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The American Republic
The American Republic
Orestes A. Brownson
Isi Books, 2024
450 pp., 20.82

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Timothy Larsen

A Most Unclubbable Man

The curious and instructive pilgrimage of Orestes Augustus Brownson.

Not unlike devout Christians, secularized members of our intellectual élite love to give personal testimonies and rehearse the lives of their saints. Their hagiographies are no less calculated to edify, their testimonies no less stereotyped than the stock in trade of evangelical piety. Imprinted deep in our cultural imagination is a life story in which an exceptionally gifted person is raised in a stifling, obscurantist Christian subculture. Through sheer intellectual honesty, this paragon struggles heroically and eventually breaks through into a broad place in which it is possible to be at peace with a post-Christian mental world. The moral of such stories is not subtle: faith is the province of those who are unwilling or unable to keep up with their reading.

Stories that defy our cherished templates seldom get retold. It comes as no surprise, then, that those who chronicle American intellectual history have not known what to do with Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876). Brownson's journey sets the stereotype on its head. His very name, a tribute to Greek mythology rather than the Bible, announces that this is not going to be another narrative of a recovering Puritan. Brownson's parents did not even bother to have him baptized, and public worship was not part of the rhythm of his childhood. His father, a nominal Presbyterian who was not a churchgoer, died when Orestes was two. His mother was a Universalist. At adolescence, a very bumpy sojourn began. By the time Brownson became a Universalist pastor at the age of 23 he had already tried Presbyterianism and atheism. He soon became too much of a freethinker even for the Universalists and departed from organized religion altogether.

But the writings of William Ellery Channing reawakened his faith, and Brownson became a Unitarian pastor. This should have been an early clue that his story would not fit. Channing, canonized as a progressive intellectual, was supposed to guide orthodox Christians toward something less definite. Brownson's demonstration that Channing's thought was a two-way bridge ought to have aroused suspicions.

Brownson's next step, to be sure—he became a charter member of the Transcendentalist Club, and was celebrated in that crowd, not least by Thoreau and Emerson—seemed to fit the master narrative, but his travels were not over yet, and his final destination confirmed his unsuitability once and for all. After considerable further philosophical and theological reflection, in 1844 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church.

His erstwhile fellow Transcendentalists felt betrayed—maybe even that progress itself had been betrayed. Brownson was tarred with the pejorative image that Patrick W. Carey has defiantly incorporated into the subtitle of his splendid intellectual biography, Orestes A. Brownson: American Religious Weathervane. Never mind that to defend the Church of Rome in mid-19th-century America was hardly to flow with the times. Never mind that Brownson maintained his Catholic identity unwaveringly unto death—his life having more than 30 years still to run. Brownson was marginalized with the slur that he was intellectually unstable and largely edited out of the official record. Peter Augustine Lawler, in an introduction to Brownson's The American Republic, observes, "It is very likely that had Brownson remained a Transcendentalist, he would be widely and admiringly studied as part of the mainstream development of American thought."

Still, Brownson somehow manages to keep inserting his voice back into the conversation. An eminent succession of American intellectuals has, each in turn, rediscovered Brownson, including Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Perry Miller, and Russell Kirk. Lawler's edition of The American Republic is the first of a projected five-volume series of Brownson's works in political philosophy (one hopes that the others will not be let down by such a haphazard effort at indexing). Meanwhile, Carey is editing a seven-volume series of Brownson's works.

When they have not been motivated simply by a scholar's desire to set the record straight, Brownson's rediscoverers seem to have been energized by an interest in promoting either Roman Catholicism or political conservatism or both. One might be tempted to claim Brownson for orthodox Christianity generally, but then he went through a rather pronounced phase of virulent anti-Protestant polemics. Take it from someone who knows, he averred, godless Transcendentalism is just the logic of Protestantism worked out. Indeed, Brownson is an awkward ally for almost anyone.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has presumably decided that reprinting The American Republic will serve the cause of conservative politics. Nevertheless, it is a painfully wrongheaded text at points. "Humanitarianism" is a pejorative term in Brownson's lexicon, and "philanthropy," he confides, is a latter-day Satanic plot. Those agitating for "negro suffrage" are not to be trusted, and to give women the vote would be a downright violation of divine order. It is the destiny of the United States peacefully to annex its neighbors. After all, none of them have anything worthwhile to contribute as sovereign nations: "Canada and the other British Provinces, Mexico and Central America, Columbia and Brazil, and the rest of the South American States, might be absorbed in the United States without being missed by the civilized world."

On the other hand, Brownson sometimes sounds too much like a liberal to please the Bush Administration. He declares that the maxim, "Let government take care of the rich, and the rich will take care of the poor," should be replaced with the far safer one, "Let government take care of the weak, and the strong can take care of themselves." And then there is that long tirade about the "grave evil" sometimes contemplated of making what could only be a "mad attempt" to impose the American system of government on another nation. "No form of government can bear transplanting," Brownson declares; indeed, "thoughtful Americans are opposed to political propagandism, and respect the right of every nation to choose its own form of government."

It would be unfair, however, to mine this book—which Carey refers to as Brownson's magnum opus—only for those pronouncements with frisson for today. The American Republic is, in fact, an ambitious study of America in the light of a panoramic political theory. Brownson seems to have been particularly motivated by some rather big circles that he needed to square. First, he had held from 1828 to 1861 the doctrine that America was a confederation of sovereign states. The Civil War necessitated his finding a convincing alternative theory. Second, Pope Pius IX's Syllabus of Errors (1864) had condemned political liberalism, religious liberty, and the separation of church and state; thus Brownson longed to find a way to explain the American experiment in terms that evaded these censures.

Although neither Carey nor Lawler makes this connection, it seems to me that Brownson's solution was to apply analogously to the state a Catholic view of authoritative sources in the church. Just as the perceived limitations of sola Scriptura are overcome by an appeal to the unwritten traditions of the apostles, so Brownson discovered an "unwritten constitution" behind the penned document. He chides Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and company for failing to discern this reality. They are people of the Protestant temperament, doggedly devoted to words on paper. The written constitution presupposes the unwritten one, just as the Bible presupposes a church that has arbitrated on canonicity.

The unwritten one is the "providential constitution"—it is the work of God. The political arrangements that Brownson claims to be teasing out are nothing less than an articulation of God's America. The providential constitution is the ultimate court of appeal; the written one is good only to the extent that it reflects the divine mission that undergirds it.

For Brownson, the great sin in matters of state is "political atheism": to behave politically as if God does not exist. This is what the Holy Father denounced in the Syllabus. The founding fathers themselves were often guilty of this, but the unwritten constitution is mercifully free of it. If America is true to its divine mission, it can affirm the separation of church and state in a way that is not grounded in political atheism and therefore does not fall under the pope's prohibition. (If I might retrieve one more morsel for its subsequent resonance, Carey records Brownson's opinion that political atheism is a chronic condition among New England's Irish Catholic politicians.)

The American Republic strikes me as a profound work, marked by deep and original thought, that contains its share of patently false, offensive, and misguided views. It is not the work of a fallen intellectual in mental captivity, but rather of a formidable, creative, and vigorous mind thinking in earnest. Brownson was fond of arguing that erroneous ideologies find their power in the grain of truth they possess. There is then, I suppose, a droplet of truth in the "weathervane" jibe, if one takes the long view. Perhaps the real wonder is that when we study the 19th century we still persist in imagining that Emerson and Channing represent the thought of the future, and that figures such as Brownson and John Henry Newman were making a futile grasp at the past, despite knowing that Transcendentalism rests in moss-covered tombs and the Catholic intellectual tradition is robust and thriving.

Timothy Larsen, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College and the author most recently of Contested Christianity: The Political and Social Contexts of Victorian Theology (Baylor Univ. Press).

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