The year 1975, for those of us old enough to remember, was a calm and quiet time in the United States. The Vietnam War and Watergate were both over, the riots and protests had ceased, and everybody liked our presiding nonpartisan president, who shared the name of America’s most iconic car company. The music was nonpolitical, and everybody was anticipating the coming bicentennial of the independence of our country. And, although now it’s hard to believe, the national commemoration was not being riven by fractious and acrimonious debates about its real meaning.

However, a momentous debate over the meaning of America did occur that year, although without great publicity or notice. It signified American conservatism’s increasing transformation into its antithesis.

In the summer of 1975 the Loyola Law Review published a book review article by Harry V. Jaffa, a professor of government at Claremont College in California. The title of the piece was “Equality as a Conservative Principle,” and the book reviewed was The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition (1970) by the late Willmoore Kendall. Kendall had been a professor of government at the University of Dallas, a prominent conservative, and a writer for National Review. Jaffa also wrote for National Review. A year before (1974), its famous editor William F. Buckley, Jr., had asked Jaffa to give a paper at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association where Buckley was chairing a special panel on the theme of “Conservatism’s Search for Meaning.” That paper became this review, and, considering its sponsorship, a sort of official change of front for the conservative movement.

Jaffa was quickly answered by M. E. Bradford, a University of Dallas English professor, conservative man of letters, and National Review contributor. Bradford did so in a speech at Georgetown University in August 1975, and then the debate continued in the pages of Modern Age. A print version soon appeared in the Intercollegiate Review and then the winter 1976 issue of Modern Age. In 1981, President Reagan nominated him to be the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, but pressure from “conservatives” of Jaffa’s persuasion (including George F. Will, who wrote an anti-Bradford column), the defection of William F. Buckley (who initially supported the nomination), and vociferous objections from liberal Democrats, caused him to withdraw the nomination and nominate a Democrat, William J. Bennett, instead. Bradford’s critical judgments of Lincoln’s statesmanship were cited as the reason he should not be appointed even though such opinions were widely shared among postwar conservatives. From thenceforth, there would be no more debates about the meaning of conservatism or the normative essence of the American political experience. Conservatism became whatever its official spokesmen declared it to be, and those who dissented were either ignored, purged, or, to use a modern phrase, “deplatformed.”

The title of Jaffa’s law review article is as instructive as to what was going on politically at that time as it was counter-historical intellectually. There is not a single conservative philosopher, historian, or man of letters from Edmund Burke in the late 18th century to Russell Kirk in the middle 20th who believed that equality was a conservative principle. When Bradford challenged Jaffa on this point, Jaffa’s response (his “Reply to Bradford” was published in the Spring 1977 issue of Modern Age) was to offer a syllogism: “Equality is a conservative principle because justice is conservative, and equality is the principle of justice.” To support the premise that “equality is the principle of justice,” he cited Aristotle, the same philosopher who believed that it was unjust to treat unequal things as if they were equal.

Jaffa also argued that inequality “tends to disrupt and destroy political communities, and equality tends towards their harmony and their preservation.” Of course, one could just as easily argue the exact opposite is true, and cite the American, French, and Russian revolutions as proof that the demand for equality “tends to disrupt and destroy political communities,” while the acceptance of inequality “tends toward their harmony and their preservation.”

Jaffa’s other claim for equality was that it is the essential American idea, being the interpretative key to the past, the measuring rod of the present, and a binding ideal for the future. Equality is “the key to all the thoughts in the Declaration” and all the provisions of the Constitution, which the latter document was “designed to implement,” Jaffa argued. It’s the sole justification for the American Revolution and the necessary legitimating principle of the democratic republic. Without equality, both would have been what Jaffa considered the Confederate States of America to have been: an illegitimate government founded on an unlawful rebellion. Equality is the only legitimate basis for political obligation, the foundation of all ethical codes, the essence of justice, and the most important conservative principle there is. Without equality, constitutionalism and conservatism are no more. The door is opened, and into it stalks “the relativism and historicism that is the theoretical ground of modern totalitarian regimes.”

This last claim of Jaffa is rather mind-boggling considering the fact that social, economic, and political inequality have not only existed but been defended by philosophers and theologians for thousands of years before the advent of 20th century totalitarianism.

Jaffa had made these claims before, specifically in his Crisis of the House Divided (1959), an interpretative political history of the sectional crisis that culminated in the U.S. Civil War. Kendall had reviewed it at the time, and Jaffa recurred to Kendall’s review in his Loyola article. Kendall believed the Civil War to have been unnecessary, a tragic mistake, which, incidentally, was still the prevailing view among historians and had been for the past 50 to 60 years. Jaffa, by contrast, believed that it was a necessary war, glorious in its results because it had recalled the nation to its founding purpose as expressed in the second clause of the second sentence in the preamble to the Declaration, that “all men are created equal.”

They also disagreed about the meaning and purpose of the American political founding. For Kendall, it was the establishment of republican self-government, and its key symbol was a virtuous people deliberating together under God. For Jaffa, it was the establishment of equality, and its key symbol was the anointed law-giver (e.g. Lincoln) recalling the nation to its providential mission of realizing equality. This distinction is important, for Jaffa often tried to obfuscate it by claiming that he too, and Lincoln before him, believed in self-government. “There can be no question” that in the American tradition, “the just powers of government … are derived from the consent of the governed,” Jaffa wrote. Yet he added that “the people’s right to give their consent is itself derived from the equality of all men and therefore limits and directs what it is to which they may rightfully consent.”

So, there is a question after all; and when Jaffa asserted that “the sovereignty of the people has never been challenged within the American regime, by Conservatives any more than by Liberals or Radicals,” he belied it by his own belief in the higher law of equality.

How Jaffa argued that the higher law of equality found its way into the Constitution, or was somehow supreme over it, is revealing, because it is used today by progressive jurists and their media allies to claim that their continuing discovery of new rights is “constitutional,” rather than a mere invention of their disordered imaginations. Jaffa’s contention is that the framers somehow infused the Constitution with Platonic absolutes or Kantian imperatives whose future realizations were dependent upon visionary leaders like Lincoln, who could see “more deeply” into the document than the ones who wrote it.

For instance, when Kendall pointed out that the word equality nowhere appears in the text of the Constitution, Jaffa argued that it is there by osmosis. When the people pledged “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility,” they were really pledging to promote equality. How so? Because Jaffa saw the essence of justice as equality, and that without equality civil dissension is inevitable, thus the verbal phrase “establish justice” really means “establish equality,” and “insure domestic tranquility” really means “insure domestic equality.” If Jaffa cannot find any documentary evidence from the period to corroborate his reading of the documents, it is because the Founders were not fully aware of what they were doing. This is the very idea of the “living Constitution,” the bedrock of progressive leftist jurisprudence.

Jaffa took exception to Kendall’s highly prescient warning that the equality standard is no standard at all, and that it’s invocation as sacred writ risked:

a political future the very thought of which is hair-raising: a future made up of an endless series of Abraham Lincolns, each persuaded that he is superior in wisdom and virtue to the Fathers, each prepared to insist that those who oppose this or that new application of the equality standard are denying the very possibility of self-government, each ultimately willing to plunge America into Civil War rather than concede the point.

Jaffa dismissed this charge as “good Confederate caricature suitable for declamation—after playing ‘Dixie’—at a meeting decorated by the stars and bars.” Jaffa’s tendency to try to discredit his opponents by associating them with a defeated, disreputable foe is a tactic that his intellectual heirs would imitate again and again.

Jaffa also stressed that Lincoln did not believe in equality of condition, but only in equality of rights and opportunities. Bradford’s response was that it was “sophistry” to distinguish between the two, as the first is as impossible of attainment as the latter in this world, and there is also no way of stopping short between them. Those who demand equality of rights would eventually demand equality of condition.

The history of 19th-century socialism amply demonstrated Bradford’s point, as has subsequent American history. Today the cry of “social justice” stands for the demand for absolute equality of condition between all ethnic groups in American society, while all existing inequalities between racial groups are attributed to the legacy of slavery or to something called “institutional racism.” Most of the Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have even endorsed racial reparations. Remember, Jaffa said this kind of “Confederate caricature” would never happen.

Jaffa was not an historian, but a political scientist whose thinking illustrates the degeneration of that discipline into what the philosopher Eric Voegelin called “a description of existing institutions and the apology of their principles.” It is no accident that Jaffa’s article appeared 10 years after the passage of the equal rights legislation of the 1960s, five years after affirmative action had begun by administrative fiat, and 10 years before Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, birthday was made a national holiday. Jaffa’s work was intended to buttress the egalitarian ideology of the evolving American empire.

To argue that this was what the Founders intended all along—the so-called deferred promise of equality—Jaffa had to disregard all sound principles of literary and historical exegesis that had been in use by Western scholars since the Renaissance. Bradford’s rebuttal of Jaffa pointed out that he had treated the “all men are created equal” sentence of the Declaration “in abstraction from its whole,” and read it without regard to the circumstances of its composition, the intention of its authors, or the understanding of its audience. Bradford wrote in A Better Guide Than Reason: Federalists and Anti-Federalists (1979):

Jaffa filters the rest of the Declaration (and later expressions of the American political faith) back and forth through the measure of that sentence until he has (or so he imagines) achieved its baptism in the pure waters of the higher law.… The trouble here comes from…the habit of reading legal, poetic, and rhetorical documents as if they were bits of revealed truth or statements of systematic thought.

Bradford wrote that the Declaration was a document produced from the social and intellectual traditions of the Founders, and that “no sentence of its whole means anything out of context.” By reading it as if it were a bit of revealed scripture existing in a “Platonic empyrean,” Bradford said that Jaffa was trying to claim that it is binding on all future Americans. Binding not only because it had been incorporated in the Constitution, but because without its constant pursuit and implementation the American government was illegitimate and Americans were betraying their highest ideal. Bradford argued that for Jaffa the second sentence of the preamble had the ontological status of a divine commandment to which all are bound forever, and that he envisioned Abraham Lincoln as a modern Moses recalling his wayward people to their covenantal promise.

As Bradford put it, the politics that follow from Jaffa’s warping of the founding documents “are beyond reason, beyond law, though they may embody a rationalist objective.” They amount to enshrining “Lincoln’s ‘second founding’,” Bradford wrote, one that is “fraught with peril and carries with it the prospect of an endless series of turmoils and revolutions, all dedicated to freshly discovered meanings of equality as a ‘proposition.’”

Today, Bradford’s equality has evolved a new meaning that goes by the name of diversity, which mandates that everyone in the world has an equal right to settle in America, and that existing Americans have no moral or political right to prevent this. They are prohibited from doing so, it is said, by the words of Emma Lazarus inscribed on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, “‘Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.’” Although the statue’s very name points to its intended meaning, the poem has given it a different one. Just as Jaffa believed in the absolutely binding authority of one clause in the Declaration, so do his heirs regard those words as constitutionally binding on all future Americans. Bradford presciently summed up the consequences of Jaffaism and the doctrine of Lincoln’s “second founding” in his reply, printed in Modern Age in 1976, entitled “The Heresy of Equality”: “Its full potential for mischief is yet to be determined.”

From the Editor: Thoughts on Bradford v. Jaffa

Scott Trask highlights acritical watershed in the American conservative movement. One cannot understate the significance of the debate between M. E. Bradford and Harry Jaffa over Lincoln and the Founding documents in underlining the divisions among self-described conservatives and the direction in which their movement later went. The two debating participants were speaking not only for themselves but also for two diverging wings of conservatism.

Two features of these debates may warrant special attention. One, the side that might have won on debating points would be driven out of the movement in which they had once been a force. That side was represented by M.E. Bradford, a traditional Southern conservative who hated “abstract universals” and who tried to ground the “American political tradition” in the historical experience of the Anglo-Protestant world of the Founders. Bradford abhorred appeals to equality because, like Willmoore Kendall and other conservative giants of his age, he feared this ideal would lead to totalitarian government and to endless ideological crusades. Jaffa, by contrast, believed that democratic equality was not only to be treasured but elevated to the status of the core conservative value. Jaffa, a prolific professor at Claremont McKenna College devoted much of his long life (he died in his 90s) to showing how the ideal of equality was already implicit and possibly explicit in Aristotelian thought, Christianity, and the American founding.

Perhaps Jaffa, as a self-identified conservative, had the harder argument to make, but he was not without his resources. He could point to egalitarian strains in the speeches of Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence, and John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government. What might have been for Jaffa more difficult to demonstrate is that “equality” is a specifically conservative principle. Moreover, Jaffa wished to treat equality as a universal good that the U.S. must promote as a “conservative” practice.

Not unexpectedly, Jaffa devoted considerable space in his rejoinders to blasting the antebellum South and its peculiar institution, and to drawing what would now be fashionable comparisons between Southern defenses of slavery and Nazi racial doctrines. Jaffa also cites the references to natural rights in the political documents of early America, starting with the Declaration of Independence. The position of Jaffa and his disciples is that the attribution of inborn, individual rights to all human beings assumes their essential equality. This has defined what is unique and moral about the American political tradition; and it found its sacred vindication in Lincoln’s struggle to abolish racial inequality, for which both the Civil War and subsequent efforts to establish political equality for blacks were necessary.

Bradford’s counterargument was strongest, in my view, when he dwelt on the dangerous, distinctly anti-conservative implications of the pursuit of “equality” as a universal good. Mind you, Bradford never challenged the concept of the equal dignity of all human souls in a spiritual sense, nor did he reject the idea that all American citizens should be equal before the law. What he emphatically opposed was the use of state power to eradicate social differences. He compellingly underlines the perils of the cult of Lincoln in the hands of Jaffa and his votaries. According to Bradford, these sectarians were creating an “imperative” to engage in a perpetual refounding of society for the purpose of achieving the goal of fuller equality.

Bradford wears a bit when he appeals to what may seem to many as esoteric strains of European thought. We can easily do without his invocation of Eric Voegelin as an analyst of the “gnostic derailment” or reminders of what Michael Oakeshott said about “enterprise associations.” Instead, he scores points when he pursues his main argument without embellishment. This argument is primarily a criticism of the modern worship of equality, and an explanation why that fixation is utterly antithetical to conservatism. Bradford also provides copious quotations from America’s Founders that contradict the spin that Jaffa gives to their thinking.

No matter who may have won these exchanges on points, it is clear which thinker appealed to the movers and shakers of Conservatism, Inc. Here Jaffa won hands-down, and like at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325, when the defeated anti-Trinitarians were expelled from the early church, Bradford and his followers were characterized as bigoted reactionaries and removed from polite conservative society. By contrast, Jaffa and his disciples were treated as intellectual dignitaries and sponsors opened their money spigots for the benefit of these teachers.

On Dec. 19, 2005, National Review declared Jaffa to be the thinker who had most influenced the present conservative movement. Indeed, the editors placed his most famous defense of Lincoln’s refounding of the American order, Crisis of a House Divided, at the top of their list of books all conservatives must read. Bradford, by contrast, is mostly remembered for having failed to obtain the directorship of the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1981, and it is telling that the second and definitive edition of George H. Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Tradition in America (published in 1996) only mentions Bradford in one context: in connection with his fate as a candidate for the NEH directorship. In the same work, Jaffa has a full 12 pages devoted to his thought and its import for the conservative movement.

Curiously, in 1975 when the debates began, as Trask stresses, most traditional American conservatives would have found little to disagree with in Bradford’s position. By the time the debate closed in the 1980s, however, the ideological climate had changed entirely in Jaffa’s favor. Significantly, Bradford’s A Better Guide than Reason still included in the 1994 edition an introduction by Russell Kirk with these words: Bradford “overwhelms such egalitarian ideologues as Harry Jaffa in their interpretations of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” In this anthology one finds Bradford’s most damning judgments of Lincoln.

It might be argued that the political change observed had nothing to do with the arguments advanced by the two debaters. Rather it was related to the fact that the conservative movement had shifted dramatically to the left, and Jaffa’s views were more supportive of where that movement could be found by the late 1980s. For those of us old enough to recall, Jaffa’s positions were virtually identical to what liberal professors in American history had taught us in the 1960s, particularly after the civil rights movement became a popular cause. It was, for me, a surprise to hear similar positions presented as the true conservative ones about 20 years later. This may have inspired my discovery that American conservatives base their “permanent values” today on what the left believed yesterday.

Although I’m not sure that I would have framed my counterarguments exactly as Bradford did, his refutations had for me a familiar conservative tone. As Clyde Wilson observed to me in the 1980s, what Jaffa said “was not unusual, except when it was identified as conservative.” For better or worse, that may no longer be true.

Some final points may be in order about how the debates have been interpreted—or misinterpreted. Bradford was not vilified and then turned down for the directorship of the NEH because of what he wrote in response to Harry Jaffa. Rather, he was attacked by George Will, sundry neoconservative journalists, and the far leftist historian Eric Foner, mainly because of a footnote in an anthology of his essays. There he had compared Lincoln’s invasion of and the Union Army’s laying waste to the South to Cromwell’s devastation of Ireland and Hitler’s attack on Germany’s neighbors.

Another charge thrown at Bradford in 1981 was that he had backed George Wallace for the presidency in 1968. The debates in Modern Age were never a factor here. They may have been too academic for the immediate purpose of removing Bradford from the race for the NEH directorship. It might even be argued that these exchanges helped bring broader national recognition to Bradford, who was then a professor of literature at the University of Dallas.

Equally relevant, when Bradford was under consideration for the NEH directorship, Jaffa was openly on his side. Although Jaffa’s disciples never treated Bradford with any respect, their mentor viewed his debating partner as a friend, although one with whom he had obvious philosophical differences. Another surprising well-wisher of Bradford’s was Eugene Genovese, who began reading the debates while still a self-identified Marxist and who was impressed by the force of Bradford’s arguments. Although not a conservative at the time, Genovese believed that Bradford had acquitted himself well. One may want to extend the same praise to Jaffa, even if the conservatism he believed he was upholding was not recognizable as such. We may doubt that any establishment conservative publication would any longer hold such debates between those holding such widely contrasting opinions on sensitive subjects.

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