The First Virtue of Old Whigs: Prudence in Burke and Lincoln

In the subtitle of his engaging new book, Greg Weiner joins two different groups of “Burke and” interpreters: by connecting Burke with Lincoln, he joins the authors who compare Burke and another central thinker. Some of the deepest of these comparative studies pair him with Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, Paine, Wollstonecraft, Disraeli and Churchill, and—to mention Weiner’s 2015 book—Daniel Patrick Moynihan. By focusing on “prudence,” he joins authors whose books treat Burke in light of a central theme such as property, empire, natural law, conservatism, party government, the sublime, Ireland, India, and so on.

The subtitle thus directs our attention to Weiner’s purpose: his book searches for a workable political prudence in the company of two historical figures of great integrity and depth, and aims at a wider audience than a conventional scholarly account. “[C]ontemporary politics aches” for the recovery of prudence, he says, for “every election [seems to be] a choice between redemption and doom.” But he doesn’t aim for a full-scale, scholarly reading of either author. He admits that there is no evidence that Lincoln actually read Burke or was directly influenced by him. The book has no footnotes, nor does it use the recently completed, scholarly edition of Burke’s nine-volume collected Writings and Speeches (Oxford, 1981-2015). Rather, his sustained comparison of these two major figures aims to correct today’s political imprudence: its excessive confidence in reason, its divorce of principle from circumstance, and its self-righteous belief that the government has the duty of “redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world,” in Lincoln’s words. His book places Lincoln and Burke in their specific, political circumstances and analyzes their reflections and deeds with the virtue of prudence in mind.

Challenges to the “politics of prudence,” come particularly from the claims of reason and principle, and from the difficulty of defending custom. Weiner’s analysis never suggests a method for prudential political reasoning or leadership—that would simply mirror what imprudent demagogues and ideologues serve up for us daily. Instead, he increases our admiration for the ways Burke and Lincoln applied reason and principle within the actual circumstances, traditions, and customs of their historical moment. Of either, we might echo Wordsworth’s lament for Milton: “thou shouldst be living in this hour!”

Prudential Reasoning: Accepting Intellectual Limits

In his Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs, Burke says that prudence “is not only the first in rank of the virtues political and moral, but she is the director, the regulator, the standard of them all.” As Weiner explains, by identifying prudence with “practical wisdom,” Aristotle locates the strength of prudence in its ability to discern the limits to pure reason. That is precisely the context of Burke’s praise of prudence in the Appeal, as he criticized the “new Whig” embrace of revolutionary, abstract political reasoning.

By contrast, when Lincoln talks explicitly about reason, he is much more expansive than Burke: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence,” he declares in the Lyceum Address. Weiner finds the prudential limits to reason in Lincoln’s actions rather than in his words: in his refusal to endorse abolitionist rhetoric that had cost Henry Clay the presidency in 1844; in his worry about the utopian passion inflamed by purely rational appeals to justice; and in his willingness to compromise.

Prudential Principle: Acknowledging the Realities of Circumstance

If reason is one source of tension for the virtue of prudence, “principle” is another. When Burke says, in a 1783 speech on India, “The situation of man is the preceptor of his duty,” it can sound like he’s subordinating the principles of justice to circumstance. When Lincoln writes in 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it,” it can sound like he’s sacrificing the principle of equality. One of Weiner’s strengths is the way he clarifies the relationship between principle and prudence. But the opening pages and the title of his book, Old Whigs, make for a rocky start. What defines the “old Whigs” as a group? For Burke, he writes, the “old Whigs [were] the party that opposed the power of the royal court in favor of Parliament” Both British and American Whigs were principled, Weiner continues, “in their opposition to executive power”. But these assertions are misleading at best.

In 1770, Burke’s Thoughts on the Present Discontents defined party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavors, the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed.” Yet Burke never specifies the “Whig principle.” Indeed, in 1791 he rejected the view expressed by his party leader Charles James Fox—a view similar to Weiner’s formulation—that “watching the [royal] Prerogative” had drawn them together. In fact, Fox was expressing a principle that Burke associated with the “New Whigs.” Back in 1770, to be sure, the Whigs opposed the court’s increasing power at the expense of Parliament, as Burke’s pamphlet shows. But later in the century Burke believed the party should defend the power of the monarch—and the nobility as well—when those branches of the constitution were under attack. In my view, his “old Whig” principle is best identified as “historic constitutionalism.” Burke never uses that exact phrase, to be sure, but it runs through his entire body of writing from the 1770 Thoughts through to his valedictory Letter to a Noble Lord in 1796. In one of his pithiest attempts to distinguish his thinking from the revolutionary argument from nature, Burke writes, “Constitutions furnish the civil means of getting at the natural.” Perhaps equally importantly, historic constitutionalism is entirely consistent with prudence, principle, and political progress.

With regard to Lincoln, “opposition to executive power” may explain the American Whigs’ critique of Andrew Jackson and his legacy, but it seems impossible to reconcile with Lincoln’s use of executive power. True, Weiner shows that prudence never meant timidity for Burke or Lincoln. And it’s also true that Lincoln faced unprecedented challenges in the secession crisis and the Civil War. Still, suspending habeas corpus, ignoring the Supreme Court, and issuing the Emancipation Proclamation are hardly the acts of an opponent of presidential power.

After his opening pages, however, Weiner’s book offers a persuasive account of how Burke and Lincoln negotiate the tensions between principle and prudence. Burke, of course, was charged with inconsistency when he opposed the revolution in France, with its basis in the natural “rights of Man and Citizen,” after a long career in which he had defended the rights of Americans, Indians, and Irishmen. Here, Weiner joins many scholars in showing that Burke’s political principles were always mediated through historical circumstance. As early as the 1770 Present Discontents Burke had distinguished the role of speculative philosopher—“to mark the proper ends of government”—from “the business of the politician,” which is “to find out the proper means towards those ends, and to employ them with effect.” As Weiner comments, this is “the classical definition of prudence.” Moreover, the imprudent divorce of principle from circumstance was the very source of revolutionary extremism and violence: “‘[The Jacobins] build their politics not on convenience but truth,” Burke charged. “With them there is no compromise . . . It is with them a war or a revolution, or it is nothing.’”

For Lincoln, the situation is different. Lincoln makes many appeals to universal principle, perhaps most famously in the Gettysburg Address, where the “proposition” of equality is recognized as the very basis for bringing forth “a new nation.” There, government of, by, and for the people is held out as a possibility for “any nation so conceived.” Taken out of context, this appeal can sound like pure principle—and prudence be hanged. Weiner shows, however, that Lincoln’s appeals to principle are always rooted in American circumstances, customs, laws, and history. They are rooted, in other words, in prudence. He adduces the Cooper Union Address, for instance, to illustrate Lincoln’s careful attention to the records of various individual framers on the national government’s role in restricting slavery. Lincoln brought into the Republican Party this balance of a principled equality and a “due regard” for historical circumstance, such as the constitutional limits on modes of opposing slavery. “The regard he had for circumstances was not complete,” Weiner concludes, “only the amount that was ‘due,’ producing a combination of firm principle and appropriate means: prudence defined.”

Prudence and Custom: Giving Due Weight to the Habits of the Heart

If prudence limits our reliance on reason and modifies our adherence to principle, what additional elements go into this virtue? In his final chapter, Weiner groups three major components of prudence—custom (including tradition), prescription, and prejudice—under a single name, “The Collected Reason of Ages.” Now, anyone who’s climbed out of the trenches recently to defend these elements is lucky to have returned with only minor wounds. Weiner’s chapter may provide some armor against the next assault, but my own experiences of explaining Burkean prejudice have not been particularly glorious. Today, the word “prejudice” is so heavily fraught with the weight of racial discrimination that clarifying Burke’s meaning is like clarifying a live grenade.

The strongest defense of these three modes of “collected reason” is that they are essential to the actual purposes of civic life. But this doesn’t mean their authority necessarily precedes, much less negates principled and rational approaches. “[W]hen Burke grounded arguments in custom,” Weiner writes, “he invariably meant the collected, historical reason that custom reflected and contained. The argument was never that the extant was always good.” For instance, mere appeals to authority, as made by defenders of the Irish Penal Laws, or to long-standing practices, such as the East India Company’s use of bribery, could never obviate the political responsibilities that governments owe to the people under their authority. In his 1765 Tract on the Popery Laws, Burke points out that the penal laws undermine or prevent Irish Catholics from the rightful enjoyment of property, marriage, education, self-defense, and religion. In his India speeches, Burke laments the arbitrary, unlimited power exerted by the Governor-General of the British East India Company, Warren Hastings. “This gentleman has formed a geographical morality,” Burke proclaimed,

by which the duties of men in public and private stations are not to be governed by their relation to the great Governor of the universe . . . but by climates . . . Against this geographical morality I do protest [because] . . . the laws of morality are the same everywhere; and actions that are stamped with the character of peculation, extortion, oppression, and barbarity in England, are so in Asia, and the world over.

In parallel fashion, Lincoln charged the defenders of slavery with a changeable racial morality. Weiner illustrates this with Lincoln’s 1854 Fragment on Slavery: “You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.”

Unlike reason and principle, customs and traditions appeal to the emotions. They become the instinctive “habits of the heart” that Tocqueville identifies as “mores.” We respond to them, Weiner notes, as to the “mystic chords of memory,” in Lincoln’s famous phrase. Moreover, we make such responses in our common lives together all the time, and rarely as the result of a definite intellectual process. They function, in other words, as prejudices. Weiner explains Burke’s use of this term to mean a “judgment in advance,” that defers to “the wisdom of the people over time,” as opposed to one’s individual reason. I think the term is more robust than that. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer (and the interpretation of Joel Weinsheimer), Burkean “prejudice” is an acknowledgement that all people make their judgments from a particular perspective—British constitutional history, in Burke’s case—and that we can never be possessed of all of the facts necessary to make complex judgments. Moreover, the only way to enter a conversation at all is through the experiences, histories, and traditions we inhabit. We inevitably enter public issues, therefore, with pre-judgments—that is to say, with “prejudices.” But trying to step out of them to get from point A to point B would be like stepping outside the earth’s atmosphere to get from New York to London. No human can do it.

Finally, Burkean “prescription” most properly referred to a property right conferred by the long possession of property. “Burke’s innovation was to apply it to political life,” as Weiner states, echoing the scholarship of Francis Canavan and others on this subject. But like his use of prejudice and custom, Weiner continues, Burke’s endorsement of prescription never justified oppression or slavery, confiscation, or robbery.

When he comes to Lincoln, Weiner’s treatment is much briefer. He is at pains to respond to three types of critics: conservatives (like Richard Weaver) who overlook the significance of Lincoln’s appeals to history and see him as reasoning only from universal principles; followers of Willmoore Kendall and George W. Carey, who maintain that Lincoln derailed the constitutional tradition; and others who say that he rescued the significance of equality in the Declaration of Independence from its neglect in the Constitution. To them all, Weiner convincingly maintains that Lincoln never saw a conflict between the Declaration and the Constitution: “the two worked in tandem and compatibility.” His use of Lincoln’s 1858 speech in Chicago is particularly telling. When Americans “look through that old Declaration of Independence,” Lincoln maintains, “they feel that that moral sentiment taught in that day evidences their relation to those men . . . and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration . . . .” If this is not an expression of political principle that has become part of the customs, manners, and feelings of a people over the course of generations, I don’t know what is.

Along with Old Whigs, I was reading Stony the Road, Henry Louis Gates’s new book on Reconstruction, which depicts the difficulties confronting African American leaders as they confronted Jim Crow: should they stress self-development (Booker T. Washington), political and legal change (W.E.B. Du Bois), or more radical resistance (A. Philip Randolph)? It’s not clear to me that any of these approaches was correct all of the time. It’s closer to say that each had its moment and others were more effective at other times. Something similar could be said for today’s pro-life movement, which seems to be banking on grand legal challenges at a time when broader cultural circumstances are unfavorable. Prudence demands now one response, now another. But “[h]ow does one teach prudence?” as Weiner asks in his conclusion, especially in an age like ours. Clearly instructive examples, such as he provides, are one such way. His book is a valuable reminder, but only for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.