2015 marks a milestone in American history. One hundred and fifty years ago, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant and ended the Civil War. Shortly thereafter, Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876), a prominent journalist and philosopher, published “The American Republic,” an erudite defense of the Federal Constitution.
As noted in our Heritage Foundation “First Principles” essay, a fresh reading of Brownson’s masterwork can give Americans a deeper understanding of their precious civic birthright, the unique federal order that guarantees their personal and political freedom.
Prophetically, Brownson warned that the greatest future threats to the Republic were internal. He called upon his fellow Americans to oppose the relentless centralization of power in Washington; a transformation fueled by a new secular ideology—“humanitarian democracy”—that would war against all prescriptions and traditions, as well as state and local powers, in the name of equality, and seek to crush all genuine diversity, individual distinctions, and subordinate even personal conscience itself on the altar of a fully secularized, and thus absolute, state.
The Founders’ genius was in devising a constitutional order that recognized the truth of man’s individuality, his flourishing in freedom, and the sacredness of his person, particularly in his relationship to God: “The American constitution is not founded on political atheism, but recognizes the rights of man, and therefore, the rights of God.”
Today, when Americans of all religious faiths have just cause to fear government assaults on religious liberty, the wisdom of Brownson—a devout Catholic—is a bounteous benefit for all. Protect the sacred, he warned, from the profane and thus preserve the moral order: “If they [government officials] could subject religion to the secular order, or completely secularize the church, they would reduce themselves to the secular order alone, and deprive themselves of all aid from religion. To secularize religion is to nullify it.”
While a journalist, urgently writing on contemporary topics in his Quarterly Review, many of his opinions, right or wrong, were exclusively relevant to his own time. However, Brownson also developed a sophisticated and consistent philosophical conservatism that imparted a timeless quality to his observations. Those hard hitting commentaries are strikingly relevant to contemporary America. For example:
• On immigrants’ duty to assimilate: “It is not attachment to American soil, or sympathy with the American nationality, spirit, genius, or institutions, that brings the great mass of foreigners to our shores. No doubt we derive great advantages from them, but the motive that brings them is not advantage to us or service to our country. They come solely from motives of personal advantage to themselves; to gain a living, to acquire a wealth, or to enjoy a freedom denied them in their own country, or believed to be more easily obtained or better secured here than elsewhere. The country, therefore, does not and cannot feel that it is bound either in justice or in charity to yield up its nationality to them, or to suffer the stream of its national life to be diverted from its original course to accommodate their manners, tastes or prejudices…If I from motives of hospitality open my doors to the stranger, and admit him to the bosom of my family, I have the right to expect him to conform to my domestic arrangements, and not to undertake to censure or interfere with them.”
• On crony capitalism: “Louis XI was not weaker against Charles the Bold than is Congress against the Pennsylvania Central Railroad and its connections, or the Union Pacific, built at the expense of the government itself. The great feudal lords had souls, railroad corporations have none.”
• On fiscal irresponsibility and debt: ‘The journalists tell us that the country is rich, and we count our millionaires by the thousands, if not by hundreds of thousands; and yet, if called upon suddenly to pay its debts or to redeem its bonds of every sort, it would be found to be hopelessly insolvent, and the reputed wealth of the millionaires would vanish in smoke. Our present wealth is chiefly in evidences of debt, that is, created by mortgages on the future.”
• On Communism’s false promises: “Communism, if it could be carried out, would not…as the communists dream, secure to all the advantages of wealth, but would result in the reduction of all to the most abject poverty—the very thing which they are ready to commit any crime or sacrilege in order to escape.”
The Civil War was a terrible trial for millions—Brownson himself lost two sons—but the calm courage of the American people prepared them for world leadership:
“With larger armies on foot than Napoleon ever commanded, with their line of battle stretching from ocean to ocean, across the whole breadth of the continent, they never, during four long years of alternate victories and defeats—and both unprecedently bloody—or a moment lost their equanimity, or appeared less calm, collected and tranquil, than in ordinary times of peace…Their success proves to all that what, prior to the war, was treated as American arrogance or self-conceit, was only the outspoken confidence in their destiny as a providential people, conscious that to them is reserved the hegemony of the world.”
That “hegemony” was moral, not militaristic. Rather it was the success, for the entire world to witness, of America’s providential mission to secure the greatest degree of human liberty under law; a unique experiment in self-government realized through the ingenious Federal Constitution, the priceless gift of America’s Founders.
This was a recurrent theme in Brownson’s writings.
It was a theme that, over a century later, President Ronald Reagan also expressed in his vision of America as a “Shining City on a Hill.”
Brownson’s name recognition may be low, but his ideas and insights have endured.