Brownson’s American Republic: Last Thoughts (for now)

As mentioned in the last post, over the last 20% or so of The American Republic, Orestes Brownson changes from description and apologetics to prophecy. He moves from fleshing out and defending a position he attributes to Lincoln, that the United States as a nation precedes the Constitution and even the Declaration, to describing what he sees as the all but inevitable spiritual and political destiny of America.

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Brownson: Proof one does not need to be a Marxist to have a righteous beard. 

Brownson has great faith in Providence. He sees nations not as glorified tribes run by flawed and feeble men, but as acts of loving Creator, meant for some higher goal. The United States, as brought into focus and matured by the Civil War, are Providentially destined to absorb into their beneficent arms all the remaining states in the Western Hemisphere, not by conquest, but by nations one after the other coming to realize the mutual benefits of Union.

There was no statesmanship in proclaiming the “Monroe doctrine,” for the statesman keeps always, as far as possible, his government free to act according to the exigencies of the case when it comes up, unembarrassed by previous declarations of principles. Yet the doctrine only expresses the destiny of the American people, and which nothing but their own fault can prevent them from realizing in its own good time. Napoleon will not succeed in his Mexican policy, and Mexico will add some fifteen or twenty new States to the American Union as soon as it is clearly for the interests of all parties that it should be done, and it can be done by mutual consent, without war or violence. The Union will fight to maintain the integrity of her domain and the supremacy of her laws within it, but she can never, consistently with her principles or her interests, enter upon a career of war and conquest. Her system is violated, endangered, not extended, by subjugating her neighbors, for subjugation and liberty go not together. Annexation, when it takes place, must be on terms of perfect equality and by the free act of the state annexed. The Union can admit of no inequality of rights and franchises between the States of which it is composed. The Canadian Provinces and the Mexican and Central American States, when annexed, must be as free as the original States of the Union, sharing alike in the power and the protection of the Republic—alike in its authority, its freedom, its grandeur, and its glory, as one free, independent, self-governing people. They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.

“They may gain much, but must lose nothing by annexation.” This is the key feature, the one that did not survive 3 years after the Civil War: that states would retain all rights and powers to manage themselves after a fashion suitable to the local customs and traditions and the nature of the people therein, while only those rights and powers proper by nature to the Union would be surrendered. Mexico, to stick with Brownson’s example above, was destined to see the harmony and prosperity and benevolence of the U.S., note their lack of interest in, indeed, abhorrence of the very idea of imposing non-Mexican government on them in regards to all local matters. Defence, interstate commerce, settling disputes between states – those powers would be mutually shared and exercised through the federal government. The Mexicans would gain much, and lose nothing.

Except that the ink was not yet dry on this book when the spectacle of the North forcing passage of the 14th Amendment on the Southern states as a condition for reentering the Union showed the world exactly how wrong Brownson was. This, on the heels of a bloody war (of conquest, it would look like from the outside and the South), would certainly cause Mexico or anybody else to have serious doubts about the harmlessness of intentions of America. The Civil War preserved the Union, or at least something visually similar to the Union, and freed the slaves, but it did not advertise peace-loving American benevolence.

Brownson assumed the Reconstruction would be swift, fair and relatively painless, and lead to an economic boom. Brothers welcoming prodigal brothers home. He didn’t quite get that one right, either.

I almost think I hear a man horrified, as so many were, by the Civil War, trying to make sense out of it by appeals to destiny and Providence. Rather than the death of the very American ideals he so fervently hoped to see realized, he sees a renewal, a Phoenix rising. All the blood and wealth Lincoln describes as spilt and dissipated in Divine Retribution over slavery in his Second Inaugural Address Brownson believes rather paves the way to a glorious future.

A contemporary critic accused Brownson of arguing vehemently for ideas he wished he, himself, could believe in. I’m wondering if that critic didn’t have a point. Brownson ends the American Republic:

But the American people need not trouble themselves about their exterior expansion. That will come of itself as fast as desirable. Let them devote their attention to their internal destiny, to the realization of their mission within, and they will gradually see the Whole continent coming under their system, forming one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.

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Author: Joseph Moore

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

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