Thursday, January 04, 2007

American Lives: The Flight Of Orestes Brownson

ISI Books, an imprint of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, has just released an authoritative reprint of Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic, which is, in addition to De’Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and the much thumbed Federalist Papers, the most important post Civil War primer of American political thought.

Brownson, whose father lived in the Waterbury area before he moved his family to New Hampshire, was the principal autodidact in an age of autodidacts. Standing at the bridge of the modern age and more familiar than other men of his time with the European godfathers of the modern era--Transcendentalism can be traced directly to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and the German romantics--Brownson went through the defining movements of his day like a hot knife through butter.

American Transcendentalism was an eclectic stew of oddments: Its moralism may be traced to the Puritans; it’s concept of intuition and the notion that the individual enjoys direct access to divine truth derives from the “inner light” of the Quakers. In its final flowering, Transcendentalism, heavily influenced by Unitarianism, reduced God to a universal principle, and the principle itself suffered further degradation. Infused with the religious enthusiasm of Jonathan Edwards, American Transcendentalists soon elbowed God aside in favor of Man, now become, in the words of R. A, Herrera, the author of Orestes Brownson, Sign of Contradiction, the “privileged center and door to the universe.”

A worm-eaten structure of this kind, flavored with a pungent Orientalism, could not hold a rigorous thinker such as Brownson. Usually movements, particularly socialism and its misshapen stepchild communism, have worn men out; Brownson wore movements out.

Brownson began as Christian socialist, drifted through various religious faiths, tried on and discarded atheism, Transcendentalism and Unitarianism, and ended up in the Roman Catholic Church, where he was singled out by John Henry Newman, himself a Catholic convert, as America’s most profound political thinker; never mind that Brownson quarreled occassionally with Newman and the other lights of his church.

Along the way – and what a winding course it was – Brownson, then the country’s most substantial journalist, originated and managed to fill with his own writings two of the most important and influential periodicals of his day: Boston Quarterly Review and Brownson’s Quarterly Review. After Brownson turned towards Catholicism--he called it “catholicity”--the man embraced as the epitome of the American scholar by the principal shakers and movers of his day was sequestered in frosty indifference and so eased out of American life; to embrace Irish Catholic immigrants in the Boston of Emerson and Thoreau was to touch lepers.

Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of Brownson’s biographers, notes that anti-Catholicism is one of the earliest and most perdurable of America’s robust prejudices. These prejudices rarely disappear altogether from American life. Like chicken pox, they nestle in the neck bones of the nation and reappear later in other forms; in mature years, the pox may mutate into shingles. Anti-Catholicism, pliable and changeable, has had similar eruptions in its American course. It is a mistake to think that anti-Catholic prejudice ended with the inauguration of President John Kennedy, who managed to make himself tolerable towards the anti-Catholic bigots of his day by sublimating, and even obliterating, what was distinctively Catholic in him.

The American Republic, released as the first in a projected five volume series entitled Orestes Brownson: Works in Political Philosophy, is the most influential of Brownson’s writings. The book appeared at the end of the Civil War, which was occasioned in part by the nation’s acceptance of views on the nature of government held by John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. If the authority to govern is derived solely from compacts and constitutions between states and the federal government – and nothing else – then what is to prevent secession, when one or more of the states determines that the compact should be terminated? That question is fully answered by Brownson in The American Republic. Bronson’s answer so shocked the Boston Brahmins of his day that they determined to freeze him in the ice of forgetfulness.

Brownson, perhaps contemplating a sweet revenge, wrote over the heads of the leading men of his generation and proceeded to address himself to future scholars that are, just now, catching up to him
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