Mel Bradford and the Defense of Southern Conservatism

mel bradford

This past May 8 would have been the late Melvin E. Bradford’s 80th birthday. That the anniversary passed without much, if any, commentary is not surprising, given the intellectual tenor now prevalent in American society. Bradford–Mel, to his friends–was an incredible and fluent scholar, extremely well versed in the literature of the American South. He was a superb historian of the founding of the United States and arguably the dean, along with Clyde Wilson, of a group of brilliant Southern intellectuals who refused to accept the increasing veil of political correctness that strangles discussion and stifles legitimate investigation into the complex history of the South.

As a professor at the University of Dallas for many years, Bradford established a national reputation for his excellence in teaching. Several of his books remain testaments to his erudition and intellect, including: A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution; A Worthy Company (brief biographies of the American founders); Generations of the Faithful Heart (on Southern literature); and very notably his study of the framing of the American Constitution, Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution (1993). His essays appeared in publications ranging from National Review and the Sewanee Review, to the South Atlantic Quarterly and the Wake Forest Law Review. Many of these have been collected in various edited volumes. An appreciation of his accomplishments, A Defender of Southern Conservatism: M. E. Bradford and His Achievements (University of Missouri Press, 1999), is well worth exploring, and includes moving tributes by both Eugene and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese.

Beginning in the early 1970s and continuing on for twenty years, Bradford engaged in an ongoing conversation–a scholarly debate, mostly printed in the quarterly journal Modern Age–with Harry Jaffa, professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, over the philosophy of Abraham Lincoln and his role in American history. It was this long-running series of exchanges that eventually got Mel into trouble with newly-dominant neoconservatives who were rapidly establishing their control over the “conservative movement.” The defining watershed came with his candidacy to become head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981) under President Ronald Reagan.

Starting with George Will and descending on down into the realms of less fluent neocon writers, Bradford was attacked mercilessly, for the most part because he did not worship at the shrine of Abraham Lincoln, but also because he represented a threat to the then-growing neoconservative ascendancy in the ranks of movement conservatism. After that, when his name was mentioned as a candidate for Archivist of the United States, he was similarly torpedoed, again by the same group of intellectual terrorists.

For twenty-three years, Mel was a dear and close friend. On several occasions while researching books over at University of North Carolina, at Duke, and at the N.C. State Archives, he stayed with me. I shall always remember the last time we spent some time together: it was in Savannah, at a confab of former Richard Weaver Fellows in early 1993. In little more than a month he was dead, and the traditional South had lost an elegant and informed voice, a grand historian and commentator, a man steeped in Southern literature and history, whose writing will forever remain a model of written discourse and elegant communication. Perhaps above all, Mel exemplified what it was to be a Southern gentleman, a gentle soul, who brought together all the virtues that our ancestors possessed and hoped to pass on. He lived the South, its traditions, its people. He possessed what Burke called, “the unbought grace of life.”

That is why the shameful and vicious attacks upon him and his character when he was up for the NEH position in 1981 and later were so despicable and inexcusable.

Mel took all these slings and arrows with equanimity and the kind of spiritual understanding that most of us lack. He continued to write and speak, and his later publications—his seminal volume on the American Founding, Original Intentions, and his edited and annotated volume of Elliot’s Debates—remain a supreme testimony to his superb intellectual gift and labors. And since his death several volumes of his insightful essays have also appeared, not to mention appreciations by such distinguished historians as the late Eugene Genovese.

There is perhaps no one better qualified, then, to give definition to what exactly “Southern Conservatism” is and entails. Certainly, such a view of life, its traditions and heritage, are under very severe attack today, and not just from the politically-correct historical establishment. Indeed, millions of immigrants from other parts of the country have decided that the nicer climate in the South and the lower taxes and nicer folks make it a good retirement or stopping place; after all, who really wants to live in colder climes when a nice home, usually much less expensive, and lower taxes can be had in north Raleigh, Charleston, or Marietta?

But that isn’t the only challenge; no, many of those graced with being born in the South, having received that inheritance and legacy, now shun it or are ashamed of it. “Maybe people will look down on me if I put a Confederate license plate on my car?” “Maybe they will think I’m a hick or redneck!” It is the abject and miserable ignorance and pusillanimity of such natives that always manages to try my patience. Failure of our schools? Yes! Failure of our media? By all means! But also, failure of my generation to pass on that grace of life that the late Southern author and poet Donald Davidson illuminates and speaks of in his epic poem, “Lee in the Mountains”.

Mel Bradford loved the last lines of Davidson’s marvelous narrative poem, one of the finest works of Southern poesy written in the twentieth century, and indeed, one of the finest works of poetry ever written in the English language. Here is Davidson remembering the past and recalling that, in the words of Faulkner, for the true Southerner, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Young men, the God of your fathers is a just

And merciful God Who in this blood once shed

On your green altars measures out all days,

And measures out the grace

Whereby alone we live;

And in His might He waits,

Brooding within the certitude of time,

To bring this lost forsaken valor

And the fierce faith undying

And the love quenchless

To flower among the hills to which we cleave,

To fruit upon the mountains whither we flee,

Never forsaking, never denying

His children and His children’s children forever

Unto all generations of the faithful heart.

Mel Bradford understood and lived Davidson’s summons to resilience. He embraced his inheritance and wrote well of it. And he challenged us to embrace our heritage and intelligently defend it, passing it on to faithful generations that follow.

About Boyd Cathey

Boyd D. Cathey holds a doctorate in European history from the Catholic University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain, where he was a Richard Weaver Fellow, and an MA in intellectual history from the University of Virginia (as a Jefferson Fellow). He was assistant to conservative author and philosopher the late Russell Kirk. In more recent years he served as State Registrar of the North Carolina Division of Archives and History. He has published in French, Spanish, and English, on historical subjects as well as classical music and opera. He is active in the Sons of Confederate Veterans and various historical, archival, and genealogical organizations. More from Boyd Cathey

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