Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence

Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, and the Politics of Prudence

by Greg Weiner


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The virtue of prudence suffuses the writings of Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, yet the demands of statecraft compelled both to take daring positions against long odds: Burke against the seemingly inexorable march of the French Revolution, Lincoln against disunion at a moment when the Northern situation appeared untenable. Placing their statesmanship and writings in relief helps to illuminate prudence in its full dimensions: inflected with caution but not confined to it, bound to circumstance, and finding expression in the particular but grounded in the absolute. This comparative study of two thinkers and statesmen who described themselves as “Old Whigs” argues for a recovery of prudence as the political virtue par excellence by viewing it through the eyes, words, and deeds of two of its foremost exemplars.

Both statesmen who were deeply informed by the life of the mind, Burke and Lincoln illustrate prudence in its universal but also contrasting dimensions. Burke emphasized the primacy of feeling, Lincoln the axioms of logic. Burke saw British prudence emanating from the mists of ancient history; for Lincoln, America’s soul lay in a discrete moment of founding in 1776. Yet both were moved by a respect for the mysterious and customary. Each maintained the virtue of compromise while adhering to immovable commitments.

At a time when American politics, and American conservatism in particular, teems with a desire for boldness but also an innate resistance to schemes of social or political transformation, this book answers with a fuller and richer account of prudence as it emerges in the thought and action of two of the greatest statesmen and thinkers of modern times.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781641770507
Publisher: Encounter Books
Publication date: 06/11/2019
Pages: 184
Sales rank: 1,212,517
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.80(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Greg Weiner is an expert in the political thought of the American Founding. He holds a Ph.D. in government from Georgetown University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Brown University before coming to Assumption College, where he is Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs.

He is the author of American Burke: The Uncommon Liberalism of Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule, and the Tempo of American Politics, both from the American Political Thought series of the University Press of Kansas. His book The Political Constitution: The Case Against Judicial Supremacy is forthcoming from Kansas.

The director of the Daniel Patrick Moynihan Center for Scholarship and Statesmanship at Assumption College, Weiner has published and lectured around the country on such topics as the political thought of James Madison, the separation of powers, the presidency, constitutional interpretation and other issues. He is also a contributing editor of and frequent contributor to the Online Library of Law and Liberty.

Before his academic career, Weiner was a political aide, consultant and writer in Washington, D.C. for nearly two decades.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

Chapter 1 The God of This Lower World: Burke on Prudence 11

Chapter 2 The Family of the Lion, or the Tribe of the Eagle: Lincoln on Prudence 31

Chapter 3 Sophisters, Economists, and Calculators: Burke on Reason and Revelation 53

Chapter 4 Definitions and Axioms: Lincoln on Reason and Revelation 75

Chapter 5 The Little Catechism of the Rights of Man: Burke on Liberty 93

Chapter 6 As I Would Not Be a Slave, So I Would Not Be a Master: Lincoln on Liberty 115

Chapter 7 The Collected Reason of Ages: Burke and Lincoln on Custom 131

Conclusion Liberty and Authority, Patience and Resolve: Recovering the Politics of Prudence 149

Notes on Sources 155

Index 161

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Greg Weiner is among the most prolific and profound contemporary writers on political philosophy. And on the philosophic dimensions of the political practices of the greatest statesmen. In this slender volume, two of the greatest are shown to be kindred spirits, comparable geniuses, and exemplars of an indispensable virtue: prudence.”

—George F. Will

“Greg Weiner masterfully deploys the idea of prudence as a lens through which to clarify the thought and statesmanship of two of the greatest figures in the Anglo-American political tradition. In the process, he teases out lessons about Lincoln, about Burke, and about prudence itself that we could never have learned otherwise. A brilliant book.”

—Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left

“Greg Weiner’s new book is a timely meditation on a timeless theme. Through a nuanced exploration of Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, Weiner brings fresh insight to our understanding of political prudence. An exemplar of well-calibrated judgment himself, Weiner helps us understand the contours of practical reason: both caution and boldness, both conciliation and resolve. Fully attentive to the significant differences between the great English and American statesmen, particularly the greater prominence of universal principles for Lincoln, Weiner amply demonstrates their deep agreement on the need for moderation and existential humility. With his deft pen, Weiner points us toward a most-needed revival of the virtue that ought to rule political life.”

—Diana Schaub, Loyola University Maryland

“In Old Whigs, Greg Weiner finds an enticing similarity between Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, who both practiced prudence and described it. By appealing to the past they made it useful to the present. Weiner does the same in this elegant volume on how to think and argue politically.”

—Harvey C. Mansfield, Professor of Government, Harvard University, and Senior Fellow, Hoover Institution, Stanford University

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