For some time I had puzzled over a discrepancy or inconsistency between two of Richard Weaver’s essays which treat of Lincoln to one degree or another. In his “Abraham Lincoln and the Argument from Definition” (1953), Weaver praises Lincoln as a “conservative” by virtue of his employment of the argument from definition on such issues as the nature of government, the Union, slavery, and, relatedly, the nature of man in various speeches spanning several years. In a later essay, “The South and the American Union” (1957), however, Weaver takes Lincoln to task for his philosophical inconsistency in his conflicting pronouncements on the theme of union and secession. The current essay is an effort at resolving the inconsistency posed by the two Weaver essays, a resolution that he himself makes only indirectly.

But there is also the matter of Lincoln’s own inconsistency, which I take up here as well. In his Speech on the Mexican War (1848), Lincoln as a member of Congress assumes the pro-secession line, and in his First Inaugural (1861), he argues, of course, the opposite side. In the latter instance, Lincoln as president argues most strongly from definition rather than from circumstance. That said it is inescapable that circumstances have drastically changed for both him and the country. It seems, moreover, a given that they have also changed his whole perspective. Be that as it may, the latter type of argument—from circumstance—Weaver asserts here and elsewhere, is characteristic of the “liberal” orator-politician, his chief exemplar being Edmund Burke, who according to Weaver generally favored it.[1]

My take on Lincoln’s inconsistency is that it is a given, is explicable, and even defensible. Yet his “flexibility”—if we may call it that—may not be quite as innocuous as some have supposed. As for Weaver, we may wonder how he, as a strict logician and rhetorician, could go from an undiluted encomium on Lincoln in the first essay to the one of 1957 in which he handily critiques that figure’s conspicuous failure to hew to a consistent position.

Without giving away too much in advance, my argument is first of all that Weaver’s presupposition (that the argument from definition is “conservative”) is questionable at least; but that, secondly, he nevertheless makes a strong case for Lincoln’s use of definition in various pronouncements (some of which are indeed “conservative”); and thirdly that Weaver does finally arrive at a resolution of sorts to the basic contradiction between the two essays. Also, while Mr. Lincoln’s shifting may leave his scorecard a bit smudged, we must allow in fairness that principled argument is one thing, powerful circumstance another.

In the first essay on Lincoln, Weaver lays out what he means by the argument from definition and then develops what it implies beyond rhetorical style: “The argument from definition, in the sense we shall employ here, includes all arguments from the nature of the thing,” that is, what it essentially is.[2] Moreover, definition not only says what a thing is, it also puts it in a class with like things, so that what can be said of one item can be said of another with appropriate qualification.

More importantly, he goes on to argue that while Lincoln has been placed on various points of the political spectrum, it is this characteristic mode of argument—defining what things essentially are—that marks him, for one thing, as a conservative:

The true conservative is one who sees the universe as a paradigm of essences, of which the phenomenology of the world is a sort of continuing approximation. Or, to put this another way, he sees it as a set of definitions which are struggling to get themselves defined in the real world . . . This type of conservative is sometimes found fighting quite briskly for change; but if there is one thing by which he is distinguished, it is a trust in the methods of law.[3]

While I have not done full justice in this brief exposition to Weaver’s view of argument from definition, I find his use of it in identifying Lincoln as a conservative questionable at best. What he is saying in essence is that what constitutes a conservative—whether a politician, an orator, or some other figure—is simply one’s method of argument. This without in any particular regard to what one is arguing for. Weaver’s characterization of Lincoln here, in other words, has no reference to concepts or values beyond those supposedly inherent in his methodology itself. I will grant that many folks on the left end of the political spectrum may in fact avoid making an argument on the basis of first principles or even taking one seriously when made by others. However, without consistent reference to what one is arguing for or against—let us say in our day for example, abortion, euthanasia, immigration, citizenship, on and on—the proposition seems a bit hollow. That being said, I have no quarrel with Weaver’s exposition of how Lincoln goes about making his case for the various positions for which he argued using definition and first principles.[4]

Weaver in this essay enumerates eight distinct arguments out of twelve in the First Inaugural Address alone that are based on definition and goes on to give an overview of that mode of argument as it appears in several other speeches. I am concerned here, though, with only the four issues indicated above: government and union, slavery and the nature of man. These are the most critical—and besides, they, the first pair especially, will serve to illustrate the inconsistency of both Lincoln as politician and Weaver as political commentator.

Regarding the first of these issues, Weaver notes in the first essay that for Lincoln “All governments have a fundamental duty of self-preservation.”[5] Lincoln develops this tenet in The First Inaugural, an occasion where he pulls out all the stops in defining and defending his vision of the nation and its political structures as they stand in 1861:

I hold, that in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the Union of these states is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper, ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.[6]

Lincoln then contrasts a constitutional government and union with that of a mere association of states based on a contract. If the government is not properly constituted, but an association only, he asks, can it even in such a case be dissolved by one party’s cancelling the contract? His answer is, of course, no; it requires both parties to do so.

The point in both instances is that it is in the very nature of a government, certainly in the case of a constitutionally based union, that it cannot be dissolved. To emphasize, while that is not the entire definition of a government, it is of its essence according to Lincoln. Thus, the very “idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy.”[7]

It could hardly be a stretch to suppose that Lincoln’s views on government and union are related in some fashion to his views on slavery and the nature of man. And his professed hatred of slavery as an institution is, of course, integral to his understanding both of what man is—for one, a creature endowed by God to be free—and of human nature, which in his view was constant and knowable. So, while the machinery of government could be used by some—such as Senator Douglas and company—to further slavery under the aegis of “popular sovereignty,” might not government, the Union, be the means to end it and ensure universal freedom? It is a question to which we must return toward our conclusion.

Throughout his career, Weaver notes, Lincoln found several occasions to argue from the nature of man in general and his inherent right to freedom in particular, both being arguments from definition.[8] In another essay, Weaver writes as a rhetorician (most likely with Lincoln in mind), “If a speaker should define man as a creature with an indefeasible right to freedom and should upon this base an argument that a certain man or group of men are entitled to freedom, he would be arguing from definition.”[9] And, of course, this is an argument and a form of argument Lincoln himself makes. Used consistently and with skill, it becomes for him a powerful argumentative tool.

But another core quality of man’s nature is articulated in a speech he gave to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield in 1838, where he affirms that it is not only fixed and knowable but also deeply flawed. Man is born to trouble, as the sparks fly upward, Job attests. In this speech, the twenty-nine-year-old Lincoln addresses the dangers he sees to the durability of political institutions. The first danger is a general spirit of lawlessness abroad in the land; the second is a burning ambition for distinction, whether it results in “emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”[10] Weaver, in the essay on argument from definition, refers to this second danger as a sign for Lincoln of the “inherent evil of human nature.”[11] One question that might be posed here and later, too, is whether Lincoln himself was touched by this burning ambition for distinction, and if so, just what were its implications for his later career?[12]

One societal expression of the inherent evil of man’s nature is, of course, “the monstrous injustice of slavery.”[13] Lincoln forcefully articulated his professed views on that institution on more than one occasion. In his Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), he savages the apparent indifference exhibited by some to the spread of slavery into those territories both because it allows the enemies of freedom to brand Americans as hypocrites and forces good men into conflict over the basic concept of civil liberty. He declares that the “doctrine of self government [that is, for individuals] is right . . . but it has no just application, as here attempted.” It either has one or has none, that is, depending on “whether a negro is not or is a man.”[14] That, of course, is the fundamental issue which he confronted here and elsewhere.

In this same speech he charges Stephen Douglas with not being very sure that “the negro is a human,” and so for the Senator the moral element does not enter into any legislation about him.[15] Slavery is a matter of indifference and as such can be inserted into the territories if the people want it. But Lincoln is not having this.

As Weaver notes in the first Lincoln essay, the Rail-splitter, whose logic was as sharp as his ax’s edge, became convinced fairly early that in order to guarantee the permanence of laws and of institutions in general—as well as win arguments—one had to exclude the middle ground. That is, at least on some occasions, one has to say either “Yes” or “No” and put relativism and sophistry to flight.[16] This is what Lincoln was about in the “House Divided” speech: “It was,” Weaver notes, “a definite insistence upon right, with no regard for latitude and longitude in moral questions.”[17]

Douglas on the other hand, as an orator facing a dialectician and logician “made the fatal mistake of looking for a position in the excluded middle.”[18] He had been pushing to get slavery admitted into the territories while disingenuously assuming a posture of indifference as to the morality—or immorality—surrounding it. Douglas professed not to care whether the admission was voted up or down. This left him open to an attack by Lincoln, which comes at the end of the Alton debate (1858):

Any man can say that who does not see anything wrong in slavery, but no man can logically say it who does see a wrong in it; because no man can logically say he don’t care whether a wrong is voted up or voted down. He may say he don’t care whether an indifferent thing is voted up or down, but he must logically have a choice between a right thing and a wrong thing. He [Douglas] contends that whatever community wants slaves has a right to them. So they have if it is not a wrong. But if it is a wrong, he cannot say people have a right to do wrong. [19]

As noted, the assumption behind Lincoln’s argument against Douglas here is that the slave is in fact a man, entitled to the same freedoms to which both Lincoln and the Senator themselves are. The only matter on which the two men were agreed was that the two races should be kept separate, as Lincoln asserts in his speech on the 1857 Dred Scott Decision and elsewhere.[20]

He like many others of his age did not believe that the black man was equal in personal attributes to the white man. In this view, Lincoln simply reflected the wider culture. One question, though, that still hangs in the air is whether or not his own attitude compromises his anti-slavery position. (We might go a bit farther and question the genuineness of that position.) One may make the case, of course, that while by today’s standards such a discrepancy looks like hypocrisy or waffling at best, his position on slavery itself and the right of the black man to personal liberty was undeniably firm and clear. If his view overall does not satisfy all concerned, one may have to concede that it is about the best we will find in the Emancipator on the subject. As for Weaver, he makes no effort to hide, or excuse, or condemn Lincoln’s views as a whole; they are simply part of the record. Others, however, may not handle the matter with kid gloves.[21]

The second of Weaver’s two main essays treating of Lincoln, “The South and the American Union” (1957), provides us with a decidedly different view of Lincoln. (Perhaps I ought to add that it affords us a different view of our author as well.) That is, in his consideration here of Lincoln on the theme of government and union, it soon becomes apparent that Weaver’s views on government, reflecting a Southern traditionalist perspective, differ markedly from those of both the North and of Lincoln himself.

What is also manifest in the second essay is that Weaver argues not as a rhetorician analyzing the rhetoric of an orator but as a commentator on the political dynamics of Lincoln’s situation. Weaver begins by conceding that Lincoln was generally consistent throughout his career in positions held and defended. On the matter of the indissolubility of government, however, he was not. As a Representative from Illinois in his Speech on the Mexican War (January 12, 1848), he strongly supports the right of a people to part company with an existing government. No Southern separatist, Weaver notes, could have spoken more eloquently than the prairie-lawyer-turned-politician.[22]

Any people, anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable,—a most sacred right—a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world. Nor is this right confined to cases in which the whole people of an existing government may choose to exercise it. Any portion of such people that can, may revolutionize, and make their own, of so much territory as they inhabit.[23]

It is worth noting in passing that Lincoln does not specify any grounds for separation, such as an abuse of power or unfair taxation, for instance; the argument stands or falls on its own merits. It should be noted as well that the argument is made in the context of a national, even international, controversy.

We have already rehearsed Lincoln’s position on secession at the outset of the great national upheaval of 1861-65, which had gotten underway before he had gotten into office. In sum, that stance was that absolutely no recourse was to be had for dissolving the bonds of union: “no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out the Union,” as he asserts in the First Inaugural; any such attempt was extra-legal.[24] One can readily understand that as the chief magistrate of the government he perforce took a different view than he did as a Congressman. Yet it might be fair to say that while his position in 1861 takes the form of an argument from definition for a radically different course of action, the rationale and motivation behind that argument is the change of circumstance from that of 1848.

During the course of the War, however, as Weaver reminds us, when the western counties of Virginia, an area on the outs politically with the eastern portion, elected to form a separate state and enter the union on their own, the Federal government welcomed them in. Lincoln’s “Opinion on Admission of West Virginia into the Union” (late December 1862) is a fascinating study in lawyerly argument which reflects the author’s ability to sort through a congeries of potential argumentative points and select those which serve to buttress the position he has already determined to advance.

But beyond my own particular attitude toward certain tendencies of the legal tribe, this document reflects Lincoln’s expedient (his word) shift from an argument employing definition, for which Weaver had praised him, to an argument from circumstance, the weaker form. Even as Lincoln reverts to his Mexican War posture favoring secession, he makes a case here that it is imperative to accept West Virginia’s bid for entry, for both political and military reasons:

More than anything else, it depends on whether the admission or rejection of the new state would under all the “circumstances” [emphasis mine] tend the more strongly to the restoration of the national authority throughout the Union. That which helps most in this direction is the most expedient at this time . . . We can scarcely dispense with the aid of West-Virginia in this struggle; much less can we afford to have her against us, in congress and in the field.[25]

Even if Lincoln himself had acknowledged that this formulation was not the strongest of arguments, he was not about to elect a course of action that would weaken his wartime objectives. One understands what he was about, at the same time looking upon it with something less than admiration as a rationale for an action of such moment.

Prior to and after pointing out Lincoln’s inconsistencies in this essay, Weaver discusses what is distinctive generally about the Southern region, culturally, socially, and politically. It is the last of these three that figures most largely. He observes that for some in both South and North the Declaration of Independence itself assumed that the right to rebel against an oppressive government was an inherent right of the people. (Not that Lincoln read it that way.)

There was also the issue of sovereignty in the new country; where did it lie? Could it be shared, or was that a snare and a delusion?[26] The extent of the central Federal power was tested with the Alien and Sedition Acts to which the answer came in Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, which stated, as Weaver cites: “the several States composing the United States of America are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to the General Government.”[27] In the view of the South, Weaver notes, “what the Founders established was a federal republic of limited delegated powers. How limited those powers were was the subject of diverse interpretations” in both North and South.[28] In the interest of concision it will be necessary to pass over the chain of concrete circumstances—social, economic, moral—in which these interpretations were tested between 1830-1860.

From the Southern point of view, a Constitution that formed such a federal republic was to be construed as a compact between two parties. In a talk Weaver had given as early as the late 1940s, he recounts the debates at the Founding on that very point.[29] Both in that talk and in the present essay he alludes to Federalist No. 39 where Madison writes (in Weaver’s citation) that “The proposed government cannot be deemed a NATIONAL one; since is jurisdiction extends to certain enumerated objects only, and leaves to the several States a residuary and inviolable sovereignty over all other objects.”[30] Since the South generally saw the Constitution as a compact, as Weaver notes in the “Reasonable Rhetoric” talk, certain implications flow from it as to how binding it is. (He does not in that talk, by the way, make an argument for or against the Constitution as compact; he is simply laying out how it was being discussed at the time.) We have already seen Mr. Lincoln’s view on the matter; for him, of course, the Constitution is absolutely binding. There’s no escape, no appeal. And even if the Constitution is seen as a compact or “contract” (his word) only, both parties still have to agree in his view to terms of separation.

Beyond the degree of binding inherent in the document and other issues, however, Weaver addresses the underlying rationale for a governmental system of checks and balances in light of the nature of man, again reflecting the Southern standpoint. Weaver notes that “most of the Founding Fathers—as well as later commentators—felt that man needs to be guarded against his own worst impulses.”[31] As a creation of eighteenth century classical liberalism, the document intends to protect the individual from coercion by the state as the highest political good.[32] John Calhoun and others since have seen the document as fundamentally negative in the sense that it includes obstacles to the free-handed exercise of governmental authority. Earlier, Jefferson in the Kentucky Resolutions had written as follows (also cited in part by Weaver): “In questions of power, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution.”[33]

What I find interesting about the structure of “The South and the American Union,” is that once Weaver has called out Lincoln’s inconsistencies near the middle of it, he resumes his discussion of the Southern philosophy as contrasted with that of the North, mentioning Lincoln only once more in passing. The main topic he focuses on in this latter section is Union. And while in this discussion Lincoln is nowhere to be seen, it is quite obvious that he is in the background and was surely for Weaver—and in fact—the chief exemplar and spokesperson of his time on the issue. Here is what Weaver, as Southern traditionalist, writes:

Considered in its essence, union is an instrumentality of power. This fact appears in the common saying that “in union there is strength.” But what is this strength wanted for? Unless it has some clearly understood applicability, the mere preservation of union is a means without an end. And because one of the prime purposes of the idealistic founders of the nation was to check the growth of a centralized, autonomous power, the things that have been done in the name of “Union” might lead one to say that it is the darling of the foes rather than the friends of the American experiment in free government. . . The instrumentality of union, with its united strength and its subordination of the parts, is an irresistible temptation to the power-hungry of every generation. The strength of union may first be exercised in the name of freedom, but once it has been made monopolistic and unassailable, it will, if history teaches us anything, be used for other purposes.[34]

Again, I find it quite curious that Weaver does not link this aggrandizing tendency of union and its power to Lincoln. What he does do is suggest that the unionizing tendency underway in the War period (1861-1865) and after led some thirty years later to the consolidation of American power and the Nation’s career in imperialism.

But another commentator is not so reluctant to fix the blame for this trending on the sixteenth president. I refer, again, to M.E. Bradford, who is decidedly not in the hagiographical camp of Lincoln scholars.[35] Bradford picks up where Weaver left off (both here and generally we might say) and minces no words on Lincoln’s contribution to the centralization of the Union beyond what would have been recognizable to the Founders and by others in the early nineteenth century:

A large part of the complaint against Lincoln as a political precedent for later declensions from the example of the Fathers has to do with his expansion of the powers of the presidency and his alteration of the basis for the Federal Union. With reference to his role in changing the office of chief magistrate from what it had been under his predecessors, it is important to remember that he defined himself through the war powers that belonged to his post. In this way Lincoln could . . . do whatever he wished. That is, if he could do it in the name of preserving the Union. As Clinton Rossiter has stated, Lincoln believed there were “no limits” to his powers if he exercised them in that “holy cause.”[36]

Bradford concedes that a war effort may indeed call for extraordinary measures, but argues that an internal war is different from one to repel a foreign invasion; it is the use of force to address a domestic political disagreement. He continues:

And it is thus subject to extraordinary abuses of authority—confusions or conflations of purpose which convert the effort to win the war into an effort to effect even larger, essentially political changes in the structure of government. War, in these terms, is not only an engine for preserving the Union; it is also an instrument for transforming its nature.[37]

Among the items in the bill of particulars Bradford ticks off that resulted from Lincoln’s management of the War, I cite only one: he “arrested upwards of twenty thousand of his political enemies and confined them without trial in a Northern ‘Gulag’.”[38] We recall that Lincoln in the 1838 Springfield Lyceum Speech had asserted that the burning desire for distinction inherent in man might result in either “emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.”[39] That’s how powerful and untamed it is. One question that has no easy answer is whether Lincoln himself was driven, early and late, by that same ambivalent, burning desire, unpredictable of result, but more pregnant with potential for good or evil given one’s ascent in office and power. It would not be fair, of course, to suggest that such burning desire alone led to such actions as the ones just cited, or that Lincoln at the age of twenty nine anticipated them. On the other hand, if we keep in mind that such desire is part and parcel with man’s tendency to evil—one to which Lincoln is surely not immune—then who can with any confidence calculate where exactly it will lead? It may lead to a good result or a bad result. Or, as is more likely, it may lead to both good and bad results at one and the same time through questionable means.

We can pass over other items in Bradford’s critique of Lincoln, such as his affinity with the antinomian, Gnostic, polity of Puritan New England and the rich Biblical language in which Lincoln cloaks some of his chief political utterances (the Gettysburg Address, The Second Inaugural) and return to Weaver and his relationship with the Great Man.

I suggested in the introduction that Weaver at least partially resolves the shift he himself makes between his two main essays dealing with Lincoln. The first way he goes about it I have already obliquely indicated. It’s not that he sets about to do it with specific intentionality. In the essay on the South and the Union, he simply avoids directly associating Lincoln with the extremities of unionism. Such a unionism is seen as “Faustian” in Weaver’s view, but Lincoln himself may be looked upon as, well, just somewhat inconsistent like any number of politicians over the course of an extended career. (I am not suggesting this as a rigorous resolution of the matter, and I don’t suppose it will satisfy everyone.)

The second way Weaver resolves the conflict may be found in two reviews, one on Lincoln’s writings and the other on a book on conservatism. In the first of these, on the Rutgers edition of Lincoln’s Collected Works, he notes first that Lincoln may exhibit a surface of “complete candor and simplicity” while harboring an internal duplicity. And while the reviewer objects to the “hero-building” quality of the editors’ commentary, he also points to what the selections themselves reveal: “one of the most complex minds ever produced by this country; and the reader may cease to wonder why Lincoln has been claimed with equal zeal by radicals, liberals, and conservatives.”[40] Indeed. Who can argue with that? But the question that remains is, exactly what is one finally to make of this complexity as regards Mr. Lincoln? Does his mode of argument from definition truly peg him as a conservative—even if he does not invariably use it—or do his arguments in their substance and professed values, along with his actions, place him pretty firmly in the liberal-radical camp? Take your pick. Either position—and others as well—can be explicated and defended.

In the second review, of a book on conservatism, Weaver appeals to the notion that great events and great political systems or figures are inherently complex and inevitably include contradiction:

To show that a political system or a political thinker exhibits contradictions is not nearly so serious a charge as [the author] assumes his readers are ready to believe. . . What the contradictions may, and certainly in many cases do indicate is that the author or the system is at grips with reality. The contradictions are not of course good things in themselves, but they are evidences of a referential relationship to the world, and they may be resolved on a higher level. Thus they are signs of vitality.”[41]

I am not sure that Weaver entirely resolved either Lincoln’s inconsistencies or his own on a higher level. Weaver was himself, of course, a complex man and thinker and to many of us a bit of a mystery still. Rather like Lincoln, we may say. As for his appreciation of this president, a couple of early biographical details may be suggestive if not conclusive. Weaver was a student for three years at Lincoln Memorial Academy in Harrogate, Tennessee, which was established in 1897 as a “living memorial” to the sixteenth president.[42] While there he composed a tribute to Francis E. Clark, founder of the Christian Endeavor Society of which he was a member. In this locution near the end he closely imitates the language of the Gettysburg Address.[43] It is risky to place too heavy an interpretive burden on adolescent compositions. Yet it is tempting to conjecture that from an early age Dick Weaver had not only absorbed something of the rhetorical style of this late Father of the country but had also internalized him as a kindred spirit and, perhaps, as a sort of surrogate father. (His own had died when Richard was five.)

Weaver is himself a complex man and thinker. As regards his relationship with Abraham Lincoln, I will stick my neck out a bit farther and speculate that while he may take issue with the Great Man, his critique will be tempered by pietas; he will not paint him with malignant colors in the manner of Mr. Bradford. And if Weaver is not entirely consistent at times, then we may take it as a sign that as a writer, rhetorician, and political commentator he, too, “is at grips with reality” and exhibits God’s plenty of the “signs of vitality.” I like to think so.

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[1] Richard M. Weaver, “Abraham Lincoln and the Argument from Definition,” The Ethics of Rhetoric (South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, 1953), 85-114. The companion essay on Burke in the same volume is entitled “Edmund Burke and the Argument from Circumstance,”55-84. M.E. Bradford observes that the first essay has misled some Weaver admirers: “It is unwise to infer overmuch from his choice of illustrative materials,” he writes in “The Agrarianism of Richard Weaver,” Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985) 165. (Hereafter cited as Remembering.) The issue I address here, however, is both what Weaver makes of Lincoln’s mode of argument and its efficacy insofar as he—Lincoln—applies it consistently. In this same volume’s preface, Bradford acknowledges his personal distrust of “the argument from definition” (x), which further explains his coldness toward Weaver’s warm praise of his subject.

[2] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 86.

[3] Ibid., 112-113.

[4] John Bliese asserts that the argument from definition is “the proper one for conservatives” and traces what happened to the Republican party after Lincoln as it abandoned his approach. See “Rhetoric and the Tyrannizing Image,” in The Vision of Richard Weaver, ed. Joseph Scotchie (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 122. I agree that it is indeed a proper mode of argument for conservatives, but that’s as far as it goes. Joseph Scotchie concurs that the case for Lincoln the conservative in the definition essay is rather weak. See Barbarians in the Saddle: An Intellectual Biography of Richard M. Weaver (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1997), 67.

[5] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 97.

[6] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural, Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1989), 217. I use this source to reproduce passages from Lincoln documents which Weaver cites, on the one hand, and I add others that he does not cite, as well. The collection is based on the Rutgers University edition of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln.

[7] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, 1832-1858, II, 220.

[8] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 87.

[9] Richard M. Weaver, “Language is Sermonic,” in Language is Sermonic, ed. Richard L. Johannsen, et al. (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1970), 212-213. Weaver does not refer to Lincoln here, but I suspect he had him in mind.

[10] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, I, 34.

[11] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 87.

[12] One eminent Lincoln scholar in discussing Lincoln’s ambition cites a passage from W.D. Howells’ 1860 campaign biography which averred that the candidate is immune to ambition. The historian notes that when the text was passed by Lincoln to catch any inaccuracies, this striking passage was left untouched. See David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 161. Of course. How could it be otherwise in the 1860 campaign or in any other? The truth of the matter is always more complex, however, than campaign propaganda will allow. Weaver elsewhere cites a Lincoln contemporary, Ward Lamon, who attests that the ruling passion of Lincoln’s life was a “thirst for distinction.” See his The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Post-Bellum Thought, ed. George Core and M.E. Bradford (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1989), 146.

[13] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, I, 315.

[14] Ibid., I, 328.

[15] Ibid., I, 346.

[16] Richard Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric, 105.

[17] Ibid., 106.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, I, 810; Weaver returns to this argument in a 1958 review: “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, ed. with Introduction by Ted J. Smith III (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 332-335.

[20] Ibid., I, 400.

[21] Without addressing Lincoln’s views on racial equality directly, M.E. Bradford, in company with others, questions the sincerity of the politician’s anti-slavery posture and rhetoric. See “Lincoln and the Language of Hate and Fear,” in Against the Barbarians: And Other Reflections on Familiar Themes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992), 231. However exactly Lincoln arrived at his anti-slavery stance, I would ask whether it’s possible in principle for a politician to take a position from both political and moral-philosophical motivations? This question is especially relevant as we move to the next section.

[22] Richard M. Weaver, “The South and the American Union,” The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, ed. George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 244. Toward the end of this essay Weaver, in pointing to Northern hypocrisy in racial matters relative to the South, leaves himself open to the charge of sharing Mr. Lincoln’s views on the black race as discussed in the previous section (see SE 253-254).

[23] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, I, 167.

[24] Ibid., II, 218.

[25] Ibid., I, 422.

[26] Richard Weaver, “The South and the American Union,” The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 232.

[27] Ibid., 233.

[28] Ibid., 234.

[29] Richard Weaver, “Responsible Rhetoric,” in In Defense of Tradition, 294.

[30] Richard Weaver, “The South and the American Union,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 243.

[31] Ibid., 232.

[32] Ibid., 233.

[33] Thomas Jefferson, “Draft of the Kentucky Resolutions,” Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1984), 455.

[34] Richard Weaver, “The South and the American Union,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, 246-247.

[35] The problem with historical hagiography, like its counterpart in the Catholic Church, is that at some point in the process one can no longer see the subject of historical inquiry, the person as person in an actual concrete context. The historian, then the reader, visualizes only an idealization of the subject. Bradford as much as anyone has served to probe the mythic, wart-free persona of Mr. Lincoln that had been built up over many decades by a cadre of like-minded historians and did so at considerable cost to the advancement of his career (as such things are conventionally counted in some quarters). See, for one, his own account of the reaction to his renegade Lincoln essays in the Preface to Remembering, xvi-xvii; and also Tom Landess, “Mel Bradford, Old Indian Fighters, and the NEH,” in Life, Literature, and Lincoln: A Tom Landess Reader (Rockford, IL: Chronicles Press, 2015), 249-255.

[36] M.E. Bradford, “Lincoln Legacy,” Remembering, 149.

[37] Ibid., 149.

[38] Ibid., 150.

[39] Abraham Lincoln, Speeches and Writings, I, 34.

[40] Richard Weaver, “Anybody’s Guess,” in In Defense of Tradition, 655.

[41] Richard Weaver, “Illusions of Illusion,” in In Defense of Tradition, 587.

[42] See the “Heritage” page at Lincoln Memorial University.

[43] Fred Douglas Young, Richard M. Weaver, 1910-1963: A Life of the Mind (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995), 16-19. A more accurate term than “imitates” might be “appropriates.” On a personal note, I would add that my own fascination with Lincoln began around age 12 when I was asked by my sixth-grade teacher to lead our class in the recitation of Lincoln’s most famous address. Accordingly, I do not find it strange that Weaver’s preoccupation with the man could take root as it did at age 15 or so.

The featured image is a photograph of the Smoky Mountains in North Carolina, the state wherein Richard M. Weaver lived, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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