Greg Weiner's New Book ‘Old Whigs’ Review: Rejecting the Extremes

Historians in the News
tags: book review, Old Whigs

In a time like our own, with its routine storms of controversy and spasms of outrage, a classical virtue like prudence may feel either quaint or hopelessly irrelevant. Among much else, Greg Weiner’s concise and elegant “Old Whigs” is a study and celebration of prudence, “for whose recovery,” the author believes, “contemporary politics aches.” He finds this now-uncommon virtue everywhere on display in the thought and statesmanship of Edmund Burke and Abraham Lincoln, the Whigs of his title. 

But what is prudence? To Mr. Weiner, it “involves a carefully choreographed dance between principle and circumstance.” Far from seeking an earthly paradise, the prudent leader pursues gradual reform. Wise statesmanship rejects the extremes. But while the prudent leader is often cautious, he is not timid. “The key to prudence,” Mr. Weiner writes, is “having the capacity of judgment that can distinguish between ordinary moments and genuine crises and, in either case, calibrating action to proper goals.”

Both Burke and Lincoln indeed personify prudence, but at first they seem an unlikely pair. They made their name in different eras; Burke died a dozen years before Lincoln was born. Burke was born in Dublin, the son of a lawyer, Lincoln in a Kentucky cabin built by his illiterate father. The Irishman became a tribune of the aristocracy, the American a champion of the common man. Lincoln didn’t read Burke; rather he admired Thomas Paine, Burke’s great rival.

Yet they had much in common. Both yearned for distinction and achieved it by their own merits: Burke proudly declared himself a “novus homo”; Lincoln gloried in being a self-made man. Both were Whigs in their respective contexts, suspicious of executive power and respectful of legislative prerogatives. Their essential Whiggism persisted in the face of political crises, whether Burke’s estrangement from his party colleagues over their support of the French Revolution or the dissolution of Lincoln’s Whigs and their absorption by the new Republican Party. 

Both were literary craftsmen of the highest order. Mr. Weiner, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Assumption College, quotes these supremely quotable men at length. So wise and enduring are their words that the reader can almost hear the sound of a chisel on marble. Burke’s writings and orations were fired with passion and exuberance, glorying in European traditions, while Lincoln’s greatest utterances were austere and exquisitely balanced—and unmistakably American. 

Mr. Weiner cites numerous examples of prudent statesmanship throughout their careers; two in particular loom large. Burke was elected to Parliament in 1765, the same year as the passage of the Stamp Act, which kindled the revolutionary ardor of the colonies. He became a champion of the American cause not because of an abstract belief in the rights of man—a concept he would rhetorically demolish in his later “Reflections on the Revolution in France”—but because the colonists wished to preserve their ancient liberties as Englishmen. In his “Speech on Conciliation With America” (1775), he acknowledged Parliament’s right to tax the colonies but advised his fellow MPs to refrain from doing so, for contentment in America would serve the greater interests of Britain. “The proposition is peace,” he declared. Had his colleagues heeded him, the British Empire might have retained its Atlantic possessions, at least for a time.

In the Civil War, Lincoln faced the supreme test of the statesman. No abolitionist firebrand could have both saved the Union and destroyed slavery. Only a prudent course could keep the loyalty of the border states and maintain a shaky electoral coalition. But Lincoln showed no lack of boldness: Less than two years elapsed between his First Inaugural address, in which he disavowed any desire to interfere with slavery where it already existed, and his signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. He used the intervening months to build his armies; propose alternatives, such as gradual, compensated emancipation; and prepare the public for what he would later call a “fundamental and astounding” result.

But where does this leave us? What hope is there for moderation when every day brings a new and manufactured crisis? As Mr. Weiner puts it: “If all issues are world-historical, none are.” The demented politics of social media and the noxiousness of cable news make statesmen such as Burke and Lincoln seem impossibly distant, but our future happiness depends upon recapturing their spirit. As Mr. Weiner concludes; “The prudence of Burke’s liberty and authority, of Lincoln’s patience and resolve . . . makes for a far lovelier and more livable place.”

Read entire article at Wall Street Journal

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