“Excellent… and written in a gripping style.” —The Economist
During the upheavals of 2007–09, the chairman of the Federal Reserve had the name of one Victorian icon on the tip of his tongue: Walter Bagehot. Banker, man of letters, and inventor of the Treasury bill, Bagehot prescribed the doctrines that—decades later—inspired the radical responses to the world’s worst financial crises. Persuasive and precocious, he was also the esteemed editor of the Economist. He offered astute commentary on the financial issues of his day, held sway in political circles, made as many high-profile friends as enemies, and won the admiration of Matthew Arnold and Woodrow Wilson. Drawing on a wealth of historical documents, correspondence, and publications, James Grant paints a vivid portrait of the banker and his world.
Financial journalist and historian Grant (The Forgotten Depression) gives a thoughtful, evenhanded, and frequently witty take on one of his professional forebears: Walter Bagehot (1826 1877), a 19th-century British banker, editor-in-chief of the Economist, and a skilled writer on political and economic subjects. The subtitle is misleading an epigraph clarifies that Bagehot was labeled "the greatest," as in quintessential, Victorian by historian G.M. Young, not by Grant. Grant's view is much more down-to-earth; he passionately admires Bagehot as a "virtuoso writer on money and banking" whose output was "eclectic, fearless, aphoristic, prolific" and whose ideas remain respected today, but doesn't hesitate to point out his flaws (among them "hauteur" and "studied forgetfulness about forecasting errors") and failures (including three unsuccessful runs for political office). Bagehot was born into a provincial business and banking dynasty; he went into one of the family businesses, the regional bank Stuckey's. He became influential among other prominent Victorians, corresponding with and counseling such luminaries as William Gladstone; succeeding brilliantly at the Economist; and accurately predicting and warning against the numerous banking panics and runs that plagued England in the 1800s. It is a measure of Grant's talent as a biographer that Bagehot appears as scintillating and charismatic as he is reputed to have been in life. Even readers not normally drawn to economic subjects will find themselves enjoying this lively and erudite biography and guide to financial Victoriana.