“The only freedom which can last is a freedom embodied somewhere, rooted in a history, located in space, sanctioned by a genealogy, and blessed by a religious establishment…the only equality which abstract rights, insisted upon outside the context of politics, are likely to provide is the equality of universal slavery.” - M.E. Bradford
[PART I of III]
Note to Subscribers: I would like to apologize for the delay in publishing. Babylon’s demands have been relentless and I was forced to put my writing on hold. I will be sending a small backlog of articles throughout the next week. Thank you for your patience.
America, the Idea
Just before Independence Day, citizens across the country suddenly remember that they have a history and belong to a nation. Some hang flags, others clean the grill, and everyone braces for a whole day of Lee Greenwood- a tradition that will never die.
This time of year also prompts endless commentary about what America is, and what she means. So long as it is harmless and venerates the Cult of Equality- that great religio americana- every utterance is permitted. The words of the Founders rarely make an entrance here, save a single sentence from the Declaration of Independence. I am sure you know it by heart.
Given the usual rhetoric, you would be forgiven for believing that America is something like the world soul, and not a physical place. Universal and liberated from context, this America is animated by an ahistorical ideology. Reason alone can discern her.
America, the idea. All the country’s achievements flow from it- every single one. Invite the idea into your heart, cherish it intensely, and declare it to the world with evangelical zeal- or from the barrel of a gun. Sure America has seen a few setbacks, maybe even a failure or two, but all this can be explained. Any misfortune is the fault of those who reject the idea of America. But not to worry, the idea always wins.
America is an idea, dear patriot, and you are its vessel. Turn up that Lee Greenwood!
A Better Guide Than Reason
For the month of June, I am reading A Better Guide Than Reason- a collection of essays by the incomparable Melvin E. Bradford. Bradford, a professor of literature at the University of Dallas, was almost nominated by Reagan to head the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) in 1981, but famously succumbed to a neoconservative smear campaign. For many observers on the right, Bradford’s defenestration underscored the triumph of neoconservatism and marked the beginning of the end for the Southern traditionalists in the conservative movement. Some of Bradford’s harshest accusers would later become household names during the presidency of George W. Bush.
A Better Guide Than Reason burrows down to the roots of the American Revolution and courageously retrieves a long-lost inheritance. Unlike most historians of the period, Bradford devotes little time to Hamilton and Madison. He scarcely mentions the Federalist Papers. Instead, the book introduces the reader to the world of the earliest Americans. It is a foreign land, but one shrouded in the familiar, and it lies thousands of miles away from the world soul.
Bradford appoints several notable figures to navigate this landscape: John Dickinson, Patrick Henry, and William Henry Drayton, among others. Patriots and men of great genius, these early Americans are prominent Anti-Federalists; skeptics of centralized power and the Constitution of 1789.
While they respect reason, the three unanimously loathe the “spirit of innovation” that emboldens ideologues and imperils the law. Innovation inspired the Crown to deprive the colonists of their rights, and without proper safeguards, that same spirit would dissolve the social fabric and upend the sovereignty of the newly independent states. Reason unconstrained by custom, habit, manners, and law, was untrustworthy. Ideas, even good ones, should be anchored.
With the help of these companions, Bradford uncovers a rich tradition undergirding the American Republic. This tradition is rooted in a specific place and time, and belongs to a people with a history.
But let us start with the Romans.
A Teaching For Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity
As much as I would like to discuss every essay in A Better Guide Than Reason, I focus primarily on “A Teaching for Republicans: Roman History and the Nation’s First Identity.” I consider this essay to be one of the most eloquent and incisive counters to our modern understanding of what America is and should be.
Bradford opens the essay by remarking on the peculiar architecture of Washington’s Federal District. The columns, the statues, the memorials, and most noticeably, the Capitol dome, are all analogues to an ancient Roman past. To the unschooled, it is indeed strange that a frontier culture worlds away from the Eternal City would channel that ancient past. And yet to the Founding generation, Roman history, even more than the history of their mother country, shaped their political understanding.
As Bradford reminds us, Rome had not just been a republic, it was the Republic.
What Livy, Tacitus, Plutarch, and their associates taught the generation that achieved our independence was the craft of creating, operating, and preserving a republican form of government…Rome was the obvious point of reference when the conversation turned to republican theory… Rome had been the Republic, one of the most durable and impressive social organisms in the history of the world…Rome was no construct issuing from deliberations upon the abstract “good,” no fancy of “closet philosophers.” Public men might attend its example with respect, learn from its triumphs and its ruin.
The Founding generation, eager to establish an enduring republic of their own, looked to Rome for guidance. But unlike the biblical Kingdom of Heaven or Moore’s Utopia, Rome was a physical entity that belonged to a people in a specific time and place.
The Republican Finishing School
Like any good student of the period, the Founding generation knew their Suetonius, and could expound on the dangers of tyranny by quoting Lives of the Caesars. But like any good Roman, these men appreciated the history of the Republic most of all; its rise (Livy and Cicero), its triumph over Carthage (Livy, Appian, and Polybius), and of course its tragic fall (Sallust, Lucan, and Plutarch).
These works formed a kind of finishing school for young Republicans of the era, particularly those on the American continent who were quick to observe the parallels between Rome and their own world. Like their commonwealths, early Rome was an organic society bound by law. This law, namely the Law of Tables, was “essentially a codification of existing customs… [the] ‘funded wisdom’ of the Roman people upon which all subsequent additions to their legal order drew for their authority.”
And here Bradford provides a key insight:
Rome was not made but grew. Despite the legend of Romulus and Remus and the myth of Trojan relocation, Romans did not connect their purchase on the favor of the gods with an original commitment to political ‘propositions’ or a plan for improving the world. The ontological fact of Rome, rooted in familial piety, flourishing in patriotic zeal, was logically prior to any meaning it acquired…bound by blood, place, and history…out of that remarkable oneness of spirit, Rome…acquired its original hegemony.
As for the Roman citizen, Bradford dispels any illusion of an ancient individualist devoted to ideology or universal ideals.
…the self-respect of every Roman depended upon his being a Roman. In a fashion which few of us would understand, the self in this system was derivative of the social bond and depended upon a common will to preserve that broad fabric of interconnection intact. A good Roman of the old school had personal pride and a considerable sense of honor. His was a shame culture, dominated by intense and personally felt loyalties to family, clan, and individual. Commitment to Rome had its root in, and was not separable from, these most primary attachments. They tell us what Rome meant. And why a true Roman was not an individual as we understand the term.
Therefore, unlike the Kingdom of Heaven, Rome was not a moral process, nor was it an aspirational state like Moore’s Utopia. Instead, it was an organism- an intricate arrangement of social obligations and commitments united by law.
Far from a cosmopolitan individualist, the original Roman was an agrarian creature at heart; a farmer/soldier with a conservative sensibility. He revered his ancestors, cherished his family and “home place,” and dedicated himself to the “routines of field, stream, and altar.”
This was the Roman who confronted the mighty Hannibal at Cannae, and his heroic actions would transform the Republic into a beacon not only for his own descendants, but for his spiritual heirs hundreds of years later, in the great American wilderness.
Stay tuned for PART II and III of June’s Porch Reading.