If someone had to come up with a bumper sticker encapsulating Edmund Burke’s political philosophy, it would probably read: “Against metaphysical abstractions!” If Burke had lived to the 1850s, he might well have expressed private reservations about Abraham Lincoln’s use of the Declaration of Independence. Burke might especially have disputed an 1859 letter to the Boston politician Henry L. Pierce, in which Lincoln characterized the Declaration as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” Burke embraced prudence as the highest object of political thought and the most important quality—probably the sole qualifying trait—of the statesman. But even had he accepted Lincoln as a model of prudence and high statesmanship (as is likely), it is not easy to square Burke’s understanding of “abstract truths” and their place in political practice with Lincoln’s. Fortunately we have associate professor Greg Weiner of Assumption College on the job with his compact but rich new book, Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence.
On the surface, it is not easy to nail down either man’s account of how abstractions such as natural rights play out in reality. The paradox of Burke is that he supported natural rights in the abstract but (mostly) opposed appealing to natural rights in practical deliberations. This has been a puzzle to readers of Burke ever since his Reflections on the Revolution in France first appeared in 1790. For example, take this declaratory judgment from the Reflections: “Government is not made in virtue of natural rights, which may and do exist in total independence of it.” Yet in a 1783 debate over the governance of India, Burke argued, “The rights of men, that is to say, the natural rights of mankind, are, indeed, sacred things; and if any public measure is proved mischievously to affect them, the objection ought to be fatal to that measure, even if no charter at all could be set up against it.”
But trying to reconcile Burke’s apparent inconsistencies, let alone trying to harmonize him with Lincoln on a theoretical level, is a mistaken enterprise for two reasons. First, the prudence of the statesman cannot be understood purely theoretically, much less scientifically—which means modern political science cannot understand it at all. In fact, Weiner points out early on that “scientific politics” is inherently imprudent. Second, Burke explicitly argued that the ability to understand the circumstances of the moment is at the heart of prudence. As he put it in a debate in the House of Commons in 1792, “A statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.” Weiner thus concludes that understanding true statecraft requires “genuine instruction in the unapologetic histories of great and prudent statesmanship.”
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As Weiner reminds us at the outset of Old Whigs, even those who understand that the statesman’s prudence is an art acknowledge it to be an art that is poorly understood. This is why there are so few public figures today deserving to be regarded as true statesmen. “No lines can be laid down for civil or political wisdom,” Burke wrote in a 1770 pamphlet on abuses of royal power; “They are a matter incapable of exact definition.” In one of his more enigmatic pronouncements, from his 1777 “Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol,” Burke wrote that prudence is “the god of this lower world.” Weiner connects this with Burke’s well-known critique of ideological and utopian politics, but the analogy to godhead is equally apt because the divine is ultimately impossible to comprehend. It may be going too far to ascribe godlike attributes to the supremely prudent statesman, though perhaps Lincoln came close when he observed in his 1838 Lyceum Address that “men of ambition and talents” with a “ruling passion” for glory belong to “the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle.” Burke would likely have approved of Lincoln’s careful efforts to modulate such passion through dedication to the rule of law, which binds both citizens and statesmen alike. “The Lyceum Address was a model of Lincolnian prudence,” Weiner writes. “He sought to calibrate actions to circumstances, such that calm times, like those he wrongly foresaw continuing, elicited calm leadership.”
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Aristotelian moderation is the heart of prudence and enables the prudent statesman to avoid or fend off extremes. But the paradox is that the potential or actual arrival of extreme circumstances warrants a kind of intransigence which, in the abstract, seems highly immoderate. So it was with Lincoln as the 1850s wore on, but Weiner also reminds us of the more felicitous comparison to Winston Churchill, whose central perception in the late 1930s was that “compromise with evil was not only wrong but also imprudent…. Churchill…did not make an idol of daring for daring’s sake. The moment—which is to say the circumstances—demanded it.”
Weiner notes that “One suspects Burke would see some of Lincoln’s early rhetoric about the power of reason as intemperate,” most especially the climax of his Lyceum Address: “Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.” But if Lincoln was more Platonic while Burke was more Aristotelian, still a Burkean defense of Lincoln is possible: Lincoln was, after all, drawing on the “tried and true” tradition of the American Founding to ground his statecraft. Burke was sympathetic to American independence. But his assertion in a 1775 speech about the colonies that “[a]bstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found” presaged the problem America would pose for him. Still, it is easy to imagine Burke discerning that Lincoln’s attachment to “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” did not constitute a utopian vision or threaten a new American Jacobinism. Prudence, after all, counsels all things in their time—and even idealism has its place.