Orestes Brownson Essay - Critical Essays

Brownson, Orestes


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.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime, Brownson's literary reputation was tainted by the radical shifts in his religious and political philosophies. Twentieth-century scholars, however, have reconsidered Brownson's work and have viewed it far more favorably than their nineteenth-century predecessors. This reexamination of Brownson as a noteworthy critical thinker extends to his religious thought as well as his writings on the American system of government. Brownson's logic and his powerful analyses, particularly as displayed in The American Republic, have been lauded by both Catholic and non-Catholic critics.

Principal Works

Address on Intemperance (speech) 1833

New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church (essays) 1836

The Mediatorial Life of Jesus (biography) 1842

Brownson's Quarterly Review (journal) 1844-64, 1873-75

Essays and Reviews, Chiefly on Theology, Politics, and Socialism (criticism) 1852

The Convert: or Leaves from My Experience (autobiography) 1857

The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (philosophy) 1866

Conversations on Liberalism and the Church (conversations) 1870

The Spirit-Rapper: and Autobiography (autobiography) 1854


Henry F. Brownson (essay date 1882)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, Vol. I, edited by Henry F. Brownson, Thorndike Nourse, Publisher, 1882, pp. v-xxviii.

[In the following excerpt, one of the sons of Orestes Brownson provides an overview of this father's philosophical and religious beliefs.]

It should be borne in mind that [Orestes Brownson] became a publicist at the age of only a little over twenty years, and for fifty years was before the public as a preacher, a lecturer, and a writer. Starting with a belief in the progressive perfectibility of the human race, and the denial of all authority except that of humanity, that is, of the people, or the masses, he did not...

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Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (essay date 1939)

SOURCE: "Orestes Brownson: An American Marxist Before Marx," in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XL VII, No. 3, Summer, 1939, pp. 317-23.

[[Schlesinger is a prominent American historian and leading intellectual figure whose historical and political studies have won him both critical and popular acclaim. He was an influential figure in liberal politics, serving as a special assistant to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. In addition, Schlesinger is considered one of the foremost scholars of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies. In the essay that follows, Schlesinger argues that Brownson's theories on political economy presaged those of Karl Marx.]


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Theodore Maynard (essay date 1943)

SOURCE: "Orestes Brownson, Journalist: A Fighter for Truth," in The Commonweal, Vol. XXXVII, No. 16, February 5, 1943, pp. 390-93.

[In the following essay, Maynard favorably assesses Brownson's career as a journalist.]

All his life long he was primarily a journalist, and of a kind that has probably never been surpassed in America and certainly never matched. That Brownson was a minister until he was forty-one was only incidental to his journalism, as was his lecturing. These tilings, indeed, were only spoken (and less effective) journalism, too. Though by practice he got rid of his early rusticity of manner, and developed a resonant voice, he was never quite at ease as...

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A. Robert Caponigri (essay date 1945)

SOURCE: "Brownson and Emerson: Nature and History," in The New England Quarterly, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, September, 1945, pp. 368-90.

[In the following excerpt, Caponigri analyzes the development of Brownson's Transcendentalist beliefs.]

The career of Orestes Brownson possesses a unique interest for the student of American civilization. Alone of all the figures intimately associated with New England transcendentalism, he took the road to Rome which so many of his European contemporaries were taking. By what course of thought did he find himself compelled to take this step? The initial interest in this question is increased immensely by even a partial answer; for a cursory...

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Chester A. Soleta (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "The Literary Criticism of Orestes A. Brownson," in The Review of Politics, Vol. 16, No. 3, July, 1954, pp. 334-51.

[In the following essay, Soleta examines Brownson's views of nineteenth-century literature and his role as a literary critic]

Literature was never central to Brownson's interests; indeed at times it was something he tolerated somewhat impatiently. He wrote about it regularly, however, and during his career filled over a thousand closely packed octavo pages on the subject. He could even use the cant of the journalist reviewer with professional facility. Of a novel called Thorneberry Abbey, for instance, he says, "It has one or two literary...

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The publication of Emerson's "The American Scholar" in 1837 was the occasion for Brownson to begin his own speculation on the problem of an American literature in two pieces written in 1839, one a review of Emerson's essay, the other a lecture delivered at Brown University. In the review Brownson boldly asserted that a considerable American literature was already in existence.

Our newspapers are conducted for the great mass of the people, by men who come immediately out of the bosom of the people. They constitute, therefore, in the strictest sense of the word, a popular literature. And scattered through our newspapers and popular journals may be found more fine writing, more true...

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Almost immediately after his conversion Brownson saw his position as one that carried with it the duty of protecting the doctrines of the Church against outside influence and against the mistakes of Catholics themselves. Almost all his thinking on the nature and purpose of literature occurs during this last and long period of his career. It became increasingly necessary for him to justify more and more completely the attacks he made regularly against certain kinds of writing. That literature is not to be sought for its own sake continued to be an assumption at least implied on almost every page of his critical writing. Christian doctrine was now to be the great ideal, which was to compel its own expression in art. At...

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Partly because of his temperament and partly because of his own disillusionment with "sentimental" or subjectivist varieties of religion, Brownson was suspicious of the non-logical powers of the mind. He realized, too, how thin the logical content of the Catholic polemic and didactic novels really was. Moreover, he also realized by experience that when a novel was most like a novel, it neither depended on logic nor appealed to the reasoning parts of the mind. Forced therefore by the tradition of the Church and its use of art—he refers explicitly to music, painting, sculpture, and architecture—he had to admit that there "is no essential element of human nature that needs to be neglected or that may not be...

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Alvan S. Ryan (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Brownson Reader, edited by Alvan S. Ryan, P. J. Kenedy & Sons, 1955, pp. 1-27.

[In the following excerpt, Ryan provides an overview of Brownson's Career as a journalist, examining the influence of his religious conversions on his writing and on his political beliefs.]

Brownson was born in Stockbridge, Vermont, September 16, 1803. He and his twin sister, Daphne, were the youngest among six children of Sylvester and Relief Metcalf Brownson. His father had come to Stockbridge from Hartford Country, Connecticut, where the Brownsons were among the earliest settlers, his mother from Keene, New Hampshire. Stockbridge was then a frontier...

(The entire section is 6795 words.)

Thomas R. Ryan (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Continued Apostolate of the Pen," in Orestes A. Brownson: A Definitive Biography, Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1976, pp. 676-94.

[In the following essay, Ryan, a Roman Catholic priest and educator, chronicles Brownson's contributions to several Catholic journals, discussing the author's religious motivation for writing.]

Of all the works . . . that Brownson had speculated on writing after the suspension of his Review, The American Republic and his Essay in Refutation of Atheism are the only ones he ever completed. This is largely explained by the fact that other projects intervened in the meantime to claim his attention more...

(The entire section is 11924 words.)

Russell Kirk (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: "Christian Doctrine, Economic Order, and the Constitution," in The Conservative Constitution, Regnery Gateway, 1990, pp. 174-87.

[An American historian, political theorist, novelist, journalist, and lecturer, Kirk is one of America's most eminent conservative intellectuals. Kirk's detractors have sometimes been skeptical of the charges he levels against liberal ideas and programs, accusing him of a simplistic, one-sided partisanship. His admirers, on the other hand, point to the alleged failure of liberal preceptsin particular those applied in the universitiesas evidence of the incisiveness of Kirk's ideas and criticism. In the following essay, Kirk discusses...

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Armand Maurer (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: "Orestes Brownson and Christian Philosophy," in The Monist, Vol. 75, No. 3, July, 1992, pp. 341-53.

[In the following essay, Maurer, a Roman Catholic priest and educator, examines Brownson's views on Christian philosophy as evidenced by the author's writings.]

If, then, one must be a philosopher in order rightly to read the past and explain the course of history, one must also study the past, study history, and concentrate in himself, so to speak, his whole race in order to be a great philosopher. Our experiments must extend over nations and centuries.

—Orestes Brownson

It has...

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Further Reading


Brownson, Henry F. Orestes A. Brownson's Life. 3 vols. Detroit: H. F. Brownson, 1898-1900.

Exhaustive biography of Brownson compiled by his son, Henry.

Lapati, Americo D. "Orestes A. Brownson: American Political Thinker (1803-1876)." In Catholic Makers of America: Biographical Sketches of Catholic Statesmen and Political Thinkers in America's First Century, 1776-1876, edited by Stephen M. Krason, pp. 163-86. Front Royal, Va.: Christendom Press, 1993.

Detailed biographical essay discussing Brownson's political and religious views.


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