Our Tradition: The Untimid Voice of Orestes Brownson

One Friday night in 1845, less than a year after his conversion to Catholicism, Orestes Brownson was spending the evening in a small public inn near the center of Andover, Massachusetts. For the last thirty-seven years Andover had been the home of the Congregationalist seminary known as the “West Point of Orthodoxy.” Founded by Jedidiah Morse in 1808, the school had become the intellectual center for the moderate Calvinists and New Divinity thinkers who attempted to carry on the vigorous breed of Puritan idealism that had inspired men like Jonathan Edwards and Samuel Hopkins a century earlier. In such a place the distaste for “popery” and “Romish doctrines” ran high, a fact that Brownson knew as well as anyone seated around the innkeeper’s supper table that night. When the meal of stewed beef, carrots, and potatoes was served, Brownson slowly lifted his huge, six-foot-two frame, looked the innkeeper straight in the eye and bellowed out in a loud voice: “Have you nothing that a Christian can eat?” Astonished, the innkeeper replied that there was plenty of stew for all, to which Brownson said “But today, sir, is Friday, and Christians do not eat meat on Friday!”

This man, who by 1845 had become such an outspoken advocate of Catholicism, had found that faith after a long odyssey through American religion that brought him from the Presbyterianism of his youth through Universalism, Unitarianism, radical Jacksonian political reform movements, and New England Transcendentalism to the faith of the church. He was one of the leading intellectuals of his day whose writing, especially his journalistic efforts, had given him great influence in Boston cultural circles. There he had been the main interpreter of French political and philosophical thought — St. Simon, Pierre Leroux, Victor Cousin — whose articles in the Christian Examiner were seminal in the Transcendentalist movement.

Among the things that make this man so intriguing for today, in addition to the sheer strength and breadth of his thought, are the practical circumstances of his life. Although he had been a clergyman, he gave no thought to the idea of working in any clerical capacity. Unlike the Louisiana Anglican Reese Connelly, whose ecclesiastical ambitions led him to send his wife Catherine off to the convent so that he could pursue the priesthood (only to decide later that he wanted her back), Brownson was committed to his spouse and their eight children. He intended to do as a Catholic just what he had done so well as a Protestant: write and lecture. That was a risky move since the continuation of his publication — which he had reformed into the Brownson Quarterly Review in 1844 after an unsuccessful experiment that merged the Boston Quarterly Review with O’Sullivan’s Democratic Review — was threatened by a potential drop in subscriptions among his Protestant readers and by his feeling that he was unprepared to write on Catholic theology without significant study. He nevertheless persisted, and fortunately the number of readers held up, due mostly to the notoriety his conversion had won him. His Review was still published by the Unitarian Benjamin Greene in Boston, and the Protestant readers, though reduced in number, did not disappear.

In what was an even riskier tack, he removed himself from his active lecturing schedule in order to devote himself to the intense study of Catholic theology under the tutelage of Bishop John Fitzpatrick of Boston. Fitzpatrick was a master of the traditional school of Catholic apologetics that stressed the historical argument for the church and the demonstration of its divine character as displayed in the “four marks.” In his eagerness to become truly Catholic, Brownson submitted rather thoroughly to Fitzpatrick’s insistence on traditional apologetics and dropped for over a decade the line of reasoning that had led him into the church. In 1857, when writing the story of his conversion, he admitted with some sadness that by so doing he had left his former disciples, as it were, in the cold — switching gears so quickly and adopting the standard Catholic arguments that few of his former associates found the least bit convincing.

Brownson’s life as a Catholic by no means won him increased fame and wealth. To the contrary, during the 1850s and ’60s his outspoken views often led him into trouble with his fellow churchmen. His opinion that Irish-Americans were hurting their own cause by clinging to customs and cultural styles that were opposed to mainstream American values earned him the ire of many Irish-born American prelates. His stand on the school question, stressing separate Protestant and Catholic schools, was likewise unpopular. After Brownson had relocated in the New York area he locked horns with Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, who was rather upset by his refusal to submit his Review to the Archbishop for approval. At the commencement exercises at St. John’s College in 1856, Brownson spoke on his oft-repeated theme of the compatibility of American republican values and Catholic life. Hughes followed his address with a series of sarcastic, belittling remarks aimed directly at the Doctor. Later, Brownson demanded an apology in writing, which he never received. That sad scene was repeated in 1861 at the Fordham University commencement, which culminated in the bishop ordering Brownson to sit down, then excluding him from the reception after the event, leaving him sitting in the auditorium alone waiting for the train home.

Brownson’s troubles were not limited to local prelates. In the 1860s he became fascinated with the philosophy of Vincenzo Gioberti, the Italian thinker whose doctrine of ontologism was eventually censured by the Holy See. Although Brownson steered a course that virtually every twentieth-century student of his thought has seen as safely distant from the objectionable theories of Gioberti, he suffered during his own lifetime from a certain guilt by association.

He could also evoke the displeasure of the left as well as the right. In a moderate tone similar to Newman’s, his position on the Italian question defended the pope’s rights as a temporal sovereign. But such a position, though clearly legitimate, illicited strong attacks by some American churchmen like Martin J. Spalding, Bishop of Louisville, who saw his position as fuel for the anti-Catholic polemics of the Know-Nothing Party. By the 1860s, Bishops like O’Connor of Pittsburgh and Kenrick of Baltimore had joined Spalding and Hughes in their efforts to disassociate themselves from Brownson, leading to the decline of subscriptions to the Review, the main source of his income. That kind of opposition, along with an agonizing case of gout, caused him to suspend the Review in 1864. By that year he had buried four of his seven sons, the eldest of whom had lived to be only 30. Were it not for the support of a group of Catholic New Yorkers headed by Isaac Hecker, who established an endowment for his support and offered him numerous writing assignments for the Paulists’ magazine, The Catholic World, Brownson’s voice might have faded from the scene. Doubtless he had sacrificed much of the prestige and clout he had once enjoyed among Protestants; his fellow Catholics never made up for that loss but rather often treated him with suspicion and discounted him as one who, after all, was neither a bishop nor a priest.

Such a reception would have defeated a lesser man, but despite his hardships, he remained amazingly content with his Catholicism and literarily productive. In 1866 he produced his finest work on politics, The American Republic: and even in the last two years of his life he found the strength to revive his Review.

The Brownson Quarterly Review was published between 1844 and 1864, and again between 1873 and 1875. It was by any standard a remarkable literary achievement. Each quarter Brownson would produce, virtually singlehanded, a 70,000-word issue, sometimes going from original composition to corrected printer’s proofs in only three weeks. Such an output would be impressive, regardless of genre, but when one keeps in mind the intellectual rigor and sophistication that characterized every issue of the Review, the awesome dimensions of the man, whom Lord Brougham called the best magazine writer in America, come more clearly into view.

Consider, for instance, the contents of the 1845 volume. The first number opened with a review of an article on “The Literary Policy of the Church of Rome,” which had appeared in a recent edition of the New York-based Methodist Quarterly Review, a major journal of American Wesleyan opinion. Brownson’s choice is indicative of one of his often-used methods of taking notice of a relatively obscure piece simply because it afforded a basis for him to sound off about a topic he judged important. His method of criticism relied first and foremost on logic. His appeal was to the head more than to the heart, and he could follow through his arguments with relentless consistency, even when doing so might at times diminish his ability to convince his opponents. Although he realized that decimating those with whom he broke the lance was not always in the best interest of his cause, by and large he was unable, or at least unwilling, to stop at much less. Though always polite, civil, and above ad hominem attacks, he pressed on for what he considered to be the truth. He was oblivious to the emotional sensitivities of his hearers, since he believed that the kindest thing he could do for them was to show them the truth more clearly. Yet for all his philosophical rigor Brownson was not without art. His style mixed logical deduction with brilliant uses of irony, sarcasm, and tongue-in-cheek humor. Consider the opening of the review of the article from the Methodist Quarterly Review: “The journal, the title of which we have placed at the head of this article, is the organ of the Episcopal Methodists of this country, and is conducted with considerable spirit and ability.” A kind and honest remark and typical of his willingness to give credit where credit was due. But then: “Its number for July last contains an article against the Catholic Church, which for its hearty hatred of Catholicism, and its vituperative character, if not for its strength and energy of expression, would have gladdened the heart of even Luther himself.” After that salvo he gave his reason for reviewing the piece: “Although the article is nothing but a string of false charges, or misrepresentations, from beginning to end, we have thought it would not be amiss to notice it because its subject is one of great importance, on which the Church of Christ is perpetually traduced by its enemies and persecutors.” Therein we see so much of Brownson revealed: his delight in debate, his conviction as to the rightness of his own cause, and his willingness to defend aspects of Catholicism that were the most vulnerable to attack, such as, in this case, the church’s policy of censorship and use of the Index.

One might conclude from all this that Brownson was an arrogant, narrow-minded intellectual tyrant. Although it would be difficult to deny the assessment of Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. that the one Catholic virtue Brownson lacked was humility, it would be wrong to accept that rather obvious fact without qualification. For Brownson was a man willing to change his mind and abandon positions once he became convinced of a more excellent way. As he put it in the preface to the American Republic: “I have never been a slave of my own past, and truth has always been dearer to me than my own opinions.” Beyond that there were a certain grandeur and dignity to Brownson that are not the domain of those afflicted with hubris, something that even his rivals perceived and respected. John W. Nevin, author of the German Reformed Mercersburg Review, was one of the few opponents Brownson faced who was on the same level of sophistication. He said of the Catholic warrior: “He deals his blows like a conscious Hercules sent forth on a divine errand to reform the world.” He was capable of submitting himself to the truth, as he often demonstrated in his life as a Catholic through acceptance of the directives of bishops like Fitzpatrick and Hughes — by any standard men of considerably more meager intellectual endowments than his. And woven through these aspects of his psyche was that magnanimity that William H. Ward called “his finest trait.”

There was another side of his style, less pronounced and more subtle. In the midst of hammering home his points he occasionally interspersed a bit of personal testimony, a revealing piece of his own experience that had the effect of humanizing and softening the tone. Consider, for instance, his introductory words in the first issue of the Brownson Quarterly Review, in which he addressed his old readership heart-to-heart:

We meet again, then, dear friends, after a short separation, and I trust, unchanged. You may have heard strange rumors of me, but I come back what I was. The heart may be sadder, and less buoyant [he had recently lost a son]; but it beats still for the same great moral and social end, and retains all its old faith in God, in Christ, and human capacity. Believe none of the idle rumors which may have reached your ears.

This passage is illuminating in other ways as well, for in it we see two of the qualities that were so much a part of the man and that kept him, even in the midst of the toughest battles, from becoming jaundiced and bitter: his sincerity and his faith. One senses in the passage that Brownson is not merely playing rhetorical games with the reader; he has a deep desire to communicate with his audience the fact that he is still a trustworthy mentor. He takes seriously his role as teacher and critic. It is a role that has social consequences of which he is constantly aware. Furthermore, he is unashamed of stating his most intimate religious convictions, and, although that sort of testimony was far more in vogue a century and a half ago than it is now, one should not forget that Brownson was well aware of a growing movement of positivistic criticism that viewed personal religious commentary as unsophisticated emotional pap. He was a man who had come through a period of profound skepticism, and who knew the price of professing faith in God, in Christ, and in human capacity. This passage also shows us, perhaps as well as any other, the ultimately positive, edifying side of the great debater. His aim was never to debunk or belittle but to rouse men and women to the fullness of their own wondrous capacities as creatures of God.

From the theological disputation of the review of the Methodist Quarterly piece, Brownson turned his attention in the first number of the 1845 Review to another issue in which Catholic Americans were, in his opinion, being unjustly characterized. The way that he approached the subject of Nativism in this article shows that he was quite able to offer much more than mere reaction to another’s work. He used as the basis for a presentation of his understanding of true Americanism a pamphlet written by Francois Fenelon. In this case the use of Fenelon is a rather transparent ploy to catch the eyes of Protestant readers, since the French spirituel was a favorite among Methodist and Holiness devotional writers. After a very brief mention in the first paragraph of his high opinion of the work and of its thesis that Catholicism is compatible with republicanism, all reference to the piece is dropped, and Brownson is off expounding his own political theories: “Native Americanism is a retrograde step. It is going back to the barbarous ages, when the human race was divided into sects and clans, and the same word designated both a foreigner and an enemy. It is at war with all the popular tendencies of modern ages . . . . The great principle of true Americanism, if we may use the word, is that merit makes the man. It discards all distinctions which are purely accidental, and recognizes only such as are personal.” The originality and vigor of Brownson’s thought simply take over the article. We hear the clear and careful presentation of well-developed ideas that have the unmistakable stamp of their author, who was, here as always, far too creative and seminal a thinker ever to be rightly classified as a member of any one school or party.

But he did not limit his attention in that first issue of the 1845 volume to domestic developments alone. Especially after his conversion, Brownson added to his already impressive grasp of current English, French, and German culture a familiarity with Italian philosophy, in particular the work of Gioberti. His intimate knowledge of Continental thought shows through in his articles on the French philosopher Theodore Jouffroy’s Course de Droit Naturel and in a piece on J.H. Hopkin’s Sixteen Lectures on the Causes, Principles and Results of the British Reformation. The first number of the volume also included, for a touch of recreation, an excerpt from a novel by S.A.F. Clerkenwell.

This kind of literary production went on not once or twice but four times every year for (if we include his earlier work with the Boston Quarterly Review) some twenty-nine years. To that he added some fifteen books and pamphlets.

If he was at times strident and antagonistic — as he doubtless was — and if often his polemics did more to create barriers than to pull them down, Brownson was, nevertheless, a champion in an age when a bullied and self-effacing American Catholic intellectual community needed to have its backbone stiffened. Never boring, never given to echoing thoughtlessly party lines, what he had to say was always worth listening to, even if it was not always correct.

He was a man to be reckoned with in his own time, and for us who are his intellectual heirs he stands as a model of rigor and fortitude in an age when so many who have been gifted with intelligence and education choose to avoid addressing questions of general religious, philosophical, and social interest and head instead for the relatively safe havens of their professional specialties, where they are assured of friendly audiences and like-minded souls. In a time when the sheer mass of information tends to scare many of us away from the larger issues, Brownson serves as an inspiration and a reminder that one consequence of knowledge is a responsibility to use it to benefit others.


  • John Farina

    John Farina is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at George Mason University. At the time he wrote this article, he was a historian and archivist for the Paulist Fathers and an editor for Paulist Press.

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