agrarianism mel bradfordPart I of “Not in Memoriam, But in Affirmation: Mel Bradford’s Scholarly Legacy at 20”

The late Mel Bradford (1934-1993) was truly one of the giants of the postwar conservative intellectual movement. A Texan (born in Fort Worth), Bradford earned his B.A. and M.A. degrees in English at the University of Oklahoma before going to Vanderbilt for his Ph.D. At Vanderbilt from 1959 to 1962, he studied under Donald Davidson, who, excepting Andrew Lytle, was probably the most faithfully agrarian and conservative of the twelve Southern Agrarians. Under Davidson’s guidance, Bradford produced a dissertation on William Faulkner. After graduation, he taught English at several schools before ending up at University of Dallas in 1967. He remained at Dallas until his untimely death in 1993.

As a writer, Mel Bradford was an essayist. He collected and published his essays in half a dozen major books. A Better Guide Than Reason (1979); A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States Constitution (1982); and Original Intentions: On the Making and Ratification of the United States Constitution (1993) all deal with the Revolution and Early Republic. In this same vein, he also edited one of the first agrarian manifestos, John Taylor of Caroline’s Arator (1977) and coedited (with the Southern conservative constitutional law expert, James McClellan) Elliot’s Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution (1989). Bradford’s other books, Generations of the Faithful Heart (1983, the title is taken from the last line of Davidson’s great poem “Lee in the Mountains”); Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (1985); and The Reactionary Imperative (1990) deal broadly with issues of Southern literature and conservatism.

Among his other important works, Bradford edited a collection of Andrew Lytle’s essays, titled From Eden to Babylon: The Social and Political Essays of Andrew Nelson Lytle (1990); he edited the first collection of critical essays on Lytle’s work, The Form Discovered: Essays on the Achievement of Andrew Lytle (1973); and he edited the book that Richard Weaver, another student of Davidson as well as of John Crowe Ransom, had made out of his dissertation, The Southern Tradition at Bay: A History of Postbellum Thought (1968). He was also one of the fifteen scholars who again took their stand fifty years later by contributing an essay to Clyde Wilson’s volume, Why the South Will Survive: Fifteen Southerners Look at Their Region a Half Century after “I’ll Take My Stand” (1980). Additionally, Bradford wrote scores of essays for Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Chronicles, and many other journals. And then finally, he was working on a biography of Davidson when he died. Eventually the Davidson biography was finished by Mark Winchell.

Mel Bradford was a Southern Agrarian conservative, though he preferred to call himself a reactionary: “Reaction is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit in the twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometime to perpetuate what is outrageous,” he wrote in The Reactionary Imperative. He was, in this respect, like John Lukacs, who described reactionaries thusly:

A reactionary considers character but distrusts publicity; he is a patriot but not a nationalist; he favors conservation rather than conservatism; he defends the ancient blessings of the land and is dubious about the results of technology; he believes in history, not in Evolution. . . . A reactionary will recognize how . . . An Idea Whose Time Has Come may not be any good.”[1]

me-bradfordBradford would have added a hearty “amen. So he was a Southern Agrarian Conservative, or “reactionary.” It is important to note the order of these labels. He was a Southerner first, and because he was a Southerner, he was also both an agrarian and a conservative. Bradford’s Southern identity so thoroughly permeates his life and work that there is little need to dwell on it. However, considerably less attention has been given to his agrarianism.

Paul Murphy, in his recent study of Southern Agrarians from I’ll Take My Stand to the present, The Rebuke of History, is the exception. He treats Bradford as one of the most important modern heirs of the Southern Agrarian tradition, along with Wendell Berry (the Henry County, Kentucky farmer/novelist/poet/essayist), John Shelton Reed (the Chapel Hill sociologist who has spent his career studying Southern culture), and Clyde Wilson (the historian from the University of South Carolina who is the world’s foremost authority on John C. Calhoun, as well as the editor of Why the South Will Survive and the Bradford festschrift, A Defender of Southern Conservatism). There are some problems with Murphy’s book—for instance, he misinterprets some agrarian thought—but these four may well be the most prominent modern disciples of the Twelve Southerners who Took Their Stand. But only one of them, Berry, is what we might call a practical agrarian. Berry lives the agrarian life—however, we should note that his agrarianism does not derive from I’ll Take My Stand; he only read it after taking his personal stand in Henry County. As for the other three, they are what we might call political agrarians. To the best of our knowledge, neither Bradford nor Wilson was much of a farmer. We have less personal knowledge of Reed, but we doubt he is a tiller of the soil. This does not make them hypocrites. Of the Twelve Southerners who contributed to the original agrarian manifesto, few had much real experience on the farm. Many of them were also political, rather than practical, agrarians. Indeed, even Thomas Jefferson struggled as a farmer. None of this takes away from their sincerity and seriousness.

One of the common threads that connects Bradford’s (as well as Wendell Berry’s and Clyde Wilson’s) thought to the agrarianism of the Twelve Southerners, is what Richard Weaver (another Vanderbilt graduate) called “social bond” individualism. Writing of John Randolph of Roanoke, Weaver observed, “By instinct Randolph was perhaps a secessionist—every individualist is a secessionist in regard to many things. Individualism is a rejection of presumptive control from without. But Randolph never lost sight of the truth expressed in Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal. His individualism is, therefore, what I am going to call ‘social bond’ individualism. It battles unremittingly for individual rights, while recognizing that these have to be secured within the social context.”[2] This “social bond” individualism that Weaver identified has been one of the distinguishing characteristics of both agrarianism and Southern conservatism. And Weaver was not just another agrarian. He was essential to understanding agrarian thought. Bradford believed that Weaver completed the moral and political enterprise of the original Agrarians.[3]

Just what was the Agrarian moral and political enterprise? In short, the Agrarians recognized the threat posed to traditional communities and ways of life and thought by industrialism and applied science. They saw, earlier than most, that industrialism and applied science were not simply benign ways of improving our material standard of living. Rather, they were ways of organizing society. When enlisted in the causes of Progress and Equality, industrialism and applied science dissolved the traditional social bonds that united individuals and held society together. Centralization was substituted for “social bond” individualism. No longer would society be held together by individuals who were bound to each other in their natural families, churches, and communities. With traditional bonds dissolved, society would only be held together by uniting each individual to a centralized state—that is, society would be held together by force instead of love. They believed that society should be organized on a human scale. And, because they accepted the idea of original sin and St. Augustine’s vision of the City of Man and the City of God (that the City of Man was finite and corrupt and therefore could never be perfected), they rejected any faith in certain Progress or the perfectibility of man.

Because they were Southern (and hence rather more European by inheritance than American intellectuals from the north or west), the political vision of the Agrarians conformed not at all to the familiar native political categories: in a word, they were neither ‘liberty men’ nor ‘equality men. . .Their measure of any polity was its human (and not its legal or economic) product. As a body they were doubtful about ‘Progress’—and even doubtful that the appearance of the ‘progressive,’ post bellum United States on the stage of history was in the long run to be of certain benefit to Western man.[4]

Or, here is how Bradford explained it in his essay “The Agrarian Tradition”:

For the Agrarians, the measure of any economic or political system was its human product. Goods, services, and income are, to this way of thinking, subsidiary to the basic cultural consideration, the overall form of life produced. Of course, the Agrarians were anti-egalitarian. They knew the abstract drive toward Equality . . . to be the mortal enemy of the patriarchy. And thus they agreed that, though some have providentially five or three or only one talent, every man should be encouraged to become as independent as he can be.[5]

In sum, Southern conservatism (which, for Bradford, is really indistinguishable from Agrarianism) is religious and based on our submission to God. One of Bradford’s favorite passages in I’ll Take My Stand is the paragraph in the “Statement of Principles” that begins with “Religion can hardly expect to flourish in an industrial society. Religion is our submission to the general intention of a nature that is fairly inscrutable; it is the sense of our role as creatures within it.”[6] Furthermore, Southern conservatism is decentralist, anti-egalitarian, anti-progressive, and still anti-industrial. The Southern conservative favors local autonomy and true self-government—he or she believes, like the Founders, that republican self-government depends upon virtue, that is, upon our being able to govern our individual selves.[7]

Part II, “Mel Bradford and the Founding” may be found here. Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

 H. Lee Cheek, Jr., is a Senior Contributor to 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. John Lukacs, Confessions of an Original Sinner (New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1990), 3-4.
  2. Richard Weaver, “Two Types of American Individualism,” in The Southern Essays of Richard M. Weaver, eds. George M. Curtis III and James J. Thompson Jr. (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 1987), 82.
  3. M. E. Bradford, “The Agrarianism of Richard Weaver,” in Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 74.
  4. Ibid., 75.
  5. M. E. Bradford, “The Agrarian Tradition,” in Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 86-87.
  6. Twelve Southerners, “Statement of Principles,” in I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition (Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1976), xxiv.
  7. M. E. Bradford, “Southern Conservatism,” in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, eds. Bruce Frohnen, Jeremy Beer, and Jeffrey O. Nelson (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006), 802.

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