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Bradford v Jaffa

Harry Jaffa and Mel Bradford

Part II of “Not in Memoriam, But in Affirmation: Mel Bradford’s Scholarly Legacy at 20” (Part I)

Mel Bradford’s interest in the Founding follows naturally from his Agrarianism. He believed that, unlike the French and Russian Revolutions, America’s was a conservative revolution. Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were conservative documents. According to Bradford, the American colonies revolted to preserve self-government, not to embark upon a progressive path toward Utopia. This insistence upon the conservative nature of the Founding brought him into conflict with liberals and progressives, because

since our country crossed the Great Divide of the War Between the States, it has been more and more the habit of our historians, jurists, and political scientists to read the Continental Enlightenment, and the Age of Revolution that was its political consequence, back into the record of our national beginnings by way of an anachronistic gloss upon the Declaration of Independence.[1]

He believed (like Gary Wills has also stated) that this “anachronistic gloss” upon the Declaration could be traced to Abraham Lincoln, who, at Gettysburg, read the Declaration’s inalienable rights into the Constitution by refounding the nation on the proposition that all men are created equal. Bradford then, attempted to restore a true conservative understanding of the Founding, and to refute the Lincolnian refounding of the regime, while always affirming the antecedent integrity of the Founding.

His attempt to restore a conservative understanding of the Founding led to a series of famous exchanges with Harry Jaffa (and his epigones), and this is, probably, what Bradford is unfortunately best known for today. Jaffa argued that the Declaration was a revolutionary document. That it founded America on the principle of equality. That “equality…is then both good in itself and good for its consequences.” And that “the rooting of constitutionalism, and the rule of law in a doctrine of universal human rights, in the political act of a people declaring independence, is unique and unprecedented.”[2] Jaffa and his some of his fellow Straussians then argued that the natural law idea of universal human rights which they find in the Declaration, is also the guiding principle of the Constitution, and provides the surest means of interpreting the Constitution. In Jaffa’s view, equality and universal human rights is the “deferred promise” of the Declaration (and the Constitution) that it fell upon subsequent generations to fulfill by continuing the radical Revolution. Of course, the problem with this, as Barry Shain has recently observed, is that two things are missing from Jaffa’s account:  “facts and common sense. Simply put, Jaffa’s claimed connection between these documents is offered wholly without evidence.”[3] There is not a single shred of evidence that anyone at the Philadelphia Convention or any of the state ratifying convention believed that the Constitution incorporated a natural law understanding of universal human rights from the Declaration. Nevertheless, Jaffa has criticized Robert Bork, Russell Kirk, former Attorney General Ed Meese, and Supreme Court justices Rhenquist and Scalia for failing to interpret the Constitution in light of his understanding of the Declaration; accusing them of being disciples of John C. Calhoun. In fact, Jaffa hubristically argues, like Nietzsche, that he alone is capable of correcting all of the alleged misinterpretations of the Constitution.[4]

Bradford responded to Jaffa that equality was not a conservative principle. “Contrary to most Liberals, new and old, it is nothing less than sophistry to distinguish between equality of opportunity…and equality of condition….For only those who are equal can take equal advantage of a given circumstance. And there is no man equal to any other, except perhaps in the special, and politically untranslatable, understanding of the Deity.” The only way such equality can be achieved is for it to be enforced by a totalitarian central government. And people will demand that it is enforced because “envy is the basis of its broad appeal….Furthermore, hue and cry over equality of opportunity and equal rights leads, a fortiori, to a final demand for equality of condition.”[5]

“Contrary to Professor Jaffa, it is my view that the Declaration of Independence is not very revolutionary at all,” wrote Bradford. “Nor the Revolution itself. Nor the Constitution. Only Mr. Lincoln and those who gave him support, both in his day and in the following century.” The Declaration simply “confirms an existing state of affairs.”[6] By July 1776, Americans had been fighting the British for over a year (since April 1775). The battles of Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill, Sullivan’s Island had already been fought. Congress had created the Continental Army with George Washington at its head. The colonies, led by Virginia, had already begun individually declaring their independence and adopting new constitutions that did not recognize the authority of either King or Parliament in their affairs. In July 1776 a British army was descending upon Long Island, and the King had declared Americans to be in rebellion and outside of his protection. As Pauline Maier, the foremost authority on the Declaration has said in response to Straussian attempts to incorporate it into the Constitution as one of our nation’s founding documents: “The Declaration is not a founding document. It is a de-founding document.” That is, it did not found a nation, it was a secessionist document that declared the dissolution of a nation.

The idea of the “deferred promise” of equality and universal human rights was engrafted onto the Constitution by Lincoln and subsequent generations of liberals. It was not present at the Founding. Most of Bradford’s primary objections to Lincoln stem from his “misunderstanding of the Declaration as a ‘deferred promise’ of equality.” He argued that “Lincoln’s ‘second founding’ is fraught with peril and carries with it the prospect of an endless series of turmoils and revolutions, all dedicated to freshly discovered meanings of equality as a ‘proposition.’” Bradford called this peril a “millenarian infection” that could arm and enthrone a Caesar who would be empowered, through the rhetoric of the “deferred promise,” to “reform the world into an imitation of themselves.”[7]

After two decades, we can conclude that Bradford’s vision of constitutional renewal was hopeful. As he affirmed in one of his favorite passages from I’ll Take My Stand, a passage he often quoted himself,

This much is clear: If a community, or a race, or an age, is groaning under industrialism, and well aware that it is an evil dispensation, it must find a way to throw it off. To think that this cannot be done is pusillanimous. And if the whole community, section, race, or age thinks it cannot be done, then it has simply lost its political genius and doomed itself to impotence.[8]

Bradford knew that it can be done.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

H. Lee Cheek, Jr., Ph.D., Is a Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and Professor of Political Science and Religion at the University of North Georgia, and Senior Fellow of Alexander Hamilton Institute. He is the author of a number of books, including Political Philosophy and Cultural RenewalCalhoun and Popular RuleOrder and Legitimacy.


  1. M. E. Bradford, “Not So Democratic: The Caution of the Framers,” in Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 37.
  2. Harry Jaffa, “Equality, Justice, and the American Revolution: In Reply to Bradford’s ‘The Heresy of Equality,’” in Modern Age Spring 1977, volume 21, number 2, 115-116.
  3. Barry Alan Shain, “Harry Jaffa and the Demise of the Old Republic,” in Modern Age Fall 2007, volume 49, number 4, 480.
  4. “Do I not bring philosophy down from the heavens and into the city—making it practical and political—when I demonstrate by my critiques of Kendall, Bradford, and Wills, that their doctrines are merely varieties of Confederate doctrine, and that the vital center for their beliefs is derived from John C. Calhoun? Do I not do that even more profoundly, when I show that the ‘Marx of the Master Class’ is not, in the crucial respect, so very different from Marx himself, since the proslavery attack on free society, and the Marxist critique of capitalism, closely coincide?” ( Harry Jaffa, American Conservatism and the American Founding [Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 1984], 136.).
  5. M. E. Bradford, “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa,” in Modern Age Winter 1976, volume 20, number 1, 62.  Also see Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Knopf, 1997), p. 186, et al.
  6. Ibid., 66.
  7. Ibid., 69.
  8. Twelve Southerners, “Statement of Principles,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1976), xxx.
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3 replies to this post
  1. These two Bradford essays (and I am anxiously awaiting Dr. Willson’s codicil) explicate American political science and history very clearly, concisely, and accurately. These should be widely circulated among those who have suffered, intellectually, under the hand of public education.

  2. It seems Jaffa is upholding a theory while Bradford is criticizing a practice. Not to over-simplify things, but there is a tad bit of apples and oranges syndrome in this dispute. No better example exists than President Obama’s practical use of the Declaration in his politics of equality to undermine its’ theoretical teaching on equality. This problem is not new to American or republican politics. Tocqueville’s chapter on why it is easier to love equality more than liberty is the best example of this.

  3. Even if it were true that there was scant evidence that the Framer’s adhered to the Natural Law tradition of the Declaration, it would still not prove Bradford’s point. Perhaps it was the very affinity they shared for it that led them to not explicitly mention it as the basis of their thinking, or much of it – it was unnecessary to do so. But while I haven’t scoured the convention debates or the correspondences (a vastly better source, by the way, one which must be being ignored by you/bradford) of the delegates, I believe doing so would reveal broad agreement over the Enlightenment political program – the preservation of rights, in particular property rights, is the first object of government and the core of self-determination. Note the deviation from the classical tradition, in which “self-determination” was about joining in common cause with others to mold the polity actively through deliberation and the passage of laws. One would be a fool, of course, to ignore the classical traditions affinity for “rights”, but they were subordinate to the higher goods of duty and virtue to the greatest possible degree. To stress, then, the link between America and the Classical era’s emphasis on self-determination is banal – it is only true in a very superficial and mostly irrelevant way. The rhetoric of the period leading up to the war, during the war, and after the war has a classical tinge to it, but it was always trounced in practice because the ideals informing political practice and given expression in the declaration were fundamentally modern. These ideals obviously informed the creation of the constitution, which had a bill of rights protecting them. And the Framer’s hesitancy to have a Bill of Rights was out of concern for what effect their incorporation into the constitution would have on political practice, and not out of a disregard for rights – the opposite, in fact. Hamilton:

    “I go further, and affirm that bills of rights, in the sense and to the extent in which they are contended for, are not only unnecessary in the proposed Constitution, but would even be dangerous. They would contain various exceptions to powers not granted; and, on this very account, would afford a colorable pretext to claim more than were granted. For why declare that things shall not be done which there is no power to do?”

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