Orestes Brownson (1803–1876)

Biography Portrait of Brownson

Orestes Augustus Brownson, philosopher, minister, essayist, and reviewer, was born in Stockbridge, Vermont in 1803. Two years later his father Sylvester Augustus Brownson died, leaving his family in a financially difficult situation. Relief Metcalf, Orestes' mother, sent him to Royalton, Vermont. There he lived in a Puritan/Calvinistic atmosphere with a couple of elderly farmers until he was fourteen.

Brownson became an avid reader despite the fact that during his Royalton years he only read a few books, all of them religious. He attended different churches there and developed his critical skills by comparing their sermons. At fourteen he returned to his family; his mother moved to New York State.

He received a modest education then and worked in a printer's office. The range of his readings broadened significantly; he read Aristotle, St.Augustine, Abbate Gioberti, Pierre Leroux, Plato Suarez, St.Thomas, and many others. Brownson began to teach when he was twenty, first in Stillwater, N.Y., then in Detroit. Three years later he became a Universalist preacher, then the editor of the Universalistic theological journal  Gospel Advocate.

But the teaching and preaching did not occupy his entire time. In his twenties O.Brownson was an active democrat. He supported the Workingman's Party that advocated the Owen-Wright theory of education, which envisioned two year olds starting their state-controlled and state-provided education. Brownson, then editor of "Genesee Republican" and " Herald of Reform," supported the Owen-Wright theory, but he also expressed his concern about the possible outcome of such education. He predicted a fall of parental authority and children being shaped into the " well-trained animals" ("The Convert," Works, V, 65-66).

At the age of thirty Brownson became a Unitarian pastor; Dr. W. E. Channing's sermons lured him into Unitarianism. He published The Boston Quarterly and wrote his articles there along with such Transcendentalists as Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, and George Ripley. His own articles were of a literary, philosophical and political nature. His articles also appeared in the Transcendentalist magazine, the Dial. With other Transcendentalists he participated to some degree in the Brook Farm experiment. Unlike the Transcendentalists he thought that men were sinful.

Brownson's readings and his experiences within the religious and political domain (e.g. he participated in Van Buren election in 1840) directed his thoughts from, as he called them," democratic illusions" to religious and political conservatism:

I read for the first time Aristotle on Politics; I read the best treatises, ancient and modern, on Government within my reach; I studied the contributors of Greece and Rome, and their history, the political administration of ancient Persia, the feudal system, and the constitutions of modern states, in the light of such experience and such philosophy as I had, and come to the conclusion that the condition of liberty is order, and that in this world we must seek, not equality but justice between man and man, a firm, strong, and efficient government is necessary. Liberty is not in the absence of authority, but in being held to obey only just and legitimate authority. Evidently, I had changed systems, and had entered another order of ideas. Government was no longer the mere agent of society, as my democratic masters had taught me, but an authority having the right and the power to govern society, and direct an aid as a wise providence, in fulfilling its destiny. I became henceforth a conservative in politics, instead of an impracticable radical and through political conservatism I advanced rapidly towards religious conservatism. So I date my beginning to amend, from the publication of my so-called " horrible doctrines"
("The Convert," Works , V, 21-22).

Then in 1844 (the year of Emerson's second "Nature" essay) Brownson and his family converted to Catholicism. The very negative response of the Transcendentalists to his conversion is best expressed in Theodore Parker's sermon that ascribed to Brownson an "unbalanced mind, intellectual always, but spiritual never" (J.Weiss, II, 28). After that, the Transcendentalists ignored him.

Brownson wrote The Convert; or Leaves from my Experience, in which he traces "with fidelity his entire religious life down to his admission to the bosom of the Catholic Church." (The Catholic Encyclopedia. His religious conversion was accompanied by his disappointment with political liberalism. In "The Democratic Principle" he wrote:

What I saw served to dispel my democratic illusions, to break the idol I had worshipped, and shook to its foundation my belief in the divinity of the people, or in their will as the expression of eternal justice. I saw that they could easily be duped, easily made victims of the designing, and carried away by own irresistible passion in the wrong as easily as in the right . . . .I ceased henceforth to believe in democracy.
  (Works, XVIII, 224)

During the Civil War O.Brownson lost two sons. Three years later he died in Detroit, Michigan; he was later interred at the Brownson Memorial Chapel in the Sacred Heart Church at the University of Notre Dame.

As a Catholic he wrote articles for Ave Maria (which he established), The Catholic World, and the American Catholic Quarterly Review. He valued German Catholic thought and regretted the fact that it was unknown to the American Catholics. Brownson's fully crystallized political thought is best expressed in "The American Republic," somewhere between moderate conservatism and constructive liberalism. Within the literary field he advocated a development of the American literature which he envisioned as a truth-seeking and independent from the European influences (the Transcendentalists' approach); he denied the art for art's sake approach to literature, and incorporated intellect, morality, charity, compassion, along with freedom and nobility of spirit in literature. His writings are extensive, interesting and little known, which is to be regretted because he represents, so typically American, independent thinking and search for the truth.

Krystyna Grocholski, Virginia Commonwealth University