ONE of the most powerful minds, the most intense personalities, in American literature is that of Orestes Brownson, whose distinguishing trait, at first glance, is the broad range of interests, of thought, and of knowledge over which his intellect plays with abiding and almost equal strength. Neither discursive, content with moving upon the surface, nor overborne by emotion, nor bound by prejudice or pedantry, it seems to many of us to have surpassed in depth, comprehensiveness, and sincerity every other philosophic mind that this country has produced. In keeping with his intellect, Brownson’s lucid, forceful style gives the impression of a prodigious and unchanging momentum. His collected works fill twenty ponderous volumes,1 some of which have claimed title to further remembrance by holding their vitality intact after thirty or forty years. It is of this mind and personality that I offer here an outline, filled in with fresh and significant personal details gathered from his son and editor, Major Brownson, of Detroit, and from old friends of the rugged Catholic American philosopher.
Gifted with an odd combination of names, Orestes Augustus Brownson was born at Stockbridge, Vermont, in 1803, the 16th of September. Nearly seventythree years later — April 17,1876 — he died in Detroit, Michigan. A sister, his twin, accompanied him into the world. These two were the youngest children of Sylvester and Relief Metcalf Brownson. Both parents were tall and fine looking, and the tradition runs that they were Presbyterians. The mother’s father, Mr. Metcalf, was a man very strict about keeping his word, and required his children to make good their promises at any and every cost. Mrs. Brownson, in her turn, impressed this principle deeply upon Orestes. His father, Sylvester, belonged to a Connecticut family, and his mother was a New Hampshire woman, but they made their home in Vermont.
Sylvester Brownson died when Orestes was only six years old. This event, with the loss of Mr. Metcalf’s property, left Mrs. Brownson poor, and friends of the family took the lad and his sister to live with them, in separate places. But although the twins suffered greatly from this parting, the boy Orestes throve in his new home at Royalton, Vermont. Later in life he served for various terms in pulpits, but everything he did, both as preacher and as writer, it seems, was achieved by sheer hard work and determination. He had an elder brother, Daniel, who gained some reputation as an orator, apparently with fluent ease, but Orestes did not so comfortably conquer the art of persuasive or expository speech. He used humorously to tell his son Henry about the drenching perspiration of excitement and fear in which he preached his first sermon. This son informs me, too, that “ his writing, all through life, was more laborious than the reader would suspect. I have from ten to thirty beginnings of some of his articles. Sometimes he would write half a dozen pages, sometimes more, and become dissatisfied and begin all anew. He rarely patched, but preferred to commence all over again.” The few details of family history just given are, I believe. mostly new in print. There has been a singular lack of particulars in published accounts of Brownson; and I shall mention, later, some other items which I have collected. A full view of his inner life, however, is supplied by his most widely known book, his autobiography, entitled The Convert.
Brought up from early boyhood by “ an aged couple,” he tells us, he had no childhood. Although he thought this a misfortune, it is no uncommon case, and many of the most useful men in our national life have been so reared. From his earliest recollection his thoughts took a religious turn. While still a boy he had certain interior experiences such as are recorded of St. Thomas Aquinas and other saints, though his traits in manhood were not those which the world remarks as saintly. He held, as he supposed, long and familiar conversations with our Lord, “ and was deeply pained when anything occurred to interrupt them. Sometimes, also,” he says, “ I seemed to hold a spiritual intercourse with the Blessed Mary and with the holy angel Gabriel, who had announced to her that she was to be the mother of the Redeemer. I was rarely less alone than when alone. I did not speculate on the matter. It all seemed real to me, and I enjoyed often an inexpressible happiness.” It is not surprising that, with such inborn aptitudes, his first wish in life was that he might become a minister of religion. It was this that prompted his earnest longing for knowledge and caused him to study. Steering through troublous eddies and cross-currents of contradictory thought, he attained his desire to some degree, but in the end passed from the ministry of religion to the place of a literary, philosophical, and critical expounder of it.
When he was fourteen, his mother removed to Ballston Spa, Saratoga County, New York. He joined her there, and for a time attended the Ballston Academy, where he learned Latin enough to read Virgil. Up to the dawn of manhood his besetting problem was to find the truth, “ to experience religion ; ” and he seems to have gone about the solving of it in the old-fashioned way of misery. He conceived himself to be without faith, hope, or love. Yet the term “ old-fashioned ” needs qualification, for this mode of approach to truth and peace has not gone out of vogue, and probably never will. There is another mode : that of expanding happily, yet completely, to the sunshine of celestial things, as buds unfold to the light of heaven. Which one of the two is followed depends much on temperament or circumstance. The avenue of gloom and self-accusation is often paced by those spirits who are naturally the most joyous in outward character, like St. Francis of Assisi, as well as by those inclined to melancholy. On the other hand, a glad and grateful advance to the goal of faith along the road of joy does not necessarily imply a superficial mind. At the age of nineteen, Brownson, who had not been reared in any special form of belief, emerged from his misery of doubt and darksome search into Presbyterianism, finding comfort therein for a while.
But he had been told to abnegate reason, and take blind faith and the holy Scriptures for his guide. As his reason insisted on reasserting itself and making itself the rule of Scripture, after some two years he drifted off to “ liberal Christianity ” under tire form of Universalism. This imposed upon him the other extreme of using reason alone. Hence he declares that, in following Universalism, he lost the Bible, the Saviour, Providence, and even reason itself; having at last only his five senses left. It appears, also, that a word spoken to him by an elderly Congregationalist woman, when he was a boy, about the need of finding a church continuous and unchanging from the time of Christ, made a peculiar impression upon him, and, as he remarks, prevented him “ from ever being a genuine, hearty Protestant, or a thoroughgoing radical even.” earnestly though he tried to become one or the other. This throws light upon the consistency of aspiration which underlay the seeming instability and contradiction of his various changes throughout the first half of his career.
Finding at the first turn of the road that Universalism was not only unsatisfying, but even threatened spiritual disaster to him, he left it, and sought to ascend what he believed was a higherreaching branch of wisdom. He became “ a ‘World-Reformer.”Having tried faith without reason, and reason without faith, the two extremes, he now tried to explore for himself a viamedia, but in a sense wholly unlike that of Newman’s middle way, twenty years later. Brownson’s way was, abandoning both the fear of hell and the hope of heaven, to devote himself to the material order of things, and strive solely for the realization of man’s earthly happiness, in extraordinary degree and universal measure. To emphasize his idea, he published in 1829 a brief document called My Creed, satirical and mocking in tone, yet earnest of purpose: wherein he asserted his belief that every human being should be honest, benevolent, and kind to all; should do his best to maintain himself and enable others to do the same ; should cultivate his mental powers for his own enjoyment and the improvement of the condition of the race ; and finally, that this was the limit of man’s service to God.—in other words, the sum of religion. Plenty of “ My Creeds ” have been put forth since ; and it must be owned that this is one of the rawest and most jejune we have known ; but it had its value at the time. The author considered it a solid point d’appui of candor, and long afterwards wrote, referring to it: “ I always had, and hope I always shall have, the honor of being regarded by my friends and associates as impolitic, as rash, imprudent, and impracticable.” Clearly, he cherished somewhat of that arrogant humility which dictated Thoreau’s prayer : —
On this basis, then, of a purely human and humanitarian system, Brownson at twenty-six became a kind of socialist, allied to some extent with Robert Dale Owen, and with Fanny Wright in her scheme, approved by Jefferson and Lafayette, to enable the negro slaves in the South to buy their emancipation by their own labor. This failed ; and so did the plan of gradually eliminating religion and fixed marriage from human society, by a method of education that should prepare the next generation to live healthily and happily without them. After that, Brownson and his co-reformers awoke to a new perception, as it seemed to them, that the mass of laborers everywhere were virtually as much enslaved as the negroes ; and they formed a political Workingmen’s party. Brownson took an active share in it, but soon became conscious that he did not fully sympathize with the other leaders ; his own idea being that, to gain any real benefit for the workingmen, there must be a coöperation of all classes, not a movement from their body alone. Neither did he really approve the plan of abolishing marriage, through education. Furthermore, he discovered that, with the moral and the religious barred out from the theory of things and from the motives for action, there was no longer a sufficient impetus of love and disinterestedness to forward reforms. “ The moment,” he says, “ I avowedly threw off all religion, and began to work without it, I found myself impotent.”
In the service of his party, he had conducted a small weekly paper in central New York. But now, quitting the chair of political editor, he became once more a preacher ; this time representing the “ religion of humanity.” His new aim was, “ not to serve God, but man,” by realizing for human beings a heaven on earth. After preaching independently on that line for a while, the desire to carry out the new aim, he found, brought with it the necessity of somehow uniting men in a Church of the Future ; and to this end he formed, in 1836, when he was thirty-three years old, The Society for Christian Union and Progress. He now likewise brought out a small book, entitled New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church, derived largely from Benjamin Constant, Victor Cousin, Heinrich Heine, and the Saint-Simonians. Concerning this book he wrote afterwards, with charming terseness and buoyant self-condemnation, that it was “ remarkable for its acceptance and vindication, in principle, of nearly all the errors into which the human race has fallen.” What prompted his volume seems to have been Cousin’s statement that all systems are true in what they affirm, and false only in what they deny, or in so far as they are exclusive. Therefore, while Brownson paid high tribute to Catholicity as the noblest form of Christianity for a thousand years, he condemned it now on the charge that it was too spiritual, and had depressed the material order of things. Protestantism, on the other hand, he censured because it had exalted material progress at the expense of the spiritual. The thing most needful was, he thought, to join these two systems, — the spiritual and the material, the heavenly and the earthly, the divine and the human; thus realizing in the human race itself the idea of the God-man. He looked forward, indeed, as some others did in those times, — and as I remember hearing commonly suggested in Transcendental circles much later, — to the advent of a new Moses or a new Christ, who should embody this idea externally to men. after they should have become imbued with it in a premonitory, preparative way.
It was to advocate the new doctrine that he set up, in 1838, his famous Quarterly Review, which he conducted for five years almost single-handed. Confounding Christianity with democracy, like Channing, Lamennais, and others, he brought upon himself, also, a good deal of ridicule by defining democracy as “ the supremacy of man over his accidents ; ” by which he meant that it was the element or principle which should correct or compensate for the inequalities of condition, wealth, or power among individuals. He wished to see effected a single religious-political organization of mankind, under the name, not of church, but of state, that should present what he supposed to be Christianity concretely in daily practical life, throughout. Naturally, with such an aim, he maintained a lively interest in politics, and was connected with the Democratic party, to which, however, he gave an idealistic interpretation of his own. For, as he has told us, he never believed in the native, underived sovereignty of the people, — that is, the putting the people in the place of God. making them both people-king and people-god,” — which most of his contemporaries and fellowDemocrats did practically believe in.
It is a striking coincidence that Brownson’s view of the relation of the people and the state to God, and his whole expression of the national existence as a moral entity (as given in his American Republic, also), were reiterated in that remarkable work The Nation, by Elisha Mulford (1870), who said: “The nation has a divine foundation, and has for its end the fulfillment of the divine end in history. . . . It is not the creation of the sovereignty of the people. ... It is not of human construction, although a human development; its constituent elements are implanted in the nature of man, and as that nature is unfolded in the realization of the divine idea, there is the development of the state ” completed. Mulford had a curiously distorted idea that the Roman Catholic Church is opposed to this moral conception of the nation. But the identity of his conception with that which Brownson always maintained shows that sincere Catholics and Protestants are not sundered in this exalted estimate of national life.
It is not strange, therefore, that, holding the view he did as to popular power, — although he had become an important member of the party, occupying the position of literary and philosophic counsel to it, rather than of “practical worker,” — he should have overthrown himself by a rash and impetuous essay on The Laboring Classes, published in his Quarterly in 1840 ; wherein he set forth that democracy, to be logical, ought to equalize in some way the mights — that is, the property and influence — of all individuals, as well as their rights, and also assailed the entire modern industrial and banking system.
The Whigs made the most of his imprudence ; and his own party showed alert willingness to repudiate him. For this he was prepared, theoretically ; having made up his mind that this essay might even end his literary career no less than his political influence. Theoretical resignation to such a fate, however, vanished before his righteous revolt against sharp - tongued critics and weak-hearted friends. The old Adam and the new American rose up in him with the energy of colossal twins. He resisted the attack ; formed himself, if one may say so. into a solid square ; and, bringing all Ids intellectual forces into play, succeeded, by three years of vigorous and brilliant effort, in regaining through his Review perhaps even a greater sway over the thinking public than that which he had lost. But as he had for a time sacrificed his standing for the conscientious convictions of that essay, so now, characteristically, having regained bis position, he once more sacrificed power for conscience’ sake ; because, during the three years alluded to, he had arrived at the point of accepting Catholicity, and would not hesitate to avow his faith. This time his change of view became an abiding one.
It was in the crisis, for him, following the essay on the Laboring Classes that the presidential campaign of 1840 occurred ; which, he says, “ carried on by doggerel, log cabins, and hard cider, by means utterly corrupt and corrupting, disgusted me with democracy as distinguished from constitutional republicanism.” His own unpopularity may have had something to do with this disgust, unconsciously. At any rate, he now began a careful, scientific study of government, and came to the firm belief that liberty depends upon, exists by, law and authority ; that “ in this world we must seek, not equality, but justice.” These studies, with his own observations, made him a conservative in politics, and so advanced him towards conservatism in religion.
Now, too, he began to see that, as he expresses it, “ man is no church-builder.” He had set out to insure the progress of society towards a new, all - inclusive organization, religious and civil in one. But this must itself supply the order and authority essential to true liberty. Hence the organization must be established before any progress could be made towards it, —clearly an impossibility. His conclusion was : “ Progress there may be, . . . but not without the aid of that which is not man.” And in the same place he adds : “ Ideas, I was accustomed to say with my friend Bronson Alcott, the American Orpheus, when once proclaimed, will take unto themselves hands, build the new temple, and instaurate the new worship ; but ideas in themselves are not powers, have no active force, and can be rendered real and active only as clothed with concrete existence by a power distinct from themselves.” It will be curious to compare, here, a passage from Alcott’s Diary, which gives the other side of the angle of divergence between them. “ I passed an evening during this week,” Alcott wrote, some two years before the Laboring Class crisis, “ with Mr. Brownson, and with him called on and spent an hour with Mr. Walker, editor of the Christian Journal [afterwards president of Harvard College]. Both are friends of human culture, yet with neither do I find that hearty sympathy which I desire. They are men of fair talents and generous purposes, yet destitute of deep and fervid enthusiasm, and of that kindling genius which ennobles our nature and fits it to the happiest actions. . . . Both chop logic, both are men of understanding, neither apprehends the being of poet and seer : the high works of poetic genius, the marvels of holiness, are beyond their grasp, although both are good and useful men. They eschew belief in other than bare and barren reasoning, which is the life of the eclectic school, and refuse credence to all else. There are a few minds whose views do not in all respects coincide with the doctrines of the eclectic school.”
We all know what faith Alcott had in the operative power of ideas, all his life, and how little they accomplished for him, or for the world, at his hands. Brownson wished to see them moving in actual institutions ; and his apprehension of the holiest influences, not being on the surface alone, was certainly more profound and far reaching than Alcott conceived.
Of the eclectic school, mentioned by Alcott with such delicate scorn, Victor Cousin was the chief exponent. Charles Sumner, during his famous youthful tour in Europe, visited Cousin in 1838, and noted in his journal that the French philosopher spoke of Brownson “ as a man of great talent, and indeed as a most remarkable person. . . . His interest in Mr. Brownson appears to be unfeignedly great.” In a letter to Judge Story, also, he reported of Cousin : “ He has read some of the productions of Mr. Brownson, whom he thinks one of the most remarkable persons of the age, and wishes to see placed where he can pursue philosophy calmly, thinking his labors will redound to the credit of science throughout the globe.”
At this period Brownson was deeply interested in Cousin and in Jouffroy, to both of whom he, to the end, felt himself indebted “hardly less by their errors than by their truths.” We may quote aptly again from Sumner, who, in 1840, sending from Boston to Professor Whewell at Cambridge, England, “two numbers of a journal called The Dial, which has been started by Mr. Emerson,” wrote: People have laughed at it here very much. . . . Emerson and his followers are called ‘ Transcendentalists.’ I am at a loss to know what they believe. Brownson has lately avowed some strange doctrines [the Christian socialism and anti-capitalistic utterances], for which he has been sadly badgered both by politicians and philosophers.” The positions of both Emerson and Brownson were evidently still undetermined in the minds of their cultivated, thoughtful contemporaries and countrymen. Both were looked at askance and somewhat derided for their originality and independence. No two personalities could appear to us now more dissimilar, less likely to harmonize. Yet it was of Emerson, doubtless, as Brownson’s son believes, that the following passage in The Convert was written : “ One man, and one man only, shared my entire confidence and knew my most secret thought. Him, from motives of delicacy, I do not name, but in the formation of my mind, in systematizing my ideas, and in general development and culture I owe more to him than to any other man among Protestants. We have since taken divergent courses, but I loved him as I have loved no other man, and shall so love and esteem him as long as I live. He encouraged me, and through him chiefly I was enabled to remove to Boston and commence operations ” — on the line of preparing for the new order of society and the new Christianity.
It was upon Brownson’s removal to Boston, where he lived in suburban Chelsea, eight years previous to his conversion to Catholicity, that he developed his curiously interesting Doctrine of Life. He started from the idea of Pierce Leroux, that what Catholics call “ infused grace ” may equally well be supplied by the mere natural communion of man with man, or of the individual with the race. He thought the Creator might raise certain individuals to an extraordinary supernatural communion with himself, men who would thus lead a divine life; and that the rest of us, by communion with them, might be elevated in some proportionate degree. By this thought he was enabled at least to perceive that the natural and the supernatural correspond, instead of — as so many imagine — being opposed. He supposed Christ, as a man, to have been taken up into supernatural communion with God, and therein discovered, as he thought, a realization of the divinehuman life. The divine-human life of Christ, as thus understood, he believed had been infused into the apostles and disciples, and by them into others, and so on from one generation to another. All life being organic, all who receive this infusion of the divine-human are formed into one body ; they live one and the same life, that of Christ, and therefore are termed the Church. On this theory he held that the life of Christ is not only life, but actually the principle of life. This real body and living principle of Christ, in the Church, so conceived, must be authoritative and its traditions final as against private judgment.
It is easy to see how, by this rather strange road, he reached the point of becoming a Catholic. Discontinuing his Review for 1843, he started another in 1844. called Brownson’s Quarterly Review, expressly to teach his “doctrine of life.” But he soon found that he had thought and read himself for good and all into Catholicity ; and although he continued his editorial enterprise, it was henceforth as a convert.
In the forsaking of his pet theory, and submission to the Roman Catholic Church as the true body of Christ, Brownson did not abandon liberty of thought, but simply let it be bounded by law, as all true liberty must be. Pass beyond law in any field, and you step into anarchy. Consider human law, common, statutory, or of decree. It is a vast corporate mass of thought, of enactments, decisions, and orders, which limits not only lay folk, but lawyers and judges as well; far move minutely than the Catholic Church limits its members. Yet who will deny that while lawyers and judges and legislators must work within these certain confines only, and the whole people must submit to the same restrictions upon thought, they still all enjoy intellectual liberty, which the very existence of these metes and bounds alone makes possible?
Brownson was not a mere subservient advocate of the Church in every particular of its policy or administration, on the unavoidable and often unfortunate and ill-judging human side, either in the past or in the present. He was often a severe critic upon these matters, albeit with constant reverence for her great spiritual traditions and authoritative teachings. His outspokenness sometimes got him into very hot water; against which, however, his sincerity and fidelity had the effect of a protective coating. Because of his pugnacious quality. Catholic Americans to this day are divided in their estimate of him. Those of vigorous mind, large perceptions, and self-reliant character give him the tribute of an unbounded enthusiasm, while others who imagine that faith depends upon timidity and colorlessness shake the head or shrug the shoulder, half sadly, half cynically. They regard vigor and independence as “ dangerous.” but are indifferent to the greater danger of stagnation.
One of the strongest witnesses to his increased strength and freedom of thought after becoming a Catholic is his powerful treatise on the American Republic, issued in September, 1865, twenty-one years subsequent to his conversion. Never has the genius of our country and our nationhood been so grandly, so luminously interpreted, from so lofty a point of view, as in this masterly book, published when he was sixty-two. Mulford’s The Nation, which I have already mentioned, was brought out five years later. One may note the remarkable correspondences and the greater depth and broader sweep of Brownson’s exposition. He * distinguishes between the spirit of the nation and the mere government. The danger of the American people is in their tendency to depart from original federal republicanism, and to interpret our system in the sense of “ red-republican” and social democracy. As commonly defined, democracy must, he thinks, be classed among the barbaric and anti-republican constitutions ; the principle of barbarism being that power is a private or personal right, as asserted in this species of democracy. Power is not really a private, it is a political right, and, like all political rights, a public trust. All power of government comes originally from God, and there can be no government without, society, no society without government. “ Barbarian individual freedom ” (or crude democracy) was never generalized into altruistic freedom, which is the creation of Christianity alone. Christianity, in the secular order, is republican ; and although, as St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and Suarez, great doctors of the Church, all maintain, the republic may change its magistrates and even its constitution, yet the people are not the source of authority. It is derived by them, collectively, from God. Were the American people originally one people, or several independent states ? The Constitution simply organizes the government, and determines nothing on this point. When the colonies declared their independence, they did so jointly, as the United States, to form “ a more perfect union ” than the union already existing. Brownson contends that the American people were not made one by the written Constitution, as Jefferson, Madison, Daniel Webster, and so many others supposed, but were made so by the “unwritten constitution” born with and inherent in them, “ the providential constitution of the American people or civil society.” The American democracy is “ territorial,” not “ personal ” or individual. There can be no progress without both stability and movement. We have stability in the divine trust of national power conferred upon us, and the direction of our movement is indicated by the responsibility which that implies, and in the mission which the author predicts for the United States of taking “ the hegemony of the world.”
But it is useless to attempt giving here any adequate outline of this treatise. Brownson’s practical faith in his country was vividly exemplified by his three sons, who joined the volunteer army for the defense of the Union in the civil war. Two of them were killed in battle. The third, surviving still, brought from the field his wounds and the rank of major, and loyally and with pious care collected and edited his father’s works in thorough and aide fashion.
Of the twenty volumes, four are devoted to Politics, and include a fascinating variety of themes. Four more group his essays on Civilization, in its various phases. There are four devoted to Controversy. three each to Religion and Philosophy. One treats of Scientific Theories, and another of Popular Literature. The last contains, along with much that is valuable, discriminating, suggestive, or profound, certain things which will impress the average cultivated and tolerant reader as curiosities of criticism; for example, that passage, in a review of Emerson’s poems (1847), where, alluding to the weird and mysterious feelings of a “ deluded insight ” which come to persons who are without faith, he declares that Emerson’s poems “ are not sacred chants: they are hymns to the devil. Not God, but Satan do they praise, and they can be relished only by devil-worshipers.” To a certain extent, one can see how, judging from the extreme point of austerity in dogmatic faith, the writer might have looked upon portions of the poems written by this eminent man — once his intimate and most sympathetic friend — as being so at variance with purely Christian teaching as to seem devoted to the devil. But that was not a sound or wise view, and the language was most intemperate.
Brownson was not a good appreciator of literature. He lacked in a measure the large and also the fine artistic sense. Yet, on the other hand, no one could be at heart more generously disposed, or, at times, more charitable in expression towards non-Catholics ; more ardent in recognition of the principle that the Holy Spirit may operate on countless souls outside the visible Church, — the principle sometimes embodied in the phrase “ the baptism of desire.” It is true that in one short essay, Extra Ecclesiam Nulla Salus (1874), he went to the uttermost point of maintaining that if one actually dies a Protestant he is damned, “ and will never sec God as he is.” This utterance, I believe, when taken nakedly by itself, is regarded by the most competent Catholic theologians as excessive and unsound. Certainly it is not sustained by the sublimely charitable expression of Leo XIII. concerning even so aggravated a case as that of the archskeptic Ernest Renan, that, since he had died without recanting, there was hope for him. because the fact showed at least, that he was conscientious in unbelief. And again, Brownson’s own essay, ten years earlier (1864), on Civil and Religious Freedom, extended to those outside the Catholic Church the broadest, tenderest good will, and declared a conviction that the sincere among these were as likely to be saved by God’s mercy as any one else. One should not too hastily accuse him of inconsistency, in contrasting these two essays. The subject at issue is complicated, and a writer may say different things at different times, apparently conflicting, which, if more carefully stated, would be found to result mainly from the different conditions or grades and shades of distinction he was considering at the moment.
It was in this paper on Civil and Religious Freedom that he attacked the Jesuits as being far behind the age, ultraconservative, seeking to perpetuate sixteenth-century ideas and methods, and having outlived their usefulness. The special outburst against the Jesuits was unduly petulant, and, as it seems to me, undeserved. No doubt, in the Catholic Church, as in any large aggregate of persons, one runs up against many things which are painful, disappointing, even repulsive. The convert is sometimes sickened by the discovery that various great principles of conduct and duty, which are so firmly upheld in catechism, sermon, and Catholic literature, are treated with a more than non-Catholic indifference by priests and prelates, when a practical case arises ; and that the muchboasted “ authority ” of the Church in keeping people to their common duties and sacred vows becomes a nullity in the hands of weak pastors and bishops, of petty and intriguing curates, or even of officious laymen and women, who are allowed to domineer and set aside the rules of faith because they are wealthy or influential. It is perhaps part of the price we pay for the ineffable beauty of the Church’s truth, and for the interior discipline which may be had from her teachings, if not from the practice of such unworthy representatives. I do not think Brownson is much to blame for having exploded once, to the extent, of a few pages, after twenty years of chafing under these or other disappointments. In nearly every period there have been true, brave, loyal Catholics who have spoken as plainly as he did, with good intention ; and in much that he said he was justified.
With all his vehemence and even selfwill when he thought he was right, he yet was capable of great repression and docility, as was shown when Father Walworth (another eminent convert, the son of Chancellor Walworth, of New York) objected to an article he had offered to the Catholic World. After a sharp discussion, in which Brownson stoutly resented all criticism, he suddenly tore the manuscript in pieces, and proceeded to write a new one on the lines proposed by Walworth. He wrote a good deal for that magazine between 1865 and 1873, having removed to Elizabeth. New Jersey ; and he was also lecturer on constitutional law at Seton Hall in 1871, when the college was under the presidency of Father, now Archbishop Corrigan. In 1874 he revived his own Review once more, in a new series; but he died in 1876, the “Centennial Year.” He had much to do with helping to guide into the Catholic Church Isaac Hecker, afterwards founder of the now famous and useful society of the Paulist Fathers in New York.
A curious instance of the influence which he exerted upon other minds, in religious matters, was told me by his son. Orestes had a brother, Orrin, who lived at Dublin, Ohio, and became a Mormon. In August, 1851, he visited Orestes at Mount Bellingham, Chelsea, and entered into a long argumentation with him on religion. Orrin would put a question, which Orestes would answer with uncompromising, unsparing force. Then Orrin, without saying a word, would dart out of the house and walk a long time in the hot sunshine ; after which he would return and put another question. The same process was then repeated ; Orrin still making no rejoinder. When this odd dialogue ended, there was no summing up: Orrin went away in silence. After nine years, during which the brothers had not met again, Orrin wrote to Orestes that he had become a Catholic. From Dublin, Ohio, he had gone to Dublin, Ireland, where he was received into the Church, and was confirmed by Archbishop Purcell of Cincinnati ; and a notice of the fact appeared in the Paris Univers.
One impression of Orestes Brownson is that he was self-absorbed — as a man who had so much to study, to think of, and to write about might well be — and had no bosom friends. If he had not such friends in the sense of permanent cronies, he made up for the lack by his devoted affection for his family and the overflowing abundance of his kindness to mere acquaintances or strangers who sought his counsel. In personal appearance he seems to have blended the leonine aspect with something of apostolic benignity ; his strong, incisively pointed beak nose and magnificent forehead giving him a mien of grandeur. “ We all remember Brownson,” writes the son of an old friend and admirer, “ as a large, heavy man, with bushy beard and hair, quite white when I knew him; a rugged and rather gruff-voiced old fellow, but with real refinement of feeling, warmhearted, and full of sympathy for his fellows, individually and at hand as well as generally. Bishop, afterwards Archbishop Bailey [of Newark] nicknamed him ‘Ursa Major,’—he was so big and hairy and gruff. . . . His talk was fluent and strong. He spoke with a dominating air, as of a powerful and all-grasping mind. ... A well-known Boston man said of him that the only safe way, in arguing with Brownson, was to deny everything. If yon admitted anything, even the most simple and obvious. that he proposed, you were lost: he would proceed logically and prove his point triumphantly.” In conversation, he was inclined, like Coleridge, to voluble monologue, which seemed to some hearers excessive ; but not so to one gentleman who called upon him once in New York. This gentleman was then a Protestant, but wished to make some inquiries about Catholicity. Brownson received him cordially at ten o’clock in the morning, and did not let him go until six o’clock in the evening; holding him there, “ not ‘ with his glittering eye,’” the visitor writes me, “ but by his bold and brilliant tongue.”On another occasion Brownson read aloud to this same caller Emerson’s noble and affecting Threnody on the death of his little son Waldo; and as he read, “his face became wet with tears, which he took no pains to conceal. The incident Was a revelation to me. I had heard Dr. Brownson described as a rude, rough man, apparently without feeling. The more I saw of him, the more I saw that behind that somewhat rude manner was beating a warm, kind, tender heart.” This, too, is a fitting and corrective pendant to that savage characterization of Emerson as a writer of “ hymns to the devil,” which I have quoted.
My correspondent declares that Brownson “ was as intense an American as Washington, Jackson, or Lincoln,”— an assertion the truth of which no one will dispute who has studied his writings and his career. Of his attempts at fiction, which were purely didactic, — Charles Elwood and The Spirit - Rapper, — it. is not necessary to speak here ; my object being to present only some points of suggestion respecting his force as a philosopher and teacher, a comprehensive student of religious history and government, a potent essayist on many subjects ; a man of conscience, whose convictions — as Lowell wrote of Dante—“wore so intimate that they were not only intellectual conclusions, but parts of his moral nature ; ” and withal as ardent an American patriot as he was a Catholic.
Some of his most able contemporaries in the Catholic world of letters and intellect, among them the brilliant Dr. Ward of the Dublin Review (whom Tennyson greeted as “ most generous of ultramontanes. Ward ”), although giving to his unusual powers a hearty recognition, abated somewhat from their praise because of his strong advocacy of ontological views, as opposed to the scholastic philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Leo XIII. has reinstated Aquinas, or at least renewed his influence. But whatever criticisms of Brownson have been made upon this score, it may be doubted whether any writer of English in this century has given the world so encyclopædic a presentation of Catholic doctrine and thought as he, or one so intelligible to all classes of minds and likely to benefit them all.
To whatever cause it be owing, Brownson is omitted from our manuals and histories of literature, or figures but slightly in them. Professor Richardson even affirms that the Catholic Church in the United States has “ depended on foreign authorities in this line,”— meaning the literature of religion and morals; ignoring the fact that it has found here one of the most virile and accomplished exponents it possesses in any part of the world. In Stedman and Hutchinson’s Library of American Literature only one extract from Brownson is given ; and that one, relating to practical democracy, hints at but a single and least significant phase of the author’s activity. Yet lie was highly regarded and very prominent among his literary contemporaries, until the main current of his production flowed into Catholic channels. It seems to me that he merits a clearer and more grateful recognition, to-day, than he commonly receives. The large, Websterian cast of his mind, the cleancut massiveness of his thinking and his style, make him an interesting object of study. The very fact that in himself he formed so close a link between the Transcendental or other phases of American thought and those embodied in the Catholic Church adds to his significance ; and he may well be commended to all serious, fair-minded readers of the present and the rising generation as illustrating with strength and brilliancy the Catholic mind in the United States, and its relation to our national life.
George Parsons Lathrop.
- The Works of Orestes A. Brownson. Collected and arranged by Henry F, Brownson. Detroit: Thorndike Nourse ; Henry F. Brownson. 1882-1887.↩