Orestes A. Brownson: A Definitive Biography
by Thomas R. Ryan, C.PP.S.
Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 1976, 872 pages. ISBN 0879738847.

He was called “a walking variorum of all sorts of opinions,” “an American Marxist before Marx,” “the American Robespierre,” “a pervert from Protestantism,” “the Hercules of American Controversy,” “a Yankee too Yankee for the Catholics and a Catholic too Catholic for the Yankees,” and the “American Lion.” Lord Acton, Lord Broughan, and the venerable Cardinal Newman pronounced him among the greatest of the American men of letters. He was unfailingly one of the most exciting public figures of nineteenth-century America, and variously a subject of curiosity, astonishment, and praise among such disparate modern scholars as Harold Laski, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Russell Kirk, R. W. B. Lewis, and T. S. Eliot. It is surely no surprise that the dramatic life and work of Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803–1876) has been recently undergoing a rebirth of in academic quarters; resulting in the publication of several scholarly pieces in the past few years, not the least of which is Orestes A. Brownson.

The product of twenty-five years of meticulous research, Father Thomas R. Ryan’s book justly deserves the publisher’s subtitle: A Definitive Biography. A massive work, it is immensely rich in documentation and scholarly detail; and, as an in-depth examination of one of America’s literary prodigies, Ryan’s treatise indeed surpasses the endeavors of his predecessors in the field. The value of this biography, however, transcends the merits of comprehensiveness or remedial scholarship on Orestes Brownson, for the author opens up to his reader nothing less than a panoramic view of nineteenth-century American intellectual life through the trials and triumphs of one of its most perspicacious participants.

Ryan’s subject was himself something of the stereotyped American folk hero, a fitting symbol of what was good and true in the Jacksonian vision of the, unspoiled “natural man.” No product of urbane culture or sophisticated schooling, Orestes Brownson was born of pioneer parents struggling to eke out a meager existence in the primitive back country of Vermont. With less than a few months of formal education, he eventually emerged into national—and international—prominence as one of the most notable of American journalists, the editor of the Boston Quarterly Review. Teaching himself to read Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian, he broadened his horizons and became an intellectual innovator in his own right, to the joy, shock, or dismay of the sundry parties, sects, or factions with which he was variously associated throughout his long and colorful public career. Consecutively, he was an itinerant preacher of liberal Protestantism, an atheist, the inventor of a proletarian radicalism astonishingly similar to the later speculations of Marx, a leader of the illustrious Boston Transcendentalists, and a convert to Calhoun’s constitutionalism. These early mental excursions rendered him all the more profound in his mature days as an aggressive champion of conservatism in politics and Roman Catholicism in religion.

An acquaintance, friend, or correspondent of many of the leading men of his age, Brownson’s forceful style inspired respect, admiration, and even trepidation. The controversies which swirled around him, into which he plunged with such martial enthusiasm, were nothing less than the primary issues composing our national history: slavery and states’ rights, industrial expansion and labor disputes, the Civil War and Reconstruction, women’s rights agitation and humanitarian socialism, as well as the broader trends of relativism in philosophy and the onslaught of materialistic atheism.

In tracing Brownson’s response to the intellectual, social, and political crises of his turbulent age, Father Ryan has accomplished more than an elaborate chronicle of the man’s intellectual dynamics in time and space. The author has penetrated the intriguing character of the man himself, revealing the immense complexity of his personality. Possessed of a clear, logical, and vigorous English style, a talent which won him considerable notoriety, we learn that Brownson was enormously combative and self-confident in the fray. As Ryan makes clear, his conversion to Roman Catholicism and political conservatism in 1844 changed the “radical style” of his youthful militance not a whit:

Brownson was now moving along in his forty-second year. His giant, muscular six feet, two inch frame, just beginning to put on weight, was becoming even more formidable in appearance. His great shock of hair, brushed straight back from his high sloping forehead, balanced by a full spreading beard, giving him something of the appearance of abiblical prophet, was already streaked with gray. Under shaggy brows his eyes looked out through small gold-rimmed spectacles that rested on a slightly beaked nose. Ruddy in complexion, his whole appearance was leonine. And like the lion, he was ready for any battle. The battles he had passed through had only served to prepare him for those ahead, and his greatest battles by far lay in the future. He fed on battles and seemed to bid Armageddon welcome. His sword was the pen he held in his long, graceful fingers. His countenance wore the mien of a no-nonsense man. And he was utterly without fear. As Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has said, “He was not a man to be intimidated by all the devils in hell when he thought he was right.”

Once one of the most powerful foes of orthodoxy in politics, religion, and philosophy, Brownson was to become the scourge of socialism, anarchism, atheism, sentimental humanitarianism, relativism, or any political doctrines at variance with the peculiar genius of the American constitutional order. But his pugnacity in defense of his principles was surely not the whole of his personality. Such a complicated man, nigh inscrutable, he eluded simplistic classification. Easily moved to tears by the beauty of a poem, he could be sincerely tender and laudatory of the qualities of those who differed with him on questions of philosophy. Frightfully independent, he was equally humble in the presence of legitimate authority. An engaging conversationalist on weighty matters, he was not above innocent expressions of pride for his beloved rose garden, which he cultivated devoutly. Ryan’s book is tastefully spiced with anecdotes, mostly humorous, concerning the badinage he enjoyed with friends and opponents alike. In fact, the author reveals greater detail on the man’s personal relations, including his family, than does any of Brownson’s previous biographers.

Another major contribution of Ryan’s biography, supplementary to recent scholarship, is the illumination of trends in Brownson’s thought as the product of a continuous, if uneven, pattern of intellectual development. Brownson’s odyssey of the soul has been the focal point of much wonder, curiosity, and disesteem. Once trenchantly capsulated in the satirical verse of James Russell Lowell, A Fable for Critics, his image among his enemies was often that of a brilliant, but philosophically unstable man, given to tiresome revolutions in doctrine. The fact is that far too much has been made of these supposed cerebral acrobatics, and especially of the alleged radical division between his “pre-Catholic” and “Catholic” period. Ryan confirms the view that Brownson was harboring “conservative” tendencies long before 1844 when he finally embraced the Church of Rome. It is, of course, undeniable that he was a man who readily changed his opinions, and his thought therefore displayed differences in emphasis or nuance; but he was not easily given to overthrowing first principles, sharply changing substantial doctrine, or altering his philosophic perspective. In their essentials, for example, his metaphysical position and political theory remained constant from 1843 to 1876.

Whatever one may deem Brownson’s faults, he was never the victim of intellectual insularity or the slave of his opinions. That this should been cause for his dismissal from the ranks of the celebrated in certain quarters is paradoxical; but it may be lamentably traced to the fact that too many of his unfriendly critics either could not, or would not, follow the logical progression of the man’s mind. If Brownson was culpable of anything it was a bold willingness to experiment with ideas; in this he was neither fickle nor reckless, but painfully exact, especially in terms of the logical relations between his newer discoveries and his earlier conclusions. He was, as Father Ryan observes, a master logician. This gift for correct reasoning was a talent he assiduously cultivated, mindful perhaps of the fact that his Puritan ancestors, of whom he was so proud, traditionally maintained an almost religious reverence for logical precision in thought and expression. Brownson’s writings do not, and cannot, bear superficial analysis. Charges of fickleness or light-headed fluctuations revealed far more about his critics than about him.

Bold innovation, intellectual experimentation, the willingness to attempt that which is different and imaginative, is one of the outstanding features of American culture. Interestingly enough, it may be precisely because Brownson himself best exhibited the qualities of independence and individualism, so strongly identified with the American character, that he was compelled to roam beyond the pale of intellectual respectability. Always willing to break with stale conventions in thought, to experiment in the realm of ideas, including unpopular notions, his Transcendentalist colleagues lustily cheered him on when he assailed the dull New England establishment; but it was quite another matter when he dropped Locke in favor of Aristotle and Aquinas, extolled the virtues of his friend Calhoun, or—his most serious breach of the social graces—converted to the Pope’s “Irish religion.” Yet in all of this there was nothing superficial about the evolution of his thought.

Brownson’s conduct as a controversialist is carefully surveyed throughout Father Ryan’s book, but is nowhere more amply documented than in his account of the bitter “Catholic-Protestant” conflict toward the middle of the nineteenth century. Under the aspect of personal serenity, Brownson could not have become a Catholic at a more inopportune time. Burgeoning nativist passions, growing anxiety over the vast influx of illiterate Irish immigrants, and the resurrection of fearsome specters culminated in the hideous “Know Nothing” crusades. Vulgar stump demagogues rarely failed to castigate the trinity of the Pope, Catholicism, and Brownson in the same vituperative breath. At the same time, his relations with the Catholic community were intermittently strained, owing to temperamental and intellectual differences, a large dose of misunderstanding, and, though Father Ryan does not suggest it, perhaps a trace of unbecoming envy among certain proud and powerful men within the predominantly Irish Catholic American hierarchy. Most Americans were genuinely unfamiliar with Catholic beliefs and practices. Great serpents of bigotry and fanaticism naturally throve in those vast seas of American ignorance, and Brownson knew that he had to dispatch those heinous denizens without injuring the proper sensibilities of his countrymen. His role as a “Catholic editor” was of greater historical significance than is generally recognized.

Like the heads of the mythical Hydra, numerous dark forces flourished in the aftermath of the Civil War: the advance of socialism in humanitarian guise, the expansion and centralization of Federal power, the nefarious intermingling of political and economic interests, gross materialism, widespread corruption, and the rise of fanaticism in public letters. His heart oppressed with a heavy sense of inevitable defeat, the gallant old warrior fought on relentlessly, only to pass from this world in relative poverty and obscurity. It seemed as if the America in which he won such notoriety had simply forgotten him. But his prophetic utterances, his penetrating criticism, and his prescient insights into trends that have now matured made his resurrection from oblivion only a matter of time.

The scope and depth of Father Ryan’s book is impressive. Following Newman’s counsel on the composition of biographies, Ryan has relied heavily upon the vast bulk of Brownson’s private letters and papers stored in the archives of the University of Notre Dame. The author has skillfully interwoven these numerous epistles into his narrative, giving the reader a more complete presentation of the direction of Brownson’s mature thought, as well as revealing the interplay and conformity between his public and private pronouncements.

Those not of the Roman Catholic faith may find the meticulous discussion of Catholic doctrine somewhat esoteric; but no reader, whatever his religious inclinations, can fail to find the lively debates on the relation between religious and secular concerns anything but enlightening.Father Ryan, of course, writes from the conviction of a Catholic priest on a famous American convert to Catholicism, and he expresses his judgments on religiously relevant matters accordingly. Occasionally the reader may find the author rather partisan in his valuations of Brownson, and might be less inclined to such a favorable view where his words or actions would suffer a different interpretation. Perhaps no greater tribute can the subject of a biography receive than the genuine love and enthusiasm of the author. Released by a Catholic publishing house, Ryan’s volume should find considerable appeal among Catholic audiences. But it would be sorely erroneous for anyone with pretensions to an understanding of American intellectual history to miss this important book.  

Robert Emmet Moffit is currently The Heritage Foundation’s senior fellow in domestic and economic policy studies.