Anyone who met M. E. Bradford was unlikely to forget him. There was his imposing bulk and his Stetson cowboy hat, but that was just the trimming. This Oklahoman, long a fixture at the University of Dallas, radiated vast erudition, lightly worn and easily shared, often in colloquial language. He emitted goodwill and sparkling humor, fused with an antique courtly courtesy for all. Bradford was steeped in the history of Southern literature, much like Donald Davidson, the Agrarian man of letters and poet under whom he wrote his dissertation at Vanderbilt University. Conventionally ambitious politicians and public intellectuals didn’t know what to make of this unswerving conservative and were puzzled by his old-fashioned persona. But those who understood the originality and importance of his scholarship revered him.
Bradford’s experience with the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) may have been, in terms of his scholarly accomplishments, the least important part of his distinguished career. He was among a small band of conservative intellectuals who had pursued a lonely and career-costly campaign of ideas in the 1960s and 1970s. The election of Ronald Reagan encouraged us to think that we had at last found a place in the American public forum. In 1980, Reagan nominated Bradford to head the NEH and an impressive array of Senators endorsed him. Because of Bradford’s extensive grounding in literature, history, and political thought, he seemed a fit choice to run an institution dedicated to fostering the humanities.
How naive we were, including Mel Bradford! There were others who were not interested in a debate over ideas but who saw in the NEH a grand opportunity for shelling out patronage. Thus we witnessed a neoconservative blitzkrieg designed to undermine Bradford’s appointment, which included the repeated disappearance of Bradford’s files, the tortured interpretation of a footnote in one of his many books, and an orchestrated smear in the press. There was neither learning nor character enough in the Republican Party to resist this well-coordinated onslaught. The lack of serious thought that finally went into the NEH appointment becomes clear when one considers that a manager for Reagan’s appointment files was an Orange County businessman who thought Bradford’s essay on Edmund Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen” was about homosexuals.
Bradford withdrew, and the NEH appointment went to a Democrat, the far less scholarly William Bennett, backed by the neocon faction. As far as I know, Bennett did what was expected of him and provided his patrons with lots of grant money. The operation against Bradford was a watershed moment in the divergence between the old right, who became the paleoconservatives, and the neoconservatives, who went on to acquire increasing power in government posts. Their influence over American foreign policy led to catastrophic consequences in the Middle East, most unfortunately in an attack on Iraq after 9/11, the implications of which we still have not fully extricated ourselves from.
A great deal could be said about Bradford’s scholarship and the continuing influence it has had on thoughtful people. To deal briefly with this achievement, I will mention four of his many insights. First, his demonstration that the American War of Independence was not a revolution made, but a revolution forestalled. Unlike the French Revolution, the Founders acted to preserve their existing self-governing societies, not to overturn society and launch a global revolution for equality. This was as true for the Northern Founders, whom Bradford studied closely, as it was for their Southern counterparts. This emphasis on the self-government of natural communities has generally been typical of the plain folk—us deplorables—who resist intrusive government tyranny and are wary of global crusades.
Second, Bradford showed that Lincoln abandoned the moderate aspects of the Founding, at least rhetorically. In an attempt to give the Union invasion of the seceded South a universal justification, this wartime president appealed to a transformed America that would engage in a “continuing revolution” for the delusive goal of equality. This, in a more radicalized form, is the regime that we continue to live under today. To commit our lives and treasure to such a campaign has been to sow mischief abroad as well as to pursue leveling social experiments at home.
Third was Bradford’s attention to Southern literature as the expression of a culture that stood apart from the American mainstream. American writers have generally considered themselves to be alienated rebels against a defective society. The great Southern writers of the 20th century, from Faulkner on down, as Bradford showed, were the faithful, non-alienated bards of the South. They might criticize the folk back home but always, until very recently, identified with their kin and region.
Fourth was his continuation and expansion of the wisdom of the Southern Agrarians—a campaign that earlier defenders of Southern values, Richard Weaver and Bradford’s teacher Davidson, had begun—a wisdom that goes against the American grain but has never failed to find disciples. In the march of life, this Agrarian vision has never lost its relevance when we speak about a genuine American “conservatism” that is rooted in a sense of place.
Those who share that vision shun the worship of material “progress,” particularly when that progress is linked to government efforts to improve human nature. Like the Agrarians, Bradford also recognized in his writings and speeches that political and economic centralization of power destroys the liberty and well-being of a people. As a moral teacher, he finally condemned the “bigness” sought by Americans eager to stretch the republic into an empire, as another false idol that turns us away from the local and humane. He understood that a culture “poured in from the top” in the modern American way is no culture at all. Genuine culture arises from a settled people, skips middle class “learning,” and finds ultimate expression in the occasional natural appearance of genius.
Bradford had become nationally known as a controversialist, even before his unhappy experience with the NEH, due to his debates with Lincoln enthusiast Harry V. Jaffa. These generally civil discussions centered on the question of whether equality should be celebrated as a conservative value. At the time of this exchange, Eugene Genovese, though still nominally a Marxist, let it be known that, “Mel had won hands-down.”
Perhaps we should end this sketch of a truly wise scholar with this representative passage of his work, from his book A Better Guide Than Reason:
Let us have no foolishness, indeed. Equality as a moral or political imperative, pursued as an end in itself—Equality, with the capital ‘E’—is the antonym of every legitimate conservative principle. Contrary to most Liberals, new and old, it is nothing less than sophistry to distinguish between equality of opportunity (equal starts in the ‘race of life’) and equality of condition (equal results). For only those who are equal can take equal advantage of a given circumstance.