Mr. Right

Dallas professor Mel Bradford thinks that Abe Lincoln was a scoundrel and that equality is nonsense. I had to find out why.

March 1992By Comments

UNTIL WE SAT DOWN FOR SEVERAL HOURS last December and talked about our separate views of America, my guess was that University of Dallas professor and political essayist Mel Bradford had cloven hooves and ate babies. What is one to make of an intellectual who despises Abraham Lincoln, believes that equality is a humbug, and compares the Ku Klux Klan of the nineteenth century with the French resistance of World War II?

I was curious about Bradford not because we were so different but because we had so many things in common. Our backgrounds are strikingly similar. We are exactly the same age, 57, and we grew up less than ten miles from one another: Bradford in the Riverside section of Fort Worth and I in Arlington. Bradford’s ancestors migrated to Texas from Alabama and Tennessee more than a century ago, the same as mine did; his mother’s family arrived in the 1830’s as part of the Robertson Colony, which makes him a sixth-generation Texan. For the most part, our lives were shaped by the same events—boyhoods infused with provincialism (anyone born north of Texarkana was a Yankee); heroic tales of the Texas Revolution, trail drives, and Indian wars; the unbridled patriotism of World War II; college and military service during the stridently anti-Communist fifties; careers launched at a time when the country was rocked by cataclysmic social changes—the most dramatic being the court decisions and legislation of the fifties and sixties that outlawed segregation. Yet I turned out to be a strong believer in equality and justice for all, a liberal of the fifties and sixties, while Bradford went in the opposite direction. Why had we come to such different conclusions about our country?

I knew a few other things about Bradford before we met. A professor of English and a Faulknerian scholar, Bradford is better known as a sort of gray eminence of the paleo-conservative movement. He is also an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Bradford’s views on Lincoln created such a fire storm among neoconservatives in 1981 that the Reagan administration was forced to scrap plans to nominate him to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, opting for the less controversial William Bennett. The media had a lot of fun with poor Mel Bradford during the NEH battle, poking its television cameras into his freshman class on Homer and accusing him of defaming the Declaration of Independence and of advocating a return to slavery—a charge Bradford goes out of his way to deny.

The bitterness of that experience lingers in some of Bradford’s essays and pronouncements. In a 1984 speech to a seminar of Lincoln scholars at Gettysburg (of all places), he took note of the fact that his views on Lincoln have been ridiculed by the media and concluded that “the press caricature of my view … is a confirmation of the case I make against the influence of the Lincoln myth.”

Bradford has published about fifty essays in Modern Age, National Review, and other conservative journals (many of which are included as chapters in his six books), savaging Lincoln, lamenting the fall of the Confederacy, and generally denouncing almost every new idea to come down the pike since the Missouri Compromise. His essays tend to be broad, dense, highly academic, heavily footnoted abstractions, with titles like “The Agrarian Inheritance: An Affirmation.” His central premise might be summarized in this sentence from the dust jacket of his book Remembering Who We Are: “The United States was not founded … with the idea of creating a society dedicated to either justice or equality, and all attempts to turn America in that direction have resulted in a perversion of the nation’s true origins.” Just last fall Bradford was involved in another ideological clash, when National Review refused to publish a review he wrote attacking a new book on Lincoln by James McPherson. Bradford protested by terminating his 25-year association with the publication.

To my surprise, I enjoyed my conversations with Bradford. Ideologues can have a certain charm. As long as they are not too stuffy or dogmatic, people who are convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong can be disarming. Bradford even demonstrated an occasional willingness to see the other side. At one point he mentioned the movie How Green Was My Valley, a 1941 epic about the wretched conditions in a Welsh mining village, and told me: “You can’t see that movie and not understand why some people are attracted to socialism.” He also revealed himself to be a closet environmentalist. “I oppose any regulation of private property,” he said, “but when I see some developer clear-cutting one-hundred-year-old trees, I want to pass a law to pound the hell out of him.” The ideology so apparent in his political essays does not invade his literary criticism. He despises James Joyce’s view of art as religion—“dangerous nonsense”—but enthusiastically teaches Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a work of art. And although he hates almost everything about the modern world, he makes exceptions for air conditioning and medicine. “Modern medicine has made it possible for people to live and die with some dignity,” he told me. “And it prevents the loss of our womenfolk, dying from childbirth. Our great-grand-fathers had to have three wives for that reason.”

Bradford is an extraordinarily large man, at least six foot four, with a girth the circumference of a tractor tire—think of Sydney Greenstreet. His voice rumbles with conviction and, at times, seems almost a parody of Southern authoritarianism. When Bradford commanded the Dallas County George Wallace delegation at the 1972 state Democratic convention, he was overheard telling an anxious huddle of Wallaceites: “I have orders from Montgomery!” Reporter Lee Cullum wrote in the Dallas Times Herald, “No one had paid any attention to orders from Montgomery in over 100 years, but Bradford spoke the line in a spirit of high drama.”

This obsession with the Old South, which separated Bradford from me and most others of our generation, had its roots in the way our respective families looked at the Civil War. When members of my family thought of the Civil War at all, they regarded it as a tragedy that was necessary to free the slaves and preserve the Union. It was something that happened a long time ago. Bradford’s family saw it as a tragedy too, but one still very close at hand. For Mel Bradford and his family, the Civil War was—is—a living, bleeding malignancy brought about by the cupidity of one man, Abraham Lincoln. Bradford’s Lincoln is one most Americans wouldn’t recognize—a posturing, manipulative, unprincipled scoundrel whose appetite for power was so out of control that he ordered 600,000 Americans to their death just so he could be reelected president. When Bradford sees the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, he told me, a visceral wave of loathing racks his entire body.

“I inherited what Burke called a prescriptive identity, just as I inherited my middle name,” said Bradford, whose middle name, by the way, is Eustace. “We were a storytelling people. All my life I heard stories about the Civil War, particularly from my grandmother and great-uncle. I had three great-grand-fathers who fought for the Confederacy, and one lost his leg at Chickamauga and suffered terribly from the wound for the remainder of his life. Emerson says that everyone belongs to the ‘party of memory’ or the ‘party of hope,’ and I grew up within the party of memory. Reconstructing the past helped my family define who we were.”

Bradford’s political thinking was greatly influenced by his father, the manager of a wholesale paper company in Fort Worth. E. A. Bradford was so conservative that he opposed Jim Crow laws in the South because he believed the regulations that segregation imposed on businesses were contrary to Southern tradition. His father also believed that the University of Texas was too radical, so young Mel attended the University of Oklahoma on a Naval Reserve Officers’ Training Corps scholarship. Not until he went on active duty as a junior ensign aboard the U.S.S. Hornet had he been around a broad cross section of people. “That’s where I realized that the point of departure in my thinking was different than most other Americans’,” Bradford recalled. Later, he taught at the Naval Academy and at Vanderbilt University, where he received his doctorate in English. While at Vanderbilt, he began writing for Southern literary quarterlies and conservative journals, slowly developing and refining an ideology that, as far as I can make out, sets out to prove that the Old South was right all along.

I had traveled to Dallas to learn Bradford’s views, not to debate him, but some of his pronouncements on the Confederacy got my blood pressure dangerously high. I asked Bradford to explain how any decent person could live comfortably with the institution of slavery.

“The way to look at the institution of slavery,” he replied, “is not backward from 1991 but forward from the hundred years before 1860. Slavery was like the rising and setting of the sun, a fixture of life. In pre-Colonial times, everyone was racist, except a few Quakers. Jefferson thought that Negroes were not capable of taking care of themselves, that they were somewhere between helpless children and orangutans.”

“What I remember Jefferson saying,” I told him, “is that blacks had been so crushed by their experience with whites that an interracial society wasn’t feasible. Did Southerners look on blacks as human beings?”

“Oh, yes. That’s why they tried so hard to Christianize them,” he said patiently. It was a question that he had addressed many times. In one essay, he wrote: “There is no purpose in extending the Divine Grace made available to men through the death of God’s son to creatures less than human.”

I then phrased a loaded question: “I know that you have written that equality is a ‘pseudoreligion,’ ‘the opiate of the masses in today’s world,’ ‘part of a larger and older passion for uniformity.’ But on a purely human level, how can you argue that simply because a person is black, that person shouldn’t have the same opportunity as anyone else?”

Bradford took extra care in wording his reply (this was one of the few times he used the word “black” rather than “Negro”). “I can understand,” he said slowly, “the outrage of a black person equipped to manage full membership in a white society and being prevented from doing so. I would feel the same way if I were black. On the other hand, a white mother not wanting her child assigned to a school where there is an undercurrent of violence and tension, a real danger—her attitude is perfectly human and natural, and to attribute it simply to racism is abusive.”

“And you don’t see yourself as a racist?” 

“I am not a scientific racist,” he replied. “I don’t believe that Negroes are genetically inferior. But history shows that blacks have had a hard time in this country, that they are a kind of fifth wheel. That’s just an observation of fact.”

Bradford’s bashing of Lincoln is only a small part of his literary outpouring, but it’s the part that has made him nationally known. His essays read like criminal indictments. For example, he charges that Lincoln was a tyrant who seized unprecedented power, instigated a system of income redistribution, arrested and imprisoned his political enemies without trial, closed newspapers that criticized him, allowed war profiteers to sell rotten beef and worthless guns, and put the priorities of his own political machine ahead of the lives and well-being of his soldiers. Bradford portrays Lincoln as a systematic racist, pointing out that as a lawyer before the war, Lincoln filed a case in Kentucky under the Fugitive Slave Act to recover money owed from the sale of some of his wife’s family’s slaves. Lincoln told racial jokes, urged friends to keep quiet about white-only clauses in Western state constitutions, and viewed emancipation as little more than technical release from slavery—for blacks, a onetime “root, hog, or die” opportunity.

“A lot of what Bradford says about Lincoln is simply sour grapes from a disappointed Confederate,” says Harry Jaffa, a professor emeritus of political philosophy at Claremont McKenna College and Claremont Graduate School in California. “Bradford would never come right out and defend slavery. You can’t do that these days. Instead of defending slavery, he attacks Lincoln.” The author of Crisis of a House Divided and other books, Jaffa has debated and written numerous responses to Bradford’s attacks on Lincoln. Though Jaffa is Bradford’s longtime nemesis, there is a grudging friendship in their relations. Jaffa supported Bradford in the NEH fight.

I asked Jaffa why he thought Bradford was so vehement about Lincoln. He laughed and said, “Lincoln stole Mel Bradford’s great-grandfather’s slaves.”

Bradford’s revelations about Lincoln are neither new nor startling. As far back as 1927, Charles Beard, one of the most distinguished American historians, wrote that Lincoln displayed “a lack of sensibilities, an uncouthness of manner, and a coarse jocularity that were shocking to persons of taste two or three generations removed from the soil.” But as Beard also wrote, “He was in very fact President of the United States in a tragic hour, measuring up in full length to his Augustan authority and responsibility.” Lincoln’s greatness, as Beard suggests, is that he preserved the Union. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it,” Lincoln wrote in 1862. “And if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.”

Bradford gives Lincoln no credit for saving the Union, because the Union that Lincoln saved was not the same Union that existed before the war. It was an industrial nation, not an agrarian one, and its power belonged unquestionably to the central government instead of the states. To Bradford, the new Union is less worthy; he prefers antebellum America to postbellum America.

Bradford’s central belief is that Lincoln is to blame for all this. If only Lincoln’s war policy had been different and the South had been allowed to leave the Union or negotiate the terms of its return, all of subsequent American history would have been different. That’s what I was thinking as I walked out of Bradford’s office and headed home, and on reflecting, I realized something else: I was more grateful than ever that Lincoln had persevered.

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