Orestes Brownson and Territorial Democracy

“The thesis we propose to maintain is, therefore, that without the Roman Catholic religion it is impossible to preserve a democratic government, and secure its free, orderly, and wholesome action.” Orestes Brownson wrote these words in an 1845 essay titled “Catholicity Necessary to Sustain Popular Liberty.” It is impossible to imagine anyone saying these words today. The idea that one religion — or any religion — is necessary to maintain democracy is completely out of bounds today, where the separation of church and state is understood to mean the complete excision of religious belief from public policy — and, to be fair, our public discourse is a little more understated that it was in the pages of the 19th-century penny press.
Catholics would do well to remember Brownson (1803-1876), as he is at once one of the nation’s most interesting political thinkers and a writer who addressed the complicated question of being both Catholic and American. He is also an American original: Born of Vermont Protestant stock, a friend to Emerson and a member of the Transcendentalist inner circle, Brownson became a Catholic in 1844, as did his good friend Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulist order; both had spent time at the Transcendentalist camp at Brook Farm. Before his conversion, however, Brownson had been through almost every variant of religious experience the country had to offer, from Methodism to Unitarianism, from Transcendentalist to “philosophical” Christian, before finally being received into the Church.
Brownson’s former friends believed his conversion to be only a temporary phase; he had changed beliefs so often that few thought this decision would be permanent. Especially a decision for Rome: Brownson was not a man who accepted authority easily. But he proved them wrong; Brownson was to remain a loyal, if occasionally controversial, Catholic for the rest of his life, even agreeing to Episcopal censorship of his works.
His most famous book-length work is probably the political treatise The American Republic, published in 1865. After Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, it has been called the best book on American democracy. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Woodrow Wilson considered Brownson one of the few true political thinkers America has produced.
Yet he has remained virtually unknown outside Catholic intellectual circles, though now and then there are mini-revivals. After a period of neglect, Brownson is slowly regaining his reputation. Russell Kirk and Gregory Butler, for example, have each edited a Brownson anthology, and Patrick Carey recently wrote an excellent biography.
In The American Republic, Brownson sought to explain American government in light of the Civil War. Out of that great conflict a new nation had arisen; what was its relation to the old? Some had argued that each of the states had independent existences that could survive the dissolution of the Union. Others believed the nation was, or should become, a unitary state, centralized in Washington. To Brownson, both sides were wrong. The states were neither pre-existing nations that had “contracted” with one another, nor were they mere provinces of a general government. The former, for Brownson, contradicted principles of sovereignty; the latter equated the federal system with the centralized democracy of Jacobin France.
Rather, the states are sovereign in their own spheres, but that sovereignty exists only because they are part of a nation. Brownson calls this understanding of the American system “territorial democracy”: “not territorial because the majority of the people are agriculturists or landholders, but because all political rights, powers, or franchises are territorial.” Power, in other words, is not portable — as it was, for example, in pre-modern nomadic peoples or in medieval Europe, where the “state” was wherever the royal court happened to be.
Rather, sovereignty in the modern state exists only within the physical area of a particular society. The sovereignty of New York, for example, exists only because it is part of the geographical entity known as the United States. As Brownson puts it, “The American States are all sovereign States united, but, disunited, are not States at all.” Brownson’s territorial democracy is consistent with American federalism, and in fact has greater explanatory power than either the nationalist or secessionist versions. The Founders knew that government should be as close to the people as possible, so it could be more accountable. The national and state governments each derived legitimacy from the people, and each had a legitimate claim to govern within its own sphere.
Brownson joined territorial democracy with another interpretive tool, the “unwritten constitution.” The unwritten constitution included the mores, customs, and ways of life that together formed the American political culture and supported the written Constitution. Brownson had supported democracy, sometimes in a radical form, throughout his life. Indeed, despite recasting his political beliefs in the light of Catholic social teaching, he remained a believer in democratic government, which he argued reflected power granted to the people from God.
Brownson’s position opposed him to some of his contemporary Catholics, who believed that democracy was not fully in accord with natural law. Brownson, however, was proven right; since Vatican II, Catholic teaching has become much friendlier to democracy, and its compatibility with Catholicism was a theme, for example, in the work of Pope John Paul II.
The most important part of that unwritten constitution is the character of the people, which is where Brownson’s considerations of religious faith enter the picture. Because of his belief in original sin, Brownson rejected the view, as common in the America of his own day as it is in ours, of the natural goodness of man. Therefore, a democratic society needs a source of authority and a broader tradition of thought beyond its own desires.
Brownson did not want a theocracy; as he writes in that same essay quoted above, “The only influence on the political or governmental action of the people which we ask from Catholicity, is that which it exerts on the mind, the heart, and the conscience.” Democracy is always beset by forces who would be its master — the media, big business, the passing passions of the moment. Religious faith should be given a place to exert its persuasive power as well.
A century and a half later, Catholics still face the questions Brownson posed. If the outright bigotry of his day is over, still-lingering suspicions about Catholicism and democracy survive. Brownson provides Catholics with a language and a native tradition with which to enter the public square as a full partner in the conversation over our common life.


Gerald J. Russello is a Fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and editor of The University Bookman. He is also the editor of the 2013 edition of Christopher Dawson’s Religion and Culture from Catholic University of America Press.

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