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.

Micro-Review & Brownson Reading Update

From the ridiculous to the sublime:

1. Read, as in listened to, the audiobook of, The Adventures of  Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, a Larry Correia joint, read by an enthusiastic and amused Adam Baldwin – yes, that Adam Baldwin. (Audio of this was offered free about a year ago, so I took it. Not really an audio guy myself. Mr. Baldwin’s fine work made it all special.)

Image result for The Adventures of Tom Stranger, Interdimensional Insurance AgentHilarious. Correia’s pacing is so fast and humor so thick that you never get bored even when, as I suspect is case for me, a lot of cultural/gamer/pop references are flying right over my head.

The conceit: an insurance agent, possibly the dullest, least inspiring white-collar job in this iteration of the multiverse, might be, through dogged dedication to superior customer service, a mech-driving, attack-nanobot-wielding, cyborg-kung-fu-master superhero. In a Men’s Wearhouse suit. Tom Stranger, of Stranger and Stranger Interdimensional Insurance, lives for positive customer satisfaction survey responses, and is willing to brave any horror and almost certain death to get them. He gets stuck with possibly the lamest intern in history, a slacker with a gender studies degree, by what appears to be an administrative oversight. Tom tries, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to keep Jimmy the Intern alive while providing superior customer service to his clients in various dimensions as they suffer attacks by the likes of zombie hordes and flying purple people eaters, all while Tom’s arch-nemesis, Jeff Conundrum, tries to ruin the party.

How epic is this? Chuck Norris shows up and kicks an evil alien’s head so hard he turns him inside out. Yikes.

If you need a quick, fun diversion from this vale of tears, highly recommended.

2. My regular readers, who by now may number well into the double digits, like maybe 12 or even  13, may recall my partial reviews of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic, some of which can be found here and here. What happened is that the book got weird, I had to think about it, shiny objects intruded into my field of visions, and, well, here we are.

Over the last 20-25% of the book, Brownson lays out his vision of America’s future. In retrospect, Brownson’s views seem either wildly optimistic to the verge of delusional, or, from another political perspective, dangerously theistic.

Brownson was an adult convert to Catholicism. He was raised among kindly Calvinists, but found their beliefs too dark and dreadful, even if the rural Presbyterians held them were personally kind. Before he was 20, he’d parted ways with the church of his childhood, and proceeded to ping-pong around between various flavors of Unitarianism and even quasi-atheistic theism (if that makes sense – and it sort of does). After a couple decades of this wandering in the desert, he comes to the conclusion that only a church that ‘teaches with authority, and not like the scribes’ could be the true Church.

His almost pugnacious enthusiasm for theological disputes, honed as an editor and writer for various Unitarian-leaning publications, never left him – his brand of apologetics is often bracing, especially in these be-nice-so-you-don’t-offend times. I can’t imagine it was much less so even in the mid-1800’s.

Brownson believes that the Civil War has settled some issues about what, exactly, the United States are. Writing immediately upon the conclusion of the Civil War and prior to passage of the 14th Amendment, Brownson never fails to refer to the United States as a plural, as was always done by earlier writers, a practice that soon passed out of useage after the Civil War. That War, and the 14th and subsequent Amendments,  impressed upon the minds of all the primacy of the Nation as a whole over the States as ever more subservient parts.

Brownson’s arguments in the American Republic support this view to a large extent. He argues that nations are formed naturally when a people in a territory recognize their common destiny and begin to act together. This commonality is usually but not always seen in language, religion and culture, but always includes a territory. Thus, the Swiss could be a single natural nation, while English-speaking Anglicans in South Africa, England and the US could not.

Therefore, Brownson argues that the United States were already a single nation when the Constitution was ratified – they must have been, since there must already be a nation to create a constitution for it. The people already recognized their common fate, and acted to best preserve and promote their common interests and protect the Republic which that common wealth brought into being. He writes at some length disputing the notion that a document could bring a nation into being, and cites the futility of such efforts throughout history. If a natural nation does not already exist, efforts to create one by fiat through a written constitution will always fail. (An Empire is another beast altogether.)

Brownson, writing in that thin slice of time right after the war and before the full intent and misery of the revenge of the North upon the South became obvious, could still believe that the States were being preserved more or less intact, that the war had been, as Lincoln always said, about preserving the Union. The states were still, in his view, sovereign, each within its proper realm, only surrendering to the United States those specific powers which by nature devolved to it. He thoroughly believed that there was and could not be a conflict between the federal and state powers, now that the War Between the States had so dearly and emphatically made them clear.

The state of affairs, whereby the greatest common wealth held by the Commonwealth that is the Nation that wrote the Constitution, are the recognition of the divine origins of Man’s rights and duties, and of the state’s existence to foster the growth and fruition of that divine order and as the expression of the divine fruitfulness. After the manner of the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist, in the secular realm, political life flows from the state and is ordered to it. Here he stands Fichte on his head: the sovereignty flows from the People to the State, which is informed and acts by virtue of the virtue of the People, thereby reinforcing their sovereignty and virtue.

Since the Nation is a natural thing, an outpouring and maturation of human nature, then, as human nature is a divine creation, so, too, is the Nation, at least potentially.  Here is where Brownson’s optimism is given full reign. Since the Catholic Church is the guardian and source of truth – of natural law, in this case – then a properly constituted natural nation must needs reflect and manifest the teaching of the Church. Brownson believes that, now that the war had forced America out of its long adolescence into mature statehood, we as a nation would more and more adopt the teachings of the Church on human nature, rights and duties both individual and societal, and, in short, convert. Any other route would take the nation further from reality, creating friction and issues that would soon be corrected – the great forward momentum of the now-mature American Republic would see to it.

He answers the Church and State issues in the same way he answers the Federal and State questions: there will be no conflict because the role of each is clear. In this, he echoes Dante, who yearned for a world in which the church and the state had separate, clear roles and stayed out of each other’s way. All the problems of the past were due to less perfect realizations of the idea of a Nation, leading to corruption of both church and state. America was poised to become Catholic and avoid all church and state problems as it realized the small ‘c’ catholic roots of all its founding principles, and moved toward the large ‘C’ Catholic Church as a result.

Finally, for now, in the midst of all this optimism and enthusiasm, Brownson despairs of Europe and the rest of Christendom. He notes that all contemporary Catholic states have got the Church on a short leash, and hate it even when they cannot -yet- do without it. Only in America, as a properly constituted Republic, would the Church be free to be itself. By being itself, it would convert the nation.

Brownson died in 1876, 11 years after writing the American Republic. I wonder if he recognized how far by then the nation had departed from the path he laid out for it, and where its true path would lead.

Just wow. I’m planning to retire in about 7.5 years – maybe then I can do the proper chapter by chapter review of this fascinating book.



Brownson and the American Commonwealth

Brief thought: according to Brownson, part of being a nation by nature – by the operation of Natural Law – is the recognition of things held and valued in common. In other words, a naturally-formed nation is a commonwealth.

Brownson is clear that he’s not just or even primarily talking about the physical stuff held in common. The common wealth of a nation is most properly the ideas, dreams and sense of shared destiny that makes one person look at someone he’s never met, who may live many miles away, and think: he is my countryman; and may cause him to look at his next door neighbor and say: he is not my countryman.

If things continue as they have for the last 50 years or so (or maybe longer – that’s my personal time-frame), will we still be able to think of an Iowa farmer, a New Jersey cabbie, a California mom, a Texas dentist, a Florida laborer, a New England dental hygienist, or a Alabama city councilman as members of the same natural nation, as lovers of the same commonwealth, or will we first ask after their race, sex, country of origin, first language, level of income or some other thing that identifies their assumed true loyalties?

We already live in a country where it is routine for people in the East Coast metropolitan areas to consider Southerners, Texans and the residents of the fly-over states as rubes, bumpkins and, most especially, people whose concept of the nation and its destiny are WRONG. Many black are presented in the media (1) as having a fundamental loyalty to changing or even destroying the culture they find themselves in, one they do not share with the white people who, in theory at least, created it. In this they differ radically from Martin Luther King, who always saw blacks and whites as sharing a culture, and wanted that shared culture to be better in a way that wasn’t fundamentally destructive. (2)

Yet, ironically, the coastal city-dwellers (3) do not see themselves as attempting to destroy the nation, but rather think that the people who disagree with them are the ones doing the destruction. A Texan may think them crazy Yankees, and might fervently believe they would benefit mightily by striving to be more Texan-like – but he is unlikely to have any evangelical zeal about it. He is unlikely to think it his job to do anything at all about the situation – as long as that behavior is mutual.

But the true evangelical heart of this country has always been in the Calvinist Northeast, founded and peopled by fanatics who fled Europe so they could run their own theocracy. While the religious aspects of this attitude have evolved, then dissolved, from Puritan Calvinism through Christian Universalism  to modern secular humanism, the zeal has survived unabated, at least in enough people to keep an unshakeable (and unearned) sense of moral superiority alive. Thus, we end up, for example, with a puritanical zeal against 48 oz sodas and for homosexuality that brooks no heresy.

A key part of the nationhood of the U.S. is, or was, the recognition that we are all very different *other than* our love of the Commonwealth. How else could such a wild mix of people from all over the world ever hope to form and keep a sense of nationhood?

  1. Not any I know personally, but who am I going to believe, the media or my own lying eyes?
  2. I’m aware that there are more radical aspects to King’s philosophy, but at least in his famous public speeches, he called for all to live together – and that’s what I’m getting at here.
  3. Calling them ‘elites’ is not really accurate – I don’t find this attitude to be any less prevalent in the man on the street than in the professor or stock broker or politician in his office. However, my personal sample size is really, really small here.

Updates, Asides & Micro-Reviews

1  When I’m not being the most thoroughly rational and reasonable person you’ll ever meet who isn’t an honorary Houyhnhnm, I sometimes get emotional. The last few months, with the death of my sister, the anniversary of my son’s death, and all but one of the kids leaving for college, have been, well, emotional. This futzes with my attempts at rationality in weird ways, especially since I, like Spock in The Voyage Home, find answering the question ‘how do you feel?’ way more difficult than it ought to be. Maybe I’m a replicant or something, an earlier, much less physically attractive version of Rachael? It’s a difficult thing to disprove…

One thing that gets weird is what I can stand to read. Lately, when I reach into The Pile near my bed to read myself to sleep, I’ve settled on a a scholarly and somewhat dry book on Greek Mythology by some British don or other. This, while my (new paper white, yay!) Kindle sits there with partially read John C Wright, Brian Neimier and Orestes Brownson. Huh? I’d rather, it appears, read about how the Argonaut saga originated somewhere outside the Greek world and was retrofitted, over the centuries, with more mainstream Greek heroes, who storytellers were then obliged to more or less awkwardly work into the narrative or work around. Beats Hegel, for sure, but those other guys?

Also, a couple things I read during this time I’ve since partially reread, and discovered that I’d totally misapprehended them. Note to self: check emotional state before writing any reviews, you may blow it otherwise. (Age of Ultron, anyone?). That said:

2 The middle parts of Brownson I found draggy, as he beats to death every flavor of every objection to the premise that the Union is and must be constituted as a nation and people in fact and by natural law *before* it could write a legal document. The South, thus, could object as much as they want to the written Constitution, but the same natural laws that govern all the natural goings-on in this world also, in the normal working of things, constitute peoples as nations who only THEN can construct laws for themselves. You can’t legitimately leave such a thing without doing horrible violence to the rule of law and human nature itself.

Fascinating concept, and I’ll get back to a more full-blown write up once I feel better, whatever that means.

The real surprise: Brownson, as through and through an opponent of slavery as one could hope to find, nonetheless detests the Abolitionist movement, even more, in some ways, then he detests slave-owning. Why? Because while both slavery and the excesses of the Abolitionists are barbaric, in the sense of being opposed to the Commonwealth essential to any civilization worthy of the name, slave holding is a persistent remnant of barbarity standing against efforts to achieve true civilization, while the Abolitionists, having a Commonwealth and a Republic, would burn the whole world, the state, the Union, the Commonwealth and the Republic itself to be rid of slavery. In their rhetoric, they dismiss or condemn the Union for having allowed slavery in the first place and not having stamped it out in the second.

Brownson points out that the American bias in favor of revolutionaries is fundamentally insane.  For every ‘good’ Revolution like America’s of 1776, there are dozens in which the worst traits and people rise to the top, and nothing is achieved except the destruction of life, freedom and the Commonwealth itself. And, since this vast majority of revolts don’t establish a more perfect order, they tend to repeat themselves over and over. He is, I’m sure, thinking of the France  of his time.

So the Southerners willing to be ‘rebels’ were, in Brownson’s opinion, deluded by the American myth of the good revolution. There hearts were in the right place, perhaps, but they did not understand what they were doing – no one did, until the act of fighting the Civil War forced people to work through what it was all about – which is what Brownson’s book is all about.

3 I’m rereading Brian Niemeier’s first novel Nethereal (see above for why) and quite enjoying it. Expect a review soon.

4. In some ways, John C. Wright’s latest Somewhither takes his everything and the kitchen sink approach to characters and ideas to an even more extreme level than before, if possible. I’m only a little bit into it, yet we’ve already run into a menagerie of creatures eldrich, and enough ideas for half a dozen short stories. But I’ll need to start over soon, see above.

5. I threw that story up, after a couple hours of writing and one quick rewrite, just to see if I could actually let anything out of my trembling hands and into the wild. I resisted rewriting it for a couple days, then went back and eliminated a couple paragraphs and tried to mitigate some redundancy. BUT THAT’S IT! Ok? So I can ‘finish’ a story, after a fashion. Conceptually, at least.

Did you know that the history of civilization can to some extent be found in the layers of ruins of ancient farms? In rural France, the earliest ruins, when the farmers first built houses, show one big room – and all the animals stayed in there, too. As time went on and, one presumes, things settled down a bit, a divider wall was put in, perhaps to keep the cows and goats from stepping on sleeping peasant children. Next, solid walls with doors went in. Finally, when things got really settled, a separate but very near by building – a barn – was built for the animals, and everyone, one hopes, slept and smelt better.

This makes total sense, in a world where populations are ‘harvest-sensitive’ – that livestock was a matter of life and death, you’d better know where it is and be able to defend it.

So, out of the blue, thinking of recent cultural developments, I had the stray thought: if this keeps up, we’re going to need to keep the cows in the living room.

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.

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!

Arrested by Orestes

Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876)Brownson, that is. Been reading The American Republic: Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny, in which Brownson, writing right after the Civil War, tries to get his arms around what it means for a nation to constitute a government. He says many amazing things, and, as is true of profound thinkers, says things that remain true today. At the same time, he’s constructing an apologetic for Lincoln, who, in the face of Southern claims of the right to secede, argued that the nation preceded the Constitution – that arguments over government could not be used to destroy the fundamental unity of the nation that constituted that government.

Further, Brownson sort of apologizes at the beginning of the book for not making it scholarly – not identifying all his sources nor following academic rigor in laying out his arguments. While this certainly makes the book more readable, it also obscures somewhat the influence of Fichte and Hegel, which, while not mentioned by name (yet – I’m a little less than halfway through) seem to lurk behind many of the ideas and assumptions.

A couple snippets: first, for those of us afflicted with materialists, Brownson offers pithy observations:

IV. A still more recent class of philosophers, if philosophers they may be called, reject the origin of government in the people individually or collectively. Satisfied that it has never been instituted by a voluntary and deliberate act of the people, and confounding government as a fact with government as authority, maintain that government is a spontaneous development of nature. Nature develops it as the liver secretes bile, as the bee constructs her cell, or the beaver builds his dam. Nature, working by her own laws and inherent energy, develops society, and society develops government. That is all the secret. Questions as to the origin of government or its rights, beyond the simple positive fact, belong to the theological or metaphysical stage of the development of nature, but are left behind when the race has passed beyond that stage, and has reached the epoch of positive science, in which all, except the positive fact, is held to be unreal and non-existent. Government, like every thing else in the universe, is simply a positive development of nature. Science explains the laws and conditions of the development, but disdains to ask for its origin or ground in any order that transcends the changes of the world of space and time.

These philosophers profess to eschew all theory, and yet they only oppose theory to theory. The assertion that reality for the human mind is restricted to the positive facts of the sensible order, is purely theoretic, and is any thing but a positive fact. Principles are as really objects of science as facts, and it is only in the light of principles that facts themselves are intelligible. If the human mind had no science of reality that transcends the sensible order, or the positive fact, it could have no science at all. As things exist only in their principles or causes, so can they be known only in their principles and causes; for things can be known only as they are, or as they really exist. The science that pretends to deduce principles from particular facts, or to rise from the fact by way of reasoning to an order that transcends facts, and in which facts have their origin, is undoubtedly chimerical, and as against that the positivists are unquestionably right. But to maintain that man has no intelligence of any thing beyond the fact, no intuition or intellectual apprehension of its principle or cause, is equally chimerical. The human mind cannot have all science, but it has real science as far as it goes, and real science is the knowledge of things as they are, not as they are not. Sensible facts are not intelligible by themselves, because they do not exist by themselves; and if the human mind could not penetrate beyond the individual fact, beyond the mimetic to the methexic, or transcendental principle, copied or imitated by the individual fact, it could never know the fact itself. The error of modern philosophers, or philosopherlings, is in supposing the principle is deduced or inferred from the fact, and in denying that the human mind has direct and immediate intuition of it.

And, as to ‘nation-building’:

The constitution of the state is not a theory, nor is it drawn up and established in accordance with any preconceived theory. What is theoretic in a constitution is unreal. The constitutions conceived by philosophers in their closets are constitutions only of Utopia or Dreamland. This world is not governed by abstractions, for abstractions are nullities. Only the concrete is real, and only the real or actual has vitality or force. The French people adopted constitution after constitution of the most approved pattern, and amid bonfires, beating of drums, sound of trumpets, roar of musketry, and thunder of artillery, swore, no doubt, sincerely as well as enthusiastically, to observe them, but all to no effect; for they had no authority for the nation, no hold on its affections, and formed no element of its life. The English are great constitution-mongers–for other nations. They fancy that a constitution fashioned after their own will fit any nation that can be persuaded, wheedled, or bullied into trying it on; but, unhappily, all that have tried it on have found it only an embarrassment or encumbrance. The doctor might as well attempt to give an individual a new constitution, or the constitution of another man, as the statesman to give a nation any other constitution than that which it has, and with which it is born.

I wonder what Brownson would have made of post-war Japan? Probably note that, while the form of government was superficially American, day to day power was and is exercised by the 9 great families, just as it was before the war – in other words, the nation as it is itself constituted produces as a government an hereditary aristocracy, whatever formal arrangement the legally-constituted government may take.

Will finish this up and do a review. Within my lifetime, one hopes.