our reading. (1858)

Untitled Post

posted 9 May 2013, 06:12 by Janet Seaton

9 May 2013

"...the most influential of constitutional statesmen is the one who most felicitously expresses the creed of the moment, who administers it, who embodies it in laws and institutions, who gives it the highest life it is capable of, who induces the average man to think, “I could not have done it any better if I had had time myself”.....


Constitutional statesmen are obliged, not only to employ arguments which they do not think conclusive, but likewise to defend opinions which they do not believe to be true....


The consequence is, that those who conduct it have to defend measures they disapprove, to object to measures they approve, to appear to have an accurate opinion on points on which they really have no opinion. The calling of a constitutional statesman is very much that of a political advocate; he receives a new brief with the changing circumstances of each successive day."



Currency Unions

posted 23 Apr 2013, 01:00 by Janet Seaton

A remarkable movement is going on in the world towards a uniformity of coinage between different nations. And it was begun in what seems the way of the nineteenth century; the way in which Germany was created, and the unity of Italy too; that is, not by a great number of States, of set design and in combination, chalking out something new, but on the contrary, by some great State acting first for its own convenience, and then other lesser and contiguous nations imitating its plan and falling in with its example. In this way France has now formed a great coinage league, which Switzerland and Italy have already joined, which Austria has agreed to join, which the Provisional Government of Spain has proclaimed, and which the United States have been asked to join. This league, of which the terms are completely stated further on, in fact takes the French standard and coinage for the universal standard and coinage, and uses them without alteration.


If we could adopt this coinage ourselves without material inconvenience, I confess I, for one, should urge our doing so. The advantages of a single coinage, which are explained in the following papers, seem to me fully equivalent. But I fear, when looked at strictly, it will be found that the difficulties of such a step are simply insurmountable. And if this is so, and we do nothing, what then? Why, we shall, to use the vulgar expression, be “left out in the cold”. Germany has a currency to choose; none of her many currencies which have descended from her divided States are fit to be her exclusive currency, now that she is one. If things remain as now, she is sure to adopt the French currency; already there is a proposal in the Federal Parliament that she should take it. Before long all Europe, save England, will have one money, and England be left outstanding with another money.


This is a selfish reason for looking to our currency, but it is not the only reason. Every person must see that the demand for uniformity in currency is only one case of the growing demand for uniformity in matters between nations really similar. Many subjects, most subjects of legislation, vary between nation and nation; they depend on national association and peculiar idiosyncrasy and other causes. But commerce is everywhere identical; buying and selling, lending and borrowing, are alike all the world over, and all matters concerning them ought universally to be alike too. In the old mediæval “law merchant,”—the universal custom of trade which the international trader took with him from country to country,—there was a recognition of a principle which we want now. The possession of special and very active legislatures by many States has broken up everywhere old customary laws; the unity we need now must be a unity based on explicit treaty and voluntary agreements. But the idea is the same. Ultimately the world will see one Code de Commerce, and one money as the symbol of it.


We are, as yet, very distant from so perfect an age. The proposal set forth in these pages does not profess to realise even the monetary part of the ideal. I fear the attempt to found a universal money is not possible now; I think it would fail because of its size. But I believe we could get as far as two moneys, two leading commercial currencies, which nations could one by one join as they chose, and which, in after time, might be combined; and though this may fall short of theoretical perfection, to the practical English mind it may seem the more probable for that very reason.
A Universal Money (1869), preface

Social welfare

posted 8 Apr 2013, 04:14 by Janet Seaton


The most pressing need of the poor is a provision for failing health and for old age.  (1859)


Banking panics

posted 20 Mar 2013, 02:17 by Janet Seaton


The cause of panic is the expectation of insolvency. (1858)


The best palliative to a panic is a confidence in the adequate amount of the Bank reserve, and in the efficient use of that reserve. (1873)


The history of a panic is the history of a confused conflict of many causes; and unless you know what sort of effect each cause is likely to produce, you cannot explain any part of what happens. It is trying to explain the bursting of a boiler without knowing the theory of steam. (1876)


1-10 of 20