The Postliberal Constitutionalism of Orestes Brownson

Is America a liberal nation? Since the beginning of the modern American conservative movement, it has been faced with the dilemma of developing an authentic right-wing philosophy in a nation born of revolution. Lionel Trilling’s claim that “[i]n the United States… liberalism is…the sole intellectual tradition”[1] was the impetus for Russell Kirk’s seminal The Conservative Mind.  In The Conservative Mind, Kirk successfully argued for the reality of an Anglo-American conservative tradition, one which, as the original subtitle indicated, dated back from Edmund Burke to George Santayana. This was the consensus among American traditionalist conservatives for quite some time, yet new works by Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermeule have resurrected Trilling’s critique from a Catholic integralist perspective. To answer these objections, and forge an American conservatism compatible with both the integralist and the Kirkian, we must turn to the work of Orestes Brownson. 

Brownson’s life was nothing short of unique. He gained fame at various times as a Presbyterian, a Unitarian Universalist preacher, a leading Transcendentalist, and finally as America’s most prominent convert to Catholicism. In a time where anti-Catholicism was rife, Brownson attempted to bridge the divide between Catholicism and Americanism without abandoning the integrity of his religion or nation. This is evident in the fact that for Brownson, Catholicism is the only hope for the salvation of the American experiment. As a mass conversion is a lofty expectation, Brownson chose instead to turn his attention to correcting the errors of the Enlightenment and reorienting politics back to its classical roots. 

Brownson lays out his political philosophy in what Woodrow Wilson considered “the best study of the American constitution,”[2] The American Republic. In this work, Brownson tackles three relevant questions. The origin of government, the nature of the American nation, and the religious identity of the United States. Drawing on the classics and the recent Civil War, Brownson outlines a theory of the Constitution divorced from the failures of the Enlightenment. Unafraid to criticize several Founders when they err – Brownson reinforced his liberal criticism by maintaining a deep commitment to the wider constitutional framework. Through his work, national conservatives can draw upon the positives of the Constitution while pushing back against the Enlightenment zeitgeist of the age, and bolster resilience to the integralism of ours.  

Social Compact Refuted

Since elementary school, we have been taught that our government rests on a social contract of citizens voluntarily relieving certain freedoms to the state in exchange for the preservation of the remaining. Crucially, this can be revoked by “the people” when the government violates this contract. The social contract has been cited by many prominent individuals on the Right and the Left as an accurate description of our governing system. However, as Brownson (later echoed by Patrick Deneen) argued, it is fundamentally anti-conservative anthropology that undermines the reality of human nature.

For instance, in The American Republic, Brownson expresses his distaste for “the right to revolution” stated in the Declaration of Independence which asserts that when despotic tyranny is present, the citizenry withholds a right “to alter or to abolish it, and to institute a new Government.”[3] To Brownson, this overtly Lockean rhetoric leads to relativistic political atheism. Instead of deriving political authority from God, Jefferson’s doctrine places it in the hands of a notoriously fickle and hard-to-define populace. By making government contractual, it creates a system where individuals are the law unto themselves – denying the social nature of humanity best expressed in the family and the nation. To forge a conservative constitutional philosophy, we should proclaim at the same time as Jefferson that “[w]e have heard enough of liberty and the rights of man; it is high time to hear something of the duties of man and the rights of authority.”[4] For if Jefferson’s idyllic liberty is to be maintained, it must be paired with veneration of law and God.

The Providential Constitution and the United States

Continuing Brownson’s heterodox philosophical journey, he remains one of the only prominent American conservatives to draw upon the writings of 19th-century French reactionaries Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, and Lamennais. Developed by them and borrowed by Brownson was the concept of the providential constitution, the idea that because of the work of God in history “[e]very country has the government it deserves.”[5] Far from a republican exclusivist – Brownson’s providential constitution theory allows for the legitimacy of many different forms of government. In keeping with his rejection of a priori rationalism in politics, he grounds his American theory of state grounded in her particular historical circumstances. The providential constitution of the United States, according to Brownson, is democratic republicanism based on elements of Roman law, Greek reason, and British constitutionalism all inspired by the auspices of Christian and Hebraic revelation. Importantly, this constitution did not negate the written one. Rather, it informed and explained it. This inseparable relationship between the unwritten constitution and the written Constitution is best expressed in Brownson’s critique of Southern secessionism.  

The moral justification of secession has its roots in the same Lockean vision of the state as the Declaration, and this flawed reasoning is found in the works of both the Southern nationalist John C. Calhoun and the proud Yankee Daniel Webster. Calhoun and Webster offered their own unique version of compact theory to define their constitutional interpretation. Calhoun believed sovereignty rested entirely in the states, which can nullify laws and ultimately leave the Union when they see fit. Webster believes the Union was “undissolvable”, but concedes that states were sovereign before ratification, as once the Constitution was ratified their sovereignty was abrogated. Brownson notes the problem with this doctrine as follows: 

“If the Anglo-American colonies, when their independence of Great Britain was achieved and acknowledged, were severally sovereign states, it has never since been in their power to unite and form a single sovereign state, or to form themselves into one indivisible sovereign nation. They could unite only by mutual agreement, which gives only a confederation, in which each retains its sovereignty, as two individuals, however closely united, retain each his individuality. No sovereignty is of conventional origin, and none can emerge from the convention that did not enter it. Either the states are one sovereign people or they are not. If they are not, it is undoubtedly a great disadvantage; but a disadvantage that must be accepted, and submitted without a murmur.”[6]

Instead the United States, Brownson argued, was never a collection of sovereign states. Focusing on the legal and historical facts of our colonial history, he shows that we were always one entity under the British Crown and that none of the states were ever recognized as independent nations by foreign governments. The United States is a unique government in that the particular governments (the states) and the central government are united and inseparable. Sovereignty never lapses, but it can be taken as the colonies took it from the British. The government of America is vested “in the States, it is in the States united, not in the States severally, precisely as we have found the sovereignty of the people is in the people collectively or as a society, not in the people individually.”[7] This vision of the United States provides a historical basis for an authentic nationalism, based upon an organic concept of nationhood – as opposed to the contractual idea of modernity. The moral justification for a truly united American nation ties into Brownson’s perspective on the democratic nature of our Constitution and the Civil War.  

Territorial Democracy 

America is defined by its democratic ethos and institutions, and what constitutes the exact nature of our democracy is necessary to ensure the survival of the nation. In Brownson’s view, the Civil War was fought over three competing versions of democracy: territorial democracy embodied by the Union, the personal democracy of the Confederacy, and the humanitarian democracy of the abolitionist movement.

Personal democracy has its roots in feudalism, which holds that all power is based on personal relationships such as those between a lord and peasant. While slavery is the obvious example of this in the American South, Brownson ties it to an individualistic view of society as well. The American South believed society to be a compact between free individuals and the Constitution to be a compact between sovereign states. By denying the political nature of human beings, political life devolves into a raw competition for power and the pursuit of self-interest. Southern personal democracy denied the solidarity of the human race and the rightful authority of government. This was embodied by the view that liberty “is the right only of those who have the ability to assert and maintain it.”[8] Although personal democracy was surrendered at Appomattox, the more destructive tendency of humanitarian democracy continued to hold sway over the American republic.  

The American Republic is the product of a firm Unionist mind, Brownson blamed both the Southern fire eaters and the Northern abolitionists for the outbreak of the Civil War. What he termed humanitarian democracy is the embodiment of the reformist zeal to remake the world in a utopian image. The modern focus on autonomy allied to social justice is the ultimate expression of humanitarian democracy, even the barriers between men and women must be broken down to expand human freedom. As we have seen throughout history – to break down these barriers, the humanitarians require more power to enforce their egalitarianism on the rest of the nation. Brownson correctly foresaw this as destructive to American republicanism as well as the Christian religion. 

The ideology that represented the Union, and what should be the guiding vision of the American Republic, is territorial democracy. Grounded in Joseph de Maistre’s ‘providential constitution,’ Brownson denied the concept of popular sovereignty. Instead, sovereignty is vested in the territory of the United States of America. Sovereignty is not portable like the medieval conception where the state is wherever the king happens to be “[r]ather, sovereignty in the modern state exists only within the physical area of a particular society.”[9] This is in line with the classical republican conception of authority as a public trust, which to Brownson was a sign of the progress of civilization and part of the United States’ historical mission to reconcile Greece and Rome. Territorial democracy allows for a politics of the common good by limiting the authority of the state, while isolating it from the vagaries of popular opinion. As Peter Augustine Lawler wrote, “[c]itizens occupying a particular part of the world, joined together by borders, law, and defined accountability of rulers to ruled — this is what makes republican government possible.”[10]

Many conservatives wish to see a return to an emphasis on national sovereignty, and Brownson’s ideas of a rooted polity can counter the libertarian narrative of ‘America as an idea’.

America’s Destiny 

“Every living nation receives from Providence a special work or mission,” proclaimed Brownson, and the “special mission of the United States is to continue and complete in the political order the Graeco-Roman civilization.”[11] The concrete meaning of this mission is to eliminate the barbaric parts of the Roman constitution that grounded power in feudal rights. The American Constitution is an attempt to reconcile competing forces of individualism and centralism, which is found in our division of powers between the federal government and the states. In addition to creating a unique political system that does not fit particularly neatly in Aristotle’s typology of regimes, the United States has a more concrete mission.

The Catholic Church has a unique role in the majority Protestant nation of America. Because of this, it has been the challenge of many believers to how we can bring the Church to the forefront of national life without compromising the faith. In Brownson’s writings, he argued that the United States needs the authority of the Catholic Church to survive – and that the religious freedom in the Constitution will allow for the growth of Catholicism. For him, the innate problem with Protestantism is that eventually, it devolves into a system that;

“leaves religion entirely to the control of the individual, who selects his own creed, or makes a creed to suit himself, devises his own worship and discipline, and submits to no restraints but such as are self-imposed.” To alleviate this problem and save democracy, Brownson insists that “[u]nless the American people embraced Catholicism and thus balanced the democratic tendency with respect for authority, the nation was doomed to “lapse into barbarism.’”[12]

He believed that the sectarianism of Protestant denominations would ultimately, open a whole for the Catholic authority to fill.

Although he had great faith in the natural development of American Catholicism, he did not preach an idle gospel. Catholic authority, for him, would eventually become sociopolitical. Brownson held fast to a belief in the church-state relationship, asserting;

“[T]he Church should monitor the laws and particularly the government’s adherence to them. “We do not advocate–far from it– the notion that the church must administer the civil government; what we advocate is her supremacy as the teacher and guardian of the law of God,–as the Supreme Court.”’[13]

In what was uncharacteristic of a generally realistic figure, Orestes Brownson’s destiny for America was steeped in the deep faith of an unlikely event, a Catholic revival. Yet more realistically transferrable from this idea is a return to religious authority in general. Whether it be Catholic, Calvinist, Pentecostal, or Mormon, Brownson was correct that the liberal potpourri of religion would contribute to grand impediments of American identity.


“Ideas have consequences,” proclaimed Richard Weaver, and nowhere is this more evident than in political philosophy. Debates on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of our society may seem irrelevant to the majority of the population, but the ideas that pervade society ultimately inform the policies that affect our lives. A society that values atomized liberalism, relativistic values, and a nebulous concept of nationhood will make laws accordingly. The rampant ills of a declining social fabric and a libertine regime are a testament to the failures of modernity. Orestes Brownson’s political philosophy is the antidote to the Lockean poison Deneen warns us of. Thoroughly American and Catholic, Brownson puts forward a communitarian interpretation of the American nation and a critique of liberal pieties in both the Founding and amongst his contemporaries. By grounding American philosophy in the Christian religion and nationalism, a vision of constitutionalism is rediscovered that frees us from the failures of the liberal order.  


[1] Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination.

[2] Peter Stanlis, “The Enduring Brownson,” Kirk Center.

[3] Declaration of Independence

[4] Orestes Brownson, Essays and Reviews, p. 352.

[5] Joseph de Maistre, Correspondance diplomatique, tome 2. p. 196.

[6] Orestes Brownson, The American Republic, 130.

[7] Ibid, 144.

[8] Ibid, 224.

[9] Gerald J. Russello, “Orestes Brownson and Territorial Democracy,” Crisis Magazine.

[10] Peter Augustine Lawler, “Our Unwritten Constitution: Orestes Brownson and the Foundation of American Liberty,” Real Clear Politics.

[11] Orestes Brownson, The American Republic, 247.

[12] Carl F. Krummel, “Catholicism, Americanism, Democracy, and Orestes Brownson,” American Quarterly, 24.

[13] Marianne Oswald, “Orestes A. Brownson: An American Traditionalist,” Portland State University.


Brownson, Orestes. Essays and Reviews. New York: D. & J. Sadler & Co, 1852. 

Brownson, Orestes. The American Republic. Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2003.

de Maistre, Joseph, Correspondance diplomatique, tome 2. Paris : Michel Lévy frères libraires

éditeurs, 1860. 

Krummel, Carl F. “Catholicism, Americanism, Democracy, and Orestes Brownson.” American

Quarterly 6, no. 1 (1954): 19-31. Accessed July 1, 2021. doi:10.2307/3031432.

Lawler, Peter Augustine.  “Our Unwritten Constitution: Orestes Brownson and the Foundation of

American Liberty,” Real Clear Politics, 2019. 

Oswald, Marianne. “Orestes A. Brownson: An American Traditionalist,” Portland State

University, 1973. 

Russello, Gerald J. “Orestes Brownson and Territorial Democracy,” Crisis Magazine, 2008.

Stanlis, Peter. “The Enduring Brownson,” Kirk Center, 2011. Trilling, Lionel. The Liberal Imagination, New York: New York Review of Books Classic, 2008.