If for M.E. Bradford, Abraham Lincoln was a gnostic renegade and heretic beyond the pale, he was for Richard Weaver a political and rhetorical father figure with whom one might argue but never condemn. These Southerners’ differing critiques of Lincoln’s person, views, and actions cast some light on this complex figure, one who continues to engage both ordinary folk and academic scholars alike.

My title is deliberately provocative. Of the two Lincoln critics considered here—Richard M. Weaver and M.E. Bradford—only the latter can be said to have given Lincoln a whupping. As for Weaver, while admiring Lincoln greatly, he does indeed take issue with him on certain points. In a recent essay, “The Richard Weaver-Abraham Lincoln Debate,” I address the ambivalence in his complex view of The Great Man. In the course of it, I introduced a smattering of comments by Bradford on that figure as well. My main goal there was to resolve the discrepancies in Weaver’s position.

Here my purpose is to bring the compatible yet contrasting insights of both to bear on Lincoln’s person, views, decisions, and actions. The discussion and attendant arguments rest on three main, interrelated topics as they relate to the 16th president: his use of the argument from definition, his understanding of the Declaration of Independence and equality, and the nature and conduct of war. And here the emphasis shifts somewhat to Bradford’s perspective.

In the earlier of his two main essays treating of Lincoln, Weaver states briefly what he means by the argument from definition: “in the sense we shall employ here, [it] includes all arguments from the nature of the thing,” that is, what it essentially is.[1] Moreover, definition not only says what a thing is, but 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.

Moreover, while Lincoln is seen as occupying various positions on the political continuum, it is this mode of argument—definition—that marks him 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.[2]

While Weaver’s identification of this mode of argument with conservatism is debatable, I cannot quarrel with his exposition of how Lincoln makes his case for various positions using definition and first principles.[3] The same cannot be said for Bradford, however. Bradford finds fault not only with this mode of argument as characteristic of the conservative mind but with the very nature of the mode of argument itself, as we will see. Before looking at Bradford’s view in detail, however, it will behoove us to recapitulate briefly Weaver’s exposition of Lincoln’s repeated employment of the mode of argument in question.

Weaver identifies eight distinct arguments of twelve in the First Inaugural Address alone that are based on definition and then provides an overview of the argument as it is used in several other speeches. We need note only a few representative samples in passing here, adding another later.

In the First Inaugural, Lincoln develops the constitutive concept that governments have a duty of self-preservation:

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.[4]

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.[5]

The point is that in both instances it is in the nature of government, certainly in the case of a constitutionally based union, that it cannot be dissolved. Thus, the very “idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy.”[6] Among other relevant documents are the Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act at Peoria (1854), on the definition of man and slavery; the House Divided Speech at Springfield (1858), on the nature of government; and the seventh Lincoln-Douglas Debate at Alton (1858), on the morality of slavery—or its lack. Lincoln consistently employs the definition argument again and again, with a few notable exceptions. One case in point was the matter of West Virginia seceding from Virginia in order to join the Union, a clear departure from the President’s theoretical position on the issue.[7] Another is his understanding of the Negro as entitled to rights under the Declaration over against his view of the Negro as unequal in certain other human respects, thus necessitating (in his mind) racial separation.[8]

Regarding the argument from definition, Bradford takes issue not only with Lincoln but also Weaver’s more sanguine view of him, evident in the latter’s essay on the topic just reviewed. Bradford’s objection is based primarily on his decided preference for argument rooted in tradition, experience, and common sense as distinct from that which is based on abstraction, grand theory, a “higher law” especially as expressed in high-flown pronouncements. Put another way, Bradford is an Aristotelian and Thomist; Weaver is a Platonist, albeit one who recognizes the limitations of his bias.

In the Preface to Remembering Who We Are, Bradford makes quite clear what his particular perspective is: “The intellectual cohesion of the thematic variety which cements together most of the components of this book is a relentless distrust of ideology: of dialectics, the argument from definition, and all the high, epideictic discourse belonging to the province of the philosopher or the purlieu of the theologian.”[9] It is a viewpoint that informs all his work in fact. On more than one occasion, as all know who have read Bradford’s several essays on Lincoln, he charges him with making “a retreat from proposition, discussion, and argument into oracle and glorified announcement.”[10] It is these lofty, transcendent pronouncements, wrapped in the idiom of Holy Writ, that in fact Bradford names as one of Lincoln’s most grievous faults as politician, key expressions being the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address.

So naturally Bradford finds fault with Weaver’s admiration of Lincoln insofar as the latter praises him for his characteristic mode of argument, which Bradford associates invariably with abstractionism and millennialist, radical ideology. For him, this mode is not a path toward defining truth but a way of transcending up and away from it into the realm of ungrounded concepts characteristic of the philosophe. In a footnote in his essay, “The Agrarianism of Richard Weaver,” Bradford opines that The Ethics of Rhetoric “misled many of Weaver’s admirers,” partly because of his praise of Lincoln’s mode of argument and added that one should not make too much of Weaver’s “choice of illustrative materials.”[11] Elsewhere, finally, Bradford argues that while Weaver is a “principled conservative,” he writes in The Southern Tradition at Bay, however, “as a man of systems, an admirer of Plato and a devotee of the argument from definition.” As such he cannot be recognized as a spokesperson for recognizable Southern conservatism.[12]

It is hard to know exactly how Weaver would have responded to that tart remark, but in the interest of fairness, we can look briefly at two of Weaver’s essays neither of which directly concerns Lincoln but which have a bearing nonetheless on the argument at hand. In “Prospects of Conservatism” (1955), he acknowledges that his own bent is toward the speculative, probing the nature of things, and definition.[13] He allows as how this inclination might need a course correction. Far more important than this personal admission, however, is the extended argument in his essay on Socrates, who as a consummate dialectician—another naming of the philosophical definer—got himself into a peck of trouble with Athenian authorities as his personal end attests. He did so largely through single-mindedly, relentlessly employing a mode of argument based on pure logic, epistemology, category, and, of course, definition.[14] Weaver unquestionably admires Socrates (and, of course, Plato), but he draws a line between the functions of dialectic and rhetoric. While dialectic has the essential purpose of leading one to insight and understanding about the truth of things, it does not tell one how he must act and toward what goal. The end of living is not simply cognition and raised awareness; one must sooner or later engage the world in terms of decision and action. Rhetoric, in contrast to dialectic, as Weaver understands it, seeks to move a person toward right action in the concrete social and political world.[15] Without going into more detail about Weaver’s views on the proper roles of rhetoric and dialectic—which ideally should complement one another—suffice it say that he and Bradford are actually closer in their understanding on the matter than Bradford seems to realize.

As for Bradford’s remark that Weaver’s affinity for the argument from definition and his Platonism put him outside of Southern conservatism, I would recall that Weaver in the Epilogue of The Southern Tradition at Bay makes the case that one of the failings of the Southern defense was that it lacked a systematic articulation of its position rooted in metaphysics. It lacked, and did not see the need for, a Thomas Aquinas, a Burke, or a Hegel to provide an apologia for what it essentially was as a culture, one qualitatively different from the North’s, quite apart from its intensive, last-ditch defense of the peculiar institution.[16] Bradford, again, might say that such an apologia is utterly foreign to its essential nature. Weaver might counter that had it had such a defense, following its military defeat, the South might have escaped being utterly impugned as a society in so many quarters both within and without the region. It had defenders, but none truly adequate to the task at hand.

The attack upon the South has, of course, accelerated exponentially in recent years in the form of a concerted destruction of statues of some of its heroic figures—an assault that has extended as I write to statues and memorials of other historical figures in some cases totally unrelated to that War. And so the broader cultural argument goes, on and on in both its informational and kinetic forms inspired by ideologies and forces that have little or nothing to do with the supposed historical crimes of one section of the country nor, beyond that, with current incidents of police brutality and “systemic racism,” alleged or actual.[17]

On the great issue of equality and the Declaration as interpreted by the Great Emancipator, Bradford and Weaver are rather more in tune with one another. That being said, Bradford is markedly sharper in his critique of Lincoln than is Weaver and has a great deal more to say. Lincoln’s own views on the Declaration of Independence were so frequently articulated during his political career and are well known today that only the briefest summary is required. I would characterize them here in two main ways: as universalist and futurist. (And as we shall see, both of these qualities fly in the face of Bradford’s analysis of the founding document.)

By “universalist” I mean simply that Lincoln reads the Declaration as applying quite literally to all men, beginning, but not stopping, with those who inhabit the United States, slave or free, black or white—as well as those characterized by some other ethnic designation. (I will not go so far as to say he included women—by “men” he meant apparently males—but given his particular orientation on the subject, they could hardly be far behind.) I cite one instance from his October 4, 1854 speech at Springfield: “The theory of our government is Universal Freedom. ‘All men are created free and equal,’ says the Declaration of Independence.”[18] That there is a conspicuous discrepancy in the actual implementation of this version of universal suffrage and social standing is not in Lincoln’s view definitive. What he has described, of course, is his “theory of our government,” which in his mind is the genuine one. In speech after speech he restates his theory that the Declaration is not restricted to the free men of the Colonies at the time of its issue and that it applies truly to all men.

That much said, though, Lincoln does make one qualification of what he means by the term “equality.” In brief, the authors of the Declaration did not denote that men are equal in all regards, including color, size, intellect, morality, or “social capacity.”[19] Rather, they—i.e., all men despite such specific, personal inequalities—had certain enumerated rights which, though not in effect now, would be enjoyed as soon as circumstances permitted, that is, in some undefined future. Thus, we come to the second of the two main tenets of his reading.

Two citations will suffice to illustrate the futurist component of Lincoln’s take on the document, which is integral with the first. In an 1858 speech at Lewistown, Illinois he declaims in a Daniel Webster moment that the Fathers “erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.”[20] Having evoked in this speech the image of Independence Hall, he later strikes both the futurist and universalist chords again when he actually visits the shrine in 1861 on his way to Washington and the Inauguration: “It was not the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in the Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time.”[21] That is the core sentiment embedded in the Declaration, he insists. Bradford might say in response, That, more truthfully, is the key sentiment that Lincoln willfully and fraudulently injects into the Declaration. To him we turn.

Bradford’s views of Lincoln are also so well known that only a few citations will illustrate the tenor of his differences with Lincoln on the meaning of equality, democracy, and other related issues. The central difference, it seems to me, is that Bradford is a strict constructionist in his reading of the Declaration, which is not to say that it is pedestrian. He is first of all a highly accomplished interpreter of texts in general and as such consistently sees a text in its historical context. Accordingly, he is careful not to superimpose upon the document an interpretation that text and context in tandem will not support. In practically every sentence of his “Heresy of Equality” essay, where his immediate quarrel is with Harry Jaffa, Bradford is tightly focused on the language of the Declaration, its dominant ideas, the historical circumstance, and the figures (persons) in it. He thus sees it as excluding equality as broadly, abstractly construed and limitlessly extensive in space and time. Thus, it is not applicable to those then currently in bondage or to those in other lands. In short, the “We” of the document refers to the “colonials as the citizenry of the distinct colonies, not as individuals, but in their corporate capacity.” Nothing is asserted about the abilities or situations of individual persons.[22]

For Bradford, equality to Lincoln’s mind is one of those abstractions, like “Union,” which became for him and like-minded interpreters an intercepted football that, in play after like play, could be run in for a touchdown, as long as no one powerful or smart enough impeded them, a ploy repeated so often that the concept (if not the fact) was gilded and enshrined, a trophy ball in a glass case—untouchable! Put more flatly, Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration is innovative, liberal, even radical; Bradford’s is conservative or normative, if not “mainstream” in the sense of being held by a majority of scholars and political thinkers.[23]

All of this being said, we are left in Bradford’s case with an exegesis of the Declaration (along with other founding documents) that can be placed under the template of Southern conservatism. As Bradford was well aware, it was not and is not the regnant view. Lincoln’s interpretation, that is to say, his own unique version of the Declaration (along with other founding documents) is the one that many Americans, whether ordinary citizen or academic scholars in relevant fields of study, assume is the correct one.

But whose is the right one? I am reminded of an old Jewish joke that Professor Amy Wax has shared. Two peasants ask their rabbi to settle an ownership dispute between them. The first presents his case, and the rabbi tells him, “My son, you are right.” The second peasant offers his view of the matter, and the rabbi gives the same answer. The rabbi’s wife, who overheard both presentations, says “They can’t both be right.” To which the rabbi replies, “You’re right.”

So what we are left with in the two readings of the Declaration and the Constitution as well is just that. (And of course there are more than two.) I don’t believe that Bradford was ever under an illusion that his views on equality was any day now going to supplant the Lincolnian one. But insofar as he was an optimist I think he believed that the conservative viewpoint could from time to assert itself as a shaping influence in the hurly-burly world of sectional and national politics.[24] As far as the argument goes on the theoretical level, I for one cannot presume to settle it or even try. It is of the nature of argument about serious, complex issues that they are in a sense never entirely settled. History and circumstance (elections, for instance) tend, temporarily anyway, to resolve them, however, in a more concrete fashion irrespective of the ongoing exchange of words between conflicting parties.

In any event, one of the main problems Bradford has with Lincoln’s interpretation of the Declaration is that it extends beyond the martyred president’s own time, in part because of the Good Friday martyrdom itself. In Bradford’s view, the “pseudoreligion of equality” that eventually developed under Lincoln’s influence in both life and death led to a serious error regarding equality of condition and opportunity. In our time Lincoln’s advocates have moved the issue of equality of condition onto center stage and have insisted that government’s role is to foster it—what Bradford pejoratively calls “levelling.” The attempt, however, is futile and doomed in that “only equal persons in equal situations may enjoy equal opportunities.”[25] It seems to me that not only is Bradford’s view in this regard not regnant; by some it is also quite literally not even recognized—perceived—at all.

Even a cursory examination of Bradford’s extensive commentary on Lincoln’s views of the Declaration and equality shows that he sees in Lincoln’s reading of this and other documents serious distortions.[26] These, as much as any presumed errors of action, are a key source, I think, of Bradford’s intense and long-lived animus toward the sixteenth president. And there we must leave it for now.

If Bradford looks at Lincoln as a heretic, Weaver, on the other hand, makes a case against him but is not nearly as harsh. To begin with, he sees Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” in the Gettysburg Address as a prototypical expression of “secular democracy,” which jettisons the ancient concept of the political magistrate as ruling as the Lord’s viceroy.[27] This latter was a construction about the Union in the decades leading up to the Civil War formulated by Webster and others of a nationalist bent. Theodore Parker used an almost identical populist phrase in 1850. But the formula is not historical, that is, it is not to be found in the Constitution. The lone phrase “the people” appears there but in no wise suggests that they were acting in concert as a body. As Lord Acton was later to say, it is the sort of notion that evokes the “spurious democracy” of the French Revolution.[28]

Two other comments by Weaver on Lincoln will suffice regarding the theme of equality. With Bradford and others, he notes Lincoln’s awkward ambivalence concerning black equality: The President had no intention of promoting social equity among the races and indeed advocated their separation. On the other hand, he was committed to effecting by legal means the ultimate extinction of slavery, which would thus afford the black man the ability to enjoy the fruits of his own labor.[29]

We have already noted Weaver’s (and Bradford’s) observation of Lincoln’s inconsistency on secession. For Weaver the right of rebellion is justified under certain circumstances in the Declaration. But that is not a concept that Lincoln, as far as I know, ever detects in his perusal of the document. As President, how could he? Before the War it was not a central issue in his debates with Douglas. And in the run-up to the War, his argument against secession is centered more on the Constitution. But Weaver emphasizes in the second of his two main essays treating of Lincoln that it was “a right inherent in all peoples,” apart from its articulation at the Founding I take him to mean.[30]

Lincoln in his very Socratically argued and lawyerly Message to Congress, July 4, 1861, acknowledges that their “adversaries have adopted some Declaration of Independence,” but they omit the words “all men are created equal.”[31] Perhaps the reason is that in contradistinction to Lincoln the Southerners had long before rejected his and others’ like-minded interpretation of the concept as being airy, abstract, and not rooted in either political or human reality.

Clearly, Weaver is not an advocate of the Lincolnian concept of democracy entailing a powerful, autonomous, centralized government ever aggrandizing itself. Without mentioning Lincoln by name in one passage in “The South and the American Union,” yet focused upon him, Weaver notes that democracy is a form of government that is anathema to “the friends of the American experiment in free government.”[32] (For Lincoln, of course, free government cannot exist without a powerful Union to protect it.) Finally, as he notes elsewhere, “Democracy is not a pattern for all existence…. Truly considered, democracy is nothing more than an ideal of equity among men in their political relationships.” If misconstrued beyond that, it is a great perversion.[33] This is a construct to which Bradford could easily assent.

In their reflections on war and its conduct relative to Lincoln, Bradford and Weaver again do not stand in opposition. Here as with other issues, however, Bradford presents his case against the Commander-in-Chief of the War of 1861-1865 more sharply. It is beyond the limited scope of this essay to address at length Lincoln’s conduct of the War, but a look at a few of his remarks both at the outset and later are appropriate as preface before returning to Bradford’s and Weaver’s commentaries.

In the First Inaugural in early March and in a Reply to the Virginia Convention about a month later, the new president states that his intention is to leave slavery unmolested where it exists and rules out both the use of force and invasion consistent with the government’s holding its properties and the collection of duties. Sufficient qualification is subsequently inserted here and elsewhere in the text to make it clear that force can be used as necessary as conditions change.[34] Unsurprisingly, the development of events did modify the Commander-in-Chief’s early, stated positions on how the relationship between the Washington government and departed states would be dealt with. That is, of course, understandable, and for both Bradford and Weaver a mere modification of strategy, spurred by changing circumstances, is not at issue. That said, one item on the list of actions proscribed from the outset stands out. In his Proclamation calling up the militia on April 15 he writes: “in every event the utmost care will be observed, consistently with the objects aforesaid [i.e., repossessing properties], to avoid any devastation, any destruction of, or interference with, property, or any disturbance of peaceful citizens in any part of the country.”[35] Again, we note the reservation, “consistently” allowing for later revision.

The question I would pose, however, which is addressed by both Bradford and Weaver, is whether there is any action or set of actions in warfare that, once proscribed by code or historical precedent, is not to be employed as circumstances change. The issue to which I refer, of course, is total war, that is, a war of unlimited aggression involving the wholesale destruction of all the enemy’s resources, including those of civilians.[36]

A digression at this point on laws or codes relative to war is in order—the roots of which in fact lie in the very period with which we are concerned. A code of conduct for war had been developed by Francis Lieber and was adopted formally by the U.S. in 1863, the object being to “humanize war through the application of reason.”[37] Perhaps the main guiding principle of that code was the doctrine of “military necessity.” That is to say, an action’s legality in war was to be determined by whether it was needed to achieve military ends, the intention being to limit and exclude certain inhumane actions. A moment’s reflection, though, reveals the concept as a two-edged sword. “Military necessity” can also be used to justify or rationalize actions which would normally be off limits. In any case, the Lieber Code did allow for the destruction of enemy property, the means of travel and communication, and the confiscation of food and supplies consistent with military necessity. But with skeletal clarity the Code expressly forbids deliberate cruelty, “the infliction of suffering for the sake of suffering or for revenge.”[38] That “military necessity” changed for the North (as well as the South) during the course of the War is a given. It is also clear that the observance of the Code changed as well in certain egregious cases.

I am not suggesting that Lincoln himself proactively advocated a policy of unlimited warfare. To what extent he allowed it to unfold is a distinct if related question.[39] He appears at least to have been open to it and, relatedly, as far as I can tell made no particular effort to curb or stop it.

A document composed by Lincoln early on in the War suggests an intellectual perspective that could in fact contemplate the concept of total war without flinching and also allow it to be practiced by others at arm’s length, unchecked here and there. This perspective might even see unlimited warfare finally as just one more means necessary for victory alongside the conventional expenditure of blood shed in battle and treasure generated through heavy taxes and financing, high and low.[40]

In his Message to Congress in Special Session of July 4, 1861, Lincoln begins with an overview of the course of events since Ft. Sumter. In his characteristic and favored mode of argument from definition he discusses among other things the legitimacy of government, the union, “insurrection,” secession, “rebellion,” the writ of habeas corpus, and the nature of the contest itself. At one point, he turns to dispassionately calculating the cost of the war about to begin in earnest. The bill, he projects, is set “at least four hundred thousand men, four hundred millions of dollars.” He adds to this computation an estimate of its ultimate value: “A right result, at this time, will be worth more to the world, than ten times the men, and ten times the money.”[41]

Passing over the financials, we note that he looks at this estimate of men as simply the number it would take quickly to restore the Union by force. If he was at the same time reckoning the number of lives likely to be lost, as force met force, in accomplishing that end, it is not at all apparent. (Is it implied, understood? Or is such a prospect too horrible for the rational, calculating mind to contemplate?) As we know now, the actual final butcher bill—for both North and South—was more than Lincoln’s projected figure of the men called for on the Northern side. One source puts that total at approximately 620,000 counting both sides.[42] James McPherson, the source cited for this casualty figure, notes that, whereas among former slaves and Northerners generally there was little controversy about such cost at the time, the debate still goes on today among historians as to the cost-benefit ratio of the War.

In any case, what I am driving at is that Lincoln’s default polemical strategy of pursuing a closely reasoned, statistically driven, dialectical argument to make his case, as forceful as it is, is both problematic and suggestive. It manifests that division in Lincoln’s mind that each of us shares to one degree or another: typically stated, it is that between intellect and heart, reason and emotion, or in Thomistic terms ratio and intellectus.[43] What is on prominent display here is the dialectical mind in concentrated form that Weaver sees at least as questionable and that Bradford sees as dangerous. To be sure, Lincoln is far more complex than this one document indicates (see for instance his Message to Congress of December 1, 1862 and my next note below). My point here is simply that a mind which calculates in this fashion is also capable of entertaining abstractly the value of unlimited aggression as a war measure that is justifiable solely because of its efficiency, particularly if it is carried out “hidden from him… in a corner” (Acts 26:26). And it would be allowed regardless of its disastrous, long-term moral, spiritual, and social costs.[44] In fact, such long-term costs can hardly be permitted to appear on the mind’s surface, much less calculated, in the midst of the war itself; indeed, if they reared their heads, they would have to be suppressed as being a serious distraction from the real business at hand.

In any event, since Weaver, more so than Bradford presents an analysis of total war from a well-developed philosophical grounding, it will serve us well to turn to him first. Early on, in The Southern Tradition at Bay, he had addressed the issue. A strategy of unlimited aggression is of vital concern to American history, he argues, since it attacks the very basis of civilization. When one side drops all restraints, the difficulty of eventually restoring relationships on a moral and social basis may be too great to overcome. “In war, as in peace, people remain civilized by acknowledging bounds beyond which they must not go.”[45] And in the “Dialectic on Total War,” Weaver counters the assertion that total war “saves lives” as an instance of a flawed argument that betrays a self-defeating, inner contradiction: It destroys the very things for which one is making war in the first place.[46] Both George McClellan and Robert E. Lee belonged to the old school of warfare which sought to decide the cause on the field of battle. Sherman (especially in the revenge-driven South Carolina campaign) and Sheridan, on the other hand, were two of the foremost practitioners of the new way of total destruction and received at least the tacit approval of the Lincoln administration.[47]

For Bradford, the crime of total war by the Lincoln regime is only one of the charges he brings against him, but it is a central one. In “The Lincoln Legacy,” he writes: “It was no small thing to disavow the ancient Christian code of ‘limited war,’ as did his minions, acting in his name.”[48] The related, larger indictment Bradford brings against him has to do with the unprecedented enlargement of the power of the office as he used it to conduct the War, an expansion that in the course of things radically transformed the Federal Union itself in his own time and beyond.[49] But as regards the matter of total war, Bradford argues that while war itself inherently entails a concentration of force and the loss of liberties, this one, by Lincoln’s own mostly consistent interpretation, was not a war of nation against nation but rather of separated states against the Union. The nature of the conflict thus called for the exercise of restraint that would make possible eventual reconciliation. That it was not exercised in certain signal instances, such as those of Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley and Sherman in South Carolina, led to a lasting bitterness after the War that lasted for several generations at least.

It is clear, in sum, that Bradford and Weaver are generally on the same page in their view of Lincoln but depart markedly from each other here and there in their address to the three topics considered here. In any case, their critiques cast some light, it seems to me, on a very complex figure, one who continues to attract attention and engage both ordinary folk and academic scholars alike. Additionally, especially as far as the latter are concerned, these two Southern conservatives offer some measure of counterbalance to the hagiographical elevation of Lincoln almost beyond the historical realm that one readily finds in the Lincoln literature. If Bradford handles his subject rather roughly, it may be taken in part as a sign of just how deep were the shiny protective coatings that had been applied to the persona of the martyred president for so many years. It would seem that he felt that he had to scrape off a few of those layers actually to see what was underneath them. Some, conservatives among them, may find his scraping too hard and his seeing too harsh. Weaver on the other hand, may provide for some a more balanced alternative. After all, if for Bradford, Lincoln was a gnostic renegade and heretic beyond the pale, he was for Weaver by contrast a political and rhetorical father figure with whom one might argue but never condemn.

Of course, some may simply dismiss both of them out of hand without truly engaging what they had to say. That, I contend, would be a loss to their own understanding of one who though in many respects quite ordinary was paradoxically through the crucible of the War made greater than he could possibly have been otherwise. And thus a subject of endless fascination.

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[1] Richard M. Weaver, “Abraham Lincoln and the Argument from Definition [1953],” in The Ethics of Rhetoric (South Bend, IN: Gateway Editions, 1953), 86. Weaver’s other main essay treating of Lincoln is “The South and the American Union [1957],” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, ed. George M. Curtis, III and James J. Thompson, Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1987), 230-256. This second work is hereafter cited as Southern Essays.

[2] Ibid., 112-113.

[3] 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, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995), 122. It is indeed 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.

[4] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), IV, 264. Hereafter cited as Collected Works.

[5] Ibid., IV, 265.

[6] Ibid., IV, 268.

[7] “Opinion on West Virginia,” Collected Works, VI, 26-28. See Weaver’s commentary in “The South and the American Union,” where he notes Lincoln’s later reversal of his position regarding secession advanced during the Mexican War, Southern Essays, 245. See also Bradford on the same point in “The Lincoln Legacy,” in Remembering Who We Are (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), 150. Hereafter cited as Remembering.

[8] See passages from the Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857, Collected Works, II, 407-408 and that at Springfield, Illinois, July 17, 1858, II, 520-521.

[9] Preface, Remembering, x.

[10] “Heresy of Equality,” in A Better Guide Than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994), 188. Bradford’s critique has some merit, I think, especially with reference to the Second Inaugural and the Gettysburg Address. But there is “reasoned argument” aplenty in other Lincoln utterances, notably in his various Messages to Congress. The problem with those for Bradford would be that, even if they generally avoid high rhetoric, they employ heavily the argument from definition which he eschews and Weaver admires.

[11] “The Agrarianism of Richard Weaver,” Remembering, 165, note 11. I would suggest, however, that the issue is not choice of materials but rather how the author interprets them and toward what end. In his essay on John Randolph and Thoreau, for instances, Weaver pegs the former as a conservative despite Randolph’s deep aversion to dialectic—a just assessment in that instance.

[12] “Where We Were Born and Raised,” in Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary and Political (Peru, IL: Sherwood Sugden & Company, 1990), 116. Hereafter cited as Reactionary Imperative.

[13] “The Prospects of Conservatism,” in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 474. Cited hereafter as In Defense of Tradition. See also Weaver’s predilection for definition in “Language is Sermonic,” 353-370 in the same volume, where he suggests that when one seeks to articulate the highest good, the highest reality he turns to definition and the nature of things.

[14] “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric,” in Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995), especially 61-65. Hereafter cited as Visions of Order. As Weaver makes clear in the essay as a whole, Socrates’ philosophical mission, as a gadfly on steroids, was intense—one might say almost fanatical.

[15] Ibid., 69-70. With respect to the dialectical mode of argument, and taking Weaver’s analysis a bit farther, it is fair to say that Socrates’ use of it led him into conflict with political authority while Lincoln, as the chief magistrate of governmental authority, used it repeatedly as a weapon against those who sought to undermine that authority.

[16] See the Epilogue of The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Post-Bellum Thought, ed. George Core and M.E. Bradford (New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1968), 388-396 and a later essay based upon it, “The Anatomy of Southern Failure,” In Defense of Tradition, 673-682. The first title is subsequently cited as The Southern Tradition at Bay.

[17] The terms informational and kinetic are borrowed from David Horowitz of the Freedom Center. As regards the motivation behind widespread recent attacks by anarchists and rioters, Anthony Esolen throws considerable light in a recent essay. See “Ressentiment: He Hates, Therefore He Is,” Chronicles, 44, no. 9 (September 2020), 36-39.

[18] Speech at Springfield, Illinois, October 4, 1854, Collected Works, II, 245.

[19] Speech at Springfield, Illinois, June 26, 1857, Collected Works, II, 405.

[20] Speech at Lewistown, Illinois, August 17, 1858, Collected Works, II, 546.

[21] Speech in Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania February 22, 1861, Collected Works, IV, 240. In a recent video clip of protests and rioting in Portland, Oregon (August 2020), one demonstrator carried a sign that read, “This Is Democracy.” I can only wonder, would the chief magistrate who presided over the conflagration of 1861-1865, if presented with the prospect of mobs burning buildings, breaking windows, and generally trashing whole city blocks, attacking the police with various weapons, with a few deaths thrown in here and there for good measure, recognize these actions as an expression of “democracy”?

[22] “The Heresy of Equality,” A Better Guide, 39-40.

[23] James L. Huston in an analysis of two of Lincoln’s speeches opines that “it is dubious whether he was injecting any novelty into [his reading of] the Declaration.” See “The Lost Cause of the North: A Reflection on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (Winter 2012), 33, no. 2 (2012), 27. The support provided for this view is based primarily on the witness of continental visitors to the U.S. since the time of the Revolution who professed to see social equality on full display. (Please see also note 25 regarding one of the more prominent of those visitors.) One Frenchman, Condorcet, while not a visitor, saw the example of equality in the U.S. as applicable to Europe. See Condorcet: Writings on the United States (ed., trans. by Guillaume Ansart (University Park, Pa.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 29.

[24] See for instance Bradford’s “Conservative in a Post-Liberal Era” in The Reactionary Imperative, 103-104. Bradford’s own involvement in practical politics is another sign of his optimism about the Southern conservative perspective having a place at the table.

[25] “On Remembering Who We Are,” Remembering, 11-12. For a view of equality that anticipated Lincoln’s, see Bradley J. Birzer, “Reflections on Tocqueville: The Pervasiveness of Equality,” The Imaginative Conservative, September 1, 2020. While it is heresy to challenge the observations of the esteemed French visitor, one perhaps may be allowed to make the point that his views, insightful though they often are, were conditioned by youth, his outsider status, and the relative brevity of his stay. Additionally, like Lincoln later, he saw himself as “called upon to express the will of God” regarding the “irresistible [democratic] revolution” underway, as Birzer puts it. Always a cause for caution, I would add, this presumed divine election.

[26] See in particular “Lincoln and the Language of Hate and Fear,” in Against the Barbarians and Other Reflections on Familiar Themes (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1992), 240-241.

[27] Southern Tradition, 148

[28] “Two Orators,” Southern Essays, 124.

[29] “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates,” In Defense of Tradition, 333.

[30] “The South and the American Union,” Southern Essays, 232.

[31] Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861 Collected Works, IV, 438.

[32] “The South and American Union,” Southern Essays, 246.

[33] “Image of Culture,” Visions of Order, 14.

[34] First Inaugural Address, Collected Works, IV, 266 and Reply to a Committee from the Virginia Convention, IV, 330.

[35] Proclamation Calling Militia and Convening Congress, April 15, 1861, Collected Works, IV, 332.

[36] To move the idea from the abstract to the concrete particular, we must imagine houses, barns, crops, furniture, prized possessions being destroyed by fire or other means or being confiscated at will.

[37] Burrus M. Carnahan, “Lincoln, Lieber and the Laws of War: The Origins and Limits of the Principle of Military Necessity,” American Journal of International Law, 92, no. 2 (1998), 213. Accessed August 27, 2020.doi:10.2307/2998030. Interestingly this is the same Lieber who joined with other radicals prior to the 1864 election in recommending that Lincoln withdraw from the race in favor of an alternative candidate. See David H. Donald, Lincoln, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 531. Cited subsequently as Lincoln.

[38] Ibid., 216. Emphasis added.

[39] David Donald in his biography of Lincoln in a number of passages characterizes his subject as a passive personality. Of Lincoln during the Ft. Sumter crisis, he writes: “It was his style to react to decisions made by others rather than to take the initiative himself,” Lincoln, 286. See also page 514. It is a view that seems to inform the entire book as its epigraph (in part, “events have controlled me”) might suggest. My hunch, though, is that Lincoln became more assertive later in the War as he found his footing and gained needed expertise in military matters in order the better to manage his generals.

[40] The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View,” Remembering, 148.

[41] Lincoln, Message to Congress in Special Session, July 4, 1861, CW, IV, 432. Some 3 ½ years later, in reflecting on the results of the recent election in the December 6, 1864 Message to Congress, he returns to a calculation rendered not in numbers but more softly in nouns and modifiers only: “we do not approach exhaustion in the most important branch of national resources—that of living men.” It is a “melancholy” fact that the War had added to the rolls of death, but “compared with the surviving, the fallen have been so few.” (Collected Works, VIII, 150). Clearly this is language directed more toward fellow politicians than to the families of the fallen.

[42] James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 854. Given Lincoln’s understanding of the conflict as between citizens of one country, it is necessary to sum the casualties of both sides as one figure, which in any event is probably low. The separated totals are 360,000 Yankees, 260,000 Rebels.

[43] Ratio or reason is here dominant. What is missing for the most part in this document is normally supplied by intellectus. See Josef Pieper, Leisure: The Basis of Culture, trans. Alexander Dru (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1999), 9-10. Ratio is identified with discursive reasoning designed to make a strong case or a proposition. Intellectus is associated with intuition, insight, heart, and related terms. It is on the order of a gift that is not characteristically human, Pieper argues, but granted to the human person nevertheless in what might be considered a special dispensation. This pairing is similar to that between rhetoric and dialectic that Weaver addresses in “The Cultural Role of Rhetoric.” In political discourse, intellectus typically yields poetry and high rhetoric, in contrast to closely reasoned argument.

[44] In the Message to Congress of December 1, 1862, Collected Works, V, 537. Lincoln again reasons closely and cites statistics to make his case for compensated emancipation as a means to help save the Union. But at the end, in his peroration, he pulls out all the rhetorical, poetic stops and gives us one of his most eloquent and moving locutions. I cite only the most famous sentence from it: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last, best hope of earth.” Clearly, Lincoln could toggle between the dialectical mode and the high rhetorical mode at will, employing both to the same end.

[45] Weaver, Southern Tradition, 214-215. It is, of course, conceivable that both sides in a conflict could drop all restraints. The side with the greater military resources could obviously inflict more damage in doing so.

[46] “Dialectic on Total War,” Visions of Order, 103. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr makes essentially the same point: “For no one can be sure that a war won by the use of the modern means of mass destruction would leave enough physical and social substance to rebuild civilization among either victors or vanquished.” See “The Irony of American History,” Major Works, ed. Elisabeth Clifton (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2015), 465. Weaver is more concerned with the great challenges of social and spiritual rebuilding than with the physical—which is relatively easier to accomplish. See also John B. Walters, “General William T. Sherman and Total War,” Journal of Southern History, 14, no. 4 (1948), 480. Walters makes the point that Sherman and his men in the South Carolina campaign in particular sought to inflict revenge and suffering as punishment far beyond any “military necessity.” Moreover, if the War’s main objective was to bring states back into the Union, then a policy that would inevitably cause lasting hatred was hardly rational and certainly beyond the pale of the Lieber Code.

[47] Southern Tradition at Bay, 214. Weaver does not ignore certain egregious Confederate actions, such as the burning of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1864, that fall into the category of total war, but takes the position that they were not driven by an overarching policy. One expression of Lincoln’s avowed war policy, stated on a personal level, was to “do nothing in malice,” as he wrote to Cuthbert Bullitt in July of 1862, Collected Works, V, 346 and restated more publicly in the Second Inaugural. What was personal to him, however, arguably did not get conveyed to Gen. Sherman and his men.

[48] Bradford, “The Lincoln Legacy,” Remembering, 149.

[49] Ibid., 149-150. The concentration of power as war president meant, among others things, the reduction of liberties, the seizure of properties, the arrest of thousands of political enemies, and the closing of unfriendly newspapers, the hiring of foreign mercenaries.

The featured image is a portrait of Abraham Lincoln (1869) by William F. Cogswell (1819–1903) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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