“The hours of a wise man are lengthened by his ideas.”—Joseph Addison

This is the first critical study of M.E. Bradford, whose untimely death in 1993 silenced the most eloquent voice ever raised on behalf of the permanent things as they are revealed in the Southern tradition. It would be a mistake, however, to think of Bradford as an academic specialist in things Southern or as a Southern ideologue crediting the South with impossible virtues at the expense of its real ones, hi fact, behind Bradford’s scholarship on the South was the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” This question had to be raised because the American tradition which we have inherited contains a broken memory. Rooted in state and local sovereignty, the original federated republic was designed to protect corporate liberty: ways of life that bind the generations, not the radical autonomy of individuals. Ultimately, this federation was subverted by the concentration of power necessary to coerce the Southern states back into the Union and to destroy their social and political order. On the ruins of the old republic, a new public rhetoric was developed—by Lincoln especially—legitimating a unitary state and the universalist and egalitarian ideology, in the French style, that lay behind it. Intent upon disguising this revolutionary character, purveyors of the new rhetoric constructed an imaginary history of the Founding, and a false American identity.

Much of Bradford’s work is an attempt to rescue an authentic historical understanding of the American Founding. His research revealed that the Southern tradition, far from undermining that event, constituted the most coherent application of its underlying principles. The Southern tradition appears as eccentric and troublesome only by comparison with the newer, Jacobin-inspired Americanism.

Yet Bradford’s work is never narrowly historical: It is more like a running critique of the moral and political rationalism, derived from the Enlightenment, which has dominated American public speech since Lincoln’s day. Enlightenment ideology, whether of the liberal or Marxist variety, requires us to disown (in the name of “rationality”) our historical, ethnic, and religious identities, tainted as they arc with particularity and contingency, in favor of a universalist civilization of tradition-free, autonomous individuals. Brilliantly, Bradford exposed the gnostic character of this aberrancy from the Western tradition and showed that totalitarianism lies in wait at the end of this path for all who consistently pursue it.

Bradford’s career spanned the period of the Cold War, when the antagonism between Marxism and liberalism masked the fundamental identity of the goals pursued by each: Both required the destruction of traditional society in favor of a universal civilization grounded in the autonomous self. The liberal ideal of limited government for the sake of individual freedom and the Marxist fantasy of a classless society in which the state has withered away pursue the same end: tire autonomous individual free from the restraints imposed by supposedly irrational contingencies and particularities. Although the American liberal regime has operated more gradually than its Marxist rivals, both succeed in purging religion, substantial moral communities, and tradition from public life. Because liberalism is more successful economically than Marxism, the process of destruction has been less painful in America and the other Western democracies, yet this difference in means should not be allowed to mask the identity of ends.

Bradford’s critique of Enlightenment liberalism was framed in the heyday of John Rawls’ rationalist liberalism and of Harry Jaffa’s crude imposition of fundamentalist rationalism on the American Founding. In that intellectual climate, Bradford’s critique seemed scandalous. But in the last decade of his life, critics as diverse as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, and John Gray offered their own devastating criticisms of the Enlightenment conception of reason—which, finally, has been as decisively refuted as any philosophical doctrine could be. And although fundamentalist American liberalism hangs on ritualistically among the courtiers of the Beltway, it is no longer credible to a rising generation of younger scholars. In the years to come, it is Bradford’s work, not that of Rawls and Jaffa, that will be important.

The same may be said of Bradford’s critique of Lincoln as a gnostic figure of the Enlightenment who, by his consolidation of pow er, derailed the Founders* federal commonwealth and set in motion a unitary state dedicated to an open-ended and antinomic egalitarianism. In his critique of the Lincoln myth, Bradford hit a raw nerve. Nothing less was at stake than the subversion of an Enlightenment American identity. Yet contemporary writers such as Jeffrey Hummel, James McPherson, and Garry Wills have come to the same conclusion, the difference being that McPherson and Wills celebrate the destruction of the federalism of the Founders, while Bradford laments it.

Since all the contributors to this volume knew Bradford personally, the essays, with their reminiscences and telling anecdotes, amount to a portrait of the man as well as an evaluation of his work, which ranged across American and British political history, philosophy, religion, rhetoric, classical studies, and literary criticism. Worth the price of the book is a complete bibliography of Bradford’s writings, compiled by Alan Cornett, and another listing selected works about him.

Clyde Wilson and Thomas Fleming discuss the importance of the Greek and Roman classics in shaping both the Southern tradition and Bradford’s own work and character; Thomas Landess, a fellow student with Bradford during his graduate career at Vanderbilt, describes his studies under Donald Davidson (the only Agrarian to remain at Vanderbilt) and other teachers. Bradford was not a self-made man: His scholarly discipline and critical gifts were earned by rigorous apprenticeship, as Bradford himself acknowledged.

Mark Winchell and Benjamin Alexander examine Bradford’s career as a literary critic. The Enlightenment conception of rationality and its inverted mirror image, postmodernism, have been as destructive to literary criticism as they have been to politics and morals: The result is the alienation of the typical modern writer from traditional society. But the response to modern life need not be alienation; rather, as T.S. Eliot and the Agrarians showed, recollection and conservation are always alternatives. Literature is an act of civic piety, though only by seeking to be art—not propaganda or ideology. The literary theory that supports this conception of literature was worked out by the Agrarians and appropriated by Bradford as he sought an understanding of the basic documents of the American Founding, as well as of imaginative literature. Modern Enlightenment critics cannot comprehend a literature rooted in Memory, considered by the Greeks the mother of the Muses. Hence, the Declaration of Independence is read today as a Jacobin tract, and Faulkner and Frost as writers alienated from their regional cultures. But Bradford shows that, although Faulkner and Frost could be critical of the South and of New England respectively, they acknowledged the cultural authority of their native grounds and were at home in them.

James McClellan and Marshall DeRosa discuss what, to my mind, is Bradford’s most enduring contribution: a humane and adult understanding of America’s founding documents. For over a century, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been transmuted by the philosophical alchemy of Enlightenment liberalism into instruments for satisfying its perceived needs. The Agrarians taught Bradford that, while a literary work has its own structure as a work of art, it must also be recognized as human speech framed in an historical context. Bradford gave a human face to the Framers at the Philadelphia Convention by writing a biography of each, and to the Constitution by reminding us that its authority springs solely from having been ratified by the political societies of sovereign states. The image of original intent must be taken not primarily from the Philadelphia Convention, nor from the propaganda of the Federalist, but from the speeches of the state ratification conventions.

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, in an otherwise sympathetic account, find two blind spots in Bradford’s historical vision. The first (according to the Genoveses) is that, in stressing the continuity of the Southern tradition with Roman republican virtue, Bradford ignored the teaching of Cicero, Tacitus, and Polybius that such virtues require for their operation a unitary experience which, in a universal empire (whether Roman or American), is nearly impossible. Second (the Genoveses believe), he—and the Agrarians—pushed the legacy of slavery and the burdens it imposed on whites and blacks to the margin of memory, while leaving the ghosts to subvert their brightest hopes for the future. While there is some truth in this criticism, it would be a mi.stake to think that the decay of the Southern tradition was caused by the failure to establish a better relationship between the races. The first assault on the Southern way of life was the Northern military invasion, motivated not by a desire to emancipate the slaves but to consolidate a commercial empire; economic, not humane, motives also drove Reconstruction and produced the economic discriminations imposed on the South well into the 20th century. And, of course, among the greatest blows to the Southern tradition were the Supreme Court’s general and perverse subversion of federalism and its unconstitutional action of abolishing prayer in public schools. One cannot maintain a traditional society of any kind absent the local sovereignty required to do so. After full allowance has been made for racial injustice, it must also be said that race has been manipulated as an instrument for centralizing power—power that would be, and has been, used for quite different purposes.

The forces that sought to destroy the Southern tradition in the 19th century and which have all but completed that work today are centralization and consolidation: From the French Revolution to the present, they have produced several world wars and a long line of totalitarian revolutions. Whether through liberal or Marxist regimes, they have operated according to the same pattern, sucking life from traditional social authority and attempting to breathe it into artificial constructs at the center. A more telling criticism of Bradford might be that, in an age of Enlightenment ideology and corporate capitalism, neither the Southern tradition nor any other traditional society is capable of maintaining itself If that is so, then what arc we to make of Bradford’s witness?

This question is considered by Mark Malvasi, who argues that Bradford did not view modernity as a seamless metaphysical substance from which there is no escape. His defense of the Southern tradition was merely part of his philosophical defense of tradition as a condition of humanity, virtue, and rationality. Opposed to this are a vast array of Enlightenment ideologies, each advocating its own form of the autonomous self and each in implacable opposition to the rest. There is no danger of man losing his tradition finally, because man in that case would cease being human. Tradition is always being renewed. In the end, therefore, Bradford’s defense of tradition opens out into a justification of the ways of God to man. People given to Enlightenment superstition can become alienated from their cultural inheritance and lose confidence in it. To recover and restore a valuable wav of life requires taking seriously the question, “Who am I?” Bradford’s answer was that he was a Southerner, an American, a man of the West, and a human being, all together, and that he could not be any one of them without being the others as well.

Bradford disowned the tide of philosopher, calling himself a rhetor instead. All the same, he was a philosopher, and it is important to understand the philosophical tradition in which he worked. Bradford was not a philosopher in the Greek speculative tradition of Plato, Descartes, Hegel, and Marx: He belonged to the Latin rhetorical tradition of philosophy which includes Cicero, the Renaissance humanists, Montaigne, Giambatista Vico, and David Hume. (Bradford had a high regard for Hume.) This tradition views transcendent Platonic philosophy as hubristic in its belief that it can grasp the real only by freeing itself from the authority of tradition, the result being a philosophy that is either abstract and empty or self-deceptive in its unwitting incorporation of traditional prejudices even as it disowns them. In this respect, Bradford parted company with Richard Weaver, a fellow Southerner who admired Plato and, therefore, Lincoln’s rationalism.

In the Latin humanistic tradition, reason is inseparable from tradition and rhetoric. Truth is not a matter of correspondence with a single fact but an account of the whole, and both philosophy and eloquence aim to comprehend the whole of the topic at hand. Vico says that eloquence is wisdom speaking: a philosophical tradition embracing sapientia, prudentia, and eloquentia together, of which Bradford was a peripatetic icon.


[A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M.E. Bradford and His Achievements, Edited by Clyde Wilson (Columbia: University of Missouri Press) 208 pp., $29.95]