Commentary Magazine

Orestes Brownson, Selected Essays, edited by Russell Kirk

Scholarship of Desperation
by Bernard W. Wishy
Orestes Brownson, Selected Essays. Edited with an Introduction by Russell Kirk. Regnery (Gateway Editions). 221 pp. $.95.

Even before 1939, when Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. published his biography, there had been a small continuing interest, particularly among Catholic intellectuals, in Orestes Brownson (1803-1876), the New England liberal and reformer who went over to Rome in the 1840’s. Schlesinger’s interpretation of this controversial writer, whom Lord Acton called the most penetrating American thinker of his day, was followed in the next few years by two more biographies, as well as specialized studies and several volumes of Brownson’s own writings. Now from the twenty volumes of his works Russell Kirk has made a small selection of six essays, all of them, except the famous “Present State of Society” (1843), written after Brown-son’s conversion. They are offered us by Mr. Kirk as another contribution to the literature of American neo-conservatism.

Brownson was a familiar American type: the rootless man, intelligent and energetic, moving from one system of ideas to another in a society which, lacking the fixities of European life, failed to settle any permanent claim on him. Aside from a brief enrollment in an academy, Brownson, born of a poor Vermont family, was self-educated, a fact perhaps reflected in the undisciplined character of his mind. He read Berkeley, Hume, Godwin, Locke, Kant, Cousin, Leroux, and Gioberti; sowed his Transcendental wild oats by often visiting and eventually enrolling his son at Brook Farm; and earned his living by writing, preaching, and editing. The list of his intellectual and religious affiliations reads like a survey of everything America had to offer in the age of Jackson: Congregationalism, Presbyterianism, Universalism, Robert Owenism and Fanny Wrightism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism.

His early political opinions, neither fixed nor unusual, mirrored the major enthusiasms of his time. In the 1820’s and 1830’s he was associated with “workingmen’s” movements (which voiced the protest against privilege of what were actually recently established or prospective small entrepreneurs). Brownson thus became a spokesman for the “equal rights” ideology whose exploitation by Andrew Jackson in the 1830’s transformed American politics. After he established his Boston Quarterly Review in 1838, Brownson was one of the leading intellectuals in the Jacksonian Democratic party. Like his friends, who were among the great and near great of the age, Brownson was “born for reform.”

In 1840, the Whigs, identified by the Jacksonians as the enemies of democracy, consummated the “equal rights” revolution by finally abandoning their public defense of privilege and aristocratic rule and passing themselves off, demagogically, as better friends of the common man than the Jacksonians. Brownson was dismayed by the Whig victory in the election of 1840; he thought that in voting for “Tippecanoe” Harrison and Tyler against Van Buren the people had repudiated their divine mission as guardians of democratic truth. By 1844, the people’s betrayal of the egalitarian crusade, along with still unexplained private reasons, had led Brownson to an about-face familiar in our own time; he moved from the embrace of the Enlightenment into the arms of Original Sin.



Contrary to the usual assertions, then and now, Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism was not due to any “failure of nerve,” nor did it represent “the end of all doubt” for him. It took a great deal of nerve in the 1840’s (it still does) to become a Catholic. If we accept Merle Curti’s notion that it was an “age of reason and morality,” we forget, among other things, the extent and frenzy of its anti-Catholicism: mobs, burnings, religio-pornographic literature, and squads of Irish Catholics posted around churches to protect them. Boston, the Athens of America, where Brownson lived, was a center of this insanity. His move was thus made at a certain personal risk and with much searching of heart. It was not, however, a move to intellectual consistency or peace of soul.

In extreme reaction against liberalism, he worked for Calhoun’s nomination in 1844 and defended slavery for over a decade, prompting speculation about whether he or the Catholic Church, which at the time equivocated on slavery, really believed in “natural law” as a guarantee for human dignity. His Catholicism also did not prevent Brownson from joining the Nativist attack on immigrants (but not on Catholicism) at the high tide of the Nativist movement in the 50’s.

After 1844 a champion of “states’ rights,” Brownson later swung over and took up an ingenious defense of the Union, while his vituperative anti-liberalism (“When I hear a man declaiming lustily for liberty, I suspect it is for liberty to pick my pocket or cut my throat”) gave way in the late 50’s and 60’s to a form of “Christian democracy” favoring universal suffrage and the rights of man. In his last years, this in turn collapsed again into a cantankerous Catholic orthodoxy.

Mr. Kirk claims that after 1844 Brownson was “a consistent Catholic and a consistent conservative,” but the facts hardly bear him out. The impression they leave is of a man with a minor talent for philosophic analysis, but splenetic and furious in a senseless inconsistency. Did Acton, when praising him, know of Brownson’s remarks that only Catholics could be great artists or good scientists? Can this “weathercock of opinions” (as James Gordon Bennett called him), who was often merely vulgar and “at the mercy of every novelty in speculation,” be compared, as he has been, with Catholics like Charles Péguy and Gerard Manley Hopkins? Why do Mr. Kirk and Peter Viereck recommend him to us as one of the finer neglected figures in American intellectual history?

For one thing, interest in “natural law” has been renewed during the past two decades. Even more recently there has been a revival of Augustinian political theory using Original Sin to criticize the larger pretensions of liberalism and democracy. Brownson’s defection from liberalism lends itself as another case history with which to point up various types of Christian criticism of secular democratic thought. But underneath this scholarly impulse, one senses another motive—and senses it particularly in Mr. Kirk.

In their effort to define, or rather invent, an American tradition of conservative thought, the neo-conservatives have resorted to a scholarship of desperation. Brownson is being urged upon us not for the quality of his thought or writings, but for the direction of his opinions; for polemical purposes he, like Irving Babbitt, is invoked as a worthy American heir and fellow spirit of Burke, Coleridge, Tocqueville, and Burckhardt—to the distress of more discriminating Tories, who can only be dismayed by this continuing failure of imagination and taste.

The attempt to rehabilitate Brownson is symptomatic of the extent to which the neo-conservatives have forsaken the God of their fathers, real history, to lust after the “progressive” god of ideology, and a mark of how far they must still go to establish an effective and intellectually respectable alternative to liberalism. Perhaps they dare not look history in the face for fear of what it might reveal: that the “liberal spirit” has by now become history too. The excesses of liberalism in an irreversibly liberal civilization, liberalism’s tendency to start with mind and with happiness as the ultimate good and to end at times in ideology and oppression, can only be met by the power of what is best in our traditions and institutions (most of which happen to be liberal), not by invoking counter-abstractions and a counter-ideology—as if all it took to make a tradition was to think one up! It is a major irony of our time that a conservative critique of liberalism should be characterized by so abstract and doctrinaire a use of mind. One imagines Burke, that paladin of the concrete, the specific, the actual, shuddering in his grave.


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