Three books by prominent conservative thinkers reveal good—and bad—ways to defend Western civilization.
A Writer for Tempestuous Times
It has become commonplace, even cliche, to reflect on America’s deep divisions and its cultural and political distemper.
Bill Schneider, George Mason University professor of policy, government, and international affairs, claimed that “this is the most divided we’ve been since the Civil War,” as did Yale professor Joanne Freeman in October 2019. Some even call for breaking up these United States. Certainly we have entered a rare period in our history—precipitated by the end of the Cold War and fatigue after almost two decades of the “global war on terrorism”—when Americans question and debate the very identity and purpose of America.
If the disunion that defined the Civil War is the closest analogy to our nation’s current travails, then perhaps we would be well suited to consult those historical thinkers who sought to address that American crisis.
One such thinker is the somewhat obscure Orestes A. Brownson. There has been some renewed interest in Brownson in recent years, including a biography of him published in 1999, R. A. Herrera’s Orestes Brownson: Signs of Contradiction, and more recently a republishing of The American Republic, which Brownson originally penned in 1865. This latter work, aimed at presenting a systematic analysis of American constitutional government in the aftermath of a war that almost destroyed the republic, presents a valuable aid in understanding what is required if we desire to preserve our nation through this century.
A Turbulent Life Rivals a Turbulent Nation
Brownson’s story is in some senses as tempestuous as that of the nation about which he wrote. Born in Vermont in 1803, he was raised a Presbyterian but chafed under what he perceived as its severe discipline. He became a Unitarian minister until he decided that the Bible did not teach universal salvation, and then became an atheist. During his Unitarian years, he was also associated with the transcendentalist movement of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
In the 1830s he was a member of the New York Workingman’s Party who denounced laissez-faire capitalism. He interpreted Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party as the vehicle for realizing his political vision. He later became President Martin Van Buren’s “man in Massachusetts” and held a patronage job. Yet in 1840, copies of Brownson’s article “The Laboring Classes” were distributed by the Whigs as evidence of Democratic radicalism, which contributed to Van Buren’s electoral defeat. Disenchanted, Brownson became increasingly conservative in his politics, as well as his religious beliefs. He was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1844. A later run for Congress as a Republican in New Jersey failed miserably.
Despite his political failures, Brownson was a well-respected intellectual of his time. John Henry Newman offered Brownson a professorship at his proposed Catholic University of Ireland. Lord Acton wrote of Brownson, “Intellectually, no American I have met comes near him,” while Edgar Allan Poe called him “an extraordinary man.” Woodrow Wilson in turn commented that The American Republic was the best study of the American Constitution.
A Qualification for Citizenship in the Republic
Can we trust the writings of a man so prone to dramatic intellectual, political, and religious shifts? We live in an era when politicians are chastised for “flip-flopping” and inconsistency, indicating that they lack strong commitments and are liable to bow in obeisance before every cultural trend. Yet is the opposite all that much better? Do we prefer the man who, in the face of mounting credible evidence, refuses to change his opinion, declaring he will stay his original course, hell or high water? Such a person can be labeled “consistent,” but consistency matters little if one is consistently in error. Until Gorbachev, twentieth-century Soviet leaders were dangerously, destructively consistent.
Perhaps Brownson’s volatility is actually a strength. He offers in his preface:
I have not felt myself bound to adhere to my own past thoughts or expressions any farther than they coincide with my present convictions. . . . I have been the slave of my own past, and truth has always been dearer to me than my own opinions.
As Peter Augustine Lawler notes in his introduction to The American Republic, “One sign of Brownson’s devotion to the truth is that never has a thinker been so willing to admit that he has simply changed his mind.” Pace those who would accuse him of “flip-flopping,” Brownson’s “devotion to the truth,” wherever it may lead, should be labeled refreshing and honest, especially when contrasted with our tendency to contort ourselves rather than admit our error or ignorance. America needs more people quick to offer a mea culpa, who are humble and open-minded enough to learn from their opponents and interlocutors.
Moreover, adds Lawler, Brownson
was never so partisan as not to acknowledge that almost all opinion, even that of his political enemies, embodies part of the truth. Even the opinions of political adversaries must be integrated dialectically into a more comprehensive view, one that transcends the partisanship of a particular time and place.
In this respect Brownson draws upon an intellectual tradition with deep roots of creatively finding ways to integrate the thinking of one’s foes. St. Paul, for example, positively cites pagan writers Menander, Epimenides, and Aratus. Medieval theologian-philosopher Thomas Aquinas represents the pinnacle of this intellectual integralist approach, drawing upon Christian, pagan, Jewish, and Muslim thinkers. Such a Thomist approach—visible in his Summa Theologiae—contemplates the very best objections to one’s position, rather than attacking strawmen.
An Authentically American Republic
It has become popular to refer to America as “an idea,” as if its essential identity is wrapped up not in a particular place and people but rather in a set of abstract political propositions. So have said, among others, Republican senator Lindsay Graham, former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, and even Irish pop star Bono. Brownson would respectfully disagree. For Brownson, America’s identity is indelibly wrapped up in its peculiar historical and even metaphysical givenness, a givenness that circumscribes the peoples who inhabit and compose her national boundaries. To be American is to be one thing and not another.
In contrast to libertarian thinking that interprets the Constitution as presenting man as an atomized individual whose rights and personal self-expression have no limits, Brownson argues that man is inherently restrained by both his nature and his circumstances. Pace Locke, man is not born a totally free, autonomous individual, but into a particular family and community. To these he owes his loyalty. Says Brownson: “Loyalty is the highest, noblest, and most generous of human virtues, and is the human element of that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of the law.” This paradigm of loyalty begins with the father, but reaches out into one’s local community, and ultimately to one’s nation. Thus, says Brownson, “it is not monarchy or aristocracy against which the modern spirit fights, but loyalty.”
Such thinking is in deep tension with a modern ethos—aggressively pushed by our secular academic institutions—that we are to be “citizens of the world.” Though this quixotic thinking at first glance seems to offer a more expansive conception of personal responsibility, it typically collapses into a certain ennui regarding one’s duties. This is especially the case when “global citizenship” is realized by clicking “like” on some internationally themed social media post.
Much harder, but more necessary and rewarding, is to recognize one’s immediate responsibilities to one’s family, one’s neighbors, and one’s people. As Thomas Aquinas argues in II-II Q.26 of the Summa Theologiae (the “Order of Charity”), our loyalties exist in a series of concentric circles beginning with our immediate family. Thus, for example, we owe to Americans suffering poverty and drug addiction in the Rust Belt and Appalachia more than we do to those suffering similar fates outside our borders. This, as philosopher Josef Pieper argues, is our pietas, a positive civic responsibility that trumps our self-interested autonomy.
Givenness Demands a Giver
If American identity reflects a deep givenness, this suggests a “giver” to whom we owe our life, law, and nationhood, and who constrains our tendency toward radical individualism. Brownson explains: “No creature is creator, or has the rights of creator, and consequently no one in his own right is or can be sovereign.” Indeed, all political order depends on the authority of God, who, Brownson argues, can be appreciated via natural law. Without this recognition of a divine lawgiver, society disintegrates into a libertine, subjectivist chaos of atomized persons whose claims to self-actualization run roughshod over the common good, and are ultimately self-defeating and suicidal. One need only look at the societal devastation caused by pornography, which remains irrationally protected as “free speech.”
Thus Brownson argues that modern liberalism untethered from pietas “assumes an independence of religion, of conscience, of God, which is alike incompatible with the salvation of souls and the progress of society.” Elsewhere he similarly claims that modern liberalism “is more disposed to hate than love, and is abler to destroy than to build up.” Brownson, almost 150 years before Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen, offered a robust critique of the liberalism of the Founders. This seems most appropriate, given that he is buried in South Bend, Indiana, on the university’s campus.
There are, unfortunately, some very visible problems with Brownson’s magnum opus. These include a frustratingly redundant writing style, intellectual naivete, and even embarrassing intellectual error. In reference to the first, Brownson himself acknowledges that his work has “little artistic merit” and is “full of repetitions,” a critique that, while not without truth, has led many critics to too quickly dispense with The American Republic. As for naivete, Brownson believed that slavery could not survive the republic because it was a moral wrong Americans would eventually willingly jettison. Yet Southern slavery was an economic powerhouse in the run-up to the Civil War and showed no signs of abating. Finally, Brownson erroneously called America a “Catholic nation,” and that it was destined to become even more so.
These weaknesses aside, recent political turmoil has demonstrated that Brownson was acutely prophetic in his analysis of the United States, its Constitution, and its national character. He perceived her strengths generations before she became the political, economic, and military powerhouse that dominated the twentieth century. He recognized her weaknesses long before they became evident in the aftermath of the Cold War. Yet he also understood what made America truly great, and what was required of Americans if they were to keep the republic we won almost 250 years ago.
In 1865, most Americans ignored Brownson and his American Republic. We would be foolhardy to make the same mistake.
Casey Chalk is senior writer for Crisis magazine and a contributor at the American Conservative and New Oxford Review.
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