In Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence, Greg Weiner examines the virtue of prudence in the writings and daring statesmanship of Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln. Weiner's comparative study of two great men who described themselves as “Old Whigs” urges resistance to schemes of social or political transformation that have gripped American politics.
RealClearBooks: What was your goal in writing Old Whigs?
My goal was to use Burke and Lincoln as vehicles for articulating an understanding of prudence that is relevant to our times, which are times in which I think we’ve lost that virtue. We’ve come to associate it with caution alone or even with cowardice when it’s in fact much richer than that. It’s the political virtue par excellence and the conservative virtue par excellence.
RealClearBooks: Abraham Lincoln is admired for his attack on slavery from a moral position – the natural equality of all men. What is the link between him and Burke who condemned the French Revolution as an imprudent danger that could destabilize society?
Weiner: It’s an excellent question. There are certainly differences between the two in their approach to thinking about rights. But what links them is a shared commitment to prudence, which is to say the calibration of statecraft to circumstance. Lincoln is concerned with the end of slavery but wants to achieve it gradually. Certainly, right up until it was a military necessity, he wanted to
achieve it in a prudent kind of way. Even his most daring acts of statecraft are prudent in the sense that they became necessary. The argument of the book is not that Burke and Lincoln are identical, particularly on the idea rights, but that they both approach prudence from ways that are illuminating for contemporary circumstances.
RealClearBooks: Often, we think of political action as a balance between ethics and prudence: while an extremist may pursue an ideological agenda without compromise, a prudent politician will weigh both the good and the efficacy of a particular course of action. What do Lincoln and Burke’s conceptions of prudence add to this picture?
Weiner: I think they both do that. We tend to think of Lincoln as an axiomatic thinker who applies Euclid to politics, but he was very much a practitioner of prudential judgment. In fact, I argue in the book that he was much more an adherent of custom than we typically think. Burke, on the other hand, we associate with prudence as caution, with the theoretical dimension of caution, and that’s certainly true. But perhaps what links these two men most and makes them most intriguing is both of them talk about prudence in their writings, but are daring in their own statecraft. Burke is appropriately cautious about making decisions about things like the transformation of society, because he doesn’t think it’s possible to know everything. He thinks society is too complex of a mechanism. But he’s quite emphatic, as you noted, in his opposition to the French Revolution even to the point of seeking war with France when he’s not convinced that it’s going to be successful.
RealClearBooks: Do Burke and Lincoln attempt to synthesize their theoretical concerns with their practical boldness?
Weiner: They do. First of all, their boldness in specific circumstances that require it arises from their theoretical goals; it’s oriented to the pursuit of, certainly in Lincoln’s case, theoretical goals, and in Burke’s it’s a little more complicated than that because he rejects abstract theory as the basis for politics. But unquestionably there is a reconciliation of theory and practice in both men. In fact, that’s what Burke says custom accomplishes for us: the reconciliation of theory and practice. He refers to the British common law as the collective reason of ages, so that history becomes a theater in which we apply principle to circumstance and work with the concrete results.
RealClearBooks: Is there a particular action or speech of Lincolns’ that best demonstrates his conception prudence as distinct from Burke’s?
Weiner: I think the Lyceum Address of 1830 is the paradigmatic one in this regard. Because in that Lincoln basically lays out a standard for the calibration of statecraft to circumstance, which I think is the essence of prudence. He warns against the pursuit of ambition and greatness in times that don’t require it. The irony of course is that he thinks that American history is sort of past the age of heroes, and he doesn’t foresee his own heroism. But there’s a wonderful description in that speech of the need to adjust the boldness of statecraft to the needs of the moment.
Another one that I do think is overlooked in understanding Lincoln theoretically is the Cooper Union address, in which he does not simply say that slavery is abstractly wrong. He’s at pains in that speech and the whole purpose of that speech is to demonstrate that the Founders thought it was wrong. We might ask: if Lincoln is solely a Euclidean thinker, why does it matter what the Founders think? Why does it matter what one’s ancestor think? But Lincoln in fact was a great admirer of George Washington, of the Revolutionary generation. He often cited them. He cited them in virtually all of his speeches in his way to his Inauguration in places like New Jersey and Pennsylvania. There’s a great honor paid to his forbearers throughout his career.
RealClearBooks: Some may worry that too much focus on prudence can lead us to purely moral concerns. How do Burke and Lincoln walk that line? Is there any moment you think that they are prudent at the expense of morality?
Weiner: Well prudence is a moral virtue. If you go back to Aquinas it’s one of the Cardinal Virtues on which the other virtues depend. I would say for both Burke and Lincoln prudence serves the purposes of moral ends. That’s going back to the Aristotelian tradition: prudence is the ability to choose the best means towards rightful ends. So, I don’t think there’s a case one could point to in either man’s career in which they sacrifice the moral to the expedient, but it’s important to understand why and the ‘why’ is that that wouldn’t be expedient.
RealClearBooks: Ethically speaking, is pursuing prudence a way of saying that we should act in a way that will produce the most good in the long run? Is it a consequentialist attitude applied to political action?
Weiner: I don’t think it’s truly consequentialist. It certainly is not in Lincoln’s case, but I don’t think it is in Burke’s either. If Burke was truly a consequentialist, certainly a short-term consequentialist, he might have said, well let’s just deal with the French Revolution and make the best peace that we can with it. For Burke, there’s an important distinction to be made between abstract philosophy and the concreteness of prudence. Burke has a wonderful line in which he says, natural rights do exist but, I’m not quoting him directly, they’re not the purpose of politics. He says their abstract perfection is their practical defect. We are not concerned in political judgment with the pursuit of perfection, we’re concerned with the pursuit of prudence. But there’s a deeply moral commitment behind that, which is that we can’t know everything that is good in all the circumstances that will lead to it. And at the moment that we begin to think we can apprehend all of that, we are led down the road to arrogance and tyranny.
RealClearBooks: Did the American founders consider prudential reasons for and against Revolution?
Weiner: Oh absolutely. There was a very robust debate. There are more radical thinkers at the time of the revolution like a Thomas Paine, but I think a John Adams, there’s no question, considers the prudential reasons for and against. I think we make mistake to regard the American founders as solely axiomatic philosophers. I don’t think that captures what they were engaged in, particularly if we project forward just half a generation to the time of the Constitution. I think one cannot come away from reading the Federalist, without understanding that these are men deeply suffused with an idea of prudence.
RealClearBooks: Is it possible to teach prudence to a statesman?
Weiner: This is one of the great questions to which I’m afraid I don’t have a satisfactory answer. I think it is a mistake to regard prudence as a sort of mystical quality that some people have and some people don’t, and it’s this ethereal capacity for judgment. There’s clearly some of that to prudence, some people have a better sense of judgment than others. But at the same time, I think a Burke in particular would warn against teaching prudence in the abstract. I think what he would say is that we learn what is prudent from the study of what has and has not concretely worked. And that includes the study of principle, but it has to be the study of principle as it plays out in the theater of history.
RealClearBooks: When do you think President Trump has exercised prudence? When hasn’t he?
Weiner: Well that probably remains to be seen in a lot of ways. To the extent that we associate prudence with custom and the preservation of norms and deference to forbears, I don’t think that it has been prudent to ignore norms of presidential behavior. In fact, I think he’s gotten himself in the most trouble when he’s ignored the constraints on presidential behavior. On the other hand, there are certainly times that demand bold presidential leadership and I think one’s opinion of President Trump’s leadership has to depend very much on the extent to which one perceives the Country to be in a crisis. Some people argue there has been a crisis of constitutional governance. He certainly argued in his Inaugural Address that there was an economic crisis. To the extent that we’re living in crisis ridden times, then bold action to confront the crisis is prudence. But I think prudence also has to counsel us to take a very deep breadth before we assume that there is a crisis around us.