Orestes Brownson Introduction

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(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Orestes Brownson 1803-1876

(Born Orestes Augustus Brownson) American clergyman, editor, essayist, and philosopher.

Brownson's life and work were centrally concerned with the quest for religious truth and belief in justice and political liberty. Brownson's search for truth led him from Presbyterianism, Universalism, Unitarianism, and Transcendentalism to Catholicism. His political beliefs changed as frequently as his religious convictions, earning him a reputation among some critics as fickle and insincere. Despite these reservations, Brownson's works have been studied by twentieth-century scholars as thorough, insightful examinations of American government and religion.

Biographical Information

Born in Stockbridge, Vermont, Brownson and his twin sister were the youngest of six children. His father died not long after Brownson was born, and poverty forced his mother to send young Brownson to live with relatives in Royalton, Vermont. Several years later he was reunited with his family and at age 14 the Brownsons moved to upstate New York. At age 19, Brownson joined the Presbyterian Church, which he left two years later to join the Universalist Church, becoming an ordained Universalist minister in 1826. At about the same time, Brownson became a school teacher and fell in love with a student, Sally Healy; he and Healy were married in 1827 and, over the years had eight children. In 1831, Brownson left organized religion to become an independent preacher but he soon became a member and minister of the Unitarian Church. Following a move to Massachusetts in 1834 and meeting Henry David Thoreau the following year, Brownson became involved with the Transcendentalist movement and attended early meetings of the Transcendental Club. As Brownson's political and religious views continued to develop, he founded The Boston Quarterly Review in 1838, publishing his own essays on such topics as Presbyterianism, Unitarianism, and Christian socialism, as well as articles by various contributors, including Albert Brisbane and Margaret Fuller. During this time Brownson was also exploring the principles of Christianity and the life and work of Jesus Christ. His work in these areas led him to make his final religious conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1844. The same year, he began publishing Brownson's Quarterly Review, serving as its sole contributor. The essays, articles, and reviews he published therein reveal the shift in Brownson's political beliefs from his radical "denial of all authority except that of humanity" to the conviction that government is intended as an imitation of "Divine Providence" designed to protect humanity. His new political convictions led him to an unsuccessful run as the Republican candidate in the 1862 Congressional election. Two years later, Brownson ceased publishing his Quarterly Review in order to begin writing what is perhaps his most well-known work, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (1866). In his later years, Brownson's health rapidly deteriorated, though he continued to write for several church publications such as Ave Maria and The Catholic World. In 1873, in keeping with his wife's dying wish, Brownson revived his Quarterly Review and continued its publication until October, 1875. Less than a year later, Brownson died in Detroit, Michigan, where he was living with his son Henry.

Major Works

Brownson's most respected work, The American Republic, is a synthesis of its author's political thought. In it, Brownson examines such topics as the nature, authority, and necessity of government, as well as the destiny of the American republic. He discusses the divine origin of government and rejects his previously held views, which regarded the state as sovereign. Concerning the relationship between Church and state, Brownson argues that the two were united in principle and that neither should absorb the other. In 1854 Brownson wrote The Spirit-Rapper: An Autobiography in which he offers his reaction to critics who misunderstood his religious conversions and questioned his sincerity. However, the book was not a serious attempt to document his life and thought, and in 1857 Brownson completed his memoirs, The Convert; or Leaves from My Experience. The work chronicles his religious life through his conversion to Catholicism. Although noted for its candor and evidence of its author's rejection of earlier, radical beliefs, The Convert did little to earn Brownson the approval he sought.