US President Woodrow Wilson: Bagehot's greatest fan
One of Walter Bagehot’s greatest admirers was the 28th President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924). Wilson, a Democrat, was President from 1913 to 1921, a period which included the First World War and its aftermath, when America emerged as a world superpower.
The influence of Bagehot
In early life Wilson was a noted political and legal academic, culminating in his presidency of the prestigious Princeton University 1902-1910. He had discovered Bagehot’s writings at end of his junior year as a student at Princeton, and they had an immense influence on him and his work. By the 1890s he had even become known as “The Walter Bagehot of America.”
One major book by Wilson which clearly displayed the strong influence of Bagehot’s political thought was Congressional Government, published in 1885. Wilson never concealed this, and in a letter to his publishers, Houghton, Mifflin & Co, on 4 April 1884, when submitting some sample chapters, he wrote: “I have modelled my work chiefly on Mr Bagehot’s essays on the English Constitution.”
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Wilson’s essays on Bagehot
Wilson wrote two major essays on Bagehot in the noted American journal, Atlantic Monthly.
The first was based on one of his most popular lectures, and published in the November 1895 issue of Atlantic Monthly as “A literary politician”. Though notionally in praise of Bagehot’s life and work, and more than a decade before the start of his own political career, it is clear that he wanted to model himself as a ‘literary politician’.
The second, published three years later in the October 1898 issue, was entitled “A wit and a seer”, and focussed more directly on Bagehot’s writings. He admired Bagehot’s ability to write equally well on political, literary and financial subjects, and analysed his fresh and witty style, while recognising his limitations.
A pilgrimage to Langport
When a professor of jurisprudence and political economy at Princeton in 1896, he was ill through overwork, and recuperated by a trip to the UK. He toured the country, taking the opportunity to meet noted academics and to visit the sites of some of his heroes, such as Rydal Mount, the Lake District home of the poet, William Wordsworth.
One such heroic site was Langport, the home town of Walter Bagehot. On 12 August, he wrote to his wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, from Langport, describing his visit to Bagehot’s grave at Langport Parish Church:
“Langport is the place where Bagehot was born and lived; his grave is in the churchyard here, and in the church there is a beautiful memorial window to him, put in by his wife, who still lives at the family place (Herds Hill) here when she is not in London. Almost the first sign that caught my eye when I rode into Wells was “Stuckey’s Banking Co” and it at once occurred to me to ask how far off Langport was. I found it was only some 18 miles away, and Glastonbury on the same road. I saw Glastonbury this morning, and came here this afternoon. It is a quaint interesting little place. The churchyard lies upon a hill, which, standing at Bagehot’s grave, one looks out upon just such a view as that from Prospect Ave [in Princeton], only more beautiful with a sweet river running through it, and a wonderful golden light lying on it, as, it would seem, the whole of Somerset. The leaf enclosed is from Bagehot’s grave, darling; please press it and keep it for me.”
Wilson made another visit to the grave in August 1899 as part of another cycling tour around Britain, which he undertook again in the hope of restoring his health and strength.
Wilson on Bagehot
“Most sagacious of political critics” (Congressional Government, 1885)
“the man who first clearly distinguished the facts of the English constitution from its theory” [“A literary politician”, 1895, p670]
“the wit that illuminates and the knowledge that refreshes” [ibid, p670]
“to ask your friend to know Bagehot is like inviting him to seek pleasure. Occasionally, a man is born into the world whose mission it evidently is to clarify the thought of his generation, and to vivify it; to give it speed where it is slow, vision where it is blind, balance where it is out of poise, saving humour where it is dry, – and such a man was Walter Bagehot.” [ibid, p670]
“The atmospheric effects of his county [Somerset] certainly entered the boy Bagehot and colored the nature of the man. He had its, its variety, its richness, and its imaginative depth.” [ibid, p671]
“It was under Bagehot that the Economist became a sort of financial providence for business men on both sides of the Atlantic. Its sagacious prescience constituted Bagehot himself a sort of supplementary chancellor of the exchequer, the chancellors of both parties resorting to him with equal confidence and solicitude.” [ibid, p672]
[On Bagehot’s varied interests in literary criticism, politics and finance] “And yet the whole Bagehot is the only Bagehot. Each part of the man is incomplete, not only, but a trifle incomprehensible, also, without the other parts.” [ibid, p673]
[A physical description of Bagehot] “A mass of black, wavy hair; a dark eye, with depths full of slumberous, playful fire; a ruddy skin that bespoke active blood, quick in its rounds; the lithe figure of an excellent horseman; a nostril full, delicate, quivering like that of a blooded racer – such were the fitting outward marks of a man in whom life and thought and fancy abounded.” [ibid, p673]
“the most masterly of the critics of English political institutions.” [ibid, p675]
“Bagehot’s limitations … are in truth as sharp-cut and clear as his thought himself. [H]is power is that of critical analysis only … he does not construct for the future. . You receive stimulation from him and a certain feeling of elation. There is a fresh air stirring in all his utterances that is unspeakably refreshing……. But .. you miss the deep purpose that awakens purpose. You are not in contact with systems of thought or with principles that dictate action, but only with a perfect explanation……. “Moreover there is a deeper lack in Bagehot. He has no sympathy with the voiceless body of the people, with the ‘mass of unknown men’. He conceives the work of government to be a work which is possible only to the instructed few.” [ibid, p678]
“a wit as well as a seer – one of the most audacious wits that the English race has produced.”
[“A wit and a seer”, 1898, p527]
“It is pleasant to see Langport also perched upon one of those infrequent hills, a landmark for the traveller, and to think that it was from this haven Walter Bagehot set out to make his bold voyage into the world of thought. … Neither Somersetshire air nor any certain custom of mental inheritance can explain Walter Bagehot. We must simply accept him as part of the largess of Providence to a race singularly enriched with genius.” [“A wit and a seer”, 1898, pp528-9]
“The power and character of his imagination are proved by the extraordinary range it took. Most of his literary essays in which he has given us so memorable a taste of his quality as a critic and all-round man were written before his marriage between his twenty-sixth and thirty-second years … and there is everywhere to be found in those studies a man whose insight into life was easy, universal and almost unerring; and yet the centre of life for him was quiet Langport in far Somersetshire.” [“A wit and a seer”, 1898, p536]
“In his English Constitution, which he published in 1867, he gave an account of actual workings of parliamentary government, so lucid, so witty, so complete and for all so concise and without any delay about details … that it made itself instantly and once for all a part of every man’s thinking in that matter… The book is now a classic.” [“A wit and a seer”, 1898, p536]
“He is writing, not to describe but to make alive… Bagehot saw the world of his day, saw the world of days antique, and showed us what he saw in phrases which interpret like the tones of a perfect voice, in words which serve us like eyes.” [“A wit and a seer”, 1898, p540]
Letter from America ... and Langport
In the autumn of 2013, two Fund members were researching the Woodrow Wilson–Bagehot connection in various archives and the like. Out of this has emerged a remarkable exchange of letters in 1914 between the President in the White House and Emilie Barrington, Walter Bagehot’s sister-in-law at Herd’s Hill (where she lived with her sister, Eliza, Bagehot’s widow). The occasion for this correspondence was a sad one – the death of Wilson’s first wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, on 6 August 1914 from Bright’s disease, aged 54. Ellen was a skilled artist and had drawn a portrait of Walter Bagehot – now sadly missing – as part of a series of her husband’s heroes in 1896, when Woodrow was recuperating by undertaking a British cycling tour, and visiting Bagehot’s grave in Langport.
This period was also, of course, a time of great international upheaval and uncertainty, at the outset of the Great War, with the personal dangers it brought to the UK and its population, and the political controversy in the USA over its involvement or otherwise in the conflict.
On 6 September 1914, on headed notepaper, Emilie Russell Barrington handwrote a letter to President Wilson:
Dear President Wilson,
We hope you will not think it an intrusion if my sister, Mrs Walter Bagehot, and myself venture to offer you our sincerest sympathy on the great loss you have sustained. After the very kind words you have written with regard to Walter Bagehot, we cannot look on you but as a personal friend, and we have felt for you greatly in your irreparable loss though we did not dare write to you during the early days after Mrs Wilson’s death.
In one of your letters you mentioned that you had a portrait of Walter Bagehot hanging in your study enlarged[sic] by her. A personal interest attaches to all those who draw, – for me, – as art has been the passion of my life, – and I always remembered those words in your letter as giving me a personal interest in Mrs Wilson.
We are indeed living through sad days, news coming of some of our dearest friends having been killed in action, but there is a splendid evidence of fine unselfish feeling in all our people, with very rare exceptions, and my husband, who is doing his best to recruit soldiers on this country’s side feels enthusiastic at the way the poorest lad rallies to the call. Fifty, besides the yeoman, have gone off from our tiny little Langport.
Yours, with true sympathy,
Mrs Emilie Isabel Barrington
The letter is stamped ‘The White House Received Sep 17 1914’ and ‘[unreadable] Sep 18 1914’ and ‘66297’
Below is a scanned extract of the letter:
Wilson replied from the White House on September 18th 1914. The text is reproduced in a printed series of Wilson Papers, consulted at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library in Staunton, Virginia:
My dear Mrs Barrington:
I was very much touched by your letter of sympathy of September 6th. In the midst of the great strain and anxiety to which you and your sister must be put in the present circumstances it was peculiarly kind of you to think of me in my deep personal distress and suffering. I am deeply pleased that you should pay me the compliment of regarding me as a personal friend and I hope that some day I may have the great pleasure of meeting both you and Mrs Bagehot to talk intimately of the man I have so much admired and by whom my own thought has been so deeply affected and so much enriched. May I not express personally and as your friend my deep sympathy for you in the circumstances through which the English Empire is now passing?
With warmest appreciation and regard,
From the evidence of this exchange and elsewhere it is clear that there was correspondence between Woodrow Wilson and Emilie Barrington both beforehand and after. At this time, she was preparing, with the assistance of Eliza Bagehot, the multi-volume collection of Walter’s life and works, which was published the following year, and this may have been the reason for some of the correspondence. In the preface to her biography of Bagehot (published as the 10th and final volume of her opus), she thanks Wilson for supplying her with his two Atlantic Monthly articles (of 1895 and 1898) on Bagehot. There is no evidence yet seen to indicate that Wilson corresponded or met with either resident of Herd’s Hill during his brief visits to Langport in 1896 and 1899.
The Bagehot Memorial Fund is most grateful to Peggy Dillard and her staff at the Woodrow Wilson Presidential Library, Staunton, Va, for all their help and advice, and to the Manuscripts Division at the Library of Congress for sending the scanned images of the two letters from their Wilson Collection.