A Review of M.E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution. 1979.
The world’s largest, most ancient, and most exemplary republic observed its bicentennial not long ago. One would expect such an occasion to be a time of rededication and renewal, of restoration and recovery. Instead, we had a value-free official celebration that was expensive, dull, and that touched only a small minority of citizens. At least the New Leftists of the People’s Bicentennial, unlike the middle class bureaucrats of the official observance, took the American Revolution seriously. Still, they failed to persuade most of us that the redheaded Southern planters, hardbitten New England fishermen, and cold-eyed backcountry riflemen who fought it should be understood chiefly as predecessors of Mao and Fidel.
All the wealth, talent, and global power of the American mass media did not succeed, as far as I know, in producing one memorable show that portrayed the American founding meaningfully to the American people. We were allowed to read about Jefferson’s sex life and the rascal Aaron Burr and to view the romanticized adventures of African villagers snatched to bondage in America. But apparently the deeds of George Washington, Patrick Henry, Sam Adams, or Francis Marion, the events of Lexington, Saratoga, Valley Forge, or Kings Mountain, do not provide any stuff which the masters of the media find marketable.
All in all, one suspects that those Americans who came closer to partaking of the spirit of the Revolution were that small number who dressed up in uniforms and fired off muzzle-loading muskets. At least their intent was to commemorate an inheritance that was genuinely, if sometimes dimly felt, rather than to celebrate in an orgy of self-congratulation something appreciated perversely or not at all.
The lack of energy, conviction, and meaning in the bicentennial provides the best evidence, though other proofs are all around us, of how alienated the American people have become from their roots. In fact, we are on the verge of ceasing to have any identity at all as a people, of ceasing to acknowledge any kinship that transcends allegiance to a shared standard of living.
If you agree with the foregoing analysis, then you will also agree with Jeffrey Hart, Professor of English at Dartmouth University and an editor of National Review, who writes in the Introduction to A Better Guide Than Reason that some of the essays in this book “are among the most important of our time.” For Bradford, in a stunning feat of intellectual courage and originality, has done nothing less than to provide us with the necessary means to rediscover our founding, the original basis of our commonwealth.
Under Bradford’s direction, we can grasp for ourselves the identify of the American people at the founding of the Republic, free and clear of the obfuscations and misrepresentations piled up by succeeding generations of partisans. He has made it possible for us to see clearly for the first time in more than a century the nature and import of that process by which the scattered English inhabitants of North America articulated themselves into a republican realm. He tells us in a full-blooded and circumstantial account what our forefathers were like, what they believed and why, what they meant and what they did not mean in the great documents to which they pledged their lives, fortunes, and honor.
A providentially peculiar combination of training and heritage laid the groundwork for this achievement. Bradford, Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Dallas, is by vocation a student of literature and by heritage a Southern Agrarian. For him, as for our Founding Fathers, politics, history, and literature are not separate, mutually exclusive, and merely technical activities. History and literature are moral and aesthetic studies, the ends of which are the cultivation of good men. And since the quality of men is defined, collectively, by the quality of their citizenship, politics and literature are by nature a seamless fabric. It is part of Bradford’s feat that he has miraculously restored the fabric.
As a student of literature, and particularly the highly political English literature of the century prior to the American war, he reads the great documents of the American founding with a lost apprehension of the con-notations of the language in which they were written. As a Southerner, he reads these same documents with an inherited appreciation of how the American communities that produced them actually worked. For as Bradford points out, Southern things are the most American of American things.
Bradford’s eleven essays have a three-fold thrust. One group aims at recovering the American Revolution that was understood by the men who made it. Characterized in the English tradition out of which it came, this Revolution was “Old Whig” or “Country Whig.” It looked backward rather than forward; it was preservarive of customary values and arrangements; it happened in reaction to innovations of the British government and was not a manifestation of a radicalized impulse for remaking the world by a Utopian calculus. Many would agree with Bradford that the American Revolution was a conservative event, but no other writer has matched his portrayal of why and how that was so.
Among this first group are essays on three Founding Fathers whose neglect in recent years has been, Bradford suggests, deliberate. A full understanding of these men and of how representative they were would undermine many partial and peculiar interpretations that have been put forward of the meaning of the Revolution. The three are Patrick Henry of Virginia, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania who, though unknown today was perhaps the most revered American of his time except for Washington, and William Henry Drayton of South Carolina.
Among the essays designed to recover the import of the Revolution we can place also the initial one which takes up our forefathers’ identification with the history of republican Rome. The Roman Republic, after which Americans modeled their own, was one in which citizenship consisted of shared manes and mores, access to a common law, and a strenuous sense of patriotism—not a republic of undiscriminating access to rights and privileges.
Bradford’s second group of essays have to do with the derailment of the Old Whig tradition in the 19th century. He finds in the implemented political thought of Abraham Lincoln “a rhetoric for continuing revolution.” Lincoln’s selective reading of the Declaration of Independence, with an unduly emphasized and distorted interpretation of the concept of equality, injected into the American body politic a messianic style and disintegrative ferment that still bedevil us. Paradoxically, Lincoln’s inheritance remains a crippling and self-contradictory impediment in the train of many of those Americans who style themselves conservatives.
Two essays provide the background for Lincoln’s derailment of American tradition. One is a devoir to Russell Kirk, the other a comparison of Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography with Thomas Jefferson’s only book, Notes on the State of Virginia. The American tradition was bipolar. Counterposed to the predominant Old Whiggery of the South and Middle States was the Puritan inheritance of New England which implanted deeply in the American fabric a latent proclivity for destructive rebellion as opposed to the restorative effort of the original War of Independence.
In laying out the fundamental differences between Jefferson arid Franklin, often thought to be on the same wing of the Revolution, liberals and cosmopolitans together, Bradford is at his most subtle and skillful. They were very different kinds of cosmopolitans and liberals. Jefferson, whatever his private opinions, was as a public man first and always a Virginian, navigating with reference to the fixed star of Virginia law and custom. Franklin prefigured the modern American—a rootless solipsist, literally a self-made man, gliding and manipulating his pleasant and benevolent way through a world that lacked any stable identity.
Bradford’s third point relates his understanding of the American Revolution to the populist tradition. He identifies himself clearly with those Americans who live actually or in spirit “up at the forks of the creek”— those who feel government primarily as an unfriendly outside force aimed at manipulating the settled and revered things—from Bacon’s Rebellion of the 1670’s to the anti-busing campaigns of the 1970’s. He affirms the ancientry and legitimacy of this way of thinking and suggests that it still lies endemic though unrecognized in the American body politic.
American scholars, as a rule, value intense analysis of small questions and effect a scientific neutrality. Small questions often lead to sterility and neutrality sometimes leads to enslavement to some abstract and future-centered ideal. Bradford’s breadth of learning in history, literature, and political thought is grandly anomalous. He writes with old-fashioned eloquence, informed by the love of a living community of people.
The best revolutions are restorative —what Jefferson had in mind when he advocated a little one now and then. Not revolution that uproots the healthy trunk but that which cuts away the excrescences and overgrowths so that the trunk may breathe. In that sense no one who reads and digests A Better Guide can fail to be revolutionized. We had thought that the great Southern political tradition —that of Patrick Henry and Jefferson, John Taylor and John Randolph, Calhoun and Davis, the 19th century agrarians and the 20th century Agraians—was dead. Not so; it is alive and well and those worthy spokesmen of the South have found a worthy successor in ME. Bradford.