book cover imageThe American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny
by Orestes A. Brownson
[1865]. Reprinted by Augustus M. Kelley, Publishers: Clifton, New Jersey, 1972.
[ISI 2002]

It is always a great intellectual experience to examine the operations of a powerful, intuitive, and penetrating mind at work upon the perennial public concerns of civilized humanity. The experience takes on significant additional dimensions when such a mind brings to bear upon basic social problems an encyclopedic knowledge of the history, political philosophy, and religion of Western civilization, from ancient to modern times. Orestes Brownson (1803–1876) had such a mind and such breadth of knowledge. Nowhere is his political genius more evident than in The American Republic, in which he examined the origins, nature, development, and destiny of American society and its constitutional system of government, against the whole religious tradition of Christianity and the political philosophy of European civilization.

Brownson was keenly aware that practically every popular interpretation of the origins and nature of the American Republic rested upon variations of the social-contract theory put forth by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau:

These theorists or political speculators have imagined a state of nature antecedently to civil society, in which men lived without government, law, or manners, out of which they finally came by entering into a voluntary agreement with some one of their number to be king and to govern them, or with one another to submit to the rule of the majority. Hobbes, the English materialist, is among the earliest and most distinguished of the advocates of this theory. . . . Locke followed Hobbes, and asserted virtually the same theory, but asserted it in the interests of liberty, as Hobbes had asserted it in the interests of power. Rousseau . . . with his Contrat Social . . . put the finishing stroke to the theory [pp. 45–46].

Since Hobbes had thoroughly discredited himself by placing political sovereignty in an absolute, unlimited monarch, no one explained the American Republic in Hobbesian terms. But between the Philadelphia convention of 1787 and the Civil War, Btownson believed that many of the most famous interpreters of the American constitution, such as Jefferson, Webster, and Calhoun, had made grievous errors by following Locke’s social-contract theory. Even Madison, “our most philosophic statesman,” believed that “the division of powers between a general government . . . and particular or state governments” was “of conventional origin” (Preface, xi). Locke’s individualistic theory of government was dominant in America up to the secession of the South, and the Union victory largely discredited it; the collectivist and humanitarian social-contract theory of Rousseau, which had been subordinate until the abolition of slavery, became strong after 1865. As Brownson put it: “The tendency of the last century was to individualism; that of the present is to socialism” (p. 71).

Brownson rejected all theories of a social contract between rulers and ruled as necessarily leading to anarchy or tyranny. Hobbes’s conception of an irrevocable contract, with all sovereign power in one person, was obviously a tyranny of the one. But Locke’s conception of a social contract, revocable at the will of any disaffected individual or group, had been applied in fact by Thoreau in his independence from the laws of his society, and by the South in its doctrines of interposition, nullification, and secession, against the tyranny of majority will exercised by the North, and the anarchy that resulted clearly made it impossible for any organized society to exist. The “general will” of Rousseau, centered in an irrevocable contract between the individual and his collective society, avoided Locke’s anarchy, but substituted for Hobbes’s single tyrant the collective tyranny of the many. Brownson summarized the central principle of Rousseau: “The theory that the people are absolutely sovereign in their own independent right and might, as some zealous democrats explain it, asserts the fundamental principle of despotism. . . . (p. 84). To Brownson no social-contract theory was capable of explaining the American Republic on its true historical and political principles.

In the process of explicating the true origins and nature of the American Republic, Brownson subjected the Lockean and Rousseauist social-contract theories to a complete and devastatingcriticism. It would take a long article to do justice to Brownson’s powerful case against the whole tradition of social-contract theory. But his positive principles in interpreting the American Republic are often most clearly understood in contrast to an antithetical social-contract concept, and we shall note some of his major points against social-contract theory in the process of examining his own political philosophy.

Brownson rejected all social-contract theories as false to historical fact, false to human nature, and false to sound political philosophy. Brownson dismissed the pre-civil “state of nature,” whether hypothetical (Hobbes) or historical (Locke), as a wild figment of speculative imagination, a mere fictional abstraction: “But as abstractions have no existence out of the mind that forms them, the state of nature has no actual existence in the world or reality as a separate state” (p. 49). Men in civil societies were the “natural” product of history, not the “artificial” product of a contract drawn by a convention formed during a supposed pre-civil state of nature. Historically, no nation ever originated from any social contract: “Nations have originated in various ways, but history records no instance of a nation existing as an inorganic mass organizing itself into a political community” (p. 144). The same law of history applied to governments, as well as to nations: “No civilized government ever did or could originate in the so-called social compact” (p. 70). This general law applied to the American Republic: “A union like the American cannot be created by a compact, or by the exercise of supreme power” (p. 405).

The immediate and direct historical origin of American society was from England of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but this was far too recent and narrow as an historical explanation of America, whose ultimate foundations derived from classical European civilization. In its form of government, Brownson noted, America “belongs to the Græco-Roman family, and is republican . . . (p. 219). Brownson believed that “the special mission of the United States is to continue and complete in the political order the Græco-Roman civilization” (p. 392). But among the forms of government the world has known, the American Republic was completely unique, according to Brownson: it was “the beginning of a new and more advanced order of civilization . . .” (p. 271).

What made the American Republic so uniquely superior to all other previous and existing forms of government? The Founding Fathers created “the model republic,” Brownson wrote, because “they suffered themselves in all their positive substantial work to be governed by reality, not by theories and speculations” (p. 271). The “reality” which the Founding Fathers took strictly into account was the historically developed nature of the American people. Brownson found “a profound logic in the Constitution, and there is not a single provision in it that is arbitrary, or anomalous, or that does not harmonize dialectically with the whole, and with the real constitution of the American people” (p. 268). From their total historical inheritance there were two basic ingredients in the “real” constitution of the American people: their Christianity, and their corporate character in civil society in belonging to a legally chartered territory, first under British common law and political sovereignty, and then after independence under the written Constitution of the United States. These two elements combined to compose respectively the unwritten and written Constitution of the American Republic.

The greatest single element which made the American Republic uniquely superior to the ancient republics of Greece and Rome was its Christianity. According to Brownson, “Christianity in the secular order is republican, and continues and completes the work of Greece and Rome” (pp. 38–39). Christianity had eliminated what wasweakest and most barbarous in the Greo-Roman republics—the absolutism of the state. Brownson noted that “Roman Law was “founded on the confusion of generation with creation,” that is, with the right of the father over his child as that of an arbitrary God over His creation (p. 41). This false theory was extended by analogy from the father and family to the emperor and the empire. In defying the state absolutism of the Roman Empire, Christianity “overthrew state absolutism, and infused into modern society the doctrine that every individual, even the lowest and meanest, has rights which the state neither confers nor can abrogate; and it will only be by extinguishing in modern society the Christian faith, and obliterating all traces of Christian civilization, that state absolutism can be revived with more than a partial and temporary success” (p. 80). Brownson extended this vital point: “. . . No political system that . . . absorbs the individual in the state, stands the least chance of any general or permanent success till Christianity is extinguished” (p. 81). By teaching men self-discipline and the need to check their passions and lust for power by the law of revealed morality, Christianity controlled Epicurean sensuality, and thus fulfilled the higher nature of man: “Christian asceticism aims not to destroy nature, as voluptuaries pretend, but to regulate, direct, and restrain its abnormal developments for its own good” (p. 96).

The nature of the American people, formed mainly by Christianity and history and not by any social contract, was the most vital part of their unwritten constitution. Brownson distinguished carefully between the written and unwritten American constitution: “The constitution of the United States is two-fold, written and unwritten, the constitution of the people and the constitution of the government” (p. 218). The unwritten constitution of the people preceded the written document of the state: it was “providential, not made by the nation, but born with it” (p. 218). Indeed, contrary to social-contract theories, all national “constitutions are generated, not made—providential, not conventional” (p. 430). Brownson defined “Providence” as “God operating through historical facts” (p. 244). Brownson noted that “the disciples of Jean Jacques Rousseau recognize no providential constitution” (pp. 140–41). Even so great a political philosopher as Madison failed to recognize the unwritten constitution of the American people: “Madison evidently recognizes no constitution of the people prior to the written constitution” (p. 230). By omitting the constitution of the people under God’s moral law, commentators on the American Republic failed to understand the meaning of political sovereignty.

The political sovereignty of the state, and the legal sovereignty of the written constitution under which the state functioned, were both based upon the moral law of God: “The right of government to govern, or political authority, is derived by the collective people or society, from God through the law of nature. Rulers hold from God through the people or nation, and the people or nation hold from God through natural law” (p. 133). Both the people as individual citizens and collectively as a nation, and the state, derived their reciprocal rights to be ruled and to rule from the moral law of God. Therefore, it was impossible to omit the moral law of God from the constitution of government without creating a tyranny in the state, in which rulers were presumed to be gods: “. . . No government originating in humanity alone can be legitimate government. Every such government is founded on the assumption that man is God . . . (p. 114). This was precisely what the social-contract theorists had done: “For nearly two centuries the most popular and influential writers on government have rejected the divine origin and ground of civil authority, and excluded God from the state” (pp. 121–22; see also pp. 122–127). By denying both man’s historical inheritance and the moral law of God as legal and ethical norms for judging the uses of power in society and the state, the social-contract theorists had made arbitrary power in single or collective men, in or out of government, the sole basis of deciding human relationships in society.

Perhaps the greatest single theme throughout Brownson’s The American Republic is the second great element in the “real” constitution of the American people, their existence as a corporate or “organic” nation, characterized uniquely by their territorial democracy. The origin of territorial democracy was in ancient Greece: “Athens went further than Rome, and introduced the principle of territorial democracy” (p. 395). In the American Republic territorial democracy existed simultaneously in each of the states and in the states united:

. . . With us the organic people exist only as organized into States united. . . . The organic American people do not exist as a consolidated people or state; they exist only as organized into distinct but inseparable states. Each state is a living member of one body, and derives its life from its union with the body, so that the American state is one bcdy with many members; and the members, instead of being simply individuals, are states, or individuals organized into states [pp. 245–46].

Territorial democracy was a vital element in determining the legal-political-geographical character of a nation: “Sovereignty, under God, inheres in the organic people, or the people as the republic; and every organic people fixed to the soil, and politically independent of every other people, is a sovereign people, and, in the modern sense, an independent sovereign nation” (p. 192; see also p. 207). Territorial democracy, as part of the unwritten constitution of the American people, was also one of the generating forces which determined the written form of the constitutional government that was most appropriate to the nation: “Ordinarily the form of the government practicable for a nation is determined by the peculiar providential constitution of the territorial people, and a form of government that would be practicable and good in one country may be the reverse in another” (p. 183).

Society, as distinct from government, was part of the historical corporate or “organic” nature of man; there was a natural institutional community among men within a territory, as well as the “territorial rights or jurisdiction” of government (p. 67). In contradiction to the social-contract theory of “convention,” which made each individual’s relationship to his society and state voluntaristic, Brownson wrote: “The individual is born into society and under the government . . . ,” and therefore his relationship to his society and state “is . . . by no means a voluntary association” (pp. 143–44). A man’s duties as social man and citizen of his state are a matter of both historical and moral necessity, not of choice. The state, having legal sovereignty in society, “speaks to all within its jurisdiction with an imperative voice” (p. 141). Brownson added: “Men are born its subjects, and no one can withdraw from it without its express or tacit permission, unless for causes that would justify resistance to its authority. The right of subjects to denationalize or expatriate themselves . . . does not exist, any more than the right of foreigners to become citizens, unless by the consent and authorization of the sovereign” (pp. 141–42). Territorial democracy is a part of the corporate nature of the American people, as distinct from mere population as numbers told by the head. Men are not mere isolated individuals, each sovereign in his private self: “. . . Society is not an aggregation nor even an organization of individuals. It is an organism, and individuals live in its life as well as it in theirs” (p. 65).

Society, as well as individuals in society, had rights, because civil society is not “a mere aggregation of individuals with no life, and no rights but what it derives from them. . . . (p. 84). The opposite principle, taught by Locke and practiced by Thoreau and by the South when it seceded, would lead to self-sufficiency and anarchy: “The doctrine of individual liberty may be abused, and so explained as to deny the rights of society, and to become pure individualism” (p. 81). Brownson’s conception of the “people” is that of “the political community or nation” (p. 135). In a representative republic the “people” meant “the people collectively, not individually—the organic people, or people fixed to a given territory, not the people as a mere population—the people in the republic sense of the nation, not in the barbaric or despotic sense. . . . (p. 113). Brownson’s conception of the “people” in society is as profoundly corporate as that of Edmund Burke, although he identified Cicero and St. Augustine as his sources:

. . . By people is understood the organic people attached to a sovereign domain, not the people as individuals or as a floating or nomadic multitude. By people in the political sense, Cicero, and St. Augustine after him, understood the people as the republic, organized in reference to the common or public good. With this understanding, the sovereignty persists in the people, and they retain the supreme authority over the government [pp. 188–89].

Brownson distinguished sharply between the people in their corporate or organic collectivity, functioning through due process under constitutional law, and Rousseau’s conception of the “people” as a numerical collectivity which held its own will as absolute and sovereign:

The theory assumes that the people collectively, “in their own native right and might,” are sovereign. According to it the people are ultimate, and free to do whatever they please. This sacrifices individual freedom. The origin of government in a compact entered into by individuals, each with all and all with each, sacrificed the rights of society, and assumed each individual to be in himself an independent sovereignty. If logically carried out, there could be no such crime as treason, there could be no state, and no public authority. This new theory transfers to society the sovereignty which that asserted for the individual, and asserts social despotism, or the absolutism of the state. It asserts with sufficient energy public authority, or the right of the people to govern; but it leaves no space for individual rights, which society must recognize, respect, and protect [p. 78]

Brownson understood well Burke’s dictum that the tyranny of a multitude is a multiple tyranny, and he rejected Rousseau’s collectivist tyranny as emphatically as he had rejected Locke’s anarchy.

At the core of the American Republic was the idea of “liberty with law and law with liberty” (p. 5). This was the result of a “true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual—the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy” (p. 5). Brownson believed that the American Constitution, rightly understood, “asserts national unity without consolidation, and the rights of the several states without danger of disintegration” (p. 9). Its superiority in preventing both anarchy and despotism set it above all other constitutional political systems known in civilization: “. . . The American Constitution, taken as a whole, and in all its parts, is the least imperfect that has ever existed, and under it individual rights, personal freedom, and independence, as well as public authority or society, are better protected than under any other. . . . (p. 276). To Brownson, the American Republic had no prototype in any prior constitution; it was unique and superior to all other forms of society and government.

In 1865 Brownson showed remarkable prophetic insight into some future dangers to the American Republic, both in the written constitution of the state, and in the unwritten constitution of American society. Within the state constitution he warned of a danger that history has vindicated: “The danger that the general government will usurp the rights of the states is far less than the danger that the Executive will usurp all the powers of Congress and the judiciary” (p. 371). There had been a growth in “dictatorial powers” in the Presidency during the Civil War, and these “usurpations” and “abuses” continued after the War: “There is a growing disposition on the part of Congress to throw as much of the business of government as possible into the hands of the Executive” (p.372). A possible cure for this “growing evil” was to make the President “ineligible for a second term” (p. 373). Another great abuse that Brownson feared within the state was the appeal to the “general welfare” clause of the Constitution to justify an enormous growth in the Federal Government’s power, at the expense of genuine private welfare:

The private welfare of each is, no doubt, for the welfare of all, but not therefore is it the “general welfare,” for what is private, particular in its nature, is not and cannot be general. To understand by general welfare that which is for the individual welfare of all or the greater number, would be to claim for the General government all the powers of government, and to deny that very division of powers which is the crowning merit of the American system” [pp. 261–62].

This perceptive statement, when applied to the “New Deal” of the 1930s, explains why the states have suffered in the division of powers between themselves and the Federal Government, and why the private welfare of individual rights has been obliterated by general welfare federal programs.

Brownson was also keenly aware that within American society after 1865 there was great danger that “the Union victory will . . . be interpreted as a victory in the interest of humanitarian democracy” (p. 365). This danger could extend far into the future: “. . . The humanitarian democracy, which scorns all geographical lines, effaces all individualities, and professes to plant itself on humanity alone, has acquired by the War new strength, and is not without menace to our future” (p. 351). This Rousseauist, socialist, humanitarian type of democracy was often combined on the individual level with the anarchy of Lockean individualism, so that the “sacred right of revolution” was made into collectivist program, replacing state secession as the chief threat to federalism. But Locke and Rousseau were both incompatible to the American Republic: “Individualism and socialism are each opposed to the other, and each has only a partial truth. The state founded on either cannot stand, and society will only alternate between the two extremes. Today it is torn by a revolution in favor of socialism; tomorrow it will be torn by another in favor of individualism, and without effecting any real progress by either revolution” (p. 81). But the great body of Americans rejected both extremes: “The great body of the loyal people instinctively felt that pure socialism is as incompatible with American democracy as pure individualism. . . .” (p. 356).

Brownson’s The American Republic has eloquently advanced the thesis that “. . . the real American democracy . . . is neither a personal nor a humanitarian, but a territorial democracy” (p. 375). His exposition of the unique virtues in the American system of government and American society remain an excellent fountain of wisdom against contemporary ideological illusions that lead to individualistic nihilism or collectivist humanitarian despotism. Through Brownson young Americans who cannot perceive the errors. in nihilism can understand why a theory of man and society which begins with the pre-civil state of nature and the social contract, and conceives of isolated individuals as having abstract absolute sovereign rights,will always end in a tyranny of the one or the many, in which private individuals count. for nothing—unless they are rescued from such a fate by the Constitution of the American Republic. Brownson is also an excellent corrective to such isolated follies as the theory of one-man, one-vote. In the introduction to his great classic Brownson lamented that “among nations, no one has more need of full knowledge of itself than the United States, and no one has hitherto had less.” It is probably still true that most Americans do not understand the enduring historical achievement of the Founding Fathers, who built far more wisely than they knew.  

Peter J. Stanlis (1920–2011) was, at the time of writing, Chairman of the Department of English at Rockford College. Best known for his studies of Edmund Burke and the Enlightenment, he is the author of Edmund Burke and the Natural Law.