April 10, 2011


The Enduring Brownson: a review of In Search of the American Spirit: The Political Thought of Orestes Brownson by Gregory S. Butler (Peter J. Stanlis, Summer 1993, University Bookman)

In this very thoroughly researched and well-written description and analysis of Brownson’s political thought, Gregory S. Butler is far less concerned with the merely legal and political structures of American constitutional and positive law than with his conception of “the American spirit,” which provides the religious, cultural, and social foundations of his politics. Brownson rejected the common belief that any fictional theory of a “social contract,” based upon a supposed “state of nature” prior to the origin of institutional society, can be legitimately considered the basis of the American spirit. He also rejected the equally fictitious theory of a “general will,” based upon humanitarian sensibility and belief in the natural goodness of man, as foreign to the American spirit. In short, all of the secular premises, theories, and arguments of Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau had no place in forming the American spirit.

The American archetypal political myths and symbols regarding justice, liberty, order, and equality are not an inheritance from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, but find their ultimate roots in the entire religious and cultural inheritance that the original colonists, and all subsequent immigrants, brought with them from Europe. For Brownson the search for the American spirit begins in the ancient Graeco-Roman world and includes the whole two-thousand year Judeo-Christian religious and cultural tradition of Western civilization. This complex Classical and Christian inheritance, together with the customs and manners of the Teutonic tribes which overran the Roman Empire and provided the people who formed the future nations of Europe, was developed variously throughout the Western world. Seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Britain was the particular vehicle which transmitted its version of this rich European religious and cultural inheritance to its American colonies. Other nations contributed their part, but Britain was dominant in shaping American society, and in particular its spirit of political liberty was intensified and modified by the raw frontier conditions of American life. The language, literature, religion, customs, traditions, laws, and education of Britain provided the basis for American society, and largely determined its spirit and culture. Thus, for Brownson, the American spirit is embodied in the complex unwritten constitution of American society, centered in the wide-ranging character and temperament of its people, as modified in different regions, but legally chartered over vast areas of the continent. History, not ideology, provided Brownson with his understanding of the American people.

To Brownson, ideology is the total antithesis of the American spirit. He believed that the historical experience of the American people, not abstract ideological theories of government, provided the basic premises in the formal structure and principles of their written federal-states constitutional system. Their love of liberty and fear of tyranny made Americans prefer republican government to any other form, and led them to divide authority and set limits to the political power of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of their government.

Peter Augustine Lawler has written a typically excellent essay about Brownson. One thing worth remembering here is that Hobbes and Locke were just borrowing from covenant theology, so we needn't reject them entirely. A people whose religion depends on covenants between Man and God is uniquely well-suited to a politics of covenants amongst themselves.

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Posted by at April 10, 2011 10:05 AM

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