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Review Essay

How Should a Liberal Be?

Walter Bagehot and the Politics of Progress

In This Review

Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian
Bagehot: The Life and Times of the Greatest Victorian
By James Grant
Norton, 2019, 368 pp. Purchase

In James Grant, it sometimes seems, the nineteenth century has been resuscitated. Towering, gaunt, bow-tied, and pinstriped, he writes with a sly wit that recalls the novels of William Thackeray. His signal achievement is a fortnightly cult publication bearing the antique title Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. He is a nostalgic believer in the nineteenth-century gold standard. He eyes modern banking innovations with stern, starch-collared suspicion, as though peering at them through a monocle. Even traditional financial instruments elicit a wry scorn. “To suppose that the value of a common stock is determined purely by a corporation’s earnings,” Grant once wrote, “is to forget that people have burned witches, gone to war on a whim, risen to the defense of Joseph Stalin and believed Orson Welles when he told them over the radio that the Martians had landed.”

Now, Grant has written a delightful biography of Walter Bagehot, the great nineteenth-century Englishman in whom Grant perhaps recognizes a grander version of himself: the would-be Victorian sage is paying tribute to the authentic one. From 1861 until his death in 1877, Bagehot served as the third and most famous editor of The Economist. He was a confidant of William Gladstone, the dominant liberal politician of the era, and his words exercised such sway over successive governments that he was regarded as an honorary cabinet minister. After Bagehot’s death, a contemporary remarked that he might have been the most fascinating conversationalist in London.

Like Grant, Bagehot was a vivid wordsmith and a cult figure. Unlike Grant, Bagehot was generally a modernizer, a believer in progress, and therefore an opponent of the gold standard. (Bagehot’s views on certain matters, such as gender and race, were far from enlightened.) In his slim 1873 volume, Lombard Street, Bagehot explained how central banks should quell financial panics by printing currency and lending it liberally—“to merchants, to minor bankers, to ‘this man and that man,’ whenever the security is good.” To Grant’s evident dismay, this formulation

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