Orestes Brownson and American Nativism

This dramatic demographic transformation produced an encounter between Catholicism and American culture that was to prove highly significant. It meant that Americans would, for the first time, be forced to think seriously about the relationship between their inherited political institutions and the cultural underpinnings capable of sustaining them. The encounter would, also for the first time, raise the troubling issue of immigrant assimilation: To what extent, and in which manner, should foreign-born populations adapt themselves to American culture?

At the height of the immigration controversy, one of the best-known commentators in the Catholic press was the convert Orestes Brownson. Brownson had built his reputation in the 1830s as a member of the New England Transcendentalists. While Brownson’s conversion to Catholicism tarnished his reputation among his peers, he quickly found a new audience for his work among educated Catholics. As we shall see, Brownson’s views remain relevant for our own era, as we seek answers to questions of political order and American national identity in a time of moral and political fragmentation.

To appreciate Brownson’s enduring contribution, we must remember the profound impact of Catholic immigration on the American Protestant population. New immigrants in the mid-nineteenth century tended to group themselves in close-knit communities, and they cultivated social and religious habits that struck many native-born citizens as essentially foreign. Reports of violence and poverty in these communities were widely circulated, and many native citizens grew to resent and fear the newcomers. The nativist movement, born out of this fear and resentment, quickly sought changes through a vigorous reformist crusade led by popular newspapers (such as the Native American) and religious associations like the Protestant Reformation Society and the American Protestant Society).

Of immediate concern to Brownson were the political parties spawned by nativism in the early 1840s. By 1844 the American Republican Party, later changed to the Native American Party, had made huge strides at the ballot box, occasionally forming alliances with national coalitions. Although national legislative success proved difficult, nativist politics remained strong well into the next decade. The American Republicans eventually dissolved, but its followers found a new home in the Know-Nothing Party, which in the 1856 national elections was able to secure 22 percent of the popular vote. Although many unflattering labels were attached to the nativist parties, most observers agreed that the probationary period prior to naturalization was too short, that local elections were being run fraudulently, and that public offices were being filled with too many recent immigrants. Some leaders even sought to secure laws guaranteeing the Bible’s continued presence as part of the public school curriculum, an objective designed to limit the spread of Catholic religious influence.


In Brownson’s first commentary on the problem, in 1845, he objected to the nativist movement “in the name of the Constitution, and the good faith of the country.” His argument centered on what he considered the true meaning of the American political experiment. Directing his remarks to both the American Protestant Society and the Native American Party, Brownson reasoned that America represented from the beginning a “chosen land,” not exclusively for the native-born, but for “the wronged and downtrodden of all nations.” The country as originally constituted sought to unite its inhabitants according to certain universal truths transcending religious creeds. Brownson’s argument was a defense of the rights of American Catholics, but it was also a defense of the American constitutional order. In respecting Catholics, Brownson’s countrymen would be respecting themselves, for “there is safety for any one only so far as there is safety for all.”

The Constitution, Brownson held, will admit only those notions of public truth capable of commanding widespread agreement, and it “recognizes and guarantees to all men the free exercise of their religion, whatever it may be.” On this account Brownson vehemently opposed the nomination of Theodore Frelinghuysen, the Whig vice presidential candidate in 1844 and a particular favorite of nativists, referring to him as “the very impersonation of narrow-minded, conceited bigotry—a man who boldly attacks religious liberty.”

A later comment by Brownson, in 1854, was directed at the Irish. He now acknowledged the legitimacy of certain nationalist sentiments, at least insofar as all nations must ultimately recognize the necessity of preserving their communal identity against alien influences. Faced with massive foreign immigration, he noted, a bit of nativism is “the most natural thing in the world”—a political reality that must be dealt with on its own terms. Brownson was increasingly aware of the disorder in many new immigrant communities, and he recognized a need to address the problem from the perspective of the native-born population. In 1854 it was important to make a careful distinction between “proper native American feeling” and anti-Catholicism. The alliance that he had earlier identified between the two was not an essential one, and it was the task of the immigrant leadership to keep the two notions “separate in the public mind.” True Americanism, he argued, is to embraced as beneficial to all citizens, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, while anti-Catholic attitudes had to be condemned in the most forceful terms.

The difficulty confronted by the Irish was that many of their leaders, like the leaders of the nativist movement, had confounded anti-Catholicism and nativism, with the unfortunate result being the impossibility of opposing anti-Catholicism without simultaneously staking out anti-American ground. Brownson was concerned that the Irish, in steadfastly opposing all nativism, would likely create the impression in the public mind that they really were a “foreign colony” wholly at odds with all things American. In an essay on the Know-Nothings, for example, he stressed that the Irish, in bringing with them foreign habits, ran the risk of reinforcing the false assumption that Catholicism “is foreign to the real American people, and can never coalesce with our peculiar national sentiment.” The public would remain firmly convinced that the faith could never be an “integral element in American life.”

Brownson’s purpose in these writings extended well beyond the Irish question to the much larger question of the Church’s mission in America. As a convert he wanted to “efface [the notion] that an American cannot become a good Catholic . . . without . . . making himself a foreigner in the land of his birth.” He recommended, therefore, that the foreign-born population refrain from taking actions that might “provoke a contest with native Americanism” and that they must work to satisfy the “sounder portion of our non-Catholic countrymen” by adopting a genuine form of Americanism. He called upon the Irish to drop many of their distinctive social habits and begin intermingling with the native population.

Brownson’s plea to the Irish is best understood in the light of his broader philosophy of American politics. Throughout his years as a Catholic he saw no incompatibility between Americanism and Catholicism, and he held that the relationship between the two could produce a degree of harmony found nowhere in Europe. This was America’s “Providential destiny,” even though the Church was given no special recognition in the United States. Nowhere was the Church as free and independent as it was in America, and nowhere did the pope find so little resistance to the exercise of his authority. As such, the Constitution was in harmony with the true religion: “Catholicity has, in the freedom of both, all the protection it needs, all the security it can ask . . . in the nature of the case . . . from social and political organizations.” Brownson was convinced that the United States offered the Church protection from the abusive state and confident that the Church would be able to achieve its goals through its independent power to persuade.

Brownson was convinced, furthermore, that Americanism not only accommodated but actually demanded Catholicism for its own maturity and completion. In the course of his analysis of the nativist movement he grasped that the health of a republic depends upon its willingness to recognize the worth and dignity of individual persons. This is at bottom a moral imperative, and Brownson was certain that it could only be sustained by a tradition equipped to maintain an authoritative teaching on human destiny. No form of Protestantism would do, for Protestantism always asserts the right of private judgment in matters moral and spiritual. As a consequence, it creates a state of moral and spiritual fragmentation in which political authority is ceaselessly threatened by the changing whims of the people, in control of their laws as well as their faith. Brownson held out the Catholic faith as the “hope of our republic,” and on this account not only welcomed the Irish but encouraged them to abandon their foreign ways and flow into the mainstream of American life.

Brownson was, in this respect, somewhat similar to other Catholic voices who had become increasingly vocal in response to the rising tide of nativism. John Hughes, for example, offered a forceful defense of Catholicism during the nativist crisis while archbishop of New York. Brownson was unique, however, in his attempt to integrate Americanism and Catholicism. As a result, he often attracted sharp criticism in the Catholic press, with Hughes himself occasionally showing discomfort with Brownson’s sympathy for Americanism. In spite of his critics, though, Brownson held to his views throughout his life. This appears to be the case even when one considers his curious remarks on the Irish late in 1873, when he reminded his readers of his complaint “some years ago” that the Irish “conducted themselves as a “foreign colony.” But, he continued, “we have lived long enough to see that it is desirable that they should continue to so conduct themselves” and “retain their distinctive character.” Brownson feared that, over time, complete Americanization would lead to loss of faith among the Irish. He did not, for all that, reject the core of his previous argument: he explicitly reaffirmed that “there is nothing in the . . . fundamental law of the country incompatible with the most inflexible Catholicity.”

What Brownson did reject in 1873 was the notion that immigrant Catholics could safely adopt certain American social attitudes—excessive materialism, a weak affection for family ties, a lack of respect for authority, and a diminished sense of the sacred. Brownson offered a sense of clarity and perspective regarding the manner in which Catholics might influence American society. To be sure, they should embrace the American republican tradition as their own and become politically Americanized. Yet they should at the same time refrain from imitating the Puritan-derived attitudes that undermined the “cheerfulness” and love of life that he saw as typical of Catholic communities. He was concerned about the “rigid” and “gloomy” spirit of Protestantism and the social atomization produced by an excessive preoccupation with individualism. According to Brownson, it would be only through the “example of an old and persistent Catholic people” that the Irish and other immigrants could succeed in “supply[ing] what is wanting” in Protestant America.

Brownson’s analysis of nativism is insightful in a way that might prove profitable as we engage new forms of social and cultural change. His view of the Irish influence is particularly relevant when we consider two related problems affecting the unity of contemporary American society: the decline in the moral and spiritual health of the nation, and the rise of a new politics of ethnic pride. Brownson has much to say regarding the nation’s moral health: in his encounter with nativism he both defended religious freedom and argued against the separation of religion from public life. In leaving the moral health of the nation to extraconstitutional sources, the American tradition implicitly acknowledges the right and the obligation of Catholics to take on the responsibility of forging a freely held and universal consensus on moral and spiritual matters. While the extreme bigotry of the nativist movement is likely behind us, his insistence on Catholic-American compatibility remains decisive as we witness attempts to restrict the public influence of religion because such influence is deemed “un-American.”

Brownson also speaks to what we call “multiculturalism” in his effort to reconcile ethnic identities with American tradition. He raises the possibility that there might be some merit to contemporary claims by ethnic minorities that social and cultural homogenization may not be in their best interests and that it may not be in the best interests of American society as a whole. Of course, he would insist that the American political tradition serve as a source of common identity. But, as in the case of the Irish, some foreign-derived social mores may prove beneficial to the health of the larger society, working to “supply what is wanting.” Brownson would not see the retention of cultural idiosyncrasies as a public responsibility, but rather as the responsibility of those minority communities that see some universal value to their heritage and wish to extend their influence to others by persuasion.

Brownson was confident that some of the cultural habits as well as the faith of the immigrant Irish served as a necessary complement to sound political traditions of the United States. He would assuredly welcome the influence of any such community today that promises to bring the republic closer to her providential destiny.


Dr. Butler teaches political philosophy and American government at New Mexico State University.