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Bradford, A Fire Bell in the Night

Bradford, A Fire Bell in the Night

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Published by: lomaxx21 on Sep 24, 2012
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09/18/2013

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A
Fire
Bell
in
the
Night:
The Southern Conservative View
M.
E.
BRADFORD
This momentous question, like
a
firebell in the night, awakened and filledme with terror.
I
considered it atonce as the knell of the Union.
It
is
hushed, indeed, for the moment. Butthis
is
a reprieve only, not
a
finalsentence.-Thomas Jefferson
As
MY
TITLE
and epigraph must implyto those acquainted with Jefferson’s lastdays,
this is
a
paper on the “centraltheme.” Both the auspices for this gather-ing and the form and pressure of the timesrecommend the topic. For
I
have been en-couraged, by one who
knows
the breed,
to
address you in my capacity as an impeni-tent conservative Southerner and to con-sider the meaning and proportion
of
American history from that specific per-spective.Furthermore, the Southerner’sexperience of being an American has, un-til only a short time ago, been in greatmeasure defined by his entanglement withthe “peculiar institutions” of his culture.The present moment in
our
confederatedexistence is thus an exceptionally propitiousone for such an enterprise issuing fromsuch a source?The burden
of
my remarks should ap-pear to be,
on
the whole, uncomplicated. Atthis time,
as
perhaps never before, we
(I
mean, for the nonce, Americans) are as
a
people well on
our
way to being forced intobelated recognition of the truth behind
Mr.
Jefferson’s alarm
at
the Compromise
of
1820,
our first attempt in employing theengines of national power to regulate andreform our domestic economic and socialrelations
in
a
connection involving race:forced into knowing what Southerners havebelieved all the time, regardless of theirattitudes toward specific alterations in the“racial roles.” Jefferson’s fire bell soundedin the legislative darkness, tolling the“knell” of the Union he had
so
muchhelped to shape. After Missouri, statesachieved full membership in the federalcompact only after meeting federally de-
Modern
Age
 
termined prescriptions concerning thestatus
of
blacks within their boundaries-conditions not imposed upon the originalthirteen and without real precedent in theNorthwest Ordinance. In addition, chilias-tic moral imperatives were employed tojustify this violation of
a
morally binding
(if
tacit) agreement. And these imperativesgave augury of more than what was at issue
in
the congressional debates preceding theadmission of Missouri: augury of our dis-position to war against one of the most
ir-
reducible components of man’s social dis-position. In this gesture, our indigenousinillennialism and our difficulties with racemet and c~mbined.~here has been forthese “united states” no more pregnant con-junction.Predictably, Jefferson’s Union did die-in
1861.
And in the latter stages of
its
ruin, the connection between blacks andAmerican millennialism intensified. WithEquality (capital
“E”)
the new Republicplayed some verbal and opportunisticgames.
I
leave aside
for
the moment themerits and demerits of this “second found-
ing.¶’
It has proved to be digestible-suited under certain circumstances to ac-commodation with the first. For, once com-pleted, given
a
frame and substance to restupon the base and wheels of
1820
and
1850
(and given a little Reconstructiontesting”), the Trojan Horse of our home-grown Jacobinism
was
rolled away tosome back stall within the stable
of
receivedAmerican doctrines. Emancipation ap-peared to have changed nothing substantialin the basic confederal framework. Neither
did
it attempt any multiracial miracles!Said another way, after
1877
no
one
of ourcomplex and perhaps contradictory set ofnational objectives retained a veto powerover the rest. And certainly the mosthieratic of those remaining in authority(probably “freedom”)applied in only asmall way to the exclusive and singular
LC
handicaps of the freedman. That is-untilthe last two decades-the season of ourthird and most intensive metamorphosis
;
the period in which the revolution, inten-tionally forestalled (even
if
earlier en-couraged) by the Emancipator and hisheirs, came to pass; the occasion
of
our
first (and unlike Lincoln’s)
positive
com-mitment to equality
of
condition
qua
man-datory brotherhood.6 Upon these events,with their historic prologue held in mind,
is
my emphasis-upon ideas and policieswhich will not be digested by the nation(an entity logically prior to
its
legal exten-sion in the formation of
a
government)
if
that nation is, in its given character andwith
its
own organic momentum, to con-This teaching,
if
its source be considered,cannot seem new or unfamiliar.
It
contendsvery little concerning the abstract philo-sophic or ethical validity of arguments ad-vanced in encouraging the great reorder-ings of priority marked by the past twentyyears.
It
does, however, assume an in-superable gap between transcendent socialperfection, privately conceived, and politi-cal possibility in what the Federalist wiselycalled
a
“large and various Republic.”Like all forensic rhetoric, grounded in therecord of human error, it
is
formal andprudential.‘ Moreover,
it
is
a
personal esti-mate, an essay in opinion, openly acknowl-edging
its
postulation that millennialism
per
se
is
to be discouraged, and thatmillennia1 schemes for the mechanicalelevation of racial minorities are themost dangerous
of
all reformist undertak-ings. And yet
I
say once more that thosedevoted to the study of American historyare at
this
point better prepared
to
hear outwhat
I
contend than
at
any previous time.
For
an action in history
is
like the unfold-ing
of
plot in
a
play; the meaning
is
notclear until we come near
to
the end.Now
I
have already conceded that some
10
Winter
1973
 
tincture of millennialism has been a part
of
our collective seIf-understanding fromthe “birth of the Nation.Though purpose-fully muted by the authors of the Constitu-tion, it has survived in our political idiom
as
an inheritance from the Revolution.8Such
a
residue
is
predictable with almostall societies-though more
so
when
a
polity
is
founded of men, when it lacks aprescriptive mythology
to
imply the in-volvement of a higher power operatingthrough
a
particular person or blood. Foran understanding of these matters and oftheir importance in
a
nation’s political his-tory, we should turn to the politicalphilosophers: specifically, to Eric Voegelin,Gerhart Niemeyer, and Michael Oakeshott.They teach
us
that revolution and millen-nialism
go
t~gether.~ nd though intel-lectual historians (Ernest
L.
Tuveson, forone) have applied the term to the Americanexperience,
I
fear that most
of
them are intheir own sympathies too affected by themillennialist pathology to comprehend whatVoegelin means by “gnosticism”
or
Oake-shott by “rationalism in politics”
:
toobemused
to
perceive in the submission
of
judgment to will and ideal a rejection
of
history and the providential order of “be-ing,, in a fashion to be justified only bysome anticipated “becoming.”lo The theolo-gians used to call this “ontological error.”
Its
roots lie in
a
hatred of plenitude-in
a
denial
of
the variety
of
Creation,“abolishing the constitution of being, with
its
origin in divine, transcendent being andreplacing it with
a
world-immanent order
of
being, the perfection of which lies in therealm of human action [and proceedsfrom a human dream]
.”ll
Pure millennialism
of
the gnostic sort
is
thus ever restless, never satisfied. And whenfrustrated, it intensifies,
lifts
its sights tolarger and larger targets. The Americanvariety has, however, always stopped short
of
this presumption, has always beenequivocal. Like its British Whig prototype,
our
zeal
for
the “good old cause,’ has beena “sometimes thing,a lip service to a uni-verse
of
discourse briefly useful when someabuse has caught the collective eye, yetnever; by the aspirant to office or
in-
fluence, to be pushed to
its
logical conclu-sion-never, on pain of political death. For,as we have always sensed “in our bones”(and as the English had learned in the
1640’s)
,
positive millennialism ordinarilyentails the fracturing of hard won com-munal bonds in the implementation ofsomeone’s private version of the supernal
good;
and in
a
pluralistic society, im-plementation of such visions is usually per-ceived as moralistic aggression-especid-ly if it does not succeed in replacing the oldsocial bonds with better-is
so
perceivedafter
a
time even by those who at first en-dorsed the implementation
of
that dream.Said briefly, internecine conflict, notpeace, is inevitably
its
fruitage. For
a
pluralistic society agrees best on what itwill not be-and can only discover intransit goals other than the few with which
it
began. Therefore, when we have madea common effort out of perfectibilitarianenthusiasm, its form has, as was suggestedabove, usually been negative: a “do not”more often than
a
“do this.”Most certainly, New England has had
its
high (and unilinear) expectations of a Cityon the Hill
;
ikewise, even the South owed,from
its
earliest days, some inertia
to
a
hope of Eden over the Sea. Moreover, incompany with the frontier states, both olderregions drew comfort from the idea of
a
“manifest destiny.” Yet the total nationhas, characteristically, despised and re-jected who
or
whatever aspired to dragoonits way to such beatitudes through the in-struments of federal policy. The only ful1exception to this rule,
I
insist,
is
the “civiIrights revolution” of the past twenty years.In connection with
the
difficult question
of
Modern
Age
11

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