In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson
by Gregory S. Butler.
Southern Illinois University Press (Carbondale, Illinois, 1992), 278 pp., $32.50 cloth.

In the generation following the founding fathers of the American republic, Orestes Brownson (1803–1876), together with John C. Calhoun, was probably the most original and profound political thinker of the nineteenth century. Woodrow Wilson considered his most important book, The American Republic (1866), the best study of the American constitution.

In this very thoroughly researched and well-written description and analysis of Brownson’s political thought, Gregory S. Butler is far less concerned with the merely legal and political structures of American constitutional and positive law than with his conception of “the American spirit,” which provides the religious, cultural, and social foundations of his politics. Brownson rejected the common belief that any fictional theory of a “social contract,” based upon a supposed “state of nature” prior to the origin of institutional society, can be legitimately considered the basis of the American spirit. He also rejected the equally fictitious theory of a “general will,” based upon humanitarian sensibility and belief in the natural goodness of man, as foreign to the American spirit. In short, all of the secular premises, theories, and arguments of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau had no place in forming the American spirit.

The American archetypal political myths and symbols regarding justice, liberty, order, and equality are not an inheritance from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but find their ultimate roots in the entire religious and cultural inheritance that the original colonists, and all subsequent immigrants, brought with them from Europe. For Brownson the search for the American spirit begins in the ancient Graeco-Roman world and includes the whole two-thousand year Judeo-Christian religious and cultural tradition of Western civilization. This complex Classical and Christian inheritance, together with the customs and manners of the Teutonic tribes which overran the Roman Empire and provided the people who formed the future nations of Europe, was developed variously throughout the Western world. Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Britain was the particular vehicle which transmitted its version of this rich European religious and cultural inheritance to its American colonies. Other nations contributed their part, but Britain was dominant in shaping American society, and in particular its spirit of political liberty was intensified and modified by the raw frontier conditions of American life. The language, literature, religion, customs, traditions, laws, and education of Britain provided the basis for American society, and largely determined its spirit and culture. Thus, for Brownson, the American spirit is embodied in the complex unwritten constitution of American society, centered in the wide-ranging character and temperament of its people, as modified in different regions, but legally chartered over vast areas of the continent. History, not ideology, provided Brownson with his understanding of the American people.

To Brownson, ideology is the total antithesis of the American spirit. He believed that the historical experience of the American people, not abstract ideological theories of government, provided the basic premises in the formal structure and principles of their written federal-states constitutional system. Their love of liberty and fear of tyranny made Americans prefer republican government to any other form, and led them to divide authority and set limits to the political power of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of their government.

Yet Brownson was keenly aware of how speculative ideologies, ignoring historical experience, can invade the basic institutions of society—family, church, schools, artistic and professional organizations, and particularly the state—and corrupt their nature and divert their great purposes through false theory. He is prophetic in his perception that, after the Civil War, the whole direction of American constitutional representative government was toward greater and greater centralization of political power in Washington, D.C. This centralization was not merely at the expense of prescribed constitutional restraints that protected the right to life, liberty, and property, but also was destructive of the American spirit. Brownson perceived that the chief danger lay in a French revolutionary Jacobin theory of democracy, in which a highly centralized national government would consolidate its power by political appeals based upon majority will as the sole and supreme principle of government. It would justify its growth toward a totalitarian democracy by humanitarian appeals in favor of economic and social programs filled with benevolence toward the masses.

For those Americans who still believe that religion, morality, and a sound culture have a place in politics, Butler’s study of Brownson’s political thought provides many rich insights into the contemporary condition of American society. The first four chapters establish the intellectual and spiritual development of Brownson’s character and beliefs. The last three chapters, entitled “A Christian Foundation for Politics,” “The American Republic; Its Constitution Tendencies, and Destiny,” and “The Significance of Orestes Brownson,” will appeal most strongly to historians, political scientists, and both mainline Protestant scholars and Catholics who are concerned with the function of religion in civil society and the relation of Church and state.  

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“But we are told, once more, that practically it can make no difference whether we say the will of God is sovereign, or the will of the people; for the will of the people is the will of God. . . . We deny it. The will of God is eternal and immutable justice, which the will of the people is not. The people may do and often actually do wrong. We have no more confidence in the assertion, ‘The people can do no wrong,’ than we have in its brother fiction, ‘The king can do no wrong.’ . . . For very shame’s sake, after denying, as most of you do, the possibility of an infallible church immediately constituted and assisted by divine wisdom, do not stultify yourselves by coming forward now to assert the infallibility of the people.”

Orestes Brownson, “Legitimacy and Revolutionism”

Peter J. Stanlis is Distinguished Professor of Humanities, Emeritus, at Rockford College and is ranked among the foremost scholars of Edmund Burke and Robert Frost. Among his books are Edmund Burke and the Natural Law and of Edmund Burke: the Enlightenment and Revolution.
In this “Best of the Bookman” essay from 1993, Peter J. Stanlis looks at a book on the nineteenth century thinker Orestes Brownson and his conception of “the American Spirit.”