April 13, 2016


Unwritten Constitutionalist : To understand American conservatism, read Orestes Brownson. (ROBERT EMMET MOFFIT AND RICHARD M. REINSCH II • April 4, 2016, American Conservative)

The American conservative project has always required more than just theoretical individualism and the magic of the marketplace. Too many conservatives, however, make conservatism in America a doctrine rather than a practice grounded in the country's unique political culture. They have overrelied on sources like free-market theory, the abstract principles in the Declaration of Independence, or simply the post-World War II role of the United States in attempting to maintain global hegemony for democracy.

But the conservative's task must be to forge a theory of the American constitutional order that, in the words of Brownson, "secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual--the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy." And no one defends the achievements of American constitutionalism in the face of ideological assault better than Brownson. His biography itself is one of recovery from political madness. [...]

Having been "mugged by reality," he revolted against the overblown promises of "popular democracy" and the notion that the voice of the "sovereign people" was the voice of God. The people had been easily duped, he thought, by the faux populism of the Whigs. Salvation, Brownson was coming to understand, would not be found in the leveling condition of democratic equality. Over the next four years, he argued himself into conservatism in politics and religion. In rejecting socialism, which he would come to label "social despotism," he developed a new appreciation for the idea of limited government.

Yet at the same time, he refused to embrace the premises of radical individualism being powerfully expressed by the sundry radical liberals of his day. In wrestling with the problems of labor and capital, wealth and poverty, Brownson decided to reexamine and embrace an older, deeper, and richer intellectual tradition that justified life and liberty in civil society. He studied the great Western thinkers, particularly Aristotle and the Christian philosophy of Augustine and Aquinas, and he found answers in the classical tradition of natural law.

By 1844, Brownson's intellectual and religious transformation was complete. He converted to Roman Catholicism, the religion of the then-despised and poverty-stricken Irish immigrant minority. He severed his relationship with the Democratic Review, an influential journal of what was then "liberal" opinion, and started Brownson's Quarterly Review. He wrote as an uncompromising Catholic apologist, a stance that, at a time of intense anti-Catholic sentiment, weakened his popularity and damaged him professionally.

This change, though, wrought intellectual rewards. While rejecting the politics of the left-wing French philosopher Pierre Leroux (1798-1871), Brownson, inspired by Catholicism, nonetheless embraced Leroux's principle that all persons live in communion with God, man, and nature. He transformed this "life by communion" philosophy into a foundational justification for constitutional government. Brownson argued that every man is, by nature, a relational person who exists with others to work, to love, and to pray. These higher ends of man provide the principles that limit government.

Posted by at April 13, 2016 5:25 AM