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Orestes Brownson so esteemed New England people, customs, and institutions that they dominated his writings and fit at the heart of his political ideas…

The danger of majoritarian tyranny hangs over republics. The dilemma of constituting a virtuous republic while also restricting interests, sects, and factions’ use of unchecked political power possessed eighteenth century American constitutionalists. States’ Rights as a means to curb the concentration of power claimed few champions more eloquent than the New Englander Orestes Brownson. Brownson’s affection for his home region helped him align politically with the South Carolinian John C. Calhoun and write voluminously on states’ need to check Federal authority. His love for New England history and culture, what Brownson designated the region’s “unwritten constitution,” energized his pen.

Orestes Brownson rejected social contract theory and suggested that written constitutions reflecting the unique identity of historically-developed human communities—shielding their traditions, habits, and way of life—best-protected liberty. “Forms of government are like the forms of shoes—those are best which best fit the feet that are to wear them,” he observed.[1] Written constitutions must “fit” the unwritten ones. This unwritten constitution, which comprised what Edmund Burke called communities’ “little platoons,” necessitated states’ rights federalism as a barrier against factional government.

By denying social contract theory, Brownson rejected, not James Madison’s perception of factional danger, but his solution in the separation of powers. A social contract was a negation of history and a denial of human communities, or as Peter J. Stanlis described it, “false of historical fact, false to human nature, and therefore false to a sound political philosophy.”[2] Communities developed organically over time and in particular places; government was not an isolated theoretical phenomenon but a continual development under historical circumstances—“history records no instance of a nation existing as an inorganic mass organizing itself into a political community.”[3] Therefore, written constitutions did not go far enough. They must consider “the total historical inheritance” of a community, in other words, its “unwritten constitution.”[4]

America’s unwritten constitution comprised two parts: its “corporate character in civil society within a legally chartered territory” and its Christian heritage.[5] The first was the historical legacy of American liberty. As Dr. Stanlis explained:

The ultimate foundation of America derived from the total civilization of Europe, from classical antiquity and medieval Christendom to its colonial settlements. Like Edmund Burke, Brownson believed that European civilization was a complex fusion of Roman civil law, Christian morality, metaphysics, and canon law, and Teutonic feudal customs.[6]

Historical communities developed through stages of time, whereby traditions, habits, prejudices, and civil society emerge, eventually transplanted to American soil. Brownson believed the wisdom of American governance found its source here. “The written constitution (practical set-up of the organization of government of this civil society) was good and beneficial only if it was a faithful expression of the unwritten constitution of the historical people,” historian Hugh Marshall noted.[7]

Second, Christianity “provided a normative critical base against rulers who would play God by wielding absolute power in the state.”[8] This, combined with a rigorous moral code educating on right conduct, joined historical communities so “rulers and citizens alike could safely enjoy extensive individual freedom and a sound civil order with social justice, and without state tyranny.”[9] America’s written constitution, Brownson asserted, insufficiently protected liberty because it did not take the unwritten constitution seriously. As a consequence, the Federal Government increasingly dominated historical communities—particularly the states—and fell into factional hands. Marshall elaborated: “[o]nly if the written constitution used the natural checks on power that had developed in the unwritten constitution would the greatest freedom and liberty, within order, be given to the whole of society and to its individuals.”[10] Echoing Calhoun, Brownson stated that if nineteenth century America wished to avert divisive factional strife, states should be given a veto over legislation prejudicial to their interests.

Vivifying Brownson’s doubts on the sufficiency of Madison’s system and the need to link the written and unwritten constitutions was his affection for New England. Brownson so esteemed New England people, customs, and institutions that they dominated his writings and fit at the heart of his political ideas. While some historians theorize that his early involvement in reform spurred his states’ rights philosophy—“to protect the liberty and freedom of the poorer elements of society from the wealthy industrial and commercial classes”—his motivations emerged closer to home, in “his love and respect for his New England background” and the region’s unwritten constitution.[11] History and Christianity presented themselves in the social, political, and cultural life of the region’s towns and in New England’s contribution to American religion, Puritanism.

For Brownson, New England developed a distinctive history and a vibrant regional character:

[T]he same historical past, the same general social background as far as the English origins were concerned, the same climate and geological conditions, which precluded a dominantly agrarian life and culture, and most important of all the same great resemblance in their political and social institutions.[12]

Out of this background, the town emerged as the most important institution. As the institutional embodiment of the historical community, the New England town was society writ small, encompassing the state, the law, the church, and families. “In what are called the New England states, the best-governed portion of the nation, each town is a corporation, having important powers and the charge of all purely local matters.”[13] The town became a “little republic” and worked hard to make its members loyal republicans and defenders of liberty. “The first settlers of New England,” Brownson wrote, “were ardent friends of liberty, but they were not democrats, and had scarcely a single principle in common with modern democracy…[New England] owed much of the peculiar character of her people, the excellence of her institutions, her comparative freedom from demagogues, and the admirable working of her government” to the region’s towns.[14] Towns, therefore, bore natural leaders “trained from boyhood to the habits of self-government.”[15]

The historic network of towns could be found in all six New England states, but each state bragged its own unique identity. “There is no mistaking a Berkshire countryman for a Cape Codder, or a Vermonter for a true son of the Old Bay State, or a Rhode Islander.”[16] The poor opinion many Southerners and Westerners held of New England Yankees—as traveling purveyors of cheap goods or canny swindlers of the unwary, both in greedy pursuit of dollars—was mostly due to Connecticut, itself more like New York than the other five states. “It has very little truth when applied to Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, or Maine—States as remarkable for their hospitality, generosity, and liberal and manly sentiments, as they are for their industry, energy, and enterprise.”[17] Instead, Massachusetts men harbored a “classical and refined wit” combined with “a strong attachment to tradition and to old manners and customs… He is naturally a conservative, as the Scotch are, if we may so speak, naturally Catholic.”[18] In contrast, a Connecticut man’s wit was “sly, and not incapable of being course,” and while he was less conservative, he excelled in “ingenuity, in inventive genius, in doing much with little… The Bay State man is more influenced by his principles, his convictions, like the South Carolinian, and the Connecticut man more by his interests.”[19] The Vermonter, rejecting conservatism, cared “not a snap of his finger for what his father believed or did; is personally independent, generally free from snobbishness, no slave to public opinion, and for the most part has the courage of his convictions.”[20] Brownson was extremely proud—humorously so—of his home state of Vermont:

A Georgian and a Connecticut man are fighting in Georgia; the Connecticut man looking on will wish his countryman to get the better of his Georgian opponent, but will not interpose till he has inquired into the cause of the dispute, and ascertained on which side is the law. A Georgian and a Vermonter are fighting under the same circumstances; the Vermonter comes up, looks, knocks the Georgian down, rescues his countryman, and investigates the cause and the law afterward.[21]

The charge of New England greediness also badly missed the mark. Unblessed with fertile agricultural lands, the region instead embraced a commercial and factory economy. Profits from these were hard-earned. “[E]conomy and frugality—thrift, if you will—have been inculcated from childhood as virtues, not for love of money as an end, but for the sake of independence.”[22]

New England’s historical communities also created a vibrant literary culture, whose responsibility it was to counter vicious Southern and Western characterizations of the money-grubbing Yankee. For Brownson, the Yankee existed as a real-life figure, but a heroic rather than mean one. Relative to other regions, “we have our full and more than our full share of high-minded and liberal men—men of talents, cultivation, and manners, who are an honor to any country; and nothing is more false than the common notions elsewhere entertained of the Yankee character. We challenge the world to produce a finer specimen of the gentleman than the well-bred and cultivated Bostonian.”[23] In the face of slanderous attacks against Yankee honesty, it was essential for New England politicians and literati to challenge the portrayals. Daniel Webster and Ralph Waldo Emerson began this process, Brownson hoped.[24]

Puritanism, the region’s own brand of Christianity, paralleled this historical community. Many nineteenth century New England writers regarded the Puritans as cold, tyrannical religious zealots who terrorized regional consciences and hampered religious freedom. Brownson protested:

Their experiment of a Christian commonwealth as it existed in their own ideal failed, partly through their defective faith and the absence of supernatural grace, and partly through their exacting too much of human nature, or even of men in the flesh, except the elect few. But they, nevertheless, succeeded in laying the foundation of a Christian as distinguished from a pagan republic, or in founding the state, the first in history, on truly Christian principles; that is, on the rights of God, and which better than any other known state has protected the rights of man… They were grave and earnest—too much so, if you will; but however short they fell in practice, they always asserted the independence and supremacy of the moral order in relation to civil government… There have been as learned, as gifted, as great men, found in other States, and perhaps even more learned, gifted, and greater; but there is no part of the Union where the intellectual tone of society is so high, or intellectual culture so general as in New England, especially in the States founded by the Puritans, as were Massachusetts and Connecticut.[25]

For Brownson, Puritanism was evidence of civilization, ordering existence around moral tenets and giving citizens a foundation from which to build orderly and just communities.

Like the towns, Puritan churches, usually with small congregations, governed themselves and elected leaders. They demanded what historian William Cullen Dennis called “self-examination and self-discipline” from members. “Each individual seeking to be a good Christian needed to study his own life and habits, his strengths and weaknesses, his desires and temptations, in order to better be able to go about his own affairs in a godly way. Then he would be a credit, not a burden, to society and a contributor to the well-being of those around him.”[26] Since Puritan theology stressed the fallen nature of man, it also fed suspicions of government. “Man’s defective nature made trusting men with too much power a dangerous practice as well, for he was bound to abuse the trust.”[27] This did not mean government was small or invisible, far from it. But it remained “a popular government, close to the people, which reflected very closely (in the early years at least) the near unanimous sentiments of a homogenous covenanted people.”[28] For Brownson, Puritanism helped build a region of sound citizens, good government, and civil society.

To his dismay, the unwritten constitution of New England history and Puritanism rapidly disappeared in the nineteenth century. The transportation revolution of railroads and turnpikes linked formerly distant towns and homogenized differences. Public schools universalized educational practices, eliminating variations in method and subject matter between towns. These schools tucked children into classrooms and away from the learning environment of their New England communities.

[O]ur children are educated in the streets, by the influence of their associate, in the fields and on the hill sides, by the influences of surrounding scenery and overshadowing skies, in the bosom of family, by the love and gentleness, or wrath and fretfulness of parents, by the passions or affections they see manifested, the conversations to which they listen, and above all by the general pursuits, habits, and moral tone of the community.[29]

The cosmopolitan city drew the countryside closer to its environs every day and the customs of both were becoming one.[30] “Cosmopolitanism—devotion to a city with no geographical or properly human boundaries—is an oxymoron,” explained Peter Augustine Lawler on Brownson’s lament. “Its unbridled pursuit leads to lonely solitude, personal impotence, and the apathy that is the precondition of all despotism.”[31]

Further, New England and the Northern States became a “humanitarian democracy” after the Civil War, following a generalized philanthropy rather than concern for real people in real communities. “The humanitarian is carried away by a vague generality, and loses men in humanity, sacrifices the rights of men in a vain endeavor to secure the rights of man… [H]e respects no territorial or individual circumscriptions, and must regard creation itself as a blunder.”[32] The rigor of Puritan churches also deteriorated with a rising tide of religious liberalism and declining morals. “In our judgment, it is the natural result of loosening the restraints which Puritanism undoubtedly imposed on passions and conduct, leaving people to their natural passions, instincts, and propensities, without any restraint at all.”[33] Under this onslaught, state and local rights—empowering what Tocqueville called “concealed breakwaters” to maintain order, authority, and direction—was Brownson’s natural political response.

On the one hand, Brownson believed Madisonian separation of powers ensconced in a written constitution an inadequate defense against faction, opting instead for a politics of human scale where an unwritten constitution of historical communities and Christianity ordered the passions. On the other, he wrote voluminously on New England’s traditional communities, their spiritual foundation in Puritanism, their politics and culture, and the threat they faced from nationalism, technology, and homogenization. Orestes Brownson’s constitutional philosophy and his love of New England complemented one another.

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[1] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, April 1874, 212.

[2] Peter J. Stanlis, “Orestes Brownson’s The American Republic Today,” No Divided Allegiance: Essays in Brownson’s Thought. Ed. Leonard Gilooly (New York: Fordham University Press, 1980), 143.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 144-145; For an excellent discussion of Brownson’s rejection of social contract theory, his description of the “unwritten constitution,” and an application of his constitutional understanding to today, see Peter Augustine Lawler and Robert M. Reinsch II, “Orestes Brownson and the Unwritten Foundation of American Constitutionalism,” Modern Age, Spring 2016, 31-41.

[5] Ibid, 145.

[6] Ibid, 144.

[7] Hugh Marshall. Orestes Brownson and the American Republic: An Historical Perspective (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1971), 32-33.

[8] Stanlis, “Brownson,” 146.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Marshall, Brownson, 32-33.

[11] C. Carroll Hollis, “Brownson on Native New England,” New England Quarterly, June 1967, 212.

[12] Brownson quoted in Hollis, “Brownson,” 214-215.

[13] Orestes Brownson. The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny. Ed. Peter Augustine Lawler (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 175.

[14] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, October 1860, 530.

[15] Ibid, 532.

[16] Orestes Brownson, “Beecher’s Norwood,” Catholic World, December 1869, 395.

[17] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1849, 402.

[18] Brownson, “Norwood,” 396.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Brownson’s Quarterly Review, July 1849, 403.

[23] Ibid, 404.

[24] Hollis, “Brownson,” 225.

[25] Brownson, “Beecher’s Norwood,” 397-398.

[26] William Cullen Dennis, “Puritanism as the Basis for American Conservatism,” Modern Age, Fall 1974, 407.

[27] Ibid, 408.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Brownson quoted in Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (New York: W.W. Norton, 1995), 157.

[30] Hollis, “Brownson,” 221.

[31] Brownson, American Republic, lxxvi.

[32] Brownson, American Republic, 230-231; “[I]n his zealous exaggeration of the social element, the humanitarian democrat often overlooked, ignored, or downgraded the importance of the personal, the peculiar, the particular, or the unique.” Robert Emmet Moffit, “Constitutional Politics: The Political Theory of Orestes Brownson,” Political Science Reviewer, Fall 1978, 165.

[33] Brownson, “Norwood,” 400.

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Published: Nov 1, 2017
Michael J. Connolly
Dr. Michael J. Connolly is Professor of History at Purdue University Northwest in Indiana. Dr. Connolly received his Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America and is the author of Capitalism, Politics, and Railroads in Jacksonian New England, as well as many articles on nineteenth-century American History. He has been published in New England Quarterly, Modern Age, the Historical Journal of Massachusetts, and the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, among others.
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