By Forrest McDonald and Clyde Wilson. These essays were originally published in the Fall 1982 issue of Southern Partisan.
A review of M.E. Bradford, A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution. Marlborough, NH: Plymouth Rock Foundation, 1982 and M.E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason: Studies in the American Revolution. La Salle, Ill.: Sherwood Sugden, 1979. Hardcover and paperback.
Most readers of Southern Partisan are aware of who M.E. Bradford is, and all should be: he is a brilliant and prolific scholar and an unreconstructed Southerner in the Vanderbilt Agrarian tradition. He is currently working on a monumental undertaking, the preparation of a new edition of Jonathan Elliot’s Debates of the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution. The present volume, a collection of biographical sketches of the fifty-five men who wrote the Constitution, is a by-product of that larger work.
The sketches are utter gems. Each begins with a general appraisal and is followed by a brief survey of the delegate’s pre-1787 career, an analysis of his behavior and attitudes in the convention, and a summary account of his post-convention life. To each sketch Bradford brings not only great learning but also, to paraphrase what he says of the Pennsylvania delegate Gouverneur Morris, wit, good humor, great literary gifts, and a completely formed political philosophy.
A few samples will illustrate the flavor. Regarding Morris himself: “His unsentimental evaluation of human nature often shocked his opponents in these debates. The depravity of man was his axiom. And for advanced views of a metaphysical human equality, he had only cheerful contempt: ‘He who wishes to enjoy natural Rights must establish himself where natural Rights are admitted. He must live alone.’”
On the great Delaware delegate John Dickinson: “An instance of Dickinson’s protective concern for institutions rooted in place and history, grown but not made, is his constant reference to the advantage of giving influence in the Congress and in other features of the fundamental law to the thirteen state legislatures…. With many of his associates he foresaw the ominous prospect of a greedy proletariat in America’s future, a propertyless mass ready to vote itself the properties of other and better men. But he also agreed with the decided Antifederalists that concentrated national authority might readily be converted into an instrument for creating an artificial aristocracy of ‘placemen,’ friends of the administration in power made wealthy by economic privilege and sponsorship.”
Bradford clearly admires the great Virginian George Mason, perhaps because he believed that “the proper conclusion of a revolution made against the abuse of authority was not to provide for a repetition of that abuse;” or because Mason “had learned from Roman history, [that] power is most safely entrusted to those who have something better to do and who prefer a private station.” Just as clearly he dislikes the Pennsylvanian James Wilson, “a metaphysical progressive who thought of the state as an instrument for the pursuit of perfection,…a philosophe of democracy who first attacked the peculiar institution and then bought slaves. A dialectician who could ‘bewilder truth in all the mazes of sophistry, and render the plainest proposition problematical’…. [Wilson went] so far as to suggest that the highest purpose of union was the ‘reformation’ of the human mind.”
Except in a brief introduction, Bradford offers few generalizations about the delegates as a body, preferring instead to let the data and the insights cumulatively overwhelm the reader. The author is, among other things, Christian, contemptuous of the French Enlightenment, a foe of egalitarian democracy, a believer in States’ rights, and an opponent of judicial activism. Without the slightest twisting of the evidence, his sketches show that the vast majority of the delegates shared each of these beliefs and attitudes. For instance, fifty (and possibly fifty-two) of the delegates were Christians.
The flaws in the book are few and inconsequential. There are a handful of typographical errors, the most common and curious being a semicolon which, gremlin-like, pops up in the middle of a sentence half a dozen times without any relation to the context. Gouverneur Morris was 28, not 24, when he lost his leg; John Blair of Virginia, though properly identified in the sketch, is called James Blair in the heading (p. 171); Nathaniel Gorham, though well and accurately depicted in the sketch, is unaccountably called Robert Gorham in the Introduction (p. xii). But these are trivial shortcomings which can be corrected in subsequent printings.
There is something here for everyone, even the specialist. I have been studying the Founders for a third of a century, and I have learned from this book—for example, that no less a nationalist than Gourverneur Morris advocated secession of New York and New England during the War of 1812, and maintained that secession was warranted under the Constitution. Conservative general readers will find abundant surprises and delights at how closely the Founders’ ideas parallel their own. Thinking liberals, if that is not a contradiction in terms, will have their eyes opened. And devotees of the Southern Partisan will have their favorite prejudices confirmed.
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 1 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 muzzleloading 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 connotations 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 preservative 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 w’orld 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 modelled 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 selfcontradictory 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 and 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 pre-figured 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 futurecentered 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 M.E. Bradford.