The Truth-Seeking American

Orestes Augustus Brownson

Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876), one of the most prominent public intellectuals in America in the 19th century, is hardly a household name today. The late Peter Augustine Lawler, a brilliant political scientist, saw much of value in Brownson, and thought him sorely neglected. In fact, the fate of the Vermont-born journalist and autodidact has been a bit more complicated. There have been periodic rediscoveries of Brownson, especially during turbulent times.

Consider Brownson’s resurgence in the 1930s. At the end of that decade, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote The Pilgrim’s Progress: Orestes A. Brownson (1939). In the 1950s, political science journals published several penetrating pieces on Brownson’s political theory, and Russell Kirk elevated him in the pantheon of conservative thinkers in The Conservative Mind (1955). In the 1970s, several authors produced penetrating works on Brownson’s writings on religion, philosophy, and political theory, while Fr. Thomas R. Ryan completed his massive Orestes Augustus Brownson: A Definitive Biography (1976).

In the current polarized political environment, many Americans are again searching for solid guideposts toward a better future, and this has ushered in the latest mini-revival of Brownson,  marked by the republication of his books and essays, as well as several articles in such journals as Modern Age and National Affairs. He endures, for, as Schlesinger observed, in the vast field of philosophy his grasp was unequaled by even the most illustrious of his contemporaries.

Truth is the conformity of the mind with reality. In publishing Seeking the Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology, Richard Reinsch, the founder of this web site, provides key selections of Brownson’s quest for the truth about the reality of man, nature, and God. Of the several Brownson anthologies published over the years, this is the best. Readers can experience the sheer power of Brownson’s writing and his seemingly bottomless reservoir of historical and philosophical knowledge, while following the evolution of a powerful mind grappling with fundamental questions over the course of a colorful career.

Several of Brownson’s writings have a striking contemporary relevance. He was a combatant in large controversies that are with us still: the freedom of the church and religious liberty, federalism and the tensions between Washington and the states, the growth of free trade and the threats to economic liberty posed by crony capitalism, problems of immigration and the assimilation of the foreign born, the expansion of presidential power and the congressional abdication of legislative responsibilities. Following such a master logician, rigorously applying first principles to resolve great problems, is an intellectual pleasure.

The biographical introduction neatly organizes Brownson’s most significant essays into three parts, tracks the course of his journalistic career, and highlights salient essays that reflect the man’s very public intellectual struggles in his deeply personal quest for truth. From the book’s first section, “Union and Progress,” today’s Progressives would surely recognize the youthful Brownson as one of their own: a combative young man of the Left. Here one finds essays ranging from Brownson’s sympathetic account of the disciples of Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon, and his laudatory assessment of the atheistic “free enquirers,” led by the utopian socialists Fanny Wright and Robert Dale Owen.

In a speech he gave in Dedham, Massachusetts on the Fourth of July, 1834, Brownson envisioned America’s potential as the world’s great change-agent, a nation capable of realizing the “grand principle” of human equality:

Time and the progress of events have it in charge to unfold and nourish in that creature man, now so weak, so contemned, a moral and social growth not yet dreamed of by the firmest of the believers in his indefinite perfectibility.

In his relentless quest for social reform, Brownson jettisoned his skepticism, became an independent preacher, and deployed a “new” Christianity as an ideological weapon in his battle to bring Heaven to Earth. Emerging as a high profile figure among the intellectual elite of Boston, he counted Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau among his friends, and became intimately involved with the Transcendentalists. He also visited Brook Farm, the group’s experiment in communal living, regularly.

Like Thoreau, Brownson developed a tough critique of modern industrial capitalism. In “The Laboring Classes” (1840), Brownson emphasized the distinction between those who owned and those who worked the means of production. The big banks, allied with British and American financiers, he said, were the enemies of America’s working people, and “free trade” was nothing more than a ruthless international economic competition that would lead to war. He predicted a great class war of unprecedented ferocity that he said would end with a working class victory, and a new social order unencumbered by inheritance, special privileges, and the hated wage system. Published eight years before Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto, the essay was the high-water mark of Brownson’s radicalism—as Schlesinger called him, a “Marxist before Marx.”

The failure of Democratic President Martin Van Buren’s reelection bid in 1840 left Brownson demoralized and disgusted with partisan politics, and he slowly started moving Left to Right not only in politics, but also in philosophy and religion. While still deeply troubled by inequalities of wealth, he was reading, writing, and thinking his way through deep religious doubt and philosophical skepticism. His erstwhile friends, the Transcendentalists, he concluded, were logically incoherent and their mystical musings literally pointless, leading to subjectivism in philosophy, relativism in morals, and anarchy in politics. Brownson’s incessant probing of fundamental questions led him to a deeper re-examination of the classical tradition of natural law, as articulated by philosophers ancient and medieval, and enkindled an intense interest in Roman Catholicism.

The book’s second part, a series of essays subtitled “The Recovery of Ordered Liberty,” nicely captures the progress of Brownson’s thinking in the late 1840s and 1850s. He immersed himself in modern French and German philosophy, especially the writings of Immanuel Kant. It was Pierre Leroux, a leftist French philosopher, however, who made the biggest impression on Brownson. At the center of Leroux’s thought was his “doctrine of communion”: Man’s communion with nature yields property, and man’s communion with his fellows creates society.

How, then does man, a mysterious combination of matter and spirit, commune with God?

Brownson’s answer was “The Mediatorial Life of Jesus” (1842), an open letter to his dearest friend, the famous Unitarian minister, William Ellery Channing. Dismissing Leroux’s pantheism and rejecting his earlier conviction that Christ was a great, but purely human, figure, Brownson accepted Christ as the trans-historical agent of human salvation. God freely communes with man, to secure his supernatural end, through the Incarnation, the Christ.

Two years later, Brownson shocked proper Protestant Boston by converting to Catholicism. In his new faith he found the reconciliation of nature and grace he had long sought, epitomized in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass itself, where Christ becomes present in the outward form of bread and wine. The Catholic reconciliation of the natural and the supernatural, nature and grace, explained the harmonious relationship he discerned between faith and reason, and religion and philosophy.

Just as Brownson accepted the authority of the Catholic Church in the supernatural order, he revered the 1787 Constitution as the greatest political achievement of the natural order; the concrete expression of the Founders’ genius. The collapse of the Federal Union in 1861 was  therefore catastrophic. It was indicative of a broader civilizational crisis of authority, Brownson believed, a calamitous loss of the government’s ethical claim to command and the citizens’ moral obligation to obey.

In the book’s final section, subtitled “Freedom and Communion,” Reinsch includes “The Democratic Principle” ( 1873), one of Brownson’s finest essays on politics, and selections from The American Republic (1865), his masterpiece of political theory.

The American Republic is a defense of the Federal Union, a unique, paragraph-by-paragraph exposition of the nation’s constitutional order and a tightly reasoned discussion of political authority. Though Brownson appreciated the Founders’ intellectual indebtedness to John Locke and the classical liberal compact theory of the state, he rejected Locke’s account of the origin and ground of government: the organization of civil society among “free and equal” individuals coming out of a “state of nature.” If the American Republic was no more than a compact among free and equal “sovereigns”—just as civil society itself was posited as a compact among free and equal individuals—then the Unionist argument against Southern secession logically failed. If individual states were individually sovereign, supreme unto themselves, and formed the Union by having granted their formal consent, reflecting the free and full consent of their individually sovereign citizens, then they likewise should be able to withdraw that consent.

Radical individualism and secular socialism, the fruits of myopic ideology, were the twin opponents of America’s constitutional order. While individualists rightly argued that man is a person with freedom of intellect and will, they erred in ignoring the truth that man is also social by nature, and there is a natural unity to society. In a complementary error, secular socialists—in Brownson’s apt phrase, “humanitarian democrats”—rightly affirmed the social nature of man but erred in emphasizing human solidarity at the expense of the freedom of the person. Of the two, socialism was the greater threat to America’s constitutional order; for it would sacrifice personal freedom and individuality on the altar of an idealized equality—another abstraction—and would thus crush personality and human diversity.

In today’s America, in academia and elsewhere, we are experiencing the bitter fruits of a perverse Progressivism, where the pleas for “inclusion and diversity” become coercive campaigns of exclusion and the imposition of a neo-puritanical conformity. In a prescient passage of The American Republic, Brownson anticipated the ugly intolerance of modern political correctness:

Individuals are, and as long as there are individuals will be, unequal: some are handsomer and some are uglier; some wiser or sillier, more or less gifted, stronger or weaker, taller or shorter, stouter or thinner than others, and therefore some have natural advantages which others have not. There is inequality, therefore, injustice, which can be remedied only by the abolition of all individualities, and the reduction of all individuals to the race, or humanity, or man in general. He can find no limit to his agitation this side of vague generality, which is no reality, but a pure nullity, for he respects no territorial circumscriptions, and must regard creation itself as a blunder. This is not fancy, for he has gone very nearly as far as it is here shown, if logical, he must go.

No political order is justified by such abstractions. Political order is real, and cannot be justified by that which is unreal—that is, literally having no existence outside of the mind. America’s unique political order was, in fact, rooted deeply in the richer old soil of English history, English common law, and the colonial experience of applying English legal forms in the New World, and was not the fruit of meditation upon Enlightenment abstractions. The written Constitution, the peerless legal achievement of the Founders, was expressive of the unwritten constitution of the American people: the organic complex of their unique cultural, social, economic and historical experiences.

The Founders, in fashioning the Federal Constitution on the vital unwritten constitution, represented a common American people, united in war and revolution, and politically organized in diverse states. The Founders grounded their great work in national and political reality. As a charter of government, the Constitution reconciles individual liberty with legitimate claims of social order. The federal division of authority between a general government, with jurisdiction over common concerns, and particular governments, with jurisdiction over the particular concerns of the different citizens of different states, is the central architecture of American liberty.

American federalism not only serves to check and balance competing economic interests or sectional powers, but it embodies a profound recognition of the unity and diversity of the American people. This, too, reflects an even deeper reality: the principles of unity and diversity that are at the very heart of all created existence. It is the fundamental truth of the human condition that man is both a social and an individual being. For Brownson, this was the deeper philosophical significance of America’s unique contribution.

A common charge against Brownson as a thinker, levelled by a range of critics—most notably his contemporary, James Russell Lowell—was that Brownson was a brilliant but unstable weathervane, abruptly changing his religious affiliations and political allegiances, and catching the shifting winds of intellectual fashion. The readings in this anthology are a welcome corrective. The “weathervane” charge is superficial. True, Brownson started his journalistic career as radical and ended it as a conservative. It is also true that he changed his opinions on the transient issues of the day. A change of opinions is, however, very different from change in basic outlook or underlying philosophy. In fact, a close examination of Brownson’s thought reveals a profound consistency.

In religion, once he converted to Roman Catholicism, he remained a devout Catholic for the rest of his life. In philosophy, from 1842 until his death he affirmed his underlying metaphysical convictions, which had influenced, like his religion, his treatment of varied subjects and controversies. In his Dedham speech,  he articulated his belief in the natural equality of all persons, and subsequently based his political science on the premise that, in his  native might and right, no person has a right to govern another.

As a young radical and as mature conservative, he remained a dedicated champion of the interests of America’s poorer classes. While he periodically lambasted popular prejudices, he nonetheless identified America’s working class as the sane, sound, sober repository of common sense. While he condemned the notion that democratic majorities can or should be absolute—vox populi, vox dei—he never embraced any form of elitism or minority rule. Though he lived and died a democrat, he never courted popular opinion. Schlesinger got it right: “The lonely pursuit of truth, with its worship of unflinching honesty and rigorous logic, was the secret of [Brownson’s] failure.”

Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism partially explains his writings’ being discounted, according to Lawler, Kirk, and others. The timing of it could not have been worse, to be sure. For many of his Boston colleagues in the 1840s, Catholicism was the foreign import of the unwelcome, mentally and morally “enslaved” masses of immigrant Irish paupers. Protestant critics saw hierarchical Catholicism, with its emphasis on authority, as inimical to American freedom. Brownson countered that Catholicism’s stern moral discipline would enhance popular virtue, and thus promote responsible freedom. Traditional Catholic teaching on natural law would, moreover, buttress modern democratic institutions. In defending the Catholicism, Brownson went on the offense, often undiplomatically, arguing that Catholicism was not only compatible with democratic government but also necessary to sustain it. For his Protestant fellow citizens, this was simply too much.

Times have changed. Today, amidst aggressive assaults on the sanctity of human life, traditional morality, and religious liberty, Protestant versus Catholic tensions seem almost quaint. While millions of evangelical Protestant voters may have been uneasy over the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, today the new “Catholic Question” for these voters is this: Is a Catholic candidate for public office really Catholic enough? For millions of Protestant voters, a pro-life candidate like Rick Santorum (the Catholic former Republican Senator from Pennsylvania), for example, passes the test.

Brownson’s greatest legacy in this regard is The American Republic. In it he warned that patriotic Americans must safeguard both their national unity and their federal diversity, and that they do so by: honoring the careful division of power between the general government and the states, resisting the consolidation of national power, and respecting the right of state citizens to govern themselves in those matters not subject to the jurisdiction of the national government.

Today, the United States, with its ethnic, racial and religious differences, is, in many respects, far more diverse than at any other time in its national history. Federalism, securing the right of people to govern themselves through their states, is the constitutional charter that preserves their diversity. Federalism provides Americans the constitutional space for conflict resolution on most domestic issues, offering 50 different platforms for experimentation and innovation in public policy.

By encouraging the resolution of our deeper differences through state rather national action, federalism opens up a wider path to national unity. As the political theorist Yuval Levin noted in The Fractured Republic (2016), “Injecting the middle layers of American life with more significance and power could help to detoxify our political culture a little: subsidiarity can contribute to a badly needed ethic of restraint and toleration in our national politics by reducing the pressure and the stakes involved in what Washington does.”

With renewed fidelity to the Federal Constitution, including a respect for state and local authority, combined with a reinvigoration of Edmund Burke’s “little platoons” of civil society, Americans can re-create a coherent public philosophy of freedom and responsibility. Federalism makes the higher quality of American civic life possible. The Founders built “better than they knew,” as Brownson reminded us, and their genius can yet preserve our liberties far better than we can even begin to imagine.