It’s time for Orestes Brownson to re-enter our contemporary political discourse, and on the campaign trail to remind us, first, that all just authority is from God, who instituted natural law, and also, that moral authority is not relative.

I. The Brownson Revival

In 1993 Peter J. Stanlis revisited Orestes Brownson’s political thought by reviewing Gregory Butler’s In Search of the American Spirit. Stanlis, along with Russell Kirk, and following the publication of Father Thomas Ryan’s definitive 1976 biography, attempted a Brownson revival. Kirk also penned an introduction to a collection of political essays by Brownson and discussed Brownson at modest length in both The Conservative Mind and The Roots of American Order.[1]

Kirk’s point? Brownson believed there must reside a sanction for justice and order which cannot be found apart from religious principles.

Without such standards we fight the same battles under the guise of various ideologies intending to make America great again; but only the standards of those “permanent things” taught by the church can refute the egalitarianism fashionable to secularism. Brownson should be read today with interest.[2]

II. Brownson’s Life and Times

Brownson’s essay titled “National Greatness” appeared in January, 1846 in his Brownson’s Quarterly Review and two years after his conversion to Catholicism. The time was witness to the immigration of the “Catholic Hordes,” an increase from 35,000 in 1790 to 1.6 million in 1850.

Rumors had churned in 1843 that Brownson, a Presbyterian and Transcendentalist, was converting to Catholicism at age 41.[3] A decade earlier he had created The Society for Christian Union and Progress and authored his first book, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church.

He is largely unfamiliar to American Catholics, and he would likely reference our contemporary political order as heathenism founded in the non serviam of Eden and the beginning of the City of the World, the New World Order and a failed standard.

Following that date, Brownson turned his attention to his Boston Quarterly Review which became in time Brownson’s Quarterly Review.

The 1846 date is good background for Brownson’s thesis on national greatness: Texas was annexed during the Polk presidency; the Mexican-American War began; covered wagons meandered west; all representing a time the country completed that westward course of empire, but not without some shady transgressions, the one exception the first baseball game.

The issue is replete with the argument that manifest destiny was a “mission” on the part of the American people who owned a special virtue. Whether the “mission” was nationalism or imperialism, the underlying theme was one of cultural purity.

For Brownson, questions abounded as to whether or not the current circumstances were tokens of national greatness and whether God had divinely elected the American people to do this work of manifest destiny.

In Brownsonian fashion, he notes, “All, therefore, depends on the standard we adopt.”[4] As for that standard, it’s not unusual for Kirk and others to identify our spiritually confused times with Brownson’s own mid-1840s. Brownson’s standard defined a complementarity between Catholic thought and our American experience which offered a religious conservatism to organize our national life with a theology to influence our civil liberties.

With that standard in mind, Brownson argues that “it may be worth our while to subject this estimate which we form of ourselves to a more rigid examination than we seem to have done.”[5] If such an examination is well-founded, no harm will be done. If not well-founded, we must be prepared to adopt with cultural courage a conclusion unfavorable to national vanity.

His point?

Do we currently have any grounds for self-adulation?

III. Repudiating the Age of Reason

Brownson opens his essay on national greatness by noting that it is “highly dangerous to entertain false or erroneous views.” The danger is intensified when we applaud ourselves for what we have done and with “thrilling anticipation of future greatness.”[6]

Brownson’s understanding of the Age of Reason was that men came together within the framework of the arbitrary order of nature which maintained an equilibrium from the authority of natural law. Those are boasted sentiments but neglect what he calls the “supernatural destiny of man.” His a priori argument is that the previous century’s understanding of man’s destiny is finite and although the argument owns a “good,” the true end for which man has been made is supernatural and appointed by the “beatitude which God hath promised to all that love and serve [H]im here.” One must “live not in and for the order of nature, but in and for the order of grace.”[7]

It’s background for Brownson’s thesis that national greatness is founded first in the individual and then broadcast at large into the commonwealth. What must be repudiated is the argument that back in the misty recesses of time a rugged individual entered into a compact with other individuals to live more securely by delegating powers to a “government.” Brownson argues that if such were “true,” since the government has derived its legitimacy from the consent of individuals, those individuals could withdraw their consent willy-nilly.

Such a notion is wrong-headed and for Brownson the most wrong-headed was Locke whom Brownson believed wrongly portrayed social contract arguments which theorized that government came into being through human contrivance. If such were the case, one would judge only the portion of life we are now living and the only end for which we labor; create a heaven here and assure one’s title to a heaven hereafter. In a subtle jab at Emerson, the heaven here is a heaven of sensual enjoyment. Such is not a standard leading to national greatness and although moral it’s a morality apart from religion and should be anathema to any tolerably intelligent Catholic.

For Brownson to subject this estimate as a standard for natural greatness neglects the theological notion that the greatness of an individual consists in his “fulfilling the great ends of his existence, the ends for which Almighty God made him and placed him here.”[8] Likewise the commonwealth and all therein are meant to fulfill the ends for which almighty God providentially called that commonwealth into existence and placed it here.

That notion is fulfilled when the true end of man is not to live for the moment or for wealth and luxury but to live according to the pledge of his Maker which suggests not a natural life but a future supernatural life.

Brownson is aware that such is to argue for the efficacies of providence which tutors us to live wisely for a time and wisely for eternity; that providence is the source of government and a point he makes abundantly clear in The American Republic where he adds “the distinction between the providential constitution of the people and the constitution of the government is not always made.”[9] He is aware that in his own time that to conceive of the supernatural is vain. Thousands who call themselves Christian are of the same sad condition. To them nature is all and all is nature and “[r]eason is necessarily restricted to the order of nature and can in no instance of itself, go out of that order. Hence, revelation has come very widely to be regarded as only a republication of the natural law [or] … at best a running commentary on it, designed simply to explain the natural order, and not to reveal anything above it.”[10]

Brownson intends a re-examination of natural law, the origin of government, and the constitution of the United States and placing this re-examination in the public square to influence public opinion and educate that burgeoning Catholic population. Brownson is aware that in the Age of Reason natural law is primary but founded on the laws of nature which are so regulated and discovered by reason and usually understood to be in close consort with natural rights theory.

The argument is good but is it the only standard by which we judge?

Not if the consequence is the deification of nature or the Greeks and the Romans while bypassing biblical figures called by God and sent as ambassadors. Only with the latter is there evidence in revelation for truths reason could never have discovered on its own.

Still, there are principles to be found in antiquity. We are subject to moral law which is fundamentally about duty, that Ciceronian notion that each person is subject to a universal basis of justice. What we learn from the Greeks and the Romans commands our attention but never at the expense of what is Christian wherein our place in history is never separable from the providence of God’s presence in human affairs. To refute such is to disregard Brownson’s understanding of the freedom of God which emerges from the link between divine personhood and human personhood. Richard M. Reinsch II in his Seeking The Truth has Brownson quoting Pierre Leroux with a statement of humility about man’s capacities: “man does not suffice for himself in the intellectual order…. Man lives and can live only by communion with what is not himself.”[11] Brownson refers to such as “authentic subjectivism.”

Brownson’s understanding of political theory abounds in his essay “National Greatness” and again in The American Republic in relation to where and how government derives its authority and noteworthy when he writes that the “compact itself… was not voluntarily formed by the people themselves, either individually or collectively [but] by God… through the law of nature.”[12] He does not labor the point but makes it clear that modern political theories have abused the phrase natural law by imagining a state of society antecedent to civil society. Locke, he notes, followed Hobbes who was distinguished for theorizing that there was no law but the law of the strongest. Rousseau became for the French the textbook authority for the French revolutionist.

These theories when set forth became the presumed standards by which we judge, the authors feasted and eulogized as patriots. For them, nature is all and all is nature and the word itself has no meaning for them and they become lost in a “wilderness of absurdities.” “Natural laws cease to be laws imposed on nature, laws she must obey, and from which she cannot withdraw herself, and become forces, agents, creators.”[13] They are wrong, Brownson argues, when they believe that the law of nature is the rule of divine action in nature. If such is the chief support by which a nation governs itself, then a government could only find itself amidst such ambiguities as making slavery a positive statute even if anathema to natural law.

As for a standard, Brownson concedes that natural law is one of the means by which legitimate governments are instituted. The hanging point is whether natural law is the “expression of the reason and the will of God. The natural law is the divine law as much as the revealed law itself, and equally obligatory. It is not a natural force developing in nature, like the law of generation, for instance, and therefore preceding from God as first cause, but it proceeds from God [also] as final cause, and is, therefore, theological, and strictly a moral law founding moral rights and duties…. The authority is not the authority of nature, but of Him who holds nature in the hollow of His [providential] hand.”[14]

IV. Seeking the Truth: Brownson and an American Catholic Culture

“National Greatness” is one of the many essays published by Brownson in his quarterly who also published in The Catholic World founded by Father Isaac Hecker and the Paulist Fathers in 1865 and directed toward that growing American Catholic population.

The issue merits discussion which is less a matter of when Catholicism began in America but when in the 19th century waves of European immigrants swelled the numbers of Roman Catholics; but not without conflict which included attempts to Americanize the church. Some discounted those attempts but believed the American states offered the best opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to flourish.

But how to influence public opinion and by what standard?

Brownson’s essays before and following the Civil War were devoted to ordered liberty informed by the mediatorial life of Jesus, so wrote Brownson in an 1842 letter to William Ellery Channing. Brownson’s argument is pointedly stated: “The [contemporary] state of mind and heart which leads us to wish to exclude all special providence or interposition of the Deity from the person of Jesus, and the Bible and its authors, would, if followed to its legitimate result, lead us to exclude God from the moral world altogether. When excluded from the moral world, [H]e of course will not be retained in the natural world, and then is God wholly excluded from the universe.”[15]

The work, Brownson continues, is to recognize the recuperative energy Jesus, the Mediator, has communicated, and a new life to the race, which by means of communion, man with man, can be effected. His argument is prescient and timely.

Such again became the province of Father Hecker and his associates and The Catholic World which appeared following the Civil War. It’s an enduring publication and again included articles by Brownson including an 1870 essay on church and state.[16]

What are Brownson’s insights and what can they teach us?[17]

One issue that presents itself is whether an attempt at a Thomist tradition is part of American Catholic Culture prior to Vatican II and as early as Brownson’s articles collected in his review. It’s proper to argue for a species of Thomism in the works of Percy and O’Connor and others, but is there a Thomistic theory of culture in 1843 and attributable to Brownson and consistent with his notion of national greatness?

There’s ground for quarrel here since Brownson argued that there is no such subject as Thomistic philosophy per se albeit Brownson’s modified ontology placing the idea of God in the intuition may be a “hangover” from the Transcendentalists. Brownson’s own understanding of Aquinas begins with the argument that what we know of Thomas has been obscured by conceptualism, that philosophical position intermediate between nominalism and realism and embraced by Descartes, Locke, and later modern philosophers such as Kant and Hegel.

Brownson’s own interpretation of Aquinas defends ontology of a sort which he thought more in accordance with the mind of St. Thomas than those conceptualists.

Without winding one’s way through what human beings can or cannot know, Brownson’s ontological position rests on the doctrine of original sin, the fall of human nature and his skeptical confidence about human potential and whether the voice of the people echoes the voice of God.

Aquinas’ position is consistent with that of Augustine: that sin is an evil arising from Adam’s fall. But where Augustine regards sin as a hereditary stain, a spiritual degeneration much at the opposite extreme of the Incarnation.

Aquinas holds that sin is the disuse of reason, a human-creating reality present in living contexts. For Aquinas, sin is neither a wrong product of God’s creation nor is it “merely” the result of Satan’s temptation. To the argument that pride was the first man’s sin, Aquinas “objects” in the Summa quoting the Apostle in Romans 5:19 that it was by the disobedience of one man that many were made sinners.[18] The context argues that an original falling away from God construes a common guilt which would hold a negative aspect—especially in relation to the interaction of personal and social factors—unless mitigated by a positive aspect, i.e., redemption of the race through a single person, a mediator whose life points out a universal way of salvation which all can tread. If the latter, any such “way” would be part of the ontological “essence” of man, of destiny, historical, and a standard by which we can judge and contributing to national greatness.

In Brownson’s own time, the debate concerned whether man’s fall had a positive or a negative effect. If negative, sin is an indelible inheritance absolved only by undeserved grace. If a positive effect, which is not an oxymoron, one can effect a transformation of free will by obedience and the intervention of natural law.

Brownson’s friendship with Father Isaac Hecker is worth mentioning here and a point made by Patrick W. Carey in his Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. Dr. Carey notes that Brownson’s notion of “ideal intuition” is similar to what Aquinas called the “phantasmata and species intelligibles” adding to an argument that a species of Thomism was present in Brownson’s time and prior to the First Vatican Council in 1868.

Dr. Carey notes with prescience that “Aquinas intellectus agens was comparable to Brownson’s own understanding of reflective reason, the mind’s capacity to reflect on primitive data, and “abstract the intelligible from that data… intuitively given and [existing] prior to reflection.”[19] Brownson took up this idea in more detail in an essay “Ontologism and Psychologism.”[20] It’s a biographical detail that emerged more fully when Brownson broke with The Catholic World, particularly in his disagreement with Father Hecker who edited any passages in Brownson’s manuscripts that implied nature suffered only positive injury by the Fall.

What, then, is meant by these primitive data?

In that essay, ”Ontologism and Psychologism,” Brownson writes that “St. Thomas seems, as far as he touches them at all, to call them first truths, necessary truths, that is, necessary to the operations of the intellect, dictates of reason, or truths inserted in human nature, etc., leaving the question whether they are necessary in their own nature and essence or necessary only in relation to our intellect.”

Brownson adds, with reverence to the Doctor, such strikes him as a grave defect in his philosophy since it suggests an excessive confidence in a science of being. Such an ontology, taught as a part of philosophy in colleges and seminaries, deserves censure since it’s a philosophy that excludes God from the region of science or relegates [His] existence to some kind of cosmology or the unknowable. When commenting on Brownson’s conclusion, the late Peter Lawler remarks that Brownson’s ideas should be considered in a “broadly Thomistic way” and that for Brownson “only the Catholic or Thomistic understanding of the relationship between reason and revelation, or nature and the Creator, can make sense of America’s founding principles” and thus a reliable standard by which to judge.[21]

Brownson makes the same argument in The American Republic: God excluded from economics and politics as value-free sciences neglects the argument that both are sub-branches of ethics and intrinsically related to theology.

What then is ontologically admissible?

The primitive data given intuitively to the mind is not psychological, which gyrates in the circle of the ego, but is objective and immutable. If psychological Brownson warns, modern conceptualism resolves “into nominalism and nihilism” when ontology is excluded.[22]

Brownson asserted that because of the Fall humanity lost original integrity becoming separated from union with God but did not lose moral ability. Dr. Carey goes on to interpret Brownson’s position adding that, “By the Fall… human beings did not lose their ability to do things good and meritorious, and accountable, with respect to the natural order. They did not lose reason and free will and moral responsibility with respect to the natural order. They were still capable of natural virtue and vice.”[23] “But human beings did not now possess ‘the perfection and integrity’ of the nature they possessed before the Fall, and therefore were incapable of reaching the destiny of their supernaturally-oriented nature.”[24]

All of which would seem to be beyond the point except to note that Brownson’s ontological differences on original sin with the subjectivists explains their differing approaches to democratic culture in the United States. According to Dr. Carey, popular democratic theory assumed that human nature was still in its original integrity and concluded that since our nature was pure, without taint of corruption, mankind could aspire individually and collectively toward a sort of angelic pure being. For Brownson, this progressive idea is not a standard by which to judge.

Brownson therefore concludes his comments on national greatness by asking “what is the fate of this republic?” It depends upon the questions that currently agitate the public mind. And in asking Brownson notes that he does not “forfeit the character of a true patriot.” Still, the subject is “of very deep interest, and one on which it is highly dangerous to entertain false or erroneous views. It is especially so for the American people because we have founded a government which rests on popular opinion and must follow its direction.”[25]

Tried, though, by any other standard other than holy religion, well, perhaps we are shamefully wanting, “and should blush and hang our heads.”

V. Answering the Question

In the final paragraphs of “National Greatness,” Brownson concludes that he has spoken freely but not flatteringly. In 1846 we were not a great people in the “higher and truer sense.” Perhaps it had become time for a national mortification lest the age of the demagogue continue to advance. There are bank questions, tariff questions, the emoluments of office and those who love the praise of men rather than the praise of God. We are ill at ease and collectively angry and likely see only a small percentage of the evil that is produced by following the suggestions of the lying spirit who leaves us deceived and well-nigh to our ruin.

To many that reads like a screed: to others, a jeremiad. There is, though, a divine Idea, one in which the state can trust the church and the church can trust the state. Operating in different spheres, both can develop and apply in practical life the one and the same Divine Idea—and a standard we should adopt.

Brownson cudgeled his countrymen in his own day to recall that the American Republic had been instituted by providence. It’s time then, after a quarter century or more, for Brownson to re-enter our contemporary political discourse, and on the campaign trail to remind us that all just authority is from God, who instituted natural law, and to remind us that moral authority is not relative.

Brownson believed that religion and politics were joined. All else is misbegotten impatience and impulsiveness. “Perhaps his admonitions have a greater meaning today than they did when Brownson died.” So wrote Kirk in 1991.[26]

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[1] Kirk, like Brownson, argued that all just authority is from God; his foray into political affairs describes the fundamental error of socialism and progressivism: their illusion that human schemes can establish a terrestrial paradise. With that in mind, Kirk notes that Brownson declared that American democracy is kept from tyranny by Christian moral habits: “Brownson was America’s equivalent of John Henry Newman, with whom he corresponded and disputed” (Crisis Magazine, January 1991).

[2] Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, Pepperdine University Press, 1977, p. 460.

[3] Self-educated, Brownson was an early Bible reader; Kirk again notes that he “groped his way through all the sects and factions“ of New England’s religious smorgasbord. He knew Emerson well although standing at the opposite pole (CM, January 1991).

[4] National Greatness, The Neumann Press, 1991, p.11.

[5] NG, p. 11.

[6] NG, p. 10.

[7] NG, p. 18.

[8] NG, p. 12.

[9] The American Republic, edited by Thomas E. Woods, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003, p. 74. Brownson discourses here on the differences between “government” and “state.” Neither can exist without a constitution. The former is drawn up, written and ordained by a nation for itself as a law which in turn defines the action of the sovereign power, e.g., some sort of political organization—“government”—for the people of a nation. As for the latter, Brownson argues that for every government there must be a constitution anterior to to the constitution which the nation gives itself, and from which the one it gives itself derives all its vitality and true legal force. This providential constitution is that from which the nation is initially born and is the real living and efficient vitality of the state and thus the true standard we are obliged to adopt (p. 76).

[10] NG, p. 15.

[11] Richard M. Reinsch II, Seeking The Truth: An Orestes Brownson Anthology, Catholic University Press, 2016, p. 19.

[12] AmRep, p. 26.

[13] NG, p 13.

[14] AmRep, pp. 50-51.

[15] Seeking The Truth, Brownson adds in this essay that these “certain views of the Mediator, and [H]is life” are those “from which our Unitarian friends have shrunk,” p. 196.

[16] Brownson argued that there’s a misapprehension of the subject. If the spiritual order, however, is supreme in the affairs of mankind that supremacy pertains to the secular order. The state does not exist to usurp the rights of the spiritual and neither should the state commission itself as a teacher of morals. Brownson goes on to argue that the power of the Pope over temporal affairs is indirect; the Church cannot depose rulers but can declare that with any transgression of natural law rulers lose the right to govern. With that argument in mind, Brownson concludes that to “declare the government divorced from religion is to declare it emancipated from the law of God, from all moral obligation, and [thus] free to do whatever it pleases” (Catholic World, 1867).

[17] Context is helpful here: Brownson’s biographers note that the presidential election of 1840 shook his confidence in popular democratic doctrines, chief of which placed divine prescience in the will of the people as a form of pure democracy which suggested that moral sanctions could be found outside religious principles. For Brownson, pure democracy as an American Idea was a miserable sham. Kirk argues that Brownson understood that later writers would reference pure democracy as totalitarian democracy (CM, January 1991).

[18] Aquinas discusses the topic severally in the Summa but formally original sin is concupiscence, a desire for things other than God, e.g., beyond a permissible boundary. All sins, furthermore, stem from this misplaced passion.

[19] Patrick W. Carey, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane, p. 326. Carey makes the point that Brownson’s frequent changes of mind are suggestive of a pilgrim’s progress. He’s often willing to criticize Brownson but in his transitional period of the 1840s Carey advances the argument that Brownson became less a weathervane and a more constitutional conservative.

[20] “Ontologism and Psychologism,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1874, pp. 477-478. Brownson writes as great length in this essay disputing elements of Catholic Traditionalism including the improbation of the Holy See. “But since the existence of God can be certainly proved, it follows necessarily that being is given in intuition, as we say, in the intuition of the ideal, and therefore ontology may be asserted….” p. 476.

[21] Peter Lawler, First Things, December 2002.

[22] “Ontologism and Psychologism,” p. 478. Noting for the moment that Brownson confesses he is not priest, he goes on to argue that much of what is taught as Thomism is “unsubstantial, the baseless fabric of a vision,” and he hopes that he is “too loyal for subterfuge.” pp. 474, 472.

[23] Carey, p. 327.

[24] “Democratic Principle,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April 1873.

[25] NG, pp. 30-31.

[26] CM, January 1991.

The featured image is a portrait of Orestes A. Brownson (1863) by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813–1894) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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