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Orestes Brownson: The Inflammatory Public Philosopher

Part III of a Five-Part Series

Any person who addresses public issues with an uncompromising eye on truth is sure to offend someone. Brownson usually offended everyone.

Brownson wasn’t a subtle person, especially in his writing.

He wrote with logic and force, rarely with sensitivity or tact. And he was also a remarkably-erudite individual with strong opinions and an equally-strong belief that he should express those opinions in uncompromisingly strong words. He simply didn’t see the value of downplaying his points or making them in an indirect or less offensive manner. “There is in Brownson’s style a rhetorical habit of using the harsh blow of a miner’s sledge when the tap of a carpenter’s hammer would be more effective”;[i] he had an “inclination to use a battle ax to crush a butterfly.”[ii]

These traits didn’t change after his conversion and may have become even more pronounced. Brownson, like many intellectual converts, welcomed the “check” provided by the Church’s authority. A Catholic can theorize and speculate wildly, as long as he conducts himself in accordance with reason and is willing to check his results against the authority of the Church. If his results vary with the Church, and the results involve Her teaching on faith and morals, then he must re-track and figure out where his reasoning failed. If his results vary with the Church in other areas, he should take a hard look at his reasoning process and see where he may have made a mistake. Brownson took his already-strong opinions, checked them against Church teaching, modified them accordingly, and then applied them with reinforced assurance to issues in the public arena.

The result was a confident Catholic public philosopher. It was an inflammable mix: As a Catholic and philosopher, he insisted on truth. As a confident man, he was convinced he had the truth or right reason. As a journalist, he tackled the issues that were the topic of public discussion.

Problems arose. Public issues, by their very nature, dislike bald assertions of truth. If something is an “issue,” it is, by definition, a thing that hasn’t been settled to the level of accepted truth, and if something is “public,” it is, by definition, a thing that has captured the attention of many people, which means it is probably wrapped in emotion and self-interest. Any person who addresses public issues with an uncompromising eye on truth is sure to offend someone. Brownson usually offended everyone.

The Issue of Slavery

One of the first issues he addressed after turning his attention back to public affairs was slavery. The catalyst: The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

The Fugitive Slave Law guaranteed a slave owner’s right to recover a runaway slave, whether found on slave soil or free soil. During heated debates on the bill, Senator William Seward vehemently opposed it. He acknowledged that the Act might be necessary to carry out the U.S. Constitution, but said there exists “a law higher than the Constitution,” God’s law, which prohibits slavery, and therefore he couldn’t support it.

Brownson’s response to Seward provides good insight into his theory of constitutional government, especially as applied in the United States. Brownson, like Seward and the abolitionists, thought slavery was an odious evil and violated God’s law, but he disagreed with Seward’s refusal to support the Fugitive Slave Law. Brownson acknowledged that a human law that violates divine law is no law at all and is not binding, but he also pointed out that, if we allow individuals to decide for themselves whether a human law is consistent with divine law, then we put private judgment above the government, which is improper because individuals are not higher than government, and such a position results in anarchy. However, if individuals have no right to resist an unjust law, Brownson said, the result is despotism. It’s a dilemma.

But not for the Catholic. The Catholic can appeal to the Church. The Church is an authority higher than the government because it is a direct and immediate divine institution (Brownson believed that government, too, is a divine institution, but only indirectly, or mediately). In the current situation, said Brownson, the Church had not condemned the Fugitive Slave Law, and therefore Catholics were obligated to obey it because, without the condemnation of a higher power, the laws of the State must be obeyed. In Brownson’s formulation, the authoritative spheres of both Church and State are preserved — the Church upholding the authority of the State except in cases of egregious injustice that do not show a reasonable chance of subsiding, the State listening to the Church and paying heed to her teachings. But for the non-Catholic, Brownson said, the dilemma will always exist.

The pro-slavery faction in the country liked Brownson’s conclusions but disliked his uncompromising condemnation of slavery. The abolitionists liked his condemnation of slavery but disliked his support for the Fugitive Slave.[iii] And no one in Protestant America liked his opinion that only the Catholic Church could solve the Seward dilemma.

Even many Catholics disliked his conclusion about the Church’s role in public affairs. At that time, the last flames of a long-enduring heresy known as Gallicanism were flickering. Gallicanism, which had strong support among clergy and laity in America, holds that secular governments are morally and spiritually independent of the Catholic Church’s teachings. Brownson’s assertion of the Church’s authority in governmental affairs conflicted with Gallicanism, and many Catholics thought his position effectively subjugated government to the Pope’s whims. He suffered a lot of abuse from fellow Catholics but was vindicated in 1870 when Vatican Council I officially condemned the heresy.

Engaging the Know Nothings

Perhaps the ugliest battle came when the Know-Nothing Party gained political ground. The Know-Nothing Party was dedicated to eradicating foreign influences, especially Catholic ones, from America, taking particular aim at the recent swarm of Irish immigrants. The Party’s success was due, at least in part, to Americans’ fear of a handful of atheist radicals that had come to America in the recent wave of immigration. In an effort to combat Know Nothingism, Brownson published an article in July 1854 that would infuriate, of all people, Irish Catholics.

Brownson’s article tried to distinguish the Know Nothings’ hatred of the Irish from their hatred of Catholicism. The Know Nothings, he said, could not be against Catholicism since religious freedom is the bedrock of the American Constitution and every Know Nothing claimed to be a dedicated American. What they are really against, he said, is the Irish, who stubbornly cling to their national customs and refuse to assimilate. America, he said, is an English country, and the Irish are obligated to act accordingly. He also speculated that the Irish might want to renounce the vote in light of the godless radicals that were among the most-recent wave of Irish immigrants. By rejecting the right to vote, the strength of the new radicals would be crippled, which would, in turn, cripple the Know Nothing’s prime attraction.

The uproar was immense. The Irish, who were accorded second-class citizenship in their home country under the British, thought Brownson was proposing second-class citizenship again. Know Nothings were quoting Brownson as proof that the Irish could not be good Americans, which they twisted to mean that Catholics could not be good Americans (a position bolstered by Brownson’s teaching that the Pope should exercise an indirect influence in secular affairs). Although he wrote subsequent articles to clarify his position and assure readers that he was not anti-Irish, the damage to his reputation was immense and it is fair to say his reputation never fully recovered from it. His Review lost subscribers, the U.S. bishops asked him to remove their endorsement from the cover (which he obediently did), and he even lost a prestigious lecturing job at Catholic University in Dublin (the rector, John Henry Newman, was pressured to withdraw the invitation in the wake of the Know-Nothing affair).

Private Catholic Schools

Brownson would find himself vilified again a few years later when he addressed the topic of Catholic schools.

The states at that time were in the process of setting up public schools. The issue that dogs public schools today was biting then: Should religion be taught in the schools and, if so, which religion? Most Americans thought religion must be taught in order to instill morality, but thought no particular sect should be advocated. This meant, in the presumptions of the nineteenth century, that a bland sort of Christianity that all Protestants could accept should be taught — whether the religious fare would offend Catholics was irrelevant to most Americans.

Catholics were understandably disturbed at the prospect of their children attending schools whose educational slant was inimical to their religion. In response, the Catholic Church in America started to build a system of parochial schools, and the Catholic population rallied in support.

But not Brownson.[iv]

Although he favored a religious education, especially a Catholic education, he also thought it was possible for children to get their Catholicism elsewhere — primarily the home. He also, for good reason, thought the education provided by the new parochial schools was inferior, with the result that Catholic children started life at a disadvantage.

Unfortunately, as was typical with his style, when criticizing the parochial schools’ quality he didn’t do it delicately, but with broad, smashing criticisms (some of them unjust), thus providing substantial ammunition to the public school advocates who wanted to absorb Catholic education into the public sphere. In addition, part of his criticism harkened back to the Irish problem: By setting up their own schools, Catholics were continuing the “ghetto” mentality of the Irish and not allowing themselves to be Americanized. His earlier criticism of the Irish was brought to the surface again, with the corresponding uproar.

The American Republic

Brownson wrote and lectured on a range of issues: the best means of bringing the rebellious Southern states back into the Union following the Civil War, how to deal with emancipated slaves, the role of the laity in the Church. He also got involved in international issues, like the effort to unite Italy. He wrote on almost every topic that arose, and he always did so with hours of study, intense thought, and a strong style.

By 1864, he was tired. He had been an unflagging proponent of the Union during the Civil War, lecturing and writing extensively on behalf of the Union and proposing ideas and strategies (he was one of the earliest proponents of emancipating the slaves as a war tactic). He had grown weary from his twenty-plus years of fighting philosophical battles in the public arena. He discontinued the Review that had been his primary occupation for over twenty years and, with the help of an annuity that admirers purchased for him, settled down to study and write in calm. Away from the din of public issues, he hoped to write a series of books that would be received without regard to the public sentiments of the moment. His first book (the only one he completed) was a masterpiece of political philosophy, a book Woodrow Wilson later praised as containing the “greatest treatment ever written” on the American Constitution.[v]

The American Republic was a distillation of over forty years of political philosophy. The first part of the book (consisting of nearly half the contents) scarcely discusses America at all, instead focusing on the origin and constitution of government, and distinguishing civilized governments (in which power is held in a fiduciary capacity for the public good) from barbaric governments (in which power is held as a personal asset with no element of public trust). In his treatment of the subject, he offered the pointed observation that even democracy is a barbaric form of government if the electors breach their duty of public trust and instead vote their personal interests[vi] — an especially astute lesson for Americans today who readily “vote their pocketbooks.”

The book then goes onto a discussion of the American Constitution, a unique endeavor, he writes, but steeped in beliefs from England, medieval Europe, the Roman Empire, Athens, and Jerusalem. He pointed out that America has two constitutions: the written constitution and the unwritten constitution, the latter being “the real or actual constitution of the people as a state or sovereign community” through which the written constitution must be understood.[vii]

Brownson unequivocally rejected the cliché that is so popular today: Government is a necessary evil: “They wrong it who call it a necessary evil; it is a great good, and, instead of being distrusted, hated, or resisted, except in its abuses, it should be loved, respected, obeyed, and, if need be, defended at the cost of all earthly goods, even life itself.”[viii] This doesn’t mean that Brownson would have approved of the federal government power surge that plagued the twentieth century from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal through Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to William Clinton’s effort to take over health care. On the contrary, Brownson favored small units of government, as seen in his celebrated doctrine of territorial democracy.

The genius of the American system, Brownson recognized, is that it erected barriers — smaller units of government — between the federal government and the people. This allows democracy to work more effectively because democracy best works in small territories. In townships, the governed and the governors meet in the streets and talk; in counties, the issues are tangible and real, not abstract and theoretical. That’s where the battles should be fought whenever possible, said Brownson. His ideas on territorial democracy mesh well with the Church’s principle of subsidiarity — the doctrine that the smallest units of society should govern whenever possible.

Although it is difficult to select the most important facet of The American Republic, it might rest in its discussion of the American mission, which Brownson said is to reconcile freedom with order. In his words, America’s mission is to secure “the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual — the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. . . The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state. The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other.”[ix]

Later Life and Death

Following the publication of The American Republic in 1866, Brownson’s life began to wind down. He was an ill man, gout crippled him and gnarled his hands, making it difficult to hold a pen. His wife, whom he loved deeply and tenderly, died in 1872, leaving him a final wish to revive his Review knowing it had been his lifeblood, which he did for a short spell. He spent these years short of money; not only was his earning potential lessened due to age, but he continued his life-long tendency of giving his money away to charities and relatives. He had only three children alive out of eight. He set up a household with his somewhat eccentric daughter, Sally, for a few years, then moved to Detroit to live with his son Henry. He had invitations from Notre Dame, Seton Hall, and Fordham (then called St. John’s College) to live on their campuses, but he preferred to stay with family — an illustration of the domestic tenderness he fostered as a father even though he spent countless hours on the road lecturing and in his office reading and writing.

His life ended in 1876. He had just finished a spirited debate with his son Henry about the nature of the unforgivable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit. After hours of discussion, he went to his room and became terribly ill. He was brought Holy Communion and received the Last Anointing two days later, Easter Sunday, and died just before dawn the next day, April 17, 1876.

[i] Power, p. 95.

[ii] Herrera, p. 74.

[iii] Brownson later approved the legal abolition of slavery, but only in the wake of the Civil War. He saw the Civil War as Divine Providence’s method of providing an opportunity for a just abolition of that evil.

[iv] Power, pp. 44–45.

[v] More recently, Dr. Robert Emmet Moffit called it “perhaps the most systematic elaboration of political theory by a nineteenth-century American.” See Modern Age: The First Twenty-Five Years, Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1988, p. 333.

[vi] The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, AMS Press, Inc., New York: 1966, vol. XVIII, p. 24.

[vii] The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, vol. XVIII, p. 113.

[viii] The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, vol. XVIII, p. 15.

[ix] The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, vol. XVIII, p. 8.