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The English Constitution

This article is about the book. For other uses, see Constitution of the United Kingdom.
The English Constitution
File:Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution (1st ed, 1867, title page).jpg
Title page of the 1st edition (1867)[1]
Author Walter Bagehot (3 February 1826 – 24 March 1877)
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Genre Non-fiction
Publisher Chapman & Hall
Publication date
Pages 348
OCLC 60724184

The English Constitution is a book by Walter Bagehot. First serialized in The Fortnightly Review between 15 May 1865 and 1 January 1867, and later published in book form in the latter year,[1] it explores the constitution of the United Kingdom, specifically the functioning of Parliament and the British monarchy, and the contrasts between British and American government. The book became a standard work which was translated into several languages.


While Walter Bagehot's references to the Parliament of the United Kingdom have become dated, his observations on the monarchy are seen as central to the understanding of the principles of constitutional monarchy. He defined the rights and role of a monarch vis-à-vis a government as threefold:[2]

  • The right to be consulted;
  • The right to encourage;
  • The right to warn.

He also divided the constitution into two components: the "dignified" (that part which is symbolic) and the "efficient" (the way things actually work and get done).[3]

Bagehot also praised "cabinet government" (in the Westminster system of government). At the same time, he mocked the American system for numerous flaws and absurdities he perceived, and its comparative lack of flexibility and accountability. In his words, "Cabinet governments educate the nation; the presidential does not educate it, and may corrupt it."[4]

He praised Parliament as a place of "real" debate, considering debates in the United States Congress to be "prologues without a play".[5] Bagehot said the difference in the substance of debate was due to debate in Parliament having the potential to turn out a government, while "debates" in the United States Congress have no such potential import.[6]

Bagehot also criticized the fixed nature of a presidential term and the presidential election process itself. "Under a presidential constitution the preliminary caucuses that choose the president need not care as to the ultimate fitness of the person they choose. They are solely concerned with his attractiveness as a candidate; they need not regard his efficiency as a ruler."[7] He declared that the only reason America succeeded as a free country was that the American people had a "genius for politics".[8]


A column in the magazine The Economist is named after Bagehot. Bagehot also influenced Woodrow Wilson, who wrote Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics (1885)[9] having been inspired by The English Constitution.

Generations of British monarchs and their heirs apparent and presumptive have studied Bagehot's analysis.[10]


  1. ^ a b Walter Bagehot (1867). The English Constitution (1st ed.). London: Chapman & Hall. OCLC 60724184. 
  2. ^ Bagehot, p. 103.
  3. ^ Bagehot, pp. 4–5.
  4. ^ Bagehot, p. 21.
  5. ^ Bagehot, p. 24.
  6. ^ Bagehot, pp. 21–24.
  7. ^ Bagehot, p. 92.
  8. ^ Bagehot, p. 271.
  9. ^ Woodrow Wilson (1885). Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. OCLC 504641398. 
  10. ^ Vernon Bogdanor (1997). The Monarchy and the Constitution. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 41. ISBN 978-0-19-827769-9.