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Orestes Brownson (1803-1876)    

The Acton Institute

"Politicians may do as they please, so long as they violate no rule of right, no principle of justice, no law of God; but in no world, in no order, or condition, have men the right to do wrong."

Orestes Brownson (1803-76) is not, at first sight, a philosopher of liberty but, rather, one who is concerned with ordered liberty itself ordained towards a higher good. He was, to put it paradoxically, more attentive to the many ways in which freedom goes wrong than in the ways in which it goes right. Or, to put it another way, liberty never just "goes right" by itself. It is the truth that makes us free, not the freedom that makes the truth. Liberty was the result of many things, including virtue, a proper family, a republican constitution, and, above all, the accurate understanding of God.

Brownson was an enigmatic character of 19th century America. He was born in Vermont and died in Detroit. From a very early age he was interested in the broader concerns of religion and philosophy. He successively became a Presbyterian, then a Universalist, then a Unitarian. He was a preacher for a time, even lost any belief in Christianity, which, he wrote in 1840, ought simply to be "abolished." He belonged to the Transcendental Club in New England. He knew of Brook Farm and New Harmony, early experiments in communal living arrangements. This experience in part formed his evidence for his later polemic with socialism.

Yet, four years later, in 1844, he became Catholic. By this time, he had edited a number of religious and secular journals, finally ending with his own, Brownson Review. He was a prolific writer. His collected works come to twenty large volumes. His most undoubtedly famous book is entitled The American Republic, in which he sought to state a philosophic and legal justification for the American experience as one incorporating the problems of religion and democracy in a more solidly based theoretical system.

Brownson's life-long suppositions were in the classical mode; that is, he did not think that the major problems of the American experiment had to do with lack of liberty but with its abuse. From this premise, he was concerned with virtue above all and with the relation of religion to the probability of anyone actually being virtuous. In an almost pure Platonic phrase, Brownson wrote in 1864, "If you would make a man happy, study not to augment his goods; but to diminish his wants. One of the greatest services Christianity has rendered the world has been its consecration of poverty, and its elevation of labor to the dignity of a moral duty."

Brownson wrote: "He who has read Aristotle's Politics has read the history of American democracy, and the unanswerable refutation of all democratic theories and tendencies of modern liberals. For the most part we are prone to regard what is new to us as what is new to the world, and, what is worse, what is new to us as a real scientific acquisition, and a real progress to the race." Brownson, of course, did think America to have been a worthy experiment but sensed that the philosophic tendencies of modernity were undermining it.

In this regard, A. J. Beitzinger wrote in his History of American Political Thought: "Brownson was a democrat who believed in the primacy of the corporate people organized under a fundamental law but subject to the natural law which is at once descriptive of rights and prescriptive of duties, and which, unless chaos and discord are to ensue, must be given final statement by an infallible authority above and yet without, the state, the divinely instituted Church. The fulfillment of this conception was dependent upon the voluntary acceptance by Americans of the supreme religious institution."

"True liberty," Brownson wrote over a century ago, "is never yet advanced by subverting the established government of a country. Europe has lost far more than it has gained by its century of insurrections, revolutions, and civil wars, and the new régimes introduced have left fewer effective guaranties of civil freedom and personal liberty than existed before them. Providence may overrule evil for good, but good is never the natural product of evil." In looking back at the history of liberty since his time, we would be hard-pressed to show that Brownson was totally wrong in his worries about liberty, truth, virtue, and order, about the relation of duty to freedom.


"Orestes Brownson (1803-1876)." Liberal Tradition: A History of Liberty by Acton Institute.

In the Liberal Tradition: A History of Liberty is a collection of short biographies highlighting the life and thought of central characters in the history of liberty.

This article is reprinted with permission from the Acton Institute.

Copyright © 2003 Acton Institute



Copyright © 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved