Why has Thomas Jefferson become the progressives' favorite founder?
Loyalty and Liberal Constitutionalism
I have returned to the mothership after a great trip to Worcester, Massachusetts earlier this week to speak at Assumption College for its Constitution Day event, albeit a few days after September 17th. The students and faculty at the event were excellent. I thought it worth mentioning that the students in attendance were fundamentally sound in mind and not overwhelmed with ideological convictions, which proved excellent for the talk I delivered. In short, there’s a solid liberal arts tradition at Assumption. And that’s all to the credit of the faculty. If you’re looking for an education in the Humanities for yourself or for a son or daughter, then I would urge considering Assumption. They also permitted me to indulge in a bit of an off-road lecture on Orestes Brownson’s case for political loyalty as the crucial underpinning of our constitutional order. Many thanks to Prof. Bernard Dobski, Chairman of the Political Science Department, for the invitation and to Brother Greg for a wonderful introduction. My talk is below:
At the beginning of the Twenty-first century the democratic nation-state in the words of many significant commentators was to become less as multilateral and transnational institutions became more. Where Francis Fukuyama had announced the end of history and the triumph of liberal democracy over totalitarianism, many went him one better and proclaimed the likely attenuation of political sovereignty itself. Borders and governments of these states would most likely remain, in this view, but the real action was in the transition to the globalist institutional architecture that would oversee trade, human rights, migrations, environmental standards, among other universals. These institutions, in turn, would be guided by numerous non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that would represent the interests and concerns of a globalized humanity.
The proliferating sources of international law in treaties, conventions, agreements, and customary international law, transnationalists argue, should be incorporated into domestic legal codes. In this way a globalized middle class would be constructed by first removing peoples from living embodiments of past cultures, religions, and political orders. Taking the place of these for the new middle class of global scale was commerce and its attendant order of human rights that would marginalize the reminders of difference or separations of peoples along those old lines of nationality, religion, culture, sex, etc. Humanity would move in the direction of an ahistorical, apolitical, and largely unmediated existence.
This is the idealist case for what many global business and political elites desire for individuals in our century and obviously the biggest parts of it have not come to fruition. We now see emerging a decisive contest between advocates of nation-state sovereignty and the globalists on issues of free trade, immigration, the need for borders and democratic accountability. Brexit is obviously part of this movement, as is the rising of nationalist politics of France, Hungary, Poland, to name a few countries, who are rather effusively challenging European Union rule. In fact, with regard to Europe, where the contemporary place of the nation-state has diminished greatly, we no longer hear, as stridently or as frequently as we once did, calls from EU leadership for “More Europe” and ever closer integration. Meriting only thin allegiance from most Europeans, the EU has proven almost incapable of decisive political action in the various financial, economic, demographic, and political crises that engulf the continent.
Integral to the process of building a common Europe, Pierre Manent argues, has been the modern political teaching of consent fulfilling spiritual aspirations which must involve the shedding of a predemocratic past whose means and principles once equaled the nation, and provided a body that consent operated in and with. That is to say before there was consent, there was the sovereign state forged by blood, monarchy, and religion. It was this framework that consent sat atop that needed to be dispensed with in the quest for humanitarian purity. Thus consent as the essence of modern democracy now does not want a body, does not want limits.
If consent is the principle of this universal rights Europe, the principle slighted is what Manent refers to as communion or the place where people “concretize their universal humanity” by making public their actions and reasons through dry argument. Here, we see that politics, even for democracy, so idealistically conceived as it is by late-modern Europeans, requires borders to construct a certain territory inhabited by a certain population. For law with liberty to order a society, loyalty to a defined territory is a prerequisite. In other words, it is to a territory that is theirs by right, the place where citizens belong that undergirds the possibility of political consent. The body provides the framework and the relationship for the governor and governed to be accountable to the other and to put something in common together.
The earthquake of “Brexit” has placed under great suspicion the rise of an inevitable transnational governance process. In this case, the European Union whose logic towards ever greater integration, achieved largely apart from democratic means, and sometimes in the face of democratic resistance, has now received immoveable opposition from the British electorate. Their choice to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which permits a member EU country to leave the Union means, among many things, that one of the most significant countries in that body, believes its fortunes as a genuinely sovereign nation-state outweigh the benefits that come from a partial surrender of its sovereignty to the Brussels institutional architecture of the European Union.
But can Europeans find their way back to their countries? To answer this question requires, I think, a deep investigation of the foundation of liberal democracy and a coming to terms with both the greatness and weakness of liberal constitutionalism. Now I’ve obviously said nothing about America, in particular. And one of the few good things going for America right now, it seems to me, is that our sovereignty and ability to govern ourselves isn’t challenged in any real way by transnational or multilateral institutions. But, I will speak to our political order with regard to the type of progressive constitutionalism we now practice and why, I think, classical liberal principles have proven relatively ineffective in contesting it.
Our guide this evening will be the unjustly neglected nineteenth century American thinker Orestes Brownson whose writing provides important touchstones for understanding the greatness and weakness of liberal constitutionalism. Brownson’s mature political thought shores up the living tradition of liberalism by showing how its origins in Christian anthropology and the natural law made the case for a responsible freedom rooted in an objective moral order that could guide political decision-making. A significant effect of Brownson’s theological and philosophical liberalism is that it provides a more realistic and grounded understanding of the actual development of constitutionalism. In doing so, Brownson authentically connects such political orders to our nature as relational human persons who participate in a perennial order of social, political, economic, and religious goods.
The Social Contract
Orestes Brownson articulated that the modern project of social contract theory as explicated by Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau failed to understand the complex relationship between the nature of the human person and political order. Within the strictures of social contract theory we observe a scientific deconstruction of man in order to provide for a new foundation of political sovereignty. The division of man’s being into manageable parts for political order is first hypothetical, and then made actual through its ability to reshape man’s understanding of himself from a relational, created being to an individual whose purposes are defined by a self-interested willing and choosing. Man’s power of abstraction is persuasive evidence of his freedom, for it is our capacity to make our abstractions real, that defines us as human persons. This is precisely the case with social contract theory and the sovereign individual it built.
This was, for Brownson, not an item of idle philosophical speculation. Social contract theory, he observes, was the most consistent teaching among the American founders for explaining their act of independence and forging of the Constitution. America accepted the theory
as modified by asserting that the individual delegates instead of surrendering his rights to civil society, was generally adopted by the American people in the last century, and is still the more prevalent theory with those among them who happen to have any theory or opinion on the subject. It is the political tradition of the country. The state, as defined by the elder Adams, is held to be a voluntary association of individuals. Individuals create civil society, and may uncreate it when they judge advisable.
Brownson quotes the Declaration of Independence to emphasize his point regarding the pervasiveness of the social contract theory within the American political tradition. Government “derives its just powers from the consent of the governed,” is, Brownson observes, the centerpiece of the American Constitutionalism. To be sure, Brownson supported the natural rights conclusions of the Declaration, but not the enlightenment methodology that undergirded them. His qualified opposition to this concept that consent alone creates government emerges from his deep reading of the Western political tradition that had articulated the naturalness of political authority, our inbuilt need for society, and with Christian revelation, man’s relational capacity and his end in God, which gives his life a purpose beyond government, forever circumscribing its powers. This is not to say that he rejected the principle of consent outright, but that it operated on a background of tradition and inheritance.
Brownson’s trenchant criticism of social contract theory evinces its artificiality cloaked in its purportedly authentic articulation of a liberal political and economic order for enlightened individuals. Both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke confronted a world of persons defined by relationships and memberships. The individual their political science purported to demonstrate was certainly not a thick reality, but one they were dedicated to bringing into being. Alexis de Tocqueville gives a hint of this with his statement that “individualism is a recent expression arising from a new idea.” Hobbes’ Leviathan desires a politics of strict theoretical science that proceeds by reducing the person to the body, with the body then being reduced to matter in motion. Thus politics has a rationalist basis of individuals in motion, sprung by pride and fear, using reason to calculate pleasures and pains that they are endlessly trying to achieve or avoid.
Social contract theory’s foundational premise that politics is an artificial enterprise is in fundamental opposition to the notion that politics is a natural phenomenon of rational beings. What has been set free from any authority, i.e., autonomous man, must now be brought back under control by the state. Social contract theory entails the use of a negative fear of death as in Thomas Hobbes or of self interest in property rights in John Locke’s account, to compel individuals into the political order and to maintain it. This understanding of man in a pre-political, if not pre-historical state of nature, was surely meant to challenge the Hellenic-Jewish-Christian anthropology of man and its implications for politics and law.
The purpose of the state of nature, which Brownson argues in extended fashion, is to remove man from authority, civilization, and religion. In this manner he stood as a sovereign agent of the political order. Russell Hittinger observes that this appeal is “to no authority other than what is first in the mind. . . . under the authority of no pope, prince, or scripture.” Thus does authority emerge from individuals making agreements on “what is (or seems) self-evident” apart from any higher order of law or obligation save for what the contracting individual wills. So, we have “a secular substitute for the story of Genesis. Never a pure science of morality, it was rather a merely useful one, designed for the political purpose of unseating the traditional doctrine of natural law.”
For Brownson, the social contract theorists affirm what they first deny. Persons who roam the state of nature and finally calculate that it is in favor of their self interest to consent to a contract that will found a political society must first have had a notion of the social setting to begin with. That is, to achieve political society requires a profound awareness of man’s social condition and dependency on others. But, how, Brownson wonders, on its own terms, by its very operation, could the state of nature ever provide such knowledge? Echoing Brownson on this point is Bertrand de Jouvenel’s argument in The Pure Theory of Politics that social contract theory is an “Intellectual Montrosity” that is built on an individualism incapable of affirming man’s social nature that is formed in the family and, more broadly, in an array of inheritances. Brownson’s lengthy interrogation of an actual basis for the state of nature teaching uncovers its sheer imaginativeness, placing before us its determined attempt to teach individuals how to be sovereigns who construct a politics that will permit the mastery of nature.
The mastery of nature that comes by way of the social contract’s construction of a liberal political order is given voice by John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government. Locke holds that the individual possesses a transformative power of labor that is able to turn the nearly worthless matter of nature into products of trade and consumption that perpetually lift man’s material condition:
I think it will be but a very modest computation to say, that of the products of the earth useful to the life of man nine tenths are the effects of labour: nay, if we will rightly estimate things as they come to our use, and cast up the several expences about them, what in them is purely owing to nature, and what to labour, we shall find, that in most of them ninety-nine hundredths are wholly to be put on the account of labour.
Labor is almost the sovereign element of human existence that makes man the effectual author of everything with value. According to Locke, man finds himself in a preexistent, God-created reality, but the means to uplift man’s estate, i.e., property in labor, are singularly within man’s province. The ramifications of this posture toward nature evince the sovereign individual as a god-like figure in the creation of property.
A deeper truth seems to rest in Locke’s state of nature teaching when we combine with it his observation that human labor is 99/100ths of the input to property creation. If nature is virtually worthless, giving us the material that we fashion according to our productivity and creative efforts, then the human task is to continually rise above any limits that nature might impose on us. The individual is on a journey of labor and productivity to prove his mastery of nature, harnessing and using it for his benefit. There is little that nature can give us, and God seems far removed, if not eclipsed by man’s self-willed horizons. Also missing, it seems, are the virtues of gratitude, humility, and piety. If production and property all come down to individual effort, then to what do you exercise gratitude?
The political sphere of Locke’s economy is constructed by consenting individuals living in the state of nature who now realize their need to protect their bodies and property rights. Brownson observes that man stands as a God to this political order. Liberty, ostensibly, is its end, but it is a liberty of necessity to labor on behalf of one’s material self-interest. The salutary promise is that government will not pose undue interference to one’s labor and its fruits.
A question that Brownson never directly asks regards the limits on the powers of a regime that is devoted to self-preservation. He does note that Locke’s conception of self interest leading individuals into political society from a primitive state misses man in his fullest desires for order and loyalty. What moves men, Brownson observes, are their “affections, passions, instincts, and habits.” Therefore, “Interest itself is powerless before their indolence, prejudice, habits, and usages.” Those who believe that “enlightened self interest” can “found and sustain the state” stand ignorant and impotent before the facts of human passion, obedience, and command. Having never known “the habits of obedience and habits of command” to believe that such individuals
[I]n a state of nature, without culture, without science, without any of the arts, even the most simple and necessary, are infinitely superior to the men formed under the most advanced civilization. Was Rousseau right in asserting civilization as a fall, as a deterioration of the race?
Lockean self-ownership, which serves as the basis of labor, property, and the government that protects these rights, was the anthropology of the regime. But is self-interest a sufficient basis for free government? If we assert that self-preservation is the end of the political society, then how does this political order summon the courage and sacrifice of its citizens, which will be required from time to time, given that such acts might result in loss of life, status, prestige? In short, the government’s very purpose for existence would be negated. If the state is unable to provide an affirmative account of these virtues then where will the true loyalties of its citizens lie?
Self interest is a thin reed, Brownson argues, for a government to rest on. Not explicitly stated by him is that the narrow conception of property rights and bodily safety that Locke ties it to, may as a result, dialectically lead to an unbound notion of self interest driving an equally unbound government. If the state fences in private property and the bodies of its citizens from violent death so well, then why not direct it to protect its citizens from a host of other unpleasant outcomes: hunger, sickness, inequality and the resultant physical and psychological burdens of being poor, environmental degradation, ignorance? The new regime, ostensibly, still serves these old rights, but it almost imperceptibly loses touch with its founding spirit as it posits new political values that must be constitutionally enshrined.
In his essay “On the Majesty of the Law,” Harvey Mansfield frames the problem of such a flat conception of law:
Modern political science had a cure . . . . It was to lower the horizon of law so that it covered only minimum human necessities, as for example bodily security. Law would no longer claim to comprehend the whole of human life, or what you do with your secure body. The law would merely free the citizen to do what he pleased, having satisfied the demands of his and others’ security of body. The soul and its requirements would no longer be part of the law. To do this, it is necessary to prevent the law from including these larger matters in order to make a whole of itself.
Of course, not including the “larger matters” of “The soul and its requirements” means that the law is tied to what is useful. But, what is useful? In the quest for utility it becomes a system engaged in the work of “empirical political theory.” But what results from formally neglecting “The necessities of the human soul” or the desires to seek justice, excellence, to disdain mediocrity, to choose beauty over dullness, “greatness rather than pettiness? Is it the case that in foregoing these elements one has a surer, more certain route to liberty? Again, Mansfield critiques our comfortable modern political conclusions with the notion that property rights and bodily security do not constitute a whole but only a bottom, a base level of political agreement. Therefore, the body and property can be protected, as was initially promised, but “A society could change its beliefs and practices without touching its laws on the minimum necessities. Having no whole, it could change without changing the whole; it could experiment harmlessly, risking only bloodless revolutions.”
We can plausibly argue that this course Mansfield describes has been the way of progressivism in America. Progressives may have lessened constitutional protections for property rights and inaugurated our modern regulatory state, but it is hard to maintain that we don’t operate under a market economy, more or less free, one which affords many opportunities to be productive and compensated. Yet, we also sense that our society has departed in many crucial ways from the goals of our founding. Here, I merely note that Progressivism in all of its forms, continually repurposes our regime while not really eliminating the liberal goal of security in body and property. Indeed, it promises to deepen these goods by providing for their more equal distribution. In doing so, progressivism lays claim to an Americanism that is more robust than that of its opponents because it promises to enrich our base level agreement by inserting universal equality into the contract, making our society a just one. So progressives attend to matters of the modern political soul.
Mansfield’s argument, then, illuminates the central problem that classical liberal constitutionalism confronts and that is how its form of rights might seemingly stand, even as the political order adopts a largely egalitarian posture in virtually every instance of human endeavor along lines of class, race, sex, and gender. In this way, the classical liberal insistence on property rights and the rule of law and limited government can only be defended on grounds that they promote or can be controlled by government to achieve socially desirable, i.e., equal outcomes. At bottom, something more substantial than the mere catalogue of rights must be put forward to defend classical liberal constitutionalism. Rather than a politics of individualism versus collectivism, those speaking on behalf of classical liberal order must find and develop a language of the modern political soul, a language worthy of the drama of preserving such a society.
The language of such constitutionalism must then speak to our human nature of relational personhood which sits higher than and is far more complex than modern ideologies of individualism, collectivism, materialism, secularist thought, among others. This is to say that a relational person exists with multiple dimensions: political, social, economic, and religious. Of course, a relational being understands that it is in cooperation and struggle with others for essential goods that his personhood develops. And this means that we care deeply about the truth and what is good about our pursuits and actions in common with others. Thus our status in unwritten constitutional law as inviolable persons is in the service of our freely responding to what we hold as the truth, that we come to know with others. But relational persons also recognize that we come to the good through our particular experiences and choices as historical beings, in part. This entails our status as contingent beings who cannot help but be shaped and formed by the choices of those in our social and political communities who have come before us. We do not create ourselves ex nihilo and this holds for the political orders we inhabit, built on a long accretion of politics, culture, religion, migrations, mores, and conflicts.
Thinking constitutionally about the relational person stresses that law is geared toward protecting the being who flourishes in a range of contexts and whose freedom is undergirded by the separation of law and society. Such freedom is diminished when law intrudes on behalf of ideological goals into the differentiated dimensions of economics, religion, family, education, and when the republican context of the constitutional order is eroded by an insistence on rule by administrative or judicial officials who lift the making of law from representative bodies and place it within their purview. Relational personhood insists on representative political institutions because it more fully accords with human nature and politics and the need to give and debate reasons for laws and to accept compromises and accountability, as opposed to receiving edicts from officials with varying levels of insulation from the represented people.
Mansfield’s discourse on the problematic features of social contract theory correlates well with Brownson’s theorizing on the foundation of a liberal politics and his friendly but powerful criticisms of the American political tradition. Politics, in Brownson’s formulation, demands reflection on the human person as a whole. To understand political life as a whole means that it cannot be separated from an understanding “that incorporates all aspects of human being.”
Brownson’s understanding of constitutional government builds on and stands in opposition both to the classical philosophy of the Greeks and to certain notions of social contract thought and the role it played in America’s founding. The social, political, and economic orders provide a medium for persons to develop the relational aspects of personhood in communion with others. An important theme of liberty emerges here in Brownson’s notion of communion, which both supports the political order while fundamentally circumscribing its powers. Political society is a medium of man’s relational nature, enabling his flourishing by facilitating social relationships, but it is not the originator of man or of its own existence, Brownson argues.
Man’s highest end is above government and, thus, cannot be supplied by government. The material and spiritual aspects of relational personhood pre-exist government, thus limiting government to the temporal sphere. It follows that a life lived in the service and hope for its highest end requires that the person be free in his conscience and in his associative religious existence. The church must be free as an institution to teach and aid its members in this process of communion. Accordingly, Brownson would clearly accord to religious liberty the status of first freedom, or that freedom which is authorized by man’s obligation in concert with others, to understand the highest truths of his own being.
Switching to economics, the person’s obligation to provide for himself and his family entails that political society must protect private property. Brownson argues that man’s natural condition as an embodied being who must labor to sustain himself firmly entails that he cannot be deprived of his labor and property without injury being done to his existence. Such activity is inherently relational and is conducted most efficiently when a high degree of trust pervades the social order. Property, its creation, trade, and ownership is, Brownson informs, integral to human flourishing, for persons and the larger social and political order they are members of. Thus a free economy is a significant aspect of the person’s development of his relational personhood.
The modern mind in its perceived state of emancipation from what it believes are the dogmas of the past, namely, pre-modern and classical metaphysical reflections on politics, might dismiss with prejudice Brownson’s foundational writings on the origins of government. Resigning Brownson’s understanding of government to the past, where it can safely be forgotten, would miss his crucial linkage of the strong limitations on government that emerge from a sustained dialogue with Greek, Christian, and modern sources of religious and political thought.
Liberty and Communion
The limitations on government that come from man’s need for communion with God and man also provide it with a stable foundation and purpose, Brownson reasons. Brownson begins by approvingly quoting Cicero, that “Every man is born in society and remains there,” and “that every one born into society contracts by that fact certain obligations to society, and society certain obligations.” As a result, man as a citizen, born into society, “owes certain duties to society for the protection and assistance it affords him.” Government is necessary to our flourishing as persons so we must be loyal to it.
The problem of political loyalty in the regime created and guaranteed by social contract was that it struggled for articulation in a regime built on autonomy. Here, Brownson’s point is similar to Georg Friedrich Wilhelm Hegel’s trenchant objections to liberal constitutionalism put forward in his Philosophy of Right. Hegel argues that social contract liberalism produces an enduring subjectivity that threatens to swallow the overall political realm. Creating a constitutional state on the basis of autonomy is deeply insufficient for the enterprise of maintaining liberty. How, ultimately, was a regime to avoid unending mutation, if not dissolution, when its basis was the calculating self-interested individual?
Brownson observes that Lockean liberal constitutionalism ultimately made the personal truly the political. If the political order is built on individual will, then the guaranties of the political realm ultimately devolve to the self interest of individuals in maintaining it. A government created and guaranteed by consenting autonomous individuals for the purpose of protecting property rights struggles to understand political rule because it is closed to the enduring questions of the common good and justice.
The great difficulty, Brownson observes, is that political sovereignty based on such a conception permits for almost infinite volatility. Individuals can always withdraw their consent if the political realm fails to secure their particular interests. Because the regime itself is the geometric projection of personal rights, there is no natural grounding for the political order that elevates and raises it as an entity that is above private calculation. That’s why, Brownson notes, the most consistent Lockeans in the American tradition were its Southerners. They had rebelled on principle against a unitary conception of government (or so they believed) on behalf of political and economic liberty: home rule and property in slaves. Antebellum Southern leaders prominently argued that political liberty was meant for those who were big enough to enforce it for their interests. Such an aristocratic conception meant that liberty was not really natural; that is, it was not related to inbuilt features of the human person but was earned by men capable of self command and of living life on terms other than dependence as either propertied slaves or wage slaves. It followed that the public square was the domain of great propertied interests. As such, when the planter class believed that their property interests were under direct threat, it followed, axiomatically, that the political order, wholly generated by and dependant on rights in property held by free men, should be dissolved and created anew on political principles more in line with said interests.
The Loyalty of Ordered Liberty
Rather than consent as the first mover of government, Brownson goes in a strikingly different direction. Sovereignty vests in the people collectively, who are rooted in a territory, bounded by law, he argues, and not in individuals. Brownson’s teaching, reminiscent of scholastic political thought, articulates a natural law understanding that proclaims the equality of men before one another because they have been created by God. At first glance this proclamation seems to align with the natural right teaching in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. Of course, Jefferson and the Second Continental Congress drew from this teaching that just government must be created by the consent of the governed. Brownson, however, is proposing an alternative account that he believes is more in tune with the reality of things.
Man’s fundamental equality is based on the fact of his creation by a personal God. As such, this equality entails that there is no right of any person to govern another. All are equal. Therefore, the exercise of government power is a trust from God mediated through the people to the rulers. Brownson’s attempted correction of the American founding settlement that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed implies that consent itself merely specifies the terms of a formerly preexisting political relationship. Consent does not create political society from the wills of citizens who may later withdraw their consent and dissolve or overthrow the government. Consent properly understood designates “those certain obligations to society” that “every one born into society contracts.”
On this point, Willmoore Kendall stated that “we must in any case distinguish between contracts understood as creating society, justice, law, and principles of right and wrong, and contracts understood as merely specifying society, justice, law, and principles of right and wrong in particular situations.” Kendall’s argument brings out Brownson’s understanding of the natural law that society, justice, and right, and also peoples, preexist governments. Or as Kendall states, “the monarch is in any case subject to law; and that men do not create law, but rather discover it, either through reason or revelation.”
The primary difference in Brownson’s account of political sovereignty from social contract theory is that he does not derive sovereignty from the individual or the people in mass. Contracting individuals do not create government. Rather, all sovereignty is in God and is shared with the people who form a political society whose powers are held in trust before God and man.
Brownson’s commitment to republican principles is beyond dispute, and as I have noted, he fundamentally rejects all aristocratic claims for a natural inequality. In fact, Brownson’s belief in equality guides his unique understanding of the Declaration of Independence. However, Ralph Hancock also observes that Brownson’s understanding of the origin of government is bound to offend republican and American sensibilities, which hinge on the secular and consensual founding of political authority. Here, Brownson must tread carefully as a friendly critic of his nation’s political settlement.
Loyalty is the crucial way to understand Brownson’s attempt to rehabilitate political authority and liberty and also to circumscribe both. Authority, Brownson argues, is the basis for liberty. As Ralph Hancock convincingly demonstrates, we are not given an account of virtue in Brownson’s American Republic, but we are given a profound understanding of political loyalty. The effect is to emphasize in the place of virtue, which typically builds on a natural anthropology, an understanding of loyalty that is regime specific. Excellence in human action, in part, emerges from and is given by the political order. This is to say that social and cultural institutions within which citizens will mostly interact with one another are inevitably shaped by the form of the governing regime.
The significance of loyalty rests in Brownson’s notion of the providential constitution. Government is a given reality of authority for man. Each nation, Brownson says, realizes an idea within history. To quote Hancock, “It is because our purpose is beyond nature that we must recognize this purpose in history.” Brownson describes the providential constitution as “The constitution of the state . . . [that] is, in its origin at least, providential, given by God himself, operating through historical events or natural causes.” Man in his capacity as a citizen must respond affirmatively to this political order given its definitive, authoritative role.
We can now understand the role loyalty has in Brownson’s understanding of political authority and human excellence. Government is a brute fact, but it must govern by right also. This entails that “The right to govern and the duty to obey are correlatives, and the one cannot exist or be conceived without the other. Hence loyalty is not an amiable sentiment, but a duty, a moral virtue.” Also correlative, Brownson informs, are law and loyalty. Remember that properly constituted nations are founded by the natural law. The ultimate, metaphysical character of law, mediated by government in the temporal sphere, is the source of Brownson’s severe call for political loyalty.
This understanding of Brownson’s notion of loyalty helps to situate his account of it:
Loyalty is the highest, noblest, and most generous of human virtues, and is the human element of that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of the law. It has in it the principle of devotion, of self-sacrifice, and is, of all human virtues, that which renders man the most Godlike.
Deepening this point is Brownson’s related observation that “Civic virtues are themselves religious virtues,” precisely because we belong to “a given people and a given state” with a purpose to fulfill in history.
Brownson’s aim is the reconciliation of liberty and authority in light of his prior argument that political society has been diminished by social contract theory and collective sovereignty theory. Participation and communion of men with God and one another in the secondary order of causality are preeminent for Brownson with regard to government. “[L]ike man himself,” government “participates of the divine being, and, derived from God through the people, it at the same time participates of human reason and will, thus reconciling authority with freedom, and stability with progress.”
Civil liberty finds its sure grounding in the moral right of government to govern. The right to govern, Brownson informs, cannot be conflated with despotism. “The assertion of government as lying in the moral order, defines civil liberty, and reconciles it with authority.” Only on this basis can we understand the nature of tyranny, which cannot be equated with being prevented from merely following one’s subjective will. The reconciliation of authority and liberty and, for that matter, the distinction between obedience and despotism, occurs through “The moral right of authority, which involves the moral duty of obedience, presents, then, the ground on which liberty and authority may meet in peace and operate to the same end.”
Brownson’s search is for responsibility in the use of power by first understanding its origins which also provides for its limitations. In opposition to Brownson are the “abstract principles” of modern times which erect a state on the will of the people or the consent of the individual. His argument is that the “guaranty against tyranny, oppression, or bad government” is through the elevation of civic virtues as aspects of the character of the good man and the good citizen.
Brownson also provides a powerful rebuke to the democratic humanitarians of his day, and the transnational progressive elite of our own who lead multinational corporations or aim for multinational governance, and believe that actual nation-state government can and should be dispensed with. This salutary dismissal is owing to its diminished utility in a globalizing world, or in a related sense, it impedes the evolutionary growth of mankind by focusing our concerns on parochial national interests. Ever the skunk at the humanitarian garden party, Brownson proclaims that civic virtues, local devotions, and attachments reveal man to himself, allowing him to realize his freedom in concrete manifestations that build his love and loyalty to the social and political order of his birth. In fact, the failure to understand and practice a type of patriotism, pride in the laws of one’s country, and gratitude for its continuity with its history and tradition, might easily lead to confusing and slumbering actions abroad by those countries. The failure of a people to understand itself, to know what they are about as a political society, is the beginning of a nation’s aimless path through history, slow-walking it to a collective suicide.
Brownson’s intention, contrary to first impression, is not to sacralize politics. Rather he thinks it necessary, from a full reflection of man, to vest political authority in a body of natural law that citizens as human persons participate in, reason about, and are responsible to in their acts as rulers and ruled in a state. Of course, “The nation may, indeed, err or do wrong,” but by operating “with the clear understanding … that political sovereignty is vested in the people … that the civil rulers hold from God through them and are responsible to him through them, and justiciable by them, there is all the guaranty against abuse . . . that the nature of the case admits.”