Orestes Brownson: Orthodox Radical


January 10, 2020

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the January 1991 print edition of Crisis Magazine.

Nothing is deader than dead politics, we have been told. Why, then, revive the political essays of the philosopher, polemicist, and Catholic publicist Orestes Brownson (1803-1897)? Because the questions raised by Brownson confront us still. The “American Idea,” much discussed by Brownson, is especially relevant to our pressing concerns —both the fallacies about the “American Idea” that Brownson cudgeled and certain truths about American society that Brownson discerned more clearly than did any other man in his time.

The American Republic, Brownson argued in his book by that title, is meant to reconcile liberty with law, and so set an example to the world. As he put it:

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… its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual—the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society. The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state. The American Republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other.

In our present era of debate about global democracy and democratic capitalism, Brownson’s writings take on renewed meaning. The first scholar to revive discussion of Brownson’s thought and life was Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. While an undergraduate at Harvard, Schlesinger wrote his honors essay about Brownson’s radicalism and heterodoxy early in his adult life; this study was published in 1939 as Orestes A. Brownson: A Pilgrim’s Progress.

During the past half-century, in part because of the influence of Schlesinger’s book, a good deal has been published about Brownson, at one time “a Marxist before Marx,” but after 1844, a social conservative and a Catholic. Among the more recent studies are Leonard Gilhooley’ s Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brown-son and the American Idea (1972); Hugh Marshall’s Orestes Brownson and the American Republic (1971); Per Sveino’s Orestes A. Brownson’s Road to Catholicism (1971); Gilhooley’s symposium No Divided Allegiance: Essays in Brownson’s Thought (1980); and The Brownson Reader, edited by Dr. Alvan S. Ryan (1955). In addition, there are other studies published earlier or later than the above, as well as a huge one-volume life by Father Thomas R. Ryan, Orestes A. Brownson: A Definitive Biography (1976). I have discussed Brownson’s thought at some length in The Conservative Mind (1953) and in The Roots of American Order (1975).

Thus Brownson has re-entered America’s political discourse. The line commonly attributed to President John F. Kennedy, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,” was actually first uttered by Orestes Brownson at Dartmouth College. “There are no lost causes,” T.S. Eliot instructs us, “because there are no gained causes”—we fight the same battles in every century. Thus Brownson’s redoubtable essays and speeches have become relevant to our discontents near the close of the twentieth century.

Born in Vermont while Thomas Jefferson was president, and dying in Detroit while Rutherford B. Hayes was president, Orestes Brownson knew practically everybody and wrote about practically everything in the nineteenth century. Brownson travelled from various forms of radicalism in politics and religion to political conservatism and religious orthodoxy. In his first principles he came to stand at the opposite pole from Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom he knew well. Among Brownson’s friends was John C. Calhoun; it remains uncertain whether it was Calhoun or Brownson who first said that although it may be necessary for a man to sacrifice himself for the people, a man never should sacrifice himself to the people. It was Brownson who, a few months after publication of The Communist Manifesto, wrote a succinct reply to Marx that has not been excelled in prescience. Brownson set himself against both Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, arguing over and over again that authority and liberty both are necessary for a commonwealth.

All just authority is from God, Brownson kept reminding Americans. The fundamental error of Jacobins and socialists is their illusion that merely human schemes can establish a terrestrial paradise. Like Tocqueville, Brownson declared that the American democracy is kept from tyranny by Christian moral habits. Indeed, Brownson was America’s equivalent of John Henry Newman, with whom he corresponded and disputed.

Knowing poverty from his early years, Brownson was almost wholly self-educated. But what a schooling he gave himself! Lord Acton thought that Brownson possessed the most powerful mind of any American, and that was a high compliment, for it was the day of Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, Calhoun, and other men of remarkable talents.

Brownson’s course in political affairs and theological disputes is too intricate for close analysis here. Brownson found it necessary to grope his way through all the sects and factions of New England until he attained those concepts of divine and human nature after which his stubborn soul had yearned. He was a Bible reader from early childhood; his search for religious certitude led him from the Congregationalism of his early youth to Presbyterianism, Universalism, humanitarianism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism. He was a Universalist minister at one time, and at another a Unitarian preacher; he was active in the socialist undertakings of Robert Owen and Fanny Wright, and for a year he was a militant atheist and a revolutionary conspirator.

But in none of these movements did he discover true reality. Somewhere, he concluded, there must exist a source of religious authority without which most men remain forever at sea; he found this in the Catholic Church when he was 41 years old. He was not always happy with the hierarchy of the Church, nor the hierarchy with him. His relentless pen made him as many enemies among Catholics as among Protestants, and he encountered in America those difficulties which Newman confronted in Ireland—the brilliant convert debating with clerics who distrusted modernity and the presumption of the intellect.

His social ideas experienced mutations closely   parallel with those of his religious convictions. Long before the name of Marx was known, Brownson was a socialist. In many respects he anticipated Marx’s thought—which made him the more formidable as an adversary of socialism in his maturity. Besides, in his early years he was a complete democrat, taking equality for a natural right and as the principle upon which the civil social existence ought to be ordered.

Brownson always believed that if a principle were sound, no danger would occur in pushing that principle to its logical consequences. This he did, in 1840, with his “Essay on the Laboring Classes” during the presidential campaign of that year. Equality of civil rights, he reasoned, should and must lead to equality of condition. It followed that the inheritance of private property, the system of bank credit, the modern industrial company, the factory system, and all the other principal features of what Marx would call “capitalism” must be abolished, so that equality of condition might triumph. Brownson advocated this thesis most stoutly; it did mischief to the cause of the Democratic Party that he supported. Ironically enough, the election of 1840 disillusioned this unequivocal egalitarian. “We for one confess,” Brownson wrote later, “that what we saw during the presidential election of 1840 shook, nay, gave to the winds all our remaining confidence in the popular democratic doctrines.”

After 1840, then, Brownson’s drift toward conservative political convictions commenced. These convictions endured the rest of his life and inclined him toward the moral authority of the Catholic Church. He had concluded from his close observation of the American people that pure democracy and economic equality were miserable shams, which could lead only to the destruction of freedom and justice and order. But if the principle of equality was false, upon what principle ought an intelligent citizen to found his politics? Brownson came to perceive that somewhere there must reside an authority, in the original Latin meaning of that word—a source of moral knowledge, a sanction for justice and order. Concluding that the expression of such an authority was the Catholic Church, he found that his search for social principle and his search of religious principle converged in 1844.

Brownson’s political convictions were those of a religious man, not those of a Benthamite who looks upon the Church as a moral police force. Brownson understood that we cannot separate the realm of spirit and the realm of society into distinct entities, but he had no intention of using the Church to advance political causes, or of using his political activities to advance the interests of the Church. Religion and politics are joined in this: mundane justice and order require a moral sanction and that sanction cannot be found outside religious principle. These were his mature views, and, knowing radicalism from the inside, Brownson was the better prepared for his onslaught upon pure democracy and socialism.

His style, like much of his life, reminds one somewhat of William Cobbett’s. Like Cobbett, Brownson courted no man’s favor; he was as vehement against the utilitarian philosopher and the money-obsessed entrepreneur as against the Marxist fanatic and the doctrinaire social revolutionary. Although a powerful polemicist, Brownson had not Cobbett’s command of the language. I introduced T.S. Eliot to Brownson’s writings in the 1950s. In a holograph postscript to a letter Eliot wrote to me on January 13, 1956, he added, “I am not altogether pleased by Brownson’s style, which strikes me as wordy and diffuse. But it is remarkable that a Yankee a century ago should have held such views as his, and depressing that he has been so ignored that most of us had never heard of them.”

Eliot’s strictures on Brownson’s style notwithstanding, there are many memorable sentences and paragraphs in his political essays, the bulk of which is gigantic. His Works, in twenty ponderous double-column volumes, were published at Detroit between 1882 and 1887. In recent years, they have been made available in a very costly reprint edition. His book The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (1866) has been brought out by reprint houses as well. Brownson’s other political volumes are extremely difficult to obtain—the most important of which is Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism (1852).

The political argument of this indefatigable controversialist I endeavor to condense, below, into a few insufficient paragraphs. Brownson maintained that pure democracy and social equality are death to civilization and liberty, that the moral principles taught by the Church deny the rectitude of a leveling egalitarianism, and that men who would preserve the justice and the freedom of the American Republic must set their faces against the degradation of the democratic dogma.

Americans have misunderstood and misused the word democracy, Brownson writes. For democracy is simply a means of government and is not identical with liberty or justice or republicanism. Still, since the word is entrenched among us, we ought to try to apprehend it properly. Therefore, Brownson distinguishes between the old American territorial democracy founded upon local rights and common interests of the several states and smaller organs of society, and the pure democracy of Rousseau, which later writers call “totalitarian democracy.”

Americans must endeavor with all the strength that is in them, Brownson thunders, to prevent the corruption of their old territorial institutions into a unitary state, intolerant of minorities and of all things established by prescription. This concept enters into all of Brownson’s discussions of American politics. He entertained a high opinion of Calhoun’s mind, but when the Civil War began, Brownson (who had detested Abolitionists and Fire-Eaters with impartial cordiality) remained a staunch Unionist, and at the end rejoiced in the Union victory (though he reproached Lincoln) as the triumph of genuine territorial democracy over the abstractions of Rousseau.

Socialism, Brownson tells us, is the application of the theory of pure democracy to economic life; it must end in the ruin both of economic prosperity and of true social justice. He seems to have been the first writer of note to denounce Marxism as a heresy from Christianity—a concept recently affirmed by Christopher Dawson, Arnold Toynbee, Martin D’Arcy, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Brownson believes that true justice is the classical principle of “to every man the things that his nature requires”; he believes socialistic compulsory leveling is a perversion of the Christian doctrine of charity. Because he never falls into the opposite error of pure Benthamism, Brownson is the most convincing American adversary of Marxism.

Against liberalism, Brownson is no less forthright. His essay “Liberalism and Progress” is perhaps the best expression, in a few thousand words, of the American conservative stand. “The great misfortune of modern liberalism,” he wrote, “is that it was misbegotten of impatience and born of a reaction against the tyranny and despotism of governments and the governing classes, and it is more disposed to hate than to love, and is abler to destroy than to build up.”

Brownson fought against several enemies of authority and justice. First, he had to contend against the radical doctrine of the Rights of Man—not the natural law of the Schoolmen, but the arrogant Rights of Paine and Priestley, quite severed from tradition. Second, he had to deal with the delusion of vox populi vox Dei, which presumptuous men, in America most of all, put forward as an excuse for majorities to alter all laws as they might choose, regardless of the rights of persons and minorities. Third, he was confronted by a belligerent individualism—in part a peculiarly American growth, in part the spirit of the age—which endeavored to subordinate all continuity and coherence and tradition to the immediate gratification of impulse. Fourth, he struggled against a Rousseauistic sentimentality that mistook a misty-eyed compassion for commutative justice. Fifth, he defended classical justice against an optimistic secularism which looked upon sin as a mere vestigial survival of barbarous times, certain to vanish with the march of progress. Sixth, he had to stand fast against the disintegrating competition of sectarianism, which, in denying the principle of authority and exalting private judgment, hewed at the foundation of justice: for justice is built upon authority, the authority of a general moral order of transcendent sanction.

Although Brownson often makes his case in these controversies with force and penetration, it is not as a wholly original thinker that he deserves to be read. What Brownson accomplished in his time was rather to apply such moral concepts to the raw new American society, telling Americans how even they, in their triumphant materialism and swaggering individualism, could not long endure without the true justice. In reminding Americans that they must respect the wisdom of their ancestors, he did not make himself popular with the innovating democracy. His work is difficult to trace in its subtle influence upon later generations, but it has done something to chasten and discipline American impulsiveness. Perhaps his admonitions have a greater meaning today than they did when Brownson died.


  • Russell Kirk

    Russell Kirk (October 19, 1918 – April 29, 1994) was an American political theorist, moralist, historian, social critic, literary critic, and fiction author known for his influence on 20th century American conservatism. His 1953 book, The Conservative Mind, gave shape to the amorphous post–World War II conservative movement. Kirk is considered the chief proponent of traditionalist conservatism.

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