From the Notebooks
Allegations of Brownson’s inconsistencies in later years are often misplaced. Recent biographer R.A. Herrera, for instance, alleges that Brownson’s view on the democratic revolution that was picking up speed in the mid-nineteenth century flip-flopped. Herrera criticizes Brownson for saying, in 1856, that the democratic “revolution, in some form, will go on,” and urging the Catholic Church to prepare for the revolution’s success. Herrera calls Brownson a weathercock for this “turnabout” because eight years earlier Brownson had “severely criticized the view that the Church should abandon the governments and appeal to the people, forming an alliance between religion and liberty.”
Herrera’s analysis doesn’t fit. Brownson didn’t think any form of government was necessarily better than another as long as it assured the people liberty. Democracy, he thought, was in the best position to do this, and hence he tended to favor democracy, especially in the United States where it was implemented under the Constitution. But he never wavered from the view that the people’s liberty could be obtained under a monarchy, aristocracy, or other form, and he also thought all just governments were an arm of God and deserved obedience, as long as they ruled with divine law in mind. He accordingly objected to the rabidly-democratic rebellions and revolutions that were accosting European nations at that time, finding that they proposed to overthrow monarchies and divine law in the name of popular government and political atheism. That doesn’t mean, however, that (like de Tocqueville) he didn’t know that the eventual victory of democracy was inevitable, and he counseled the Church to prepare for its success. That doesn’t mean he supported its success; it doesn’t mean he favored the democratic revolutionaries. It simply means that he thought the Church should be ready to apply the faith, its moral teachings, and God’s higher law to democracies.
A conservative is a person who believes in immutable and eternal laws and endeavors to apply them to changing temporal conditions. Rejection of immutable and eternal laws is liberalism; rejection of the idea that those laws must be applied to changing temporal conditions is nitwitism. Brownson was neither a liberal nor a nitwit. He was a conservative, in the highest sense of the word.