The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

February 21, 2019

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Bradford, M. E.
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Lifespan: (1934–1993)

An Old Right conservative, traditionalist, and follower of Edmund Burke, the Anti-Federalists, and the Southern Agrarians, Melvin E. Bradford was born and reared in Fort Worth, Texas. He received his B.A. and M.A. in English from the University of Oklahoma and his Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University. He then taught English at the United States Naval Academy, Vanderbilt, Hardin-Simmons University, Northwestern State University of Louisiana, and—from 1967 until his untimely death in 1993—the University of Dallas. Though formally trained in literature, Bradford is primarily known among conservatives (as well as intellectuals on the Left) for his contributions to discussions of the ideas, men, and documents associated with the American Revolution. He is less known for his insightful literary studies (largely of Southern writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and the leading Fugitives and Agrarians—Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, Andrew Lytle, Robert Penn Warren, Frank Owsley, and John Crowe Ransom) and for his writings on American culture and politics.

Bradford studied with Davidson, Randall Stewart, and others at Vanderbilt (1959–1962), enjoying the essentially conservative and intellectually stimulating atmosphere of the English department at the university. Instinctively drawn to tradition, Bradford defined and articulated his conservative views through reading and associating with other literate conservatives. His writings on the American Revolution remain his major contribution to conservative thought. The fruits of his study of the Revolution appear in A Better Guide Than Reason (1979); A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (1982); a revised edition titled Founding Fathers (1994); and Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution (1993). He also edited Arator (1977) by John Taylor of Caroline and coedited (with James McClellan) Jonathan Elliot’s Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (1989).

In his many writings on the Revolution, Bradford argues that the Declaration and the Constitution are conservative documents and that the American Revolution itself was a conservative event. His scholarly labors were intended to enable Americans to recover their inheritance and to understand the American Revolution and the federal Constitution as they were understood by the founding fathers. “A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity” (in A Better Guide Than Reason) epitomizes Bradford’s “teaching” on the Revolution. His close reading of Roman history and the writings of America’s founding fathers reveals the Roman roots of American political order. With compelling illustrations, Bradford shows that George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, John Adams, and others turned to Rome for a model of republican government. Like the Romans, they were committed to “blood, place, and history,” to custom, to “prescribed rights and ordinances,” not to a priori political formulas or to teleological, ameliorative visions of a blessed city on the hill. Like America’s founding fathers, Bradford himself urged Americans to turn to the “laboratory of antiquity” and “the lamp of experience” for political guidance, not to an energetic, progressive government charmed by abstract doctrines and theories concerning liberty, egalitarianism, and natural rights.

Bradford also wrote with distinction and conviction about literature, usually on Southern writers and their works. His “literary” studies illustrate that literature has more than aesthetic significance because of its social, cultural, and political implications. Bradford’s major essays on Southern literature appear in Generations of the Faithful Heart (1983), Remembering Who We Are (1985), and The Reactionary Imperative (1990). Taken from the last line of Davidson’s “Lee in the Mountains,” the title of Generations of the Faithful Heart indicates Bradford’s interest in Davidson and the other Agrarians—those poets, critics, and fiction writers who defended traditional Southern values and customs in the 1930s. Bradford edited two books concerned with Andrew Lytle: The Form Discovered: Essays on the Achievement of Andrew Lytle (1973) and From Eden to Babylon: The Social and Political Essays of Andrew Nelson Lytle (1990). In the latter volume’s introduction, Bradford notes why he so frequently treats the Agrarians in his writings: essentially the heirs of traditional European civilization, the Nashville Agrarians bridged the gap “between the limited-government, anti-ideological conservatives of the early Republic and those intellectuals and journalists who orchestrated a general revival of conservatism after 1945.” The South was not merely Bradford’s home: it was the unifying subject and theme of his teaching and writing. Bradford’s work attracted detractors, notably the “Straussian” followers of political scientist Harry Jaffa—and Jaffa himself. In more than 250 essays and reviews, Bradford and his opponents engaged in lively intellectual fisticuffs about the meaning and significance of the War Between the States, the Declaration of Independence, abstract natural rights, and Abraham Lincoln. These debates were not without personal significance for the parties involved. In a nasty fight, Bradford’s neoconservative opponents helped persuade Ronald Reagan not to nominate him as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the early ’80s, a position that went to William J. Bennett instead. The resulting rancor led directly to the public split between the neo-and paleoconservatives. Bradford campaigned for Goldwater in 1964, for Wallace in 1972, for Reagan in 1976 and 1980, and for Buchanan in 1992. He served as president of the Philadelphia Society in 1985 and 1986. His labors as teacher-scholar and citizen earned him a prominent place in the post–World War II conservative movement. He opposed all ideologies (political and literary) and consistently championed traditional conservatism. With his untimely death at the age of 58, the American Right lost one of its most distinctive voices.

Further Reading
  • Wilson, Clyde N., ed. A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M. E. Bradford and His Achievements. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri Press, 1999.
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