Lincoln and the Jacobins

This is a piece I wrote for The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association which was published in their Summer 2020 issue. They slightly edited it. This is the full version.

Review of Greg Weiner, Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln & the Politics of Prudence

Greg Weiner thinks that Lincoln was a Burkean. There are good reasons why many Lincoln scholars will immediately raise an eyebrow at this. As Weiner concedes in his introduction, there is no evidence that Lincoln read Edmund Burke or was influenced by him. Lincoln certainly read Thomas Paine, Burke’s great ideological antithesis, but the only reference to an Edmund Burke in Lincoln’s Collected Works is to the New Hampshire Democrat of the same name.  

Even more challenging for the author’s thesis—on the face of it, at least—is that Lincoln and Burke are often presented as being part of opposing intellectual traditions: Burke as a romantic opponent of Enlightenment rationalism; Lincoln as an Enlightenment rationalist who in his Lyceum Address famously called for politics to be based on “cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason.” In this reading, Burke, the supposed “father of conservatism” stands outside the American liberal tradition with its foundational belief in universal natural rights, whereas Lincoln is one of that liberal tradition’s greatest exponents.

And yet, counterintuitive though it may be to some, Weiner is on to something. In the largest sense this book is a reminder of how deeply unsatisfactory it is to assume that a “liberal” tradition based on universal rights and with an inherent assumption of continual progress was the antinomy of a “conservative” alternative emphasising tradition, hierarchy and property rights. Both Burke and Lincoln were vastly more sophisticated and complicated thinkers than that, because both were human, and both were engaged in real-life politics.

Like his contemporary, the Scottish moral philosopher Adam Smith, with whom he had much in common intellectually, Burke argued that the meaning of a political value like “liberty” could only be derived from its context. The abstract freedom of an imagined pre-social state of nature bore little relation to the durable civil and individual freedoms that were created through institutions and social relations over generations. As he wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France, freedom has no content when presented “in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.”[1] Therefore, Burke was convinced that the rise of the doctrine of the primordial “rights of man” was misguided (“malevolent” he called it more than once) because of where it led: destruction.

But none of this meant that Burke was a reactionary figure. Far from it. As a Whig, his politics were concerned with restoring the best possible arrangements under which human progress could continue. As his biographer Richard Bourke has written, “Burke saw himself as promoting enlightened ideals from within a sceptical Anglican tradition.”[2] This meant that while he recognised the precariousness of human judgement, he was a committed and consistent reformer. He advocated the enfranchisement of the Catholic Irish, the abolition of the slave trade and the transportation of convicts, the reform of trade regulations, and famously insisted on imposing parliamentary accountability on British imperial governance in India. Burke even accepted the legitimacy of revolution—if it was “honest and necessary”. While authority was sanctioned by tradition and served a higher purpose, it was not, for Burke, divinely ordained, still less infallible. The Civil War era claims by Protestant ministers in America like Henry Bellows that loyalty to government was akin to loyalty to God may even have been too strong for Burke’s taste.[3]

Nor is it true – as is sometimes claimed – that Burke disparaged arguments based on natural rights. Among other things, Burke’s defense of property, and his commitment to a polity that embodied toleration—both of which were core to his politics—derived from the assumption that people’s civil entitlements derived from the laws of nature. Burke agreed with Thomas Jefferson that legitimate government required consent; it is just that he denied that consent could be meaningfully given or withdrawn on a whim. In short, Burke was emphatically not the anti-Enlightenment, anti-modernist figure he was made out to be by twentieth-century contrarian radicals like William F. Buckley, Jr.

What has this to do with Lincoln? As Weiner notes, both Lincoln and Burke described themselves as “Old Whigs”—a reference to the political parties with which they both so strongly identified. Notwithstanding the obvious contextual differences between the party of Rockingham and the party of Clay, they were linked by a principled opposition to executive power, and also by a politics of “prudence” which Wiener calls the “political virtue par excellence.”

Prudence, as a characteristic of political judgement, is based on the moral claim there are limits to individual human reason. It is, in other words, the very antithesis of Jacobinism. Burke was horrified by the actual Jacobins who captured control of the French revolution during the “Terror”, but Jacobinism as a word and concept haunted Anglo-American politics for at least a century after Robespierre came to a sticky end in Paris. Jacobins were an existential threat to moral order because of their arrogant, utopian claim to have attained a universal wisdom greater than that accumulated over generations. “Never shall I think any country in Europe to be secure,” wrote Burke in 1791, “whilst there is established, in the very centre of it, a state (if so it may be called) founded on principles of anarchy.”[4] In a similar vein, in his first inaugural address, Lincoln denounced secession—not slaveholders per se, but secession as a doctrine—as “the essence of anarchy.” Lincoln, quite much as Burke, constantly, throughout his career, emphasised the value of “sober” judgement and restraint. “Even though much provoked,” he warned in his Cooper Union address, “let us do nothing though passion and ill temper. Even though the Southern people will not so much as listen to us, let us calmly consider their demands, and yield to them if, in our deliberate view of our duty, we possibly can.”[5]

In my view, there is considerable overlap in a Venn diagram showing Lincoln and Burke’s assumptions about political judgement. As prudent old Whigs, Lincoln and Burke each respected and embodied an approach to politics that was temperamentally cautious, but which could sustain bold action in a genuine crisis. Both had a long-term conception of political change, a concern for the conditions in which liberty could exist and thrive, and an understanding of individual freedom as dependent on social order.

Jacksonians like Stephen A. Douglas believed that white men were endowed with natural rights – including the right to vote and to “self-government” — which could not be circumscribed by interfering do-gooders. Lincoln’s position was not the polar opposite of this: he believed in natural rights too, but for him they were both more limited and more universal. As a Whig, he was comfortable with gradations of rights and privileges, but also more comfortable than Douglas in asserting that in the most basic right of all — to benefit from the fruits of her labor — a black woman was the equal of a white man. All this is entirely Burkean.

Weiner is absolutely right, in my judgement, that Lincoln was appalled by the Kansas-Nebraska Act not only because of the practical expansion of slavery it portended but also because it overturned a compromise (“who after this, will ever trust in a national compromise?” he asked).[6] In so doing, it upended the delicate arrangements which, Lincoln hoped, had put slavery on the course to “ultimate extinction”—a phrase he used frequently.

The principal problem Lincoln confronted was the challenge of navigating towards a society free of the moral repugnance of slavery while not jeopardising the Union, which, for all its manifold real-world failings, was, he believed, the last best hope of earth. His career is a study in balancing sub-optimal choices, in trying to determine when it was more prudent to let sleeping dogs lie and when bold action was required. Or, as Lincoln put it during the secession winter, understanding when “the tug has to come.”[7]

It was fundamental to Lincoln’s politics that the recognition of an absolute moral wrong did not, in itself and without reflection, require action to immediately remove it. Lincoln claimed in 1864 that he could not remember when he did not “think and feel” that slavery was wrong, and there is absolutely nothing in the record which undermines that claim. Yet, like millions of other innately antislavery but non-radical northerners, Lincoln could, without paradox, believe that the ultimate moral goal of ending slavery could most effectively be pursued by means that were appropriate to the circumstances prevailing at the time. It was not that Lincoln’s commitment to emancipation was “radicalised” during the war but that the context changed.

Even when boldness was needed–when the tug had come and should be accepted–the aim was not to make the world over but to restore lost liberties, to “repurify” the republic by washing it white “in the spirit, if not the blood, of the [American] Revolution.”[8]

Scholars who believe that Lincoln was instinctively at one with abolitionists will not like this book. But in my reading of Lincoln, the insight that he was of a Burkean temperament is fundamentally right.

That is not to deny some important differences between the two. For example, in comparison with Burke, Lincoln had a much greater faith in the capacity of public opinion to shape political decisions, even if he disliked the utilitarian majoritarianism of Jacksonians. Lincoln was also characteristically American, and quite un-Burkean, in his tendency to see world history as a Manichean struggle between progress and reaction; for Burke, the forces of history were murkier and more paradoxical than that. Lincoln was not a man without a sense of irony, but, for all his melancholy, he was in the end more optimistic about human nature and the future than was that brilliant but anxious eighteenth-century Anglo-Irishman.

And yet, if Burke is understood not as a “conservative” caricature but as a man who steadily pursued moral objectives in a way that respected the complexity of human society, then this book shows how illuminating it can be to view Lincoln’s decision-making through a Burkean frame.

For all that, in the final analysis the subject of this book is not, in fact, Lincoln, or even Burke but “prudence”. The conclusion is a paean to that lost political virtue in an era of hyper-partisanship.

We would indeed live in a happier world if it were led by men of Lincoln—or Burke’s—combination of humility and boldness, their capacity to take stock and calibrate action to circumstance.

The danger of Weiner’s use of the term is that a “prudent statesman” is one with whom one happens to agree, or who was retrospectively vindicated by events. Weiner invokes Sir Winston Churchill as another exemplar of “prudence” on the basis of Churchill’s early recognition of the severity of the threat from Nazi Germany. But while Churchill was certainly vindicated on that issue — and in a broader sense his pragmatic politics was very Burkean — it is not hard to offer examples from other points in his long career where “prudence” seems like the least appropriate descriptor. Churchill’s attitude to colonial governance, for example, was arguably less “enlightened” than Burke’s, and his response to striking Welsh miners and decision-making around the disastrous Gallipoli expedition were not the actions of a prudent statesman.

The real purpose of the book, it seems, is to make a case, which in contemporary US politics is conceived of as “conservative,” against “rootless rights talk”. We live, Weiner says in his conclusion, in an age of a “desiccated, technocratic rationality that deprives political life of meaning in search, rather, for objectively right answers to override the fallibility that is an indispensable part of our shared humanity.” Perhaps he means that “liberals” (in the modern American sense of that term) think in this way, while non-Trumpian, non-populist “conservatives” offer a more grounded and subtle alternative.

What I take from this deeply intelligent and thought-provoking book, though, is something else. To me, it illustrates a “liberal tradition”, embodied in different ways by both Burke and Lincoln. It was a tradition rooted in the hope that “civilisation” would progress; it conceptualized rights and liberty as theoretically universal but only given real-world meaning through the practice of politics in a stable political community. It is therefore a tradition which, confoundingly for our preferred way of looking at the world, can be seen as both “liberal” and “conservative.” Liberal in its faith in progress and respect for the individual; conservative in its respect for tradition, of understanding that no one can know anything for certain, that governance is a matter of making difficult choices.

The trouble with attacking “rights talk,” as Weiner does, is that, however well-intentioned it might be, it runs the risk that those who benefit are autocratic populists not prudent Burkeans. I think those unintended consequences are something that Burke and Lincoln would have understood. Weiner implies that the “rights talk” technocrats are the heirs of the Jacobins. In some ways that is true. But in more important ways, by respecting the idea that government is a serious business and that political decisions require deep reflection, they are not.

The far more serious enemy of Burkeanism and Lincolnism today is not sterile and depressing “technocratic rationality”, but the shameless populists who appeal to the worst angels of our nature with their hubristic disdain for process and expertise, the free market zealots with their abstract dogmas, or the corrupt office-seekers who want to subvert the public good for private gain.

The Jacobins of today, one might say, are on Fox News.


[1] Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, in L. G. Mitchell and William B. Todd (eds), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 8: The French Revolution: 1790-1794 (Oxford University Press, 1989), 58.

[2] Richard Bourke, Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke (Princeton University Press, 2015), 69.

[3] Henry W. Bellows, Unconditional Loyalty (New York: Loyal Publication Society, 1863).

[4] Edmund Burke, “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly 1791,” in L. G. Mitchell and William B. Todd (eds), The Writings and Speeches of Edmund Burke, Vol. 8: The French Revolution: 1790-1794 (Oxford University Press, 1989), 306.

[5] Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (9 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 3: 547.

[6] Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2: 272.

[7] Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 4: 150.

[8] Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 2: 276.

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