I. Life and Writings

Born in Vermont, Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876) was a largely self-educated New England radical, Universalist minister, and (finally) Catholic layman and polemicist. During the American war of 1861-1865, he wrote as a conservative War Democrat. The War Democratic position, awkward enough in its context, had definite limits. It was rabidly Union-nationalist and effectively anti-Black, although in holding such views, Brownson was “typically American.”[1] He undertook his famous trip to the White House to urge emancipation on Lincoln purely as a war measure.[2] One supposes that Brownson’s complete works abound in good insights on matters of theology, church-state relations, and more. Nonetheless, his writings on American history and politics have their flaws, and that is our interest here.

Total War for Eternal Principles

Brownson’s Quarterly Review at war was a wellspring of Jacobin nationalism offset with random “conservative” outbursts. Death was far too good for enemies of the Union, and the war could not rightly end a minute before the Southern foe surrendered unconditionally, failing which, merciless, total physical destruction was the only policy conceivable. Meanwhile, it seemed, Christian virtues would (like parts of the new-found wartime Constitution) remain in suspension.[3]

In January 1863 Brownson called for mass conscription “because it asserts the right and majesty of the state…” Volunteering was a mere commercial relation and contributed nothing to public virtue. He hoped permanent conscription and wartime sacrifice would arrest the mad onrush of American individualism and its purely commercial mentality. (Brownson was surely disappointed here.) He stressed the need for the Union Army to murder [my term] more of its own men for trivial offenses, and promptly, to encourage good behavior in the others. With so little mercy on hand for “loyal” Northerners, Brownson had even less for the enemy. Americans could not possibly shed too much blood on the Union’s altar. Brownson was greatly upset that many American Catholics, north and south, rejected his ideas and advice.[4]

II. Brownson’s American Republic (1866)

The war spurred Brownson to rework James Madison’s “dual federalism” into something monolithic and unitary. His arguments reappeared in a post-war book, The American Republic (1866), a compendium of New England, De Maistrean, Hegelian, and Catholic ideas. With a prolix 19th-century style and show of learning, Brownson dwelled long on European, English, and world history, before turning to American events and questions. The material is erudite enough, but leaves our conceptual pocket much lighter (as Professor Garry Wills might say). Central to the book is Brownson’s overheated acceptance of modern sovereignty on which so much of his wartime invective and later theory hinged. He names John C. Hurd, along with Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Suarez, and Vincenzo Gioberti as influences on his thought. He has consulted his wartime essays without reproducing them,[5] making the book a temperate statement of immoderate nationalism.

Brownson takes up the necessity and origins of states or governments in Chapters II and III.[6] Government — “a fact and a right” — makes “the nation an organism.” Primitive governments range from patriarchy through feudal and Asiatic kingdoms; civilized states are republics where voting is “a public trust.” Government (“a great good”) can never be a mere “agency.” Obedience is moral duty and loyalty the greatest virtue: “It is never lawful to resist the sovereign.” Governments and states always have territorial dominion.[7]

In Chapter IV, “Origin of Government,” Brownson refutes 17th-century contract theory to clear the way for his counterproposals. This apparent byway will be important.[8] His case seems solid, although like those he opposes, he often conflates society and state. Theorists, he says, projected civilized values onto prehistoric savages, but it would have required a revolution for savages to leap from a state of nature into civil society. Nor could they have delegated the “right” of one individual to govern another, since it did not exist. Society has rights over individuals, who therefore could not “surrender” contractually the same rights to society. Only society could authorize a social-contract convention. Worse: on contract theory, only those consenting are bound.[9] (Later, Brownson will dismiss some real agreements.)

Contract theory makes society conventional, thereby licensing withdrawal (“secession”) and making government the agent of others. Such horrors as Jefferson’s periodic “revolutions” or wicked repudiations of national debt loom up.[10] Genuine government rests on “real living solidarity.” Mere aggregation, even with pacts and oaths, cannot create society, absent “an informing social principle.” Brownson plays his territorial card here,[11] asking how states acquire territorial jurisdiction and title to vacant land, if Lockean individual appropriation is what really counts. (How: Arbitrarily, we might think.[12]) And where, since not from individuals, does a state get its domain?[13] (Military violence comes to mind.)

Chapter V takes up 19th-century socialists, for whom the people are collectively sovereign — indeed, “society owns them…” But who and where are these people? Brownson reasons that a nation must have a definite landed domain, since laws “have no extra-territorial force.” Contract theory promised too many rights, and each contracting individual could still withdraw. Under socialism there are no rights at all. Freedom inside the state actually arises from Christianity and even popular sovereignty is under God. A superior will with the right to command is essential to society, but this power, however organized, is from God and is held in trust.[14]

Pursuing origins into Chapter VI, Brownson rejects theories that derive civil government from God through the Church. According to the best Catholic writers,[15] he says, princes get their power from God via the people. Sovereignty vests in the people, “collectively, not individually,” in a particular territory. Christianity “consecrates civil authority,” making rebellion a sin as well as a crime. Civic virtue, loyalty, and obedience are essential social requirements: “He who dies on the battle-field fighting for his country ranks with him who dies at the stake for his faith.”[16]

Turning to constitutions in Chapter VII, Brownson gives two meanings: 1) the constitution as underlying factors that constitute the nation; and 2) institutionalized rules under which governing goes on. A nation is partly providential by nature and must “exist as a political community, before it can give itself a constitution” in the institutional sense. (Brownson is setting up some later arguments.) He affirms Joseph De Maistre’s view that constitutions are “generated, not made,” at least with respect to original (underlying) constitutions. A nation can exist under its organic constitution before it has a formal-legal one.[17] (Why Maistrean or Hegelian processes could not produce a distinct Southern people, around 1860 or thereafter, is not explained.)

Brownson finds that states originate from: 1) families forming tribes; 2) tribes forming a nation; 3) migrations; 4) colonization; 5) war and conquest; 6) revolts leading to independence; and 7) intermingling of peoples.[18] Colonies arise under authority of the mother country. Provinces can become independent but only when“they have previously existed as such.” (Brownson is marking the cards for his next hand.[19]) In the modern era, Roman law has prevailed in Europe and modern revolutions have revived Roman forms: “Even in the United States, a revolution undertaken in favor of the barbaric system has resulted in [its] destruction” and in “sweeping away the last relics of disintegrating feudalism…” While Roman republicanism tends toward centralism, “feudalism” is no remedy, since it disintegrates the nation and favors local bullies and bad gentry. Public authority better secures personal security and popular liberty.[20] Historically, nobles are natural enemies, not allies, of the King, and thus the Early Modern alliance of European middle classes and kings was progressive. Antique estates and checks and balances yield gridlock and keep the state from doing many things it ought to do.[21]

Continuing this topic in Chapter VIII, Brownson blames “ten centuries of barbarism” on the failure of the western Roman Empire: a bourgeois, modernizing, near-Protestant, and state-building judgment, to be sure. The constitution of the state forms the people,[22] and institutional forms of government matter less than national genius and enforced unity. (Really decent governments are republican.) In some places far away, rulers have imposed unsuitable governments on peoples.[23]

In Chapter IX Brownson begins sorting out the United States. Sovereign states, he writes, may ally or confederate while remaining sovereign. Owing to various paradoxes of will and suicide, they cannot abolish themselves by contract,[24] any more than individuals can create government voluntarily. If American states ever were sovereign, they would remain so, and secession would be entirely reasonable. The Constitution establishes everyday government; appeals to its language are idle, if the parties are sovereign. “No society is of conventional origin,” he says, with typical society/state sleight of hand. He grants that if states were ever sovereign, the war of 1861-1865 was wrong. But sovereignty can be lost and only “sickly philanthropists” care.[25]

Brownson is conciliatory here because he thinks he has an ace up his sleeve, his key claim: That the thirteen (or fourteen) American states were never more than non-sovereign parts of One People. He fires: “Certain it is that the States in the American Union have never existed and acted as severally sovereign states.” They were mere colonies until July 4, 1776, when they “declared themselves independent states indeed, but not severally independent.” This Declaration was made by the “states jointly, as the United States.” These subordinate bodies never did the least sovereign thing on their own: “coined no money,” etc. Having ruled agency and agreement out for individuals in hypothetical social contracts, Brownson cannot now spot any agreements actually made.[26] The colonies’ doing things jointly “is of itself decisive of the whole question.” Brownson notes common origins, language, manners, and customs. Common Law alone proves “they were really one people with the English people” in a relationship that was “national, not personal” (contradicting here Adams, Jefferson, and many other colonial radicals). Sovereignty is never in abeyance and therefore, when British sovereignty quit, unitary American sovereignty sprang up. American states, having never had sovereign powers and having never exercised any, could not delegate them upwards.[27] The Articles of Confederation seem to contradict this, but the states “were regarded as forming one nation” and the people “were regarded as one people…” In this kind of wrangle, the carefully chosen regarders must win. Further, the states were called “united,” not “confederated” states, or “the Union.” The “failure” of the Articles of Confederation “vindicates” all the above claims.[28]

Chapter X continues the fray. Brownson opines that Americans’ incorrect use of “state” to refer to geographical fragments of the One People (which “disunited, are no states at all”), has made America’s real, organic and providential constitution hard to understand. Yet the sovereign, singular People only exist as “united States”; union and states are “coeval.” The Constitution begins with “We, the people,” and it matters that they “call themselves the people of the United States.” Sovereignty is in the states but only as united. “The life is in the body, not in the members…” Here, Brownson believes, is “the original, the unwritten, and Providential constitution of the people of the United States.”[29]

Existing “only as distributed” in the states, the people could only act through them: a splendid way of dodging the significance of ratification. And so, in all single-hood, Americans chose delegates in their particular patch-of-union. Brownson manages to believe that the states needed permission from their own Committee, the Continental Congress, before they could write constitutions. Throwing off all restraint, he urges that the admission of territories to statehood (since 1789) reveals the true relations of states and union (and so it may be: after 1865). For Brownson, Mr. Madison’s final waffle[30] sets things straight: The state governments did not establish (“form”) the Constitution; nor did the People considered as mere numbers. The states, i.e., the One People who happened to be in some states, did that.[31] (Evidently, no state peoples ever did, or could have, existed.) With One People as sovereign, albeit jig-sawed up into thirteen arbitrary pieces, Brownson makes his break from Madison’s didactic federalism. He saw that Madison (and others) had left an opening into which state peoples could step – if only to extinguish themselves in an “incorporating” union, even though this option was not clearly stated in the agenda and nationalists stoutly denied consolidating intentions.[32] Brownson was keen to close this gap by stoutly maintaining that the One People had always existed.

In Brownson’s view, the Convention assembled under the authority of the United States, mystically “present in it” in their oneness. Since the U.S. “or Union” already existed, the Convention’s only mission was to provide it with “a more perfect” governing system. It was the Collective United States (“the United States assembled in convention”) that delegated powers to the central administrative instance, not the twelve or thirteen future postal districts.[33]

Brownson continues: “By saying, ‘We, the people of the United States,’ it placed the sovereign power where it is…” (But the Committee on Style’s saying something does not place it, especially where the thing said is not exactly true.) Powers “reserved” to the states were not originally theirs, Brownson says, but were given to the states solely by the Single People sitting in convention. He adduces Madison’s devious wording of the Tenth Amendment (reserving powers “to the states or the people”) as overriding any contrary facts. He cautions us that if the constitutional text “does not define the people it means, it is necessary to understand” the One People, etc. And now Brownson tops himself by asserting that ratification by state conventions wasn’t really needed, since the Will of the People was clear (all fifty-five of them, minus those who left) and “the convention was competent to complete it and put it in force without that ratification, had it so willed.” Faced with this French National Assembly, accidentally present in Philadelphia, we may disregard the delegates’ specific instructions.[34] After all, the convention expressed the People’s single sovereignty and therefore was the People.[35]

Some people, Brownson complains, wickedly seize on “ratification” (a word “sometimes used by the convention”) so as to liken the constitution to treaties between proper (European-style) states; but, No, what we have here is an organic law dictated by the unified sovereign will. If framers and founders used words like “ratification,” it was only because they were trapped inside erroneous social-contract theory. Still suspecting remaining weakness in his readers, Brownson chides John Adams, Madison, and Webster for conceding any pre-constitutional, separate sovereignty in the states. Happily, the late rebellion has led many folk to revisit the historical facts. Brownson concludes: “What binds is the thing done, not the theory on which it was done,” or the subjective beliefs of the actors.[36] Closing the deal in Chapter XI, Brownson writes: “Each state is a living member of the one body” – a system that wards off “feudal disintegration and Roman centralism” alike, and with both states and central apparatus “equally sovereign.”[37]

Turning to secession in Chapter XII, Brownson announces that while former Confederates will now “demean themselves henceforth as loyal citizens,” we must “conquer their minds and win their hearts.” He expounds, with unexpected fairness, the secessionist viewpoint and provides immediate rebuttal on his usual lines. He repeats the yarn about British sovereignty landing in a heap on the union’s head, and adds the rather sinister claim that, nine states ratifying the Constitution and four not, the four “would not have been independent sovereign States, outside of the Union, but Territories under the Union.[38] (This seems childish, cynical, and unhistorical, but somehow more forthcoming than Madison’s veiled opinion in Federalist No. 43.[39])

Texas arrives, anomalously, to the topic, along with a conspiracy theory of Texas statehood. Toying with various views on secession, Brownson cuts the knot: a state holds its domain “not separately, but jointly, as inseparably one of the United States.” And there we are: even the states’ eminent domain springs from the One Sovereignty of Many Names. Thus Senator Charles Sumner’s state suicide theory is sound, despite weak-minded Federal officials’ failure to embrace it. At the same time, having abandoned social contract theory, we are able to see how private-law rights survive this “suicide.” By claiming to leave the union, a state reduces itself to a territorial condition, etc.[40]

Chapter XIII consists of Brownson’s thoughts on Reconstruction. The wicked rebellion was territorial; the seceded “States ceased to exist… as integral elements of the national sovereignty,” but the fraternal union still owned their people and lands. When those fallen states are fully reformed, we shall have “the Union as it was.” Americans owe “allegiance” only to the unitary United States, Inc. (Brownson is getting very good with this Jacksonian phony “states-rights” and No Exit routine.) The United-States-as-One kindly delegate power to the fractional states at will, or did in 1787. It follows that “the laws enacted by a state are really enacted by the United States,” d.b.a. Collective Uncle.[41]

Congress rules all territories and the President’s only role in Reconstruction is to command troops where Federal armies still linger. Writing with Christian charity and pragmatism, Brownson calls for moderate reconstruction, best accomplished without letting freedmen and poor whites take over, or letting too many ex-Confederates vote. Reconstruction cannot go forward under the War Power, illimitable as it was while cannons roared. Finally, there would be no point in enfranchising many freedmen: “their local attachments, personal associations, habits, tastes, likes and dislikes, are Southern, not Northern.”[42]

Looking at “Political Tendencies” in Chapter XIV, Brownson fears that national democracy will bring forth a despotic, “barbaric constitution.” Both “personal” and “humanitarian democracy” threaten civilization and the state. Jefferson’s habit of basing governmental powers on real consent (“compact theory”) fostered ideas of state sovereignty and secession. Southern slaveholders were wild individualists who aped the feudal nobility. Lately, “humanitarian democracy,” having gained new strength “by the war,” menaces territorial democracy.[43] (If Calhoun, influenced by Timothy Dwight, brought gloomy New England conservative themes into the states rights party, Brownson snatched back them as a gift to the nation.[44])

Brownson sees in the “solidarity” of the human race “in communion with God” the source of international law, which is not “conventional or customary.” The South’s wild individualism was for whites only, and Brownson confronts Southern failings on race with unsubtle New England racial insults. Abolitionists love humanity abstractly, but ignore territorial rights, making Wendell Phillips the same as Calhoun and William Lloyd Garrison the same as Jefferson Davis. (Brownson liked his enemies in one basket.) From 1861 to 1865, “social democracy” and territorial democracy accidently had the same enemies. Sound Northern people wished to save territorial democracy and cared nothing about slavery. “Slavery was only incidentally involved in the late war.” (This judgment may qualify Brownson as a founder of “Lost Cause” apologetics). Alas, the victory is incomplete since the government foolishly “enlisted” abolitionists as propagandists.[45] Still, the Southern Rousseaus are defeated (a Federalist cartoon of Jefferson was needed here), but socialism has grown. It would be unfortunate if Union victory assisted such trends. The war did teach true allegiance to Northerners who had previously been childish radical-democrats.[46]

Brownson decries “hostility to standing armies,” when America could use a reasonably large army. Even in peacetime, a proper army would absorb surplus professionals, give tone to society and politics, and sustain the “chivalric and heroic spirit.” A peacetime army of 100,000 would undergird an American role in guaranteeing European peace, dominating the Western Hemisphere, and calibrating Europe’s famous balance of power.[47]

In his last Chapter (XV), “Destiny,” Brownson set forth an American mission.[48] The United States would complete the Greco-Roman, republican state on America’s peculiar “federal” basis.[49] The United States alone had a destiny in North America and alone represented a (presumably Hegelian) “idea.”[50] America would perfect its state and avoid Caesarism. With the triune God as its model, America would “conform the state to the order of reality… to the Divine Idea in creation.” In the United States, “the state [is] organized on catholic principles” and no church/state antagonism could arise. Americans were inwardly ready for Catholicism and their political order was “dialectically constituted” on “catholic… principles.” Southern defeat proved (Northern) America’s “destiny as a Providential people.” De Maistre had thought “United States” a poor name,[51] and Brownson seizes “America” as foretelling a continental destiny and the annexation of Canada, Mexico, and Central America. Those states, annexed, would be “as free as the original States of the Union” (as of 1866, 1789, or earlier?). Blacks would shortly be “melting away… before the influx of white laborers” into the Southern states.[52] All these matters aside, the future held “one grand nation, a really catholic nation, great, glorious, and free.”[53]

III. Flaws and Drawbacks

1. Historical Doubts

Brownson crossed hill and dale to find one, primordial American People. His deployment of the Declaration of Independence aimed at victory by tautology. An agreement is the “unanimous” decision of those agreeing. We cannot deduce contents, participants’ status, or any permanent future arrangements from the simple fact of unanimity. But inside nationalist argumentation, all agency or “vicariousness”[54] vanishes, and none can recall that men wrote some noble paragraphs and other men voted on them. Brownson holds that in merely cooperating, the colonies subjected themselves to their own committee acting as sovereign; yet it must remain unclear why cooperation should give rise, willy-nilly, to a state or any lasting structure beyond whatever was specified.[55] Brownson preferred to spar with faulty social contract theory and ignore real agreements.

Even ratification by the states was potentially embarrassing. Brownson cited from Madison the ancient Federalist diversion that the state governments did not establish the Constitution.[56] This appearing insufficient, he boldly stated that the Philadelphia Convention, wielding the whole sovereignty, could have imposed their inspired paper, had they so wished. As it was, the newly organized federal government treated with North Carolina and Rhode Island as foreign powers before they ratified the Constitution.[57]

Yet we might pray for more evidence of a Single People than Brownson and his allies seem able to provide. (If, on Madison’s view, thirteen peoples knowingly made themselves into a new people, we still need a bit more evidence than is customarily given.) Federalists and later nationalists invariably becloud the distributive and collective meanings of “people,” urging us to read all instances of ambiguous or possibly plural language (“united colonies,” or “united states”) as singular and to understand “union” as having forever meant that involuntary union which is, factually, the achievement of Mr. Lincoln’s military arm.

Despite Brownson’s assertions about the People’s actions in 1787, historian Constantin Fasolt writes: “Any historian… would have little trouble proving that, whoever did ordain and establish the Constitution, it was certainly not ‘the People,’ but a rather small number of particular people who were gathered in a particular place for the purpose of writing that Constitution.”[58] There were, that is, fifty-five delegates (founders) sent by twelve states; Rhode Island sent none, nor did Vermont. Reduced to its details, the whole thing warrants a rather different description than Brownson gives it.

Brownson complains of attempts to “deduce principles from particular facts,”[59] but American nationalists have from earliest times had the opposite knack of deriving “is” from “ought.” There ought to have been a national “government” between 1776 and (say) 1781, therefore the Continental Congress must have been (or acted for) a continental nation-state, despite considerable contrary witness. If a national government ought to exist and exercise everyday sovereignty, then (on late 18th-century American notions of popular sovereignty) a single people “behind” such a state must have existed from time out of mind.[60] Yet it is hard to find unequivocal evidence of a single people, much less an incipient national state entitled to final sovereignty, in the documents of America’s Revolutionary Era. As a phantom behind which to conceal the building of a new super-state, however, a fictitious single people made, for the Federalists, the perfect invention.[61]

On June 9, 1787, William Paterson of New Jersey said in the famous Convention: “We are met here as the representatives of 13 independent, sovereign states, for federal purposes. Can we consolidate their sovereignty and form one nation, and annihilate the sovereignties of our States who have sent us here for other purposes?” Brownson himself proclaimed, “What binds is the thing done, not the theory on which it was done…”[62] Answering Paterson’s question, and taking Brownson at his word, we have to say that the convention created an agency that waxed under welkin as an engine of economic growth and overland expansion, until it was strong enough to make war on some of its principals. That is what was done. The theories have indeed been many.

2. One People Arrives

The “right” of conquest in 1865 produced the first and only One People the United States ever saw. Comparison with the unification of Germany and Italy awaits; the Nineteenth Century was all about violent aggregation. Whatever we might think abstractly about unification, Americans probably did not choose the ideal way to fulfill an imagined national pre-existence. In a comparative, non-Exceptionalist framework, this just is. Thus historians Michael Geyer and Charles Bright write: “the more liberal or progressive the politics, the greater appears the readiness… to enforce territoriality to the point of unconditional surrender.” Sociologist R. W. Connell adds: “The United States has never decolonized its nineteenth-century conquests, but instead has integrated them more and more tightly into a gigantic nation-state…” Theologian John Milbank writes that American’s negative freedom depends on “their absolute submission to the republic…”Finally, sociologist Mark Neocleous mocks Carl Schmitt for naively portraying liberals as notably averse to violence.[63]

3. A Failed Federation

For historians Rowland Berthoff and John Murrin, the means by which the American central instance preserved itself arguably “weakened the sense of community within each of its member societies without providing a convincing substitute.” For political theorist Gary Ulmen, American national identity has been a fiction serving a failed post-1865 effort “to reconfigure the American federation into a nation-state.” Historian Gabriel Kolko sums up the American power elite’s long-run achievements thus: “Having fulfilled their desire to break the possibility of opposition, they also destroyed, as well, social cohesion and community.”[64] Finally, legal historian William Novak writes that federal authorities control, utilize, and manipulate the personnel of all “lower” governments: especially police and military personnel, making the combined American state apparatus far stronger than political scientists believe it is.[65]

With nary a blameworthy Progressive in sight, as of 1866, American nationality begins to seem a highly inorganic project not answering at all to Maistrean gradual growth. There was probably a better chance of finding organically grown constitutions in the fourteen American republics, had Brownson bothered to look. (John Taylor of Caroline took the states as grown and given, and saw the central instance as conventional, artificial, and threatening.[66])

IV. The Critique of Sovereignty

1. Abstract States with Total Power

Catholic essayist James M. Cameron finds a persistent strain of “utopianism in Catholic political thought” that projects a normative state-ideal onto real states, as if those states intended, or occasionally managed, to foster the Common Good. Such thinking sprang, historically, from the idea of the king as “the head of an organically united corpus mysticum.” Cameron suggests that since few Catholic writers ever compare actually-existing states with the ideal models, they necessarily yield to a “political fetishism which gives to the commands of the state, notably where matters of war and peace are in question, a sacred and unchallengeable character…”[67]

Brownson replicated[68] Jean Bodin’s dangerous claim that the state is the Aristotelian “substantial form” of a nation, which leaves the state subject only to internal limitations of which it will be judge.[69] It has the further effect of making everyone else into prime matter. From here, perhaps, arises the somewhat sinister metaphor used by Joseph de Maistre and Friedrich von Hayek, whereby the king (or state) is seen as a likeable gardener pruning his trees and shrubs.[70] Both liberals and conservatives have used such language, but those getting trimmed or weeded might beg to differ. Yet if some of America’s self-appointed founders’ felt the need to give form to American prime matter, their proper subject still consisted of sets of relations (even if they effectively obfuscated them).

Things, objects, causes, and relations bring us back to Brownson’s cavalier way with such matters. Dialectical reasoning has good and valid uses, doubtlessly, but misrepresentation of actual American political history is not one. Nor does Scholastic reasoning on natures, causes, and causal powers, carry over simply into man-made things, whether material artifacts or social relations, whose human causes we know in a different way. Treating relations of power (“state”) as structures with their own opaque essences can yield serious mistakes. Analogies, useful (even necessary) in theology, can be misleading in fields where fitter tools are at hand. In politics, analogical thinking can help bring about “a transfer of power,” as historian Michael Mendle says in an English context.[71] The theft of theological categories for politics, famously noticed by Carl Schmitt, never ends. So again: the Committee on Style’s choice of “We, the People” did not in itself place sovereignty anywhere.

2. Law and Sovereignty

Fasolt writes that under customary law there is “no good reason to use force until the question about the law has been settled.” Written law “increases the chances that force will be used to make conduct conform to the rules, but not to settle questions about the rules.”[72] Apparent certainty in the American constitution, as read by nationalists, licensed force in a case (secession in 1860-1861) where the whole constitutional background was in dispute.

Fasolt writes elsewhere: “it is only on the assumption that the laws of nature have no effect on human society that it becomes intelligible why we might need sovereigns who make purely positive laws in order to preserve human society. Sovereignty thus rests on foundations different from but no less religious than those of the medieval church.”[73]

Kings poached on the Christian corpus mysticum and reasserted their subjects’ Hellenic/Hellenistic duty of dying for the state’s mystical body. “Organic” metaphors turned human persons into parts of a body, the head of which was the king.[74] Such analogies fell under ridicule, yet men believed them when Bodin, Hobbes, Blackstone, Hegel, or Brownson advanced them in new language. (As Franz Neumann wrote in another context, “magic powers are invoked every time the sovereign tries to assert independence of religious and social forces.”[75]) By the 17th century sovereignty seemed to be a thing, an asset, or property to be transferred, inherited, or “lost.” It was also, in the imagination, boundless in scope.[76]

3. Mystical Bodies

Brownson is absolutely modern where sovereignty is concerned, even if Locke’s disguised Hobbesianism seemed sinfully contractual to him.[77] In January 1864 he wrote that the “mystery of the state” was “analogous to the mystery of the Church, what is called the Mystic Body of Christ, and, perhaps, is only a lower phase of the same mystery.”[78] (There is a mystery here: why did anyone ever look at Fr. Isaac Hecker as an Americanist heresiarch instead of Brownson?) Brownson retreated from this wartime language in his American Republic, but as we have seen, the underlying attitude remained.

V. Summary View and Wintry Conclusions

The drawbacks of Orestes Brownson’s political thought are many. He wanted popular sovereignty and democracy (but not exactly), integral nationalism to be realized in captive states, and federalism, but mainly to block continental democracy. To make his larger case, he took the union out of history, relativized the Constitution, and preserved the states as legal fictions. This approach might be dialectical, or it might just be a case of getting his way.

Not enough attention is paid to the Northern apologetic – an impressive ideological edifice constructed in the 1860s by William Whiting, William Winthrop, Francis Lieber, John W. Burgess, and others, and refined in the 1880s by Northern historians and political scientists. Brownson was a keen worker in this vineyard. Drawing on feudal-absolutist[79] and Roman legal concepts, he created a modernizing, bourgeois, and state-centered theory of “republican” union. The absolute sovereignty of the modern, abstract state was the centerpiece, and from that high seat he denounced local autonomy as a remnant of bad (non-absolutist) feudalism. A kind of Calvinist monism[80] seems to dog Brownson’s meditations on Oneness and power, and it is hard to find there the Trinitarian conception he announces. (Had he been a less faithful Catholic, he might have gone the way of Charles Maurras.)

Brownson cared deeply about order. Locked in combat with a world of rebels without proper causes (Confederates, workers, socialists) he became, beyond all necessity, an apologist for centralizing sovereignty. Integral nationalism was his cornerstone and his nationalist conservatism ran on New England lines. But a faulty New England history of Americans’ revolutionary and founding era may not suffice, even when propped up with Hegel and De Maistre and sprinkled with holy water. With such foundations, Brownson’s system may have been no conservatism at all. There may be a case for a sacral state on Roman or Catholic grounds (the two are not the same), but Brownson has not made it; nor does it seem likely that the United States are, were, or ever will be any such thing. There are more concrete and prosaic explanations for the course of American history, through Revolution, federation, salvation through violence, on down to World Empire.

Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent scholar in Georgia.

[1] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 129.

[2] See Orestes Brownson, “Emancipation and Colonization,” Brownson’s Quarterly Review, 24, no. 2 (April 1862): 220-240 (hereafter “BQR”).

[3] See Orestes Brownson, “The Struggle of the Nation for Life,” BQR, 24, no. 1 (January 1862): 113-132, for a riotously unhinged essay.

[4] Orestes Brownson, “Conscripts and Volunteers,” BQR, 25, no. 1 (January 1863): 68-69; “Mr. Conway and the Union,” ibid., 25, no. 2 (April 1863): 187; “Are Catholics Pro-Slavery and Disloyal?” ibid.,25, no. 3 (July 1863): 367-379.

[5] Orestes Brownson, The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (New York: P. O’Shea, 1866), ix-x. At xi, Brownson mentions BQR, October 1863 and January 1864.

[6] Brownson’s language seems imprecise, but is clearly Hegelian. “State” is broader than “government” and refers to a higher realization of the State Idea.

[7] Brownson, American Republic, 18, 22, 24, 26, 37, 39.

[8] Cf. Orestes Brownson, “Are the United States a Nation?” BQR, 26, no. 4 (October 1864): 387-388.

[9] Brownson, American Republic, 45-46, 49-59.

[10] Brownson, American Republic, 64-65. Brownson is a victim of creditor ideology, on which topic, see Wythe Holt, “’To Establish Justice’: Politics, the Judiciary Act of 1789, and the Invention of the Federal Courts,” Duke Law Journal, 6 (1989): 1421-1531.

[11] Locke, too, did this. See George Gale, “John Locke on Territoriality: An Unnoticed Aspect of the Second Treatise,” Political Theory, 1 (November 1973): 472-485.

[12] See Harvey C. Mansfield, Machiavelli’s Virtue (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998 [1966]), 71, on political creation of artificial needs.

[13] Brownson, American Republic, 67 (“informing,” italics supplied), 68-70. Locke, too, did this. See George Gale, “John Locke on Territoriality: An Unnoticed Aspect of the Second Treatise,” Political Theory, 1 (November 1973), 472-485.

[14] Brownson, American Republic, 78-87.

[15] Augustine, Gregory Magnus, Thomas, Bellarmine, and Suarez

[16] Brownson, American Republic, 113, 117, 127-128.

[17]Brownson, American Republic, 138-140, 144. Americans had fourteen organic constitutions, if we count Vermont, and a concrete (if recent) “contract” between thirteen of them.

[18] A typical 19th-century developmental series. See Robert A. Nisbet, Social Change and History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[19] This saves him from the embarrassments of John Lothrop Motley. See Henry B. Dawson, “The Motley Letter,” The Historical Magazine, 9 (March 1871): 157-201.

[20] Cf. Charles Sumner, “Are We a Nation?” in C. Edwards Lester, Life and Public Services of Charles Sumner (New York: United States Publishing Co., 1874), 589-613.

[21] Brownson, American Republic, 144-147, 156-165 (italics added).

[22] See William T. Cavanaugh, “Killing for the Phone Company: Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology, 20 (April 2004): 246-260, condemning state formation of peoples.

[23] Brownson, American Republic, 172, 174, 181-183, 185-187.

[24] See statement of Paterson of New Jersey below.

[25] Brownson, American Republic, 192-198, 200, 202-203. (But where are the “sickly” warmongers?).

[26] On concrete political contracts, see Albert Taylor Bledsoe, Is Davis a Traitor, or Was Secession a Constitutional Right Prior to the War of 1861? (Richmond, VA: The Hermitage Press, 1907; reprint: Wiggins, Miss.: Crown Rights Book Co., n.d.), 43 ff., and Felix Morley, The Power in the People (Los Angeles: Nash Publishing, 1972 [1949]), 73, 87, 89-90.

[27] For contrary views, see Claude H. Van Tyne, “Sovereignty in the American Revolution,” American Historical Review 12 (April 1907), 529-545, and Merrill Jensen, The Articles of Confederation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959).


[28] Brownson, American Republic, 208-216. Italics added.

[29] Brownson, American Republic, 219-222.

[30] Letter to Edward Everett, North American Review, October 1830.

[31] Brownson, American Republic, 223-225, 228-231.

[32] K. R. Constantine Gutzman, “‘Oh, What a Tangled Web We Weave…’: James Madison and the Compound Republic,” Continuity, 22 (Spring 1998): 19-29.

[33] Brownson, American Republic, 232-234. The argument prefigures John W. Burgess and amounts to Justice Roger B. Taney with the good sense removed.

[34] See documents collected in Dawson, “Motley Letter,” passim, and Charles Callan Tansill, ed., Documents Illustrative of the Formation of the Union of the American States (Washington: Government Printing Offce, 1927), 55-84.

[35] Brownson, American Republic, 235-237 (italics added).

[36] Brownson, American Republic, 238-243.

[37] Brownson, American Republic, 245-246, 250, 256. Note the Supreme Courtly “spherical sovereignty” doubletalk.

[38] Brownson, American Republic, 277, 288 (italics added).

[39] In Edward Mead Earle, ed., The Federalist (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 287-288.

[40] Brownson, American Republic, 288-289, 300, 305-307. In arguing for the continuity of ordinary state law, Brownson anticipates Texas v. White (1869).

[41] Brownson, American Republic, 317-318 322-323.

[42] Brownson, American Republic, 329-331, 336, 342-343, 346-347 (italics added).

[43] Brownson, American Republic, 348-351.

[44] On Dwight’s conservative republicanism, see Larry Tise, Proslavery: A History of the Defense of Slavery in America, 1701-1840 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 213-224.

[45] Brownson, American Republic, 352-356, 358-359.

[46] Brownson, American Republic, 361, 365, 368-369.

[47] Brownson, American Republic, 385-387, 389-390.

[48] Beginning the book, Brownson saw the United States as chosen by God to realize, not liberty but “the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual…” American Republic, 4.

[49] David P. Calleo and Benjamin M. Rowland, America and the World Economy: Atlantic Dreams and National Realities (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), 68: “American federalism is nationalist in a pathological sense” and “has proved a remarkably suitable ideological base for American imperialism.”

[50] For the United States as the only Hegelian state, see William E. Connolly, “Democracy and Territoriality,” in Frederick M. Dolan and Thomas L. Dumm, Rhetorical Republic: Governing Representations in American Politics (Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1993), 250-251.

[51] Brownson wrote in January 1864 that the Republic began life with a title easy to mistake for the name of a confederacy. “The Federal Constitution,” BQR, 26, no. 1 (January 1864): 12. (Of course if was a confederacy, Brownson was issuing an ex post facto decree on English usage.)

[52] Brownson had written earlier that when a race has “ceased to be progressive, nothing remains for it but to die.” (“Abolition and Negro Equality,” BQR, 26, no. 2 (April 1864): 209.)  Such predictions helped 19th-century thinkers exclude lesser breeds from moral consideration: Southern “poor whites” were doomed (Friedrich Engels), as were Indians and “savages” (Theodore Roosevelt), and English liberals reasoned that the Irish potato famine was all for the best (Nassau Senior).

[53] Brownson, American Republic, 392, 400-403, 409-411, 416-417, 423-429, 435-439.

[54] Jacques Maritain, “The Concept of Sovereignty,” American Political Science Review, 44 (June 1950): 345-347.

[55] Cf. John Adams, The Revolutionary Writings of John Adams (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 167-169, where “united” and “union” refer to the unity of opinion and mutual cooperation of the people of Massachusetts (and sometimes of the colonies) against policies of the King and Lord North. Had Brownson consulted the early John Adams, he might have avoided reliance on John Quincy Adams.

[56] With state peoples excluded from the story, it became possible rhetorically to gloss thirteen separately chosen conventions as representing an American people in the aggregate.

[57] [57] Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958 [1881]),, 1: 111-113.

[58] Constantin Fasolt, “A Question of Right: Hermann Conring’s New Discourse on the Roman-German Emperor,” Sixteenth Century Journal, 28 (Autumn 1997): 757-758.

[59] Brownson, American Republic, 86.

[60] For a critique of Judge Joseph Story’s claims respecting a pre-existent, single American people, see Abel P. Upshur, A Brief Inquiry into the True Nature and Character of Our Federal Government (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971 [1840]), 10-62 and elsewhere. For a parallel foreign case, see José Carlos Chiaramonte, “La Cuestión de la Soberanía en la Génesis y Constitución del Estado Argentino,” Historia Constitucional, 2 (June 2001), http://www.historiaconstitucional.com/index.php/historiaconstitucional/article/view/122/106 . (“The Question of Sovereignty and the Genesis and Constitution of the Argentine State.”).

[61] See Joshua Miller, “The Ghostly Body Politic: The Federalist Papers and Popular Sovereignty,” Political Theory, 16 (February 1988): 99-119.

[62] Tansill, Documents, 761 (Paterson). Brownson, American Republic, 243.

[63] Michael Geyer and Charles Bright, “Global Violence and Nationalizing Wars in Eurasia and America: The Geopolitics of War in the Mid-Nineteenth Century,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38 (October 1996): 642. R. W. Connell, “Sociology and World Market Society,” Contemporary Sociology, 29 (March 2000): 293. John Milbank, “Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, and Terror,” in Andrew J. Bacevich, ed., The Imperial Moment: Prospects and Problems of American Empire (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2003), 162 (emphasis supplied). Mark Neocleous, “The Fascist Moment: Security, Exclusion, Extermination,” Studies in Social Justice, 3 (2009): 35 n (“there’s nothing that liberals like more than dealing out a dose of slaughter against either external or internal enemies”).

[64] Rowland Berthoff and John Murrin, “Feudalism, Communalism, and the Yeoman Freeholder,” in Stephen G. Kurtz and James H. Hutson, eds., Essays on the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973), 288.  Gary Ulmen, “Toward a New World Order: Introduction to Carl Schmitt’s ‘The Land Appropriation of a New World,’” Telos, 109 (Fall 1996): 11. Gabriel Kolko, Main Currents in Modern American History (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 286.

[65] William J. Novak, “The Myth of the “Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review, 113 (June 2008): 752-772. See also Sheldon S. Wolin, “Democracy and the Welfare State,” Political Theory, 15 (November 1987): 497-498.

[66] Joseph R. Stromberg, “John Taylor of Caroline’s Agrarian Republicanism,” Arator, 1 (July 2010) (online journal of the Abbeville Institute), http://www.aratorjournal.org/Volume1_1/index.html . .

[67] J. M. Cameron, “Obedience to Political Authority,” in John M. Todd, ed., Problems of Authority (Baltimore: The Helicon Press, 1962), 212-213. (Consider the fable that the White House consults rigorous Just War Theory manuals before launching its arrows of desire.)

[68] Brownson, American Republic, 67 (“an informing social principle”).

[69] Frederick D. Wilhelmsen, “Donoso Cortés and the Meaning of Political Power,” Intercollegiate Review, 3 (January-February 1967): 115-116.

[70] Emma Rothschild, Economic Sentiments (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 152 (Hayek), 315 note (De Maistre).

[71] Michael Mendle, Henry Parker and the English Civil War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 77.

[72] Constantin Fasolt, “Visions of Order in the Canonists and Civilians,” in Thomas A. Brady, Heiko A. Oberman, and James D. Tracy, eds., Handbook of European History, 1400-1600: Late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Reformation (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 43-44.

[73] Constantin Fasolt, “Sovereignty and Heresy,” in Max Reinhart, ed., Infinite Boundaries: Order, Disorder, and Reorder in Early Modern German Culture (Kirksville, Missouri: Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, 1998), 388.

[74] Ernst H. Kantorowicz, “Pro Patria Mori in Medieval Political Thought,” American Historical Review, 56 (April 1951): 472-492. Ewart Lewis, Medieval Political Ideas, 1 (New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1974 [1954]), 208 ff, doubts the metaphors were taken literally.

[75] Franz Neumann, Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933-1994 (New York: Harper & Row, 1966 [1944]), 94-95.

[76] Maritain, “Concept of Sovereignty,” 347. And see Alain de Benoist, “What Is Sovereignty? Telos, 116 (Summer 1999): 99-118, and Luigi Marco Bassani, “Jefferson, Calhoun and State’s Rights: The Uneasy Europeanization of American Politics,” Telos, 114 (Winter 1999): 132-154.

[77] See Joseph R. Stromberg, “Did Locke Really Justify Limited Government?” Freeman, March 2010: 32-36.

[78] Orestes Brownson, “The Federal Constitution,” BQR, 26, no. 1 (January 1864): 36 (italics supplied).

[79] Jefferson Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1958 [1881]), 2: 581, pointedly noticed the feudal-absolutist concepts employed by his wartime Northern opponents. The use of these categories by republican and liberal states reflects the law of conservation of feudal assumptions (Stromberg, “Locke,” 34).

[80] On Calvin, see Friedrich Heer, The Intellectual History of Europe (New York: World Publishing Co., 1966 [1953]), 317-323, 337.