Brownson: The American Republic – Preliminaries

Before I start in with a chapter by chapter review of this work, thought it best to cover a few historical and biographical preliminaries. Context, and all that.

Orestes Brownson (1) was born in Vermont in 1803, and grew up on a small farm there. His father died when he was very young, and his mother felt compelled to have him adopted by a nearby family, who raised him in a strict yet loving Presbyterian Calvinism. A voracious reader, he had almost no formal education, yet learned enough Latin to translate Virgil by age 19. He went on to teach at several universities, off and on.

Around this time, Harvard, the intellectual gravitational center of America, had converted from Calvinistic Puritanism to Unitarian Universalism. In other words, converted from the belief that God both saves and damns without reference to human actions – no free will – to the belief that God has saved everyone through his Son. Still no free will in any meaningful sense, but much nicer predestination. The emphasis switches from being righteous to being nice, and Scripture changes from being the essential and central deposit of God’s Truth to being a real nice tool for helping people be, well, real nice.

Brownson was baptized a Presbyterian at age 19, but immediately found himself in theological conflict – a recurring theme of his life. By this time, the new enlightened religion of Harvard and the Boston intellectual circles provided an option, which he took, becoming at age 20 a Unitarian Universalist, and a minister a few years later. He edited and wrote for Universalist publications, where he tended to stir up controversy – another recurring theme of his life.

About this time, Tammany Hall was feeling its oats down in New York, and, not having learned that a key to any good political machine is to pay off that portion of the the voters who vote for it (and punish any who don’t) was a little too transparently corrupt. Orestes threw his support behind the Workingman’s Party, the major achievement of which was to bring the benefits of paying off your grassroots supporters to the attention of Tammany Hall. Within 10 years, the Workingman’s Party had dissolved as Tammany Hall both cheated to stay in power and started making sure the various workers got paid – a formula that ensured its continuation in power for almost another century.

Brownson was that rare individual who thought that the world should make sense, and so soon became unhappy with Universalism. He got caught in the gravitational pull of the core beliefs, and so came to deny divine revelation, the divinity of Christ, and any future judgement. Not a man for half measure, he ended up supporting the Workingman’s Party under the wings of Robert Dale Owen, a socialist and anti-Christian crusader, who – history is fascinating in its consistency – attacked the institution of marriage, among other things.

With the dissolution of the party, Brownson discovered that bettering the situation of workers was not something that could be achieved by political actions (I imagine it was his up close and personal look at those actions that convinced him) but required social change – and that required religion of some sort. So, in 1831, he went back to preaching as a Universalist (2) and publishing another magazine (yet another recurring theme).

When the magazine failed, Brownson became committed to Transcendentalism, which, while it does not in fact involve getting beyond teeth, did involve a belief in the fundamental goodness of people and nature, which goodness was only corrupted by society. Transcendentalism arose as a protest against – ready? – the Unitarian Universalists at Harvard (3). However, since Universalists don’t actually believe much of anything, Brownson found that he could stay a Unitarian preacher while at the same time being a Transcendentalist. Handy, that.

In 1836, he organized the Society for Christian Union and Progress, and soon began publishing the Boston Quarterly Review. His views made him popular in the Democratic Party, even while he denounced the idea of popular sovereignty as just another name for mob rule and tyranny.

Then he was bit unwise, politically speaking:

In his “Review” for July, 1840, he carried the democratic principles to their extreme logical conclusions, and urged the abolition of Christianity; meaning, of course, the only Christianity he was acquainted with, if, indeed, it be Christianity; denounced the penal code, as bearing with peculiar severity on the poor, and the expense to the poor in civil cases; and, accepting the doctrine of Locke, Jefferson, Mirabeau, Portalis, Kent, and Blackstone, that the right to devise or bequeath property is based on statute, not on natural,law, he objected to the testamentary and hereditary descent of property; and, what gave more offencethan all the rest, he condemned the modern industrial system, especially the system of labour at wages. In all this he only carried out the doctrine of European Socialists and the Saint-Simonians. Democrats were horrified by the article; Whigs paraded it as what Democrats were aiming at; and Van Buren, who was a candidate for a second term as President, blamed it as the main cause of his defeat. The manner in which he was assailed aroused Brownson’s indignation, and he defended his essay with vigour in the following number of his “Review”, and silenced the clamours against him, more than regaining the ground he had lost, so that he never commanded more attention, or had a more promising career open before him…

And then finally, suicidal, politically speaking:

…than when, in 1844, he turned his back on honours and popularity to become a Catholic.

The slavery question was starting to boil over. Brownson intensified his writings about politics, now focusing more on the nature and origins of nations and governments, now from a fully Catholic perspective. He was strongly for preserving the Union and strongly for ending slavery – both views lost him support, almost completely among Southerners, and largely among Northerners hoping to avoid war.

After the war, he compiled and reworked his writing and ideas into the book we’ll start reviewing soon. Brownson died in 1875 at age 72.

We’ll get to reviewing the work shortly. In the meantime, here are two quotations, unrelated to the American Republic, that give a flavor of his thinking:

First, of his decades of experience arguing with Protestants, which has carried over to the arguments of moderns, except its only gotten worse:

Convict [your opponent] from tradition, and he appeals to the Bible; convict him from the Bible, and he appeals to reason; convict him from reason, and he appeals to private sentiment; convict him from private sentiment, and he appeals to skepticism, or flies back to reason, to Scripture, or tradition, and alternately from one to the other, never scrupling to affirm, one moment, what he denied the moment before, nor blushing to be found maintaining, that, of contraries, both may be true. He is indifferent as to what he asserts or denies, if able for the moment to obtain an apparent covert from his pursuers.

and, his opposition to Prussian education:

A government system of education in Prussia is not inconsistent with the theory of Prussian society, for there all wisdom is supposed to be lodged in the government. But the thing is wholly inadmissible here not because the government may be in the hands of Whigs or Democrats, but because, according to our theory, the people are supposed to be wiser than the government. Here [in the U.S.] the people do not look to the government for light, for instruction, but the government looks to the people. The people give the law to the government. To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master. This fundamental difference between the two countries, we apprehend, has been overlooked by the board of education and its supporters. In a free government, there can be no teaching by authority, and all attempts to teach by authority are so many blows struck at its freedom. (Brownson, 1839, quoted by Tozer, 2002, p. 75)

1. Also see the Oracle Wikipedia’s take.

2. As Kurt Vonnegut put it: “Unitarians don’t believe in anything. I’m a Unitarian.”

3. Transcendentalism is one of those things where I start gagging about 2 sentences in, so I’m sure I’m missing the beauty and sublime truths contained therein, but – oh, come on!

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “Brownson: The American Republic – Preliminaries”

  1. “To entrust, then, the government with the power of determining the education which our children shall receive is entrusting our servant with the power to be our master.”

    A-frickin-men!

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