Orestes Browson’s work, even with its complications, offers a better lens through which we can understand the American system than that of the more popular John Courtney Murray. This was the theme of Professor Jeffrey Langan’s address to the faculty and students of Holy Cross College in his lecture entitled “Orestes Brownson and the American Proposition.” Held on September 15, the event was sponsored by the Dean of Faculty and the Liberal Studies Department.
Currently, the Catholic left and right both appeal to Murray, Langan observed. The left defends Barak Obama’s honorary degree at Notre Dame based on Murray’s approach to abortion politics. The Catholic neoconservative right, exemplified by intellectuals such as George Weigel and Michael Novak, extol Murray’s doctrine of religious freedom to justify capitalist economics and a robust foreign policy.
Brownson, however, would critique both of these positions. Langan first outlined Brownson’s biography before explaining his understanding of the American Constitution and his fears at the end of the Civil War.
Born in 1803, Brownson began his public career as a Presbyterian, becoming a Universalist in 1824. Between 1829 and 1844, he adhered to a variety of religious doctrines and enthusiasms: he denied the reality of Divine Revelation, the divinity of Christ, the possibility of a future judgment, joined Robert Owen’s war against religion, property, and marriage, abandoned Christianity, became a Unitarian, and finally, in 1844 converted to Catholicism.
As a sign of Brownson’s popularity, in 1840 he wrote a pamphlet showing that democracy required the abolition of Christianity. Since Brownson was a known Democrat, his pamphlet became instrumental in enabling the Whigs to paint Martin Van Buren and all Democrats as radical, costing them the presidential election of 1840.
Brownson’s career as an author culminated in the publication of The American Republic, published in 1865. He died in Detroit in 1875 and his remains are buried in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart’s Crypt at the University of Notre Dame.
In The American Republic, Brownson, in opposition to Murray, argues it is impossible to reconcile the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers with the Catholic tradition. The Fathers were too steeped in Lockean individualism and relied on an image of the human person as a self-interested individual. Their system ultimately lacked the rationale for opposing slavery and secession.
Socialism was not a real threat in America. Instead, Americans risked replacing individualism with Rousseauian humanitarian democracy, which in the name of abstract rights, fails to respect the importance of the person and the local territory as significant.
Brownson feared the humanitarian impulse might lead the federal government, represented by the atheist philosophy of Frederick Douglas, to meddle unnecessarily in the process of Reconstruction in the South, taking away the responsibility that each territory has for writing its own laws and enforcing justice.
Brownson, while supporting the North during the Civil War, opposed the atheist ideology of Frederick Douglas and the Republican Party after the Civil War. Their actions would introduce a cycle of misunderstanding, revenge, and violence. According to Langan, some elements of the history of Reconstruction, the NAACP, and the Civil Rights Movement have proven Brownson’s fears as valid.
Professor Langan’s talk led to a vigorous 45 minute discussion with the over fifty participants in attendance. Questions included how Brownson would deal with Catholic libertarians to the legitimacy of American system itself. Brownson saw Catholics, with their understanding of the Trinity as well as the relationship between territorial communities and the universal Church, as having a superior philosophy for respecting authority (contra libertarians), reforming economics along the lines of redistributive justice, and providing a sounder philosophical basis than modern republican or democratic theories.
Andrew Weiss is a junior at Holy Cross College. Contact him at AWeiss@hcc-nd.edu.