The brave moderation and manly prudence of Edmund Burke.
Regimes, Old and New
Burke, Tocqueville, and Lincoln on the right ordering of society.
Dan Mahoney has done a masterful job of distilling the chapter on Burke from his most recent book, The Statesman as Thinker: Portraits of Greatness, Courage, and Moderation (Encounter Books, 2022). Like everything Dan writes, the essay is lucid and graceful, making it a pleasure to read. As he emphasizes throughout, his understanding of prudence is rooted in the great classical and Christian thinkers, who joined practical wisdom to the moral virtues, as distinct from the Machiavellian practice of making a morally neutral choice between bad options. His discussion here is drawn almost entirely from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, in which the Anglo-Irish statesman famously lamented the violent overthrow of the Old Regime.
In the same book, Mahoney includes a chapter on Tocqueville, who also criticized the French Revolution in The Old Regime and the Revolution in France. In fact, Tocqueville was even more emphatic than Burke in his condemnation of the abstract, general principles espoused by the philosophes. Unlike the Americans, these thinkers, who frequented the fashionable Parisian salons, had no practical experience in politics and so believed that they could wipe the slate clean and build a mathematically and morally perfect state. In Thomas Paine’s famous words, they were convinced that they had it “within their power to begin the world anew.”
Yet for all their agreement, Tocqueville did not think that Burke got the French Revolution quite right. What Burke failed to see was that the first French revolution had occurred under the reign of Louis XIV, which—in contrast to the reformism of England’s Glorious Revolution—had centralized power in the hands of the monarchy, effectively sidelining the nobility. As Tocqueville sardonically observes in The Old Regime, the French aristocracy gladly surrendered their political power for the privilege of lumbering the tax burden onto those least able to afford it. The Old Regime was not the idealized portrait of refinement that Burke supposed it to be. So, my first question is this: given that statesmanship involves prudence or practical wisdom, who better understood the politics of the Old Regime, and what might we learn about prudence and the moral virtues from their differing assessments? A comparative analysis of Burke’s and Tocqueville’s arguments would be most helpful.
Now, let me return to this side of the pond: since the website where Mahoney’s post on Burke appears is called The American Mind, I was surprised to see Dan’s post on Burke rather than that great American statesman, Abraham Lincoln, also included in his volume. The decision to highlight Burke seems especially fraught these days, with conservatives, led by Yoram Hazony, seeking to supplant the natural rights foundation of the American republic and install the conservatism of Edmund Burke. Indeed, in a recent review of Hazony’s latest book, Mahoney takes the Israeli thinker to task precisely for ignoring the importance of natural rights, which Mahoney rightly calls “the lifeblood of our tradition,” though he is careful (maybe too careful) in distinguishing the American tradition from what he calls Lockean rationalism. It would be helpful for our understanding of statesmanship to have Mahoney spell out these differences.
As Mahoney shows in his chapter on Abraham Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence lay at the heart of Lincoln’s opposition to the extension of slavery in the Kansas Nebraska territories. In speech after speech, from the foundation of the Republican Party in 1854 until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Lincoln patiently tried to persuade his countrymen of the moral limits of self-government and popular sovereignty. His is a prudent and conservative application of these principles. He saw America not as a social contract, and certainly not merely a social contract among the living, but as a mystical union stretching back over the generations and bound together by a reverence for the laws and the Constitution—to which in the 1850’s he added the Declaration. Together, they made up his “ancient faith.”
As public opinion grew more indifferent to slavery, or in some cases even more disposed to it, nothing but a return to America’s first principles would do. He praised Jefferson for having the foresight to include in “a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times” there to serve as “a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.” The rights Americans laid claim to were grounded in a moral sense that told them that blacks were human beings and therefore endowed with the same rights as whites (a point Jefferson, too, had made in his draft of the Declaration). Although the slaves were clearly not enjoying those rights, the Declaration “set up a standard maxim for a free society…constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
The Declaration did not mean merely to assert that British subjects in America were the equals of their British brethren “in their own oppressed and unequal condition.” Rather, it “promised something better than the condition of British subjects”; the glory of the Declaration was that it “contemplated the progressive improvement in the condition of all men everywhere.” Yet, Lincoln was careful not to push these ideas too far. Although black slaves, both male and female, were endowed with the same natural rights as whites, they were not equal in all respects, and Lincoln did not try to make them so.
His approach to emancipation, set forth in his last public address four days before his assassination, was moderate yet courageous, accepting more limited support from whites than he had hoped, but also letting it be known that he favored suffrage for the “very intelligent” (presumably the literate) and those who served with the Union forces. In keeping with his own advice in the Temperance Address on how to carry out moral reform, he praised the reforms that the Louisiana legislature had adopted as the best practicable means of drawing Louisiana back into the Union.
Since these three statesmen arrived at different assessments of the political problems they faced, it would be good to put these thinkers in conversation with each other. For the point of Dan Mahoney’s beautifully written and thoughtful book is not merely to praise these individual statesmen, but to help the reader assess the practical wisdom and moral virtues of these exemplary statesmen. Even at this high level, some responses may be better than others.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.