In the States and in the souls where Confederate flags still fly, they fluttered at half-mast last March for M.E. Bradford, gentleman, scholar, political thinker, and Good Old Rebel, who departed this world too soon at the age of 58. Yet the legacy he left to an America now being reconstructed to suit political correctness and political expediency is one that not only his Southern friends, students, colleagues, and admirers should receive. The two countries he loved so much—America and the South—need to take their stand on the ground he unflinchingly defended.
Trained as a Faulkner scholar at Vanderbilt. Dr. Bradford wound up best known for his political thought and the political action to which his thought led. At the center of that thought was the American South, whose native and faithful son Mel was, though his thought was not limited to it and the South he represented was a far march from the cavaliers and belles sipping brandy on the veranda that Hollywood and romance novels have inflicted on us.
Mel Bradford’s South had the hard beauty of old women who have buried their sons, of Texas frontiersmen who have fought Comanches, of small farmers who have worked barren fields alone and died at Shiloh for a cause that could not win. His was the South that sings the human tragedy, a drama that never leaves the stage no matter how rich, powerful, and progressive its actors and spectators might swell.
It was a South that Mel knew intimately and personally. In graduate school, budding historians arc instructed to study documents until the records speak to them. Documents not only spoke to Mel Bradford but carried on a lifelong conversation with him. Yet, as staggering as was his erudition in documents—of the American Revolution, the Civil War, British and European history, political and social philosophy, the classics of Latin, English, and American literature—it was a mere shadow of what he knew firsthand.
To talk with Mel was to make an odyssey in time. He would ask a young man whom he had never met the Southerner’s traditional first question—”Where y’all from?”—and then proceed to tell him about whatever place that was: its history, its geography, what kind of crops its soil supported, what sort of people settled it, what its politics were in the War Between the States (the “late unpleasantness,” as he called it) and why—and he could speak almost as much about New England or the Midwest. He knew the South and America by county and creek, and in debate with him the easy generalizations and abstractions in which our history is usually couched crumbled before his knowledge.
It was that deep intimacy with the past that was the core of his political theory. In 1981, when he was a candidate for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities, his neoconservative and leftist critics characteristically managed to miss the whole point of his thought. They ranted about his leadership of Wallace Democrats in Texas in 1972, his criticism of Abraham Lincoln, and his case against civil rights legislation and dismissed him as a bigot or a dinosaur.
Even after Dr. Bradford had lost the nomination, columnist George Will, in an ugly little bucket of sneers, smirked that he represented the “nostalgic Confederate remnant in the conservative movement,” while another neoconservative pronounced that “the Reagan administration no more needs to sign on Stephen Douglas Democrats than it does Tip O’Neill Democrats.”
Yet the point of Dr. Bradford’s deep knowledge of the history of a community was more than nostalgia. It spoke to the truth that human society is not founded on abstract “propositions,” “social contracts,” or “higher laws” such as Lincoln and his political descendants invoke. A society, he argued, is “grown, not made,” undesigned by human reason, “bound by blood, place and history,” and should be governed in accord with them and their norms.
By contrast, political messiahs like Lincoln and the bumper-sticker crusades they launch rule by government “poured in from the top.” They generate tyranny and the internecine carnage of civil war, and in the last days of this century, as in most of the rest of it, we wade in their legacy of blood.
Mel Bradford was a traditionalist whose teaching leaves us a gentler inheritance. It may be long before Americans and their leaders have the wisdom and the grace to take it up, but when we do the banners this Good Old Rebel bore will unfurl once again.