January 30, 2018


Orestes Brownson, Being Catholic, and Being American (Nathan J. Beacom, January 29th, 2018, Public Discourse)

There is a great deal in Orestes Brownson's writing that recommends itself to the thoughtful observer of American political history and life. What concerns us here is chiefly his conception of the "twofold" American constitution. For him, the constitution is not primarily a document but the actual way in which the people itself is constituted. The critics to whom I allude above often express a concern that our country was brought into being by a document formed on the basis of erroneous enlightenment principles. For Brownson, this is a misreading of our nation's origins.

The written constitution did not materialize out of thin air. It was the expression and decision of an already constituted people, who codified and formalized the way they were to govern themselves. Brownson describes that pre-existing arrangement in this way:

The [organic] constitution is the intrinsic or inherent and actual constitution of the people or political community itself; that which makes the nation what it is, and distinguishes it from every other nation. . .  [it] is not a theory, nor is it drawn up and established in accordance with any preconceived theory. What is theoretic in a constitution is unreal.

To Brownson's way of thinking, some group within a given nation may attempt to impose a theoretic constitution on its people, but if what is proposed does not in fact match the way the people are actually constituted, doing so will require a great deal of force and will ultimately fail. Such was the effort of the French Revolution. The American constitution, by contrast, was not an imposition on the people but an expression of what already inhered in the nation's traditions, laws, principles, and organization.

This points at the same reality observed by the early American Church itself--namely, that this country and its government were not born brand-new out of Enlightenment principles. They were, rather, an organic development of traditions stretching from Athens, through Rome, Jerusalem, London, and on to Philadelphia. Alexander Hamilton himself expressly agreed with Brownson's later assessment. As Brownson wrote with regard to some expressions of James Madison's:

What binds is the thing done, not the theory on which it was done, or on which the actors explained their work either to themselves or to others . . . [theory] may sometimes affect the phraseology they adopt, but forms no rule for interpreting their work. Their work was inspired by and accords with the historical facts in the case, and is authorized and explained by them.

John Adams once called the common political language of the founding an expression of the "harmonizing sentiment of the day." That is, it was not so much a creature of the Enlightenment as an effort to extract what was valuable and practical from the whole tradition of political thought from Athens to the present, and to apply it to the given context of an already constituted people. As Brownson saw it, the United States was built as a development of a liberal tradition far older than and far different from the liberalism of Enlightenment Europe. As an heir to this great conversation, the American constitution seeks to unite in harmony the inviolability of the person and the priority of the public good--to strike a dialectical balance between liberty and order. This is why Brownson says that the United States is the most catholic of modern nations, because it is organized on real principles of human nature: principles that, being real, must also be catholic.

It is the nature of logos to reconcile all things in Himself, Brownson writes, and to take those things that seem to be in opposition and bring them into harmony. In a unique way, the American people is called by the same Word to reconcile the realities of freedom and order, unity and multiplicity. E pluribus unum; annuit coeptus. That we have often failed in this vocation does not obviate the original call.

The reason our Founding uniquely succeeded is because we were not so much seeking freedom from England, just English liberty.
Posted by at January 30, 2018 5:37 AM