04 March 2009

Orestes A. Brownson

Orestes A. Brownson
by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894)
National Portrait Gallery

"Riverside Statue Stumps Historians," proclaimed a New York Times headline on 1 July 1937, when a bust of Orestes A. Brownson was toppled by vandals. The incident spurred curious New Yorkers to investigate Brownson, about whom they knew little except that he had once been deemed worthy of such a memorial. The Jesuit community at Fordham University took a particular interest, since it became known that Brownson had been a Catholic philosopher and writer. In fact, in 1941 the statue was removed to the Fordham campus.

In A Pilgrim's Progress, a 1939 biography of Brownson, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., asserted that "against the background of his time, Orestes Brownson stands as an impressive and expressive figure. He symbolized the intellectual restlessness and vitality of the period before specialization made it impossible for one man to work in with equal facility in a dozen fields.... There was hardly a question, large or small, that agitated the country from 1830 to 1870 on which Brownson did not make comments.... His observations on society had a profundity no other American of the time approached." As founder and editor of the Boston Quarerly Review and Brownson's Quarterly Review, Brownson boldly defended human rights and promoted the establishment of a just social order.

An American Marxist before Marx

Brownson articulated the antagonism between capital and labor and was described as "an American Marxist before Marx." In 1840, Brownson predicted that "The struggle which is coming up here is not between the low-born and the high-born. It is to be a struggle between the accumulator of walth and the simple laborer who actually produces iot. This struggle must ultimately make a tour around the globe." Brownson predicted, like Marx after him, that the struggle between labor and capital would culminate in "a revolution to which all preceeding reviolutions were but mere child's play." Not until eight years later did Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in The Communist Manifesto, articulate their theory of inevitable class struggle and worker revolution based on antagonism between the working and the capitalist classes.

Religious Development

Among the many interesting aspects of Brownson's life is his religious thought and development. Born in Stockbridge, Vermont, in 1803, he lived with strict Congregationalist foster parents betwee the ages of six and fourteen. Moving with his mother to Ballton Spa, New York, he worked in a printer's office and joined the Presbyterian Church. The doctrine of predestination, however, offended his sensibilities, and he severed his connection with that denomination at the age of nineteen. As a schoolteacher in Stillwater, New York, in 1823, and in Detroit, in 1824, Brownson turned to the Universalist sect. "Its chief characteristic," he wrote later, "was... taking nature and reason for the rule of faith." In 1826, he was ordained a Universalist minister at Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

Brownson's letters and articles appeared frequently in the columns of The Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator, a Universalist newspaper published by Ulysses Freeman Doubleday at Auburn. At the time, it was the most widely circulated and most influential Universalist publication. In 1828, Brownson accepted the post of editor of the periodical, and served as minister to the Universalist Association of Auburn and to the congregations at Geneva and Ithaca. As a "liberal" Christian, Brownson oppsed the efforts by Auburn's "orthodox" clergy to enforce strict observance of the sabbath. He became embroiled in a controversy over the establishment of the Pioneer Line of stagecoaches, which was intended to compete with the "old line" that carried mail and passengers on the sabbath. Editor Brownson ridiculed the efforts of the sabbatarians in The Gospel Advocate of 30 May 1829:

"Who has ever visited the lovely village of Auburn and not cnoticed the outlet of the Owasco Lake? It is for some considerable distance lined with mills, factories and various hydraulick establishments. It winds along but a few rods from the Presbyterian Church, so near that it may be considered almost under the droppings of the sanctuary and blessed with the pious instruction of our good Presbyterian pastor, whose zeal for holy things is almost proverbial. Thus situated, who would expect to find the said Owasco Outlet weekly disobeying, setting at defiance the laws of God and man?

Yet, so it is. The stream is a confirmed sabbath-breaker! Though prayer after prayer has been delivered there for the sanctification of the sabbath, though the synod which organized the Pioneer line of stahes held its sessions hard by, yet it continues to profane the holy day of rest by rolling into the Seneca River. Would it not be well to call a public meeting to enquire if this daring impropriety cannot be stopped?"

But Brownson once again became disenchanted with his adopted creed. In The Gospel Advocate of 27 June 1829, he listed five points which he claimed "would embrace all the essentials of true religion." These emphasized the betterment of the human race and the collective happiness of mankind. "My creed was progress," he wrote of his life at Auburn. Brownson rejected Universalism as not sufficiently progressive. After ending his connection with the denomination's newspaper, he was the target of a series of printed attacks by Doubleday.

As a Unitarian preacher in Canton, Massachusetts, Brownson chared a residence with Henry David Thoreau in 1835-36. His influence on Thoreau has been acknowledged by scholars. In 1836, he joined the Transcendentalist Cluib, became an independent preacher in Boston, and declined the offer of a Harvard professorship. Shortly thereafter, he broke with the Transcendentalists, suggesting that they made "man a great God, and God a little man."

Brownson's most shocking change of creed, however, took place in 1844, when, at age forty-one, he joined the Roman Catholic Church. As a Catholic writer, he encouraged immigrants to assimilate quickly into American society. He attacked institutions that fostered the isolation of immigrant communities, and angered many Irish-Americans. When John Cardinal Newman offered Brownson the first professorship of the new Catholic University of Ireland, opposition by Irish at home and abroad forced Brownson to decline the position.

In response to criticism that he changed his mind too frequently, Brownson said, "I have never been the slave of my own past, and truth has always been dearer to me than my own opinions." His autobiography, The Convert, and the sixteen volumes of his collected works, reflect constant changes in his thought. "I deny that I have changed," he insisted, "though I own that I seem to myself to have advanced."

Brownson died in 1876 and is buried in the Basilica of the Sacred Heart at the University of Notre Dame, where his papers are archived.

For More Information

A version of this article appeared in the Auburn Citizen on 12 April 1989. The Orestes Brownson Society promotes the writings of a man considered to be among the greatest American Catholic intellects. Aware that Brownson is largely ignored and forgotten, the Society endeavors to transfer his writings from the dark, dusty recesses of a few scattered libraries to the Internet, in order that his legacy may be accorded the attention that it deserves.