Brownson: The American Republic – Introduction and Overview

Here is the briefest sketch of Orestes Brownson. You can find The American Republic here via Project Gutenberg.

Brownson is writing immediately upon the end of the Civil War, before the Reconstruction. He was perhaps America’s foremost public intellectual at the time, a fervent opponent of slavery, and a Catholic convert from Presbyterian Calvinism via Unitarianism. He thinks that the conclusion of the Civil War is providing a moment in which America can leave its energetic but headlong childhood behind and become a truly mature nation. He’s an optimist, in so many words.

His goal is to place the American Republic within history, describe its unique characteristics, warn it of the traps and dangers it will face, and offer guidance toward a better political future. While there is a certain combativeness in his style, reading the whole things leaves one with a sense of Brownson’s fundamental Catholicism. He ends up urging kindness, forgiveness and generosity toward the South, and frames the victory as one of Civilization over Barbarism, of true democracy, which he calls ‘territorial democracy’ over the chimeras of individualistic democracy (think: Rousseau) on the one hand, and socialist or ‘humanitarian’ democracy on the other.

Brownson asserts that the Southern leadership cannot be considered traitors, as they based their actions on a theory – individual democracy, wherein individual people voluntarily group together to form and govern states by mutual consent – which was, up until the events of the Civil War proved otherwise, the commonly held view of most American thinkers. Individual democracy is both false in its premises – no state was ever formed by voluntary convention – and barbarous in its outcomes. So the South, even its most rabid supporters, are not traitors, because the issue – what is American democracy, really? – was only finally settled by the war itself.

Perhaps surprisingly considering he himself was strongly anti-slavery, Brownson considers the Abolitionists to be no less barbarous than the Individualists, and perhaps even more so. His arguments sound strangely modern, at least among those of a more ‘conservative’ bend: Abolitionists and other ‘Humanitarians’ recognize no government, no local or territorial rights to self-determination. Their theory knows no limits – they can continue to ‘improve’ the human race regardless of what the people they are ‘improving’ think about it, until all social structures that are judged unfair or unjust are eliminated. Among these are property, but also all natural gifts. Brownson mocks the fundamental irrationality of the humanitarians by drawing the logical conclusions to which they may have not yet awakened. Vonnegut was channelling Brownson in Harrison Bergeron, whether he knew it or not.

In the volume which, with much diffidence, is here offered to the public, I have given, as far as I have considered it worth giving, my whole thought in a connected form on the nature, necessity, extent, authority, origin, ground, and constitution of government, and the unity, nationality, constitution, tendencies, and destiny of the American Republic.

Thus begins the Preface. Brownson was writing in 1865, fast upon the conclusion of the Civil War, when the topics he addresses had been more or less consciously fought over in bloody battle. What is the Union? What are its origins? What do we do now, that brother against brother and father against son have shed each other’s blood in the name of Union, state’s rights and the freedom of the slaves? We 21st Century Americans can hardly grasp the trauma the Civil War entailed, even those of us who can place it in the correct half century.

Elsewhere in the Preface, Brownson lays out the positions he will vigorously defend in the body of the work:

In treating the several questions which the preparation of this volume has brought up, in their connection, and in the light of first principles, I have changed or modified, on more than one important point, the views I had expressed in my previous writings, especially on the distinction between civilized and barbaric nations, the real basis of civilization itself, and the value to the world of the Graeco-Roman civilization. I have ranked feudalism under the head of barbarism, rejected every species of political aristocracy, and represented the English constitution as essentially antagonistic to the American, not as its type. I have accepted universal suffrage in principle, and defended American democracy, which I define to be territorial democracy, and carefully distinguish from pure individualism on the one hand, and from pure socialism or humanitarianism on the other.

I reject the doctrine of State sovereignty, which I held and defended from 1828 to 1861, but still maintain that the sovereignty of the American Republic vests in the States, though in the States collectively, or united, not severally, and thus escape alike consolidation and disintegration. I find, with Mr. Madison, our most philosophic statesman, the originality of the American system in the division of powers between a General government having sole charge of the foreign and general, and particular or State governments having, within their respective territories, sole charge of the particular relations and interests of the American people; but I do not accept his concession that this division is of conventional origin, and maintain that it enters into the original Providential constitution of the American state, as I have done in my Review for October, 1863, and January and October, 1864.

I maintain, after Mr. Senator Sumner, one of the most philosophic and accomplished living American statesmen, that “State secession is State suicide,” but modify the opinion I too hastily expressed that the political death of a State dissolves civil society within its territory and abrogates all rights held under it, and accept the doctrine that the laws in force at the time of secession remain in force till superseded or abrogated by competent authority, and also that, till the State is revived and restored as a State in the Union, the only authority, under the American system, competent to supersede or abrogate them is the United States, not Congress, far less the Executive. The error of the Government is not in recognizing the territorial laws as surviving secession but in counting a State that has seceded as still a State in the Union, with the right to be counted as one of the United States in amending the Constitution. Such State goes out of the Union, but comes under it.

He acknowledges his major sources:

I am principally indebted for the view of the American nationality and the Federal Constitution I present, to hints and suggestions furnished by the remarkable work of John C. Hurd, Esq., on The Law of Freedom and Bondage in the United States, a work of rare learning and profound philosophic views. I could not have written my work without the aid derived from its suggestions, any more than I could without Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas, Suarez, Pierre Leroux, and the Abbate Gioberti. To these two last-named authors, one a humanitarian sophist, the other a Catholic priest, and certainly one of the profoundest philosophical writers of this century, I am much indebted, though I have followed the political system of neither. I have taken from Leroux the germs of the doctrine I set forth on the solidarity of the race, and from Gioberti the doctrine I defend in relation to the creative act, which is, after all, simply that of the Credo and the first verse of Genesis.

In the Introduction, Brownson echos, in a way, the 16th century Spanish Dominican and Jurist Vitoria, who fought against the more barbaric behavior of the Conquistadors by stating, in part, that the same moral rules apply to the behavior of states as apply to the behavior of individuals:

Nations are only individuals on a larger scale. They have a life, an individuality, a reason, a conscience, and instincts of their own, and have the same general laws of development and growth, and, perhaps, of decay, as the individual man. Equally important, and no less difficult than for the individual, is it for a nation to know itself, understand its own existence, its own powers and faculties, rights and duties, constitution, instincts, tendencies, and destiny. A nation has a spiritual as well as a material, a moral as well as a physical existence, and is subjected to internal as well as external conditions of health and virtue, greatness and grandeur, which it must in some measure understand and observe, or become weak and infirm, stunted in its growth, and end in premature decay and death.

Among nations, no one has more need of full knowledge of itself than the United States, and no one has hitherto had less.

Brownson aims to fill this gap. We’ll cover a chapter or two at a time next.


Author: Joseph Moore

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

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