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Harry Jaffa and the Historical Imagination

In the 1970’s, Mel Bradford and I were teaching at the University of Dallas, which offered a doctoral program in politics and literature.  Students took courses in both disciplines.  It was a well-designed curriculum and produced some first-rate scholars.

Bradford had long been interested in political theory, but the program probably encouraged him to read more extensively in this area and to write articles and (eventually) books on the subject.  In fact, the time arrived when he had published more commentary on political matters than the entire politics department.  His articles on Abraham Lincoln—only four—caused the greatest stir, since, in them, he explicated texts in a way that revealed a Lincoln incompatible with the iconic figure on the penny and five-dollar bill.

When Bradford had become, as he ironically put it, “unbearably distinguished,” Leo Paul de Alvarez, head of the politics department, arranged a formal debate on the subject of Lincoln and slavery: established scholar Harry Jaffa versus upstart Mel Bradford.  Mel and I suspected that the true purpose of the occasion was to humiliate him in front of the U.D. student body and send him yelping into the bushes, tail between his legs.

I don’t remember who kicked off the debate; but once under way, it took an unexpected turn.  What was supposed to be a Jaffa-dominated exchange...

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