In the 1970’s, Mel Bradford and I were teaching at the University of Dallas, which offered a doctoral program in politics and literature.  Students took courses in both disciplines.  It was a well-designed curriculum and produced some first-rate scholars.

Bradford had long been interested in political theory, but the program probably encouraged him to read more extensively in this area and to write articles and (eventually) books on the subject.  In fact, the time arrived when he had published more commentary on political matters than the entire politics department.  His articles on Abraham Lincoln—only four—caused the greatest stir, since, in them, he explicated texts in a way that revealed a Lincoln incompatible with the iconic figure on the penny and five-dollar bill.

When Bradford had become, as he ironically put it, “unbearably distinguished,” Leo Paul de Alvarez, head of the politics department, arranged a formal debate on the subject of Lincoln and slavery: established scholar Harry Jaffa versus upstart Mel Bradford.  Mel and I suspected that the true purpose of the occasion was to humiliate him in front of the U.D. student body and send him yelping into the bushes, tail between his legs.

I don’t remember who kicked off the debate; but once under way, it took an unexpected turn.  What was supposed to be a Jaffa-dominated exchange became, instead, a Bradford-dominated history lesson.  Jaffa would offer abstractions about slavery in the South, and Bradford would correct him by citing primary historical sources (tax records, census reports, studies of wills filed in county courthouses)—evidence unknown to the faculty of Claremont.  The audience might well have concluded that Bradford had read everything published on the subject, while Jaffa had read little more than the Lincoln-Douglas debates and the Declaration of Independence.

Jaffa, unfazed by this barrage of erudition, continued to counter facts with generalities.  He apparently agreed with fellow Straussian Henry Ford, who once said, “History is bunk.”  I am sure Jaffa’s admirers believed he won the debate that night.  I doubt that anyone else in that huge crowd thought so.

The dynamic of the exchange between Bradford and Jaffa exposed for that audience the tendency of Straussians to dismiss any attention to the full historical context of a political document as “historicism,” a form of relativism.  Societies are transient; principles are eternal.  It is dangerous to tie a document such as the Declaration of Independence to the time in which it was written.  You might be snatched up by the Spirit of the Age and swallowed whole.

Yet, if we are to understand texts, history—composed of the particularities of time and place—is essential, if only to clothe bare-bones abstractions with flesh and blood.  Like God, abstract truth is best understood when incarnate.  Facts worry principles into shape, kneading them like biscuit dough.  If principles are true, their substance remains unchanged.

More to the point, people who ignore history while finding Truth in political documents presume that they can transcend their own temporal and cultural limitations.  It is bad enough to believe that past political texts were written not for the people of that age but for the gods.  It is even worse to presume that you are one of those gods.  When Archimedes said, “Give me a fulcrum and a place to stand, and I will move the whole world,” he knew he would never have to make good on his boast.  Straussians, however, believe they have found such a place, where they can transcend the limitations of time and culture to do what Archimedes could only dream of doing.

Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, tells of passing the museum’s Tang horse daily and viewing it with growing suspicion.  Acquired in the 19th century as an authentic piece from the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-906), the horse—to Hoving’s educated eye—began to look more and more Victorian.  On a hunch, he had it tested and found that, sure enough, it was a 19th-century fake.

The piece had fooled earlier experts because they were prisoners of their Victorian sensibilities, unable to see their own unique age in the lines of the counterfeit horse.  Because he was trained to do so, Hoving could see both the genuine Tang elements and the Victorian overlay.

Will scholars in the late 21st century be able to see the late 20th-century bias in the godlike pronouncements of Jaffa and his disciples?  Surely they will.  Too many believe that all Dead White Males of consequence anticipated Francis Fukuyama in advocating some form of liberal democracy—the best Greek philosophers and historians, Shakespeare, even Machiavelli.  Thus, the Ashbrook Center describes Leo Paul de Alvarez’s argument in The Machiavellian Enterprise as follows: “As the ‘first political philosopher to turn to the many instead of the few as the basis of rule,’ claims de Alvarez, Machiavelli sought to replace the domination of the Christian Rome with a civil, secular, and egalitarian state.”

This Fukuyavellian imposition of the Straussian political paradigm on the works of earlier writers is nothing less than a war on the past, with the ultimate goal to reduce it to rubble, plow it under, and sow salt on it.  Yet, like the past, a text has an integrity all its own, a unique identity derived in large measure from the denotation of words, their connotations, and their historical context.  If you are not attentive to these elements, a key word can undergo significant transmutation right before your uncomprehending eyes.  Take, for example, the poem “Lapis Lazuli,” by William Butler Yeats, which begins:

I have heard that hysterical women say


They are sick of the palette and fiddle-bow.

Of poets that are always gay.

You can readily imagine what a current student at Brown University would make of these lines in a term paper entitled “Yeats and Female Homophobia.”  The poem deserves to be read in its original language rather than in the debased rhetoric of contemporary sexual politics, and that older language can only be recovered by adopting an historical perspective toward the text—easy enough to do with a poem this recent; not so easy, perhaps, in 100 years.

The typical Straussian refuses to submit to the formidable complexities of the past.  After all, it is comfortable and self-serving to hear your own beliefs echoed in the voice of Shakespeare.  So you treat the Bard as if he were living next door to you, mowing his lawn on weekends, fighting rush-hour traffic, listening to the Dixie Chicks.

Sometimes, however, you run across language that runs contrary to your Fukuyavellian thesis—and in the most embarrassing places.  Take Harry Jaffa’s problem with the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln, who, he argues, refounded America as a nation informed by the principle of equality.  Jaffa believes Lincoln hoped to create an egalitarian society in which blacks and whites would live together without prejudice.  Lincoln’s words tell a different story.  Here is an excerpt from his debate with Stephen Douglas, held at Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, 1858.


I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races.  There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.  I have never said anything to the contrary, but I hold that, notwithstanding all this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  [Loud cheers.]


I hold that he is as much entitled to these as the white man.  I agree with Judge Douglas he is not my equal in many respects—certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowment.

In the same speech, Lincoln reassured the crowd that Southerners would not use force to impose blacks on Illinois, which had earlier outlawed their very presence: “There is no danger,” he said, “that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets, and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us.”

As for Jaffa’s egalitarian dream, Lincoln undercut such an idea in his 1857 speech on the Dred Scott case.  Here, he came out in favor of shipping them off to Africa to prevent miscegenation.  (“I have said that the separation of the races is the only perfect preventive of amalgamation.”)  He admits that “colonization” (an Orwellian term) will be a daunting task, but that the Power of Positive Thinking can work to overcome the obstacles.

Such separation, if ever effected at all, must be effected by colonization; and no political party, as such, is now doing anything directly for colonization.  Party operations at present only favor or retard colonization incidentally.  The enterprise is a difficult one; but “where there is a will there is a way;” and what colonization needs most is a hearty will.

So how does Jaffa deal with these statements?  He does what Straussians too often do when the text they have brought to obedience school turns on them and bares its fangs: They find hidden meaning in the work (“secret writing”) or simply stand it on its head.  The author seems to be saying one thing but is actually saying another.  Passages that appear to be straightforward are, instead, ironic, and only the explicator can read the coded message tucked between the lines.  Machiavelli was really a moderate democrat.  When Mark Antony says, “This was the noblest Roman of them all,” he doesn’t mean a word of it.  In a similar circumvention of the obvious, Jaffa says Lincoln made these remarks only because such rhetoric was necessary to be elected in racist Illinois.  When Joe Sobran took Lincoln’s statements about race at face value, Jaffa reproved him for not taking history into account: “To understand this however requires some historical imagination—putting oneself in the place of someone in an earlier age—something Sobran seems unable to do.”

For a scholar with Straussian contempt for history, Jaffa has his nerve.  It is not that he fails to make use of historical facts while creating his fairy tale.  In his work, facts are more numerous than the sands of the desert.  He recites names, dates, and events as readily as a bright third grader recites the multiplication tables.  But his imagination is by no means historical.  It refuses to submit to history.  It is predatory.  It possesses the past, driving out its true spirit, reconfiguring its soul.

Almost anyone can imagine that Lincoln might adapt his campaign rhetoric to the prejudices of those whose vote he was seeking.  However, no one with a submissive historical imagination could attribute to a mid-19th-century politician the kind of egalitarian sensibilities that Jaffa has attributed to Abraham Lincoln, particularly given Lincoln’s comments on the subject of equality and his careful delineation of its limits.  The real Lincoln, as opposed to Jaffa’s 20th-century Lincoln, would never have been so moonstruck as to believe in the 1850’s that he could actually implement such an anachronistic plan.

Also, if Lincoln lied about his racial views, can we not, through the exercise of our historical imaginations, conclude that he also lied about his opposition to slavery?  After all, to run against Stephen Douglas, he had to oppose its extension.  Douglas had authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which overrode the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to expand.  Had Lincoln not taken the opposite position, he would have had no significant issue to differentiate himself from the popular incumbent senator.

Frederick Douglass—Abraham Lincoln’s contemporary and, therefore, a man who, in evaluating the Great Emancipator, had no need for an historical imagination—said at the dedication of a memorial to the fallen president:

He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.  He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country . . . He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states.  He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government.

Would it not be a proper exercise of the historical imagination to accept Douglass’s evaluation and admit that Lincoln harbored the prejudices of 19th-century white men from Illinois?  Why not grant him a special insight into the injustice of plantation life, but stop short of turning him into a civil-rights leader, marching on Selma?  The answer from Claremont is likely to be charges of bigotry, racism, and neoconfederacy.

Years after the last Jaffa-Bradford debate, I dropped by the Free Congress Foundation in Washington to see Mike Schwartz, whom I had taught at the University of Dallas and who was then working with Paul Weyrich.  On our way to Mike’s office, we came into a room where Harry Jaffa was seated on a sofa, talking to a young woman.  As we passed through, I heard her ask him, “But why would Bradford say such a thing?”

“Because,” Jaffa replied, “he believes in slavery.”

Shocked, I stopped.

“Why Harry, I never heard him say anything like that.”

“That’s because you don’t know him as well as I do,” he said with a smile.  “If you were to get him behind closed doors and give him a drink or two, he’d tell you the same thing.”

Mike burst out laughing, remembering that I was Mel Bradford’s closest friend and that I knew precisely what he thought about slavery, which he once called in print the worst tragedy in our nation’s history.

Was Jaffa simply lying?  I don’t think so.  Straussians don’t have to lie.  They have the power to transform the written word into the image of their heart’s desire.  I presume they can do the same thing with people—remove them from their context, explicate them, transform them into what they really ought to be, as opposed to what they merely are.  Jaffa knew in his heart that Bradford believed in slavery because whatever Bradford did tell him (behind closed doors after a couple of drinks) was something like secret writing, a sly way of saying one thing and meaning another.  In the Straussian paradigm, Bradford had to have a whip in his hand, so Jaffa placed it there, just as he placed the “I Have a Dream” speech in the head of Abraham Lincoln.