“Had he been even a Yankee, this genius would have
been rendered immediately manifest to his countrymen.”

—Edgar Allan Poe

“All a rhetorician’s rules,” we learn from Hudibras, “teach him but to name his tools.” Professor Bradford, who knows much about the art of rhetoric, is a massive exception to this observation. This is a collection of his speeches; but these public utterances, unlike most such, are polished essays, as well read as listened to.

Several themes run through the five parts of this book. The reader encounters more than once remarks on the conservative character of the Federal Constitution; on Christian influences in the American Republic; on the evils of Puritanism; on Agrarianism; on state support of letters and arts; on political myth, beneficent or malign. Endowed with fortitude and good humor, Mel Bradford is a formidable champion of order, custom, constitution, convention, prescription.

Accomplished in the disciplines of humane letters, history, and politics. Dr. Bradford is a worthy successor to Donald Davidson as unreconstructed (but wise) Southerner. Also, like Davidson’s, his reputation is national; and at present he presides over the Philadelphia Society, a national discussion-club of conservatively inclined folk.

His lectures or essays on “Culture and Anarchy: Federal Support for the Arts and Humanities” and “Subsidizing the Muses,” full of sound sense, remind us of how able Professor Bradford would have been as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Indeed President Reagan strongly inclined toward appointing him to that post; but a wave of vituperation from the sort of people called by Sidney Hook “ritualistic liberals” dissuaded Mr. Reagan’s inner circle from seeking senatorial confirmation. Not the least of Mr. Bradford’s alleged disqualifications was his misfortune of being a Southerner.

The chief and immediate pretext for opposing the appointment of Bradford to that Ministry of Culture, however, is the last essay in this volume: “The Lincoln Legacy: A Long View” (originally published in the quarterly Modern Age, after being delivered as an address to The Philadelphia Society). America’s Civil Religionists having canonized Abraham Lincoln, let the writer be anathema who in the least impugns the perfect sanctity of the Railsplitter! Once, in the course of a Lincoln’s Day address in Los Angeles, this reviewer mentioned that when attending Federal court at Cincinnati, Lincoln was smiled at for his rusticity by more fashionable lawyers. A Lincoln zealot immediately cried out, “Lincoln was a marvellous lawyer! The whole bench and bar respected him!” Facts must not be permitted to mar the myth.

Fanaticism of this sort, heavy as the Tower of Siloam, fell upon the head of M.E. Bradford as vengeance for his unkindliness toward Lincoln. Indeed I think he was hard upon President Lincoln, after the fashion of Donald Davidson; but also he said about Lincoln much that requires saying. Our differences are taken up by Bradford in a chapter of his earlier book A Better Guide Than Reason—he criticizing my section on Lincoln in The Roots of American Order.

Mr. Bradford allots 10 pages of Remembering Who We Are to an essay on Richard Weaver, Agrarian. One thing he does not mention about Weaver is the interesting fact that Weaver was an enthusiastic, wholehearted admirer of Lincoln. He approved of Lincoln far more thoroughly than does this reviewer. For Weaver, so earnest a Southerner, was a Mountain Whig from East Tennessee, a sept hereditarily attached to Union and Lincoln. Weaver argued that Lincoln was a better mentor for conservatives than is Burke: for (in Weaver’s judgment) Lincoln argued from definition, Burke merely from circumstance.

Now Bradford, contrariwise, instructs us that we ought to act according to circumstances, not on the ideological ground of abstract principle. Repeatedly, in this slim volume, he makes that point convincingly. Bradford is an advocate of the politics of prudence, not the politics of definition; he praises Burke for this; he detests the political metaphysicians of three centuries.

Then what of Bradford on Weaver? Why, in a footnote Bradford advises us not to “infer overmuch from his [Weaver’s] choice of illustrative materials” in his Ethics of Rhetoric; that book is “a piece of strategy,” Bradford argues; somehow Weaver’s praise of Lincoln and rejection of Burke must be part of that “disarming” strategy. Indeed! Either Bradford is disingenuous here, or else he is very ready to delude himself, out of affection for Weaver.

Nor is this the only aspect of Weaver to which Bradford shuts his eyes. For Bradford makes abundantly clear his detestation of the doctrine of “natural rights,” with its ruinous political consequences. But Weaver more than once endorsed natural-rights notions, in particular an alleged “absolute right to private property”—which, as this reviewer has pointed out elsewhere, is a “right” that never has existed anywhere, in an absolute form, nor can exist in society or out of it.

I am suggesting that Richard Weaver, for all his bulldog resolution and his frequent high insights, was not invariably a better guide than reason. Also I am suggesting that Bradford’s affection for fellow-Agrarians and fellow-Southerners and fellow conservatives can diminish the acuity of his critical faculties on occasion. If it will not do to erect a graven image in the likeness of Lincoln, neither will it do to erect a graven image in the likeness of Richard Weaver. It is quite true that, as Bradford suggests. Weaver “was something of a puzzle for his friends within the American ‘conservative establishment.'” Being a Northern Agrarian, this reviewer did not find him puzzling in that fashion. But it would be puzzling indeed to try to reconcile Weaver’s adulation of Lincoln with Bradford’s detestation, and Weaver’s advocacy of “definition” with Bradford’s defense of “circumstance.”

M.E. Bradford, despite his kindliness to those deserving of kindliness, is a good hater. “They will never love where they ought to love who do not hate where they ought to hate,” Edmund Burke wrote. Hating centralizers. Utilitarians, Libertarians, nihilists, and levelling ideologues, Bradford makes enemies by the vigor of his rhetoric. But also he makes friends by his eloquence and his uprightness; and he lives with honor.

At the time of his candidacy for the chairmanship of NEH, Bradford’s adversaries—many of whom never had beheld him—endeavored to represent him as some manner of extremist. Actually he is a centrist, politically, in terms of the conservative political climate of opinion that prevails in America today. “People seem to think it a compliment to accuse one of being an outsider, and to talk about the eccentricities of genius,” one of G.K. Chesterton’s characters exclaims. “What would they think if I said I only wish to God I had the centricities of genius?”

Thanks be to God, M.E. Bradford is endowed with some degree of the centricities of genius. He thinks within our patrimony of order and justice and freedom. With these postulates, at present he is at work on a study, pious in the old Roman sense of that abused word, of the religious convictions of the framers of the Constitution of the United States. His strong essay in this volume, “And God Defend the Right: The American Revolution and the Limits of Christian Obedience,” is part of this endeavor. It contains memorable passages, particularly this: “Contrary to the opinions of many of my closest allies, the American regime at the national level was not created to promote virtue or religion but to allow for the promotion of virtue by society—in some cases with the assistance of state and local authorities.”

Considerably acquainted with practical politics, humorous, patient, learned, and good-natured, M.E. Bradford is a man of thought who does not retreat from our present discontents. We need to pay attention to him as the bicentenary of the Constitution approaches.


[Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative, by M.E. Bradford (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press) $15.95]