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M.E. Bradford

M.E. Bradford

Ideas about property, language, and memory established the contours and parameters of M. E. Bradford’s Southern inheritance. In Bradford’s thought, property, language, and memory were linked in defense of what his mentor, Donald Davidson, characterized as “the great vital continuum of human experience to which we apply the inadequate term ‘tradition’….”[1] The farmer, the rhetorician, and the poet acted to nurture, express, and commemorate the beliefs, rituals, and conventions that distinguished and sustained the social order.

The importance of property and the image of the farmer have long been vital to the Southern conservative tradition. Southern thinkers since Rob­ert Beverley have insisted that the ownership and control of property were essential to preserving the cor­porate liberty that Southerners cherished and took as the foundation for their way of life. Thomas Jefferson envisioned the farmer as the unique repository of republican virtue and divine grace. John Taylor of Caroline believed that labor in the earth alone produced the value and wealth that it was in man’s power to create.[2]

The Agrarians, Richard Weaver, and, indeed, Bradford himself emphasized the sense of obligation and community that property engendered in opposition to the defiant, alienated individualism of the modern age. For them, farming was no mere symbolic depiction of “the good life.” Through­ out his work on Southern history, culture, and thought, Bradford made explicit a view of property and a repre­sentation of the farmer that the Agrar­ians developed only by implication and conjecture. Bradford argued that the Englishmen who journeyed to the Southern strand came not to found the New Zion or to build “a city upon a hill.” Instead, they sought only to attain a larger freehold than they could have acquired in the mother country. They cultivated the land, enjoyed the bounty of their labor, and praised God for His magnanimity.

The responsibilities of property and the vicissitudes of nature kept these early Southerners and their descen­dants modest in their aspirations and expectations. Southern farmers, whether of the gentry or the yeomanry, thus constituted for Bradford both a symbolic and a real alternative to Prometheus and Faust, whom, in their ceaseless striving and in their deter­mination to possess and to conquer, he regarded as the summary figures of modernity. Elaborating on the Agrarians’ conclusions, Bradford asserted that Southerners used nature without attempting to violate, exploit, or destroy it. [3]

Unlike the Transcendentalists and the environmentalists to whom they are sometimes compared, the Agrar­ians and later Southern conservative thinkers have not had contempt for humanity. Neither did they condemn all human interaction with nature nor exalt nature at the expense of civilization. Instead, as Bradford showed, the Agrarians, like their Southern forebears, assumed that God had created the world for the benefit of humanity even as He entrusted it to their care. [4]

The moral stewardship of nature and the conscientious management of property were but two of the many duties that human beings were called to perform. A life close to the soil and subject to the rhythms of the seasons brought Southerners at last to accept mystery and contingency, and re­duced their tolerance for experimen­tal speculations devised to transform nature, society, and humanity itself. For Southerners, Bradford main­tained, certain fundamental questions about God, nature, man, and society had already been answered and, therefore, need not be repeated. They remained devoted not to such abstractions, but to a specific place, a specific people, and a specific history. [5]

These allegiances explained South­ern preferences for inherited ways of doing, living, and being. Bradford defined the South as a  “…long-lasting bond, a corporate identity as­sumed by those who have contributed to it.” The character of South­erners, primarily social rather than individual, rested not on theory, ide­ology, or metaphysics but, by con­trast, on experience, practice, and custom. Using terms that he borrowed from the British philosopher Michael Oakeshott, Bradford described the South as “nomocratic”—a society exemplified by a shared civil practice—rather than “teleocratic”­—a society epitomized by a grand pur­pose to be achieved by means fair or foul at some unspecified moment in the future. [6]

The familiar principles, habits, and manners for which Bradford exhib­ited such deep affection were shaped and mediated over the long course of history. They were incorporated into churches, neighborhoods, and fami­lies, and expressed through tables, chairs, laws, poems, songs, and tales. The political philosophy that he de­veloped from these sources recapitu­lated and extended the political philosophy originally articulated in a gen­eral way in I’ll Take My Stand (1930) and in a more particular way in Donald Davidson’s Attack on Leviathan (1938). For Bradford, as for Davidson and a number of the other Agrarians, the vindication of the traditional South was not preeminently an assertion of autonomy or even a declaration of war against those who would subjugate it. It was foremost an act of piety.

The Southern pieties of the Agrar­ians, Weaver, and Bradford, attached to society, not to the state. Their es­sentially spiritual outlook mani­fested itself in politics as patriotism rather than as nationalism. Southern patriotism was rooted in the land, devoted to tradition, and submissive before God. Bradford and his fore­bears repudiated, or at least regarded with suspicion, all that was cosmo­politan,  populist, and nationalist.

Indeed, Southern conservative thinkers since the 1930s have ob­served the convergence of national­ism and socialism, and have remarked on the perils of such a union in the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state. “In its most ambitious form,” Bradford wrote, the modern state be comes:

…a universitas, which tends to be all­ absorbing of those well-marshalled citi­zens whose lives it contains. Only with grave difficulty does it coexist with the separable and distinctive components of the societas which…it replaced; for members of the societas are persons, not instruments. But the teleocratic apology for these outrages has always had a certain plausibility, with…tyr­anny “concealed under the humane purposes which have brought it into existence.” [7]

Bradford contended that the “ener­getic government” of the modern state, frequently operating in the name of justice, compassion, peace, freedom, equality, democracy, or some other abstract theory of human rights, has brought only chaos, misery, and ruin to those whom it intended to elevate and save. As an antidote to these modern afflictions, Bradford favored the customary pattern of imperfection that emerged in the South to the utopian promise of a republic of virtue.

The degradation of humanity that the modern political order effected and sanctioned was revealed in the corruption of language, especially in the willful misrepresentation of the individual as the measure of all things. The characteristic mode of Southern imagination and discourse, as Allen Tate pointed out, is rhetorical not dialectical. [8] To Bradford, Tate’s in­sight meant that Southerners did not understand history to be unfolding according to some rational, a priori design and moving toward some ra­tional, a priori end. Southerners thought and spoke from circumstance, not from definition. They kept faith with the settled prescriptions that had survived the rigors of  time and chance. [9]

Southern ways could thus not be comprehended apart from a particu­lar social order and outside a particu­lar historical context. The commitment to family and community prompted Southerners to resist the allure of private judgment and the appeal to political ideology. South­erners did not employ what Bradford called the “oraculum.” [10] They did not speak with the voices of the gods, uttering grand proclamations about the meaning of human nature and the purpose of society. They sensed that such disclosures compelled incessant reevaluation of the creed that they took for granted, to say nothing of perpetual modifications in the estab­lished order. Southerners did not en­deavor to remake the world that they had inherited from their fathers. In­stead, they desired only to live out their lives and to work out their des­tiny under God.

Historically, Bradford argued, Southerners responded to the chal­lenges of the world with judgments that were provisional and undogmatic. He wrote that Southerners, if they remained conservative, had little choice but to adopt the rhetorical habit of mind, for they had “…no real faith in the advantage of discourse that honors no authority but reason, no truth except the universal, no pref­erence other than for restless innova­tion.”[11] For Southerners, the decisions of history and the observations of common sense were more judicious and enduring than those derived from logic. Experience, both individual and collective, was “a better guide than reason.” [12]

Southerners were not prepared to say what was right finally and unequivocally. Nor did they resolve to honor principle regardless of the con­sequences. Their objective was less brazen and immoderate. They wanted merely to perpetuate the stable, inde­pendent culture of households and families that was their estate, and to pass it on to their children.

Bradford linked the farmer, who over time had worked out these felicitous arrangements, and the rhetori­cian, who on occasion spoke in their behalf. Indeed, the farmer and the rhetorician became for him different manifestations of the same figure. The rhetorician assumed the existence of a prior communal bond between men and women who shared a culture. He did not so much explicate that social and political reality, as by his knowl­edge, demeanor, and character, af­firm it. He never argued from defini­tion or spoke ex cathedrabut ac­knowledged the talents, limitations, prejudices, and condition of his audi­ence. Just as the farmer felt an abid­ing respect for nature and executed the careful management of property, so the rhetorician esteemed his fellow human beings and exercised a gentle and beneficent sway over them. [13]

The practice of farming and the practice of rhetoric were thus, in Bradford’s estimation, more than simple acts of utility requiring tech­nique and expertise. Both farming and rhetoric, at their most fundamen­tal, demanded an ethical bearing and a moral commitment. By tempera­ment, custom, and character the rhetorician disdained private enthu­siasm and subjective judgment, which would have enabled him go his own way. He acquiesced in the restrictions that time and circumstance imposed upon him, just as the farmer yielded to the exigencies of nature. In exchange, the rhetorician, like the farmer, en­joyed the solace and accepted the bur­dens that came from living in a settled community with a common faith and an inherited way of life.

Such men remembered their ori­gins, and, as Bradford wrote, “did not get too good for their raisin’.” They thanked God for their birthright. They celebrated the continuity that delineated their existence across the gen­erations. They erected monuments against the perils of time and change, chance and confusion, chaos and oblivion. [14]

The poet kindled this memory and sustained this tradition. Bradford re­jected the posturing of modern poets who cast themselves as spiritual ex­iles, loyal only to the delusory Repub­lic of Letters in which all ideas were tolerated and all opinions condoned. The Southern poet was not alienated from his land or his blood. He was instead, in Bradford’s conception, a dutiful citizen of the commonwealth, an active participant in the drama of its history.

Like the rhetorician, the poet spoke for a community that would continue after death had silenced his own voice. The Southern man of letters, Bradford concluded, instinctively sensed the frailty of civilization. He saw the ter­rible consequences that untrammelled freedom would bring in its wake. He reminded his audience of the contin­gency of life. He kept before them the experience, the memory, and the tra­dition that bound them together as a people and that enabled them to pre­serve the durable relations that sus­tained their corporate identity. [15]

In the end, for Bradford, the choice lay between barbarism and civiliza­tion. He defined civilization as the continual struggle for discipline, con­trol, and order against license, indul­gence, and anarchy. The modern in­clination to abolish all restrictions on individual freedom threatened the civi­lized estate that has prevailed in Christendom for nearly two thousand years. [16]

Bradford found it incomprehensible that the individual be granted bound­ less freedom without purpose, simply for the satisfaction of private whims and desires. He knew the calamity that the autonomous self could visit upon the rest of mankind when liber­ated from a sense of responsibility to society and to God. Tradition, accord­ing to this view, acted as a powerful restraint to human will and ambition. But the faithful adherence to tradition did not enervate men, or render them feeble, cowardly, and impotent. Instead, thinking, acting, and living within the framework of tradition ensured the survival of a free people even as one generation perished and another arose to stand in its place.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Essays by Dr. Malvasi may be found hereThis essay originally appeared in Modern Age (Winter 1996) and is published here by permission.


1. Donald Davidson, Still Rebels, Still Yankees and Other Essays (Baton Rouge, La., 1957), xvii.

2. Rob­ert Beverley, The History and the Present State of Virginia Louis B. Wright, ed. (Charlottesville, Va., 1947); Thomas Jefferson,  Notes On the State of Virginia William Peden, ed. (New York, 1982); John Taylor, Arator: Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political: In Sixty-Four Numbers M. E. Bradford, ed. (Indianapolis,  1977). On Beverley, see Lewis P. Simpson, The Dispossessed Garden: Pastoral and History in Southern Literature (Baton Rouge, 1983), 15-17. On Taylor, see Bradford, The Reactionary Imperative: Essays Literary Political (Peru, Ill.,1990), 157-176. On Jefferson, see Lewis P. Simpson, The Brazen Face of History: Studies in the Literary Consciousness in America (Baton Rouge, 1980), 85-102 and The Dispossessed Garden, 24-33.

3. M. E. Bradford, Remembering Who We Are: Obser­vations of a Southern Conservative (Athens, Ga., 1985), 72.

4. Ibid, 75, 87.

5. Ibid, xiii, 21-29; see also The Reactionary Imperative, 115-134 and Clyde N.Wilson, ed., Why the South Will Survive: Fifteen Southerners Look at their Region a Half Century After I’II Take My Stand  (Athens, Ga.,  1980), 214-216.

6. Remembering Who We Are, 10.12; The Reactionary Imperative, 93, 122; Why the  South Will Survive, 214-216; A Better Guide Than Rea­son: Studies in the American Revolution (Peru Ill., 1979), 107. See also Michael Oakeshott Rationalism in Politics (New York, 1962) and On Human Conduct (Oxford, Eng., 1975).

7. Why the South Will Survive, 214.

8. Allen Tate, “The Southern Mode of Imagination,” in Collected Essays (Chicago, 1959), 554-568.

9. “Preface” to The Reactionary Imperative, and 115-119. On the importance of rhetoric in Bradford’s thought see Remembering Who We Are, passim and Lewis P. Simpson, “The Story of M. E. Bradford,” The Southern Literary Journal XXVI/2 (Spring, 1994), 102-108, but especially 105-106.

10. The Reactionary Imperative, 119. See also Why the South Will Survive, 21S 215.

11. The Reactionary Imperative, 117; but see also, 119-121 and 130-132.

12. The title of Bradford’s book on the American Revolution.

13. The Reactionary Imperative, 91-99.

14. Why the South Will Survive, 222-223. The quotation comes from The Reactionary Imperative, 120.

15. “Donald Davidson and the Calculus of Memory,” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture (May, 1994). 1C20.

16. Against the Barbarians, and Other Reflections on Familiar Themes (Columbia, Mo.,1992), especially 7-16.

17. Why the South Will Survive, 213-216, 220-223; Remembering Who We Are, 21-29. For a brief but incisive overview of Bradford’s thought, see Clyde N. Wilson, “Lost Causes Regained: The Works of M. E. Bradford” South Carolina Review 25/1 (Fall 1992), 171-177.

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3 replies to this post
  1. i’ve bookmarked and set aside this essay for future reference.

    Malvasi, Wilson, Bradford, Gutzman, Cheek, McClanahan, et al provide a penetrating and erudite analysis that includes a cadre of brilliant and gifted Lincolnite writers (Willson, Kirk, et al) that results in a balanced critique of American history that is desperately needed not only in academia but among the citizenry as well.

  2. I appreciate the treatment of the goodness of a more immanentist view of life. However, how does the the notion of the South’s “peculiar institution” regarding slavery and people are property to be handed down generationally work into this.

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