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Orestes Brownson and the Civil War

From: U.S. Catholic Historian
Volume 31, Number 1, Winter 2013
pp. 1-20 | 10.1353/cht.2013.0007

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The Civil War, a major turning point in American history, as Mark Noll has argued, created a theological crisis with long-lasting effects on American life. The conflicting Protestant battles over interpreting the Bible and the doctrine of Providence with respect to American slavery led to a deadlock over slavery and in the post-Civil War period led to the marginalization of the Bible and religious philosophy in areas of American public policy. Military might and economic forces brought the Civil War to a conclusion; religious issues turned out to be irrelevant in solving this major tragedy in American history.

American Catholics, although divided over the issue of slavery and sectional allegiances before and during the Civil War, never accepted the general Protestant notions of religious authority and periodically protested against what they considered false interpretations of freedom and authority leading to political, economic, and religious individualism. This Catholic voice in antebellum and Civil War society was itself marginalized because of its social (immigrant) and intellectual status and the antebellum Protestant crusade against it. Nonetheless, minority voices, as historians and others have learned, deserve consideration because they sometimes reveal aspects of a society that the majority just cannot or do not perceive. One of those American Catholic voices was Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876), a very untypical American Catholic, but an intelligent one.

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Orestes A. Brownson, Portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy (1863)

Brownson, a convert to Catholicism (1844), was, in contemporary parlance, a public intellectual who commented repeatedly and vigorously on current political and religious issues, and particularly the principles informing religious and political affairs. For Brownson, the Civil War and events leading to it constituted a personal tragedy (he lost three sons during the period) and a political and religious crisis. These events transformed his political philosophy, caused him to promote immediate emancipation prior to Lincoln's declaration, and brought about an intra-Catholic battle for the American Catholic mind and heart. By the war's end, he reasserted his basic conviction that a Catholic religious philosophy of communion had much to contribute to a nation torn apart on the one hand by the effects of Protestant and American abolitionist movements, which he considered a form of social totalitarianism, and on the other hand, a states-rights philosophy of government, which he tagged a form of individualism.

Brownson's views on the Civil War need to be examined in the context of late antebellum political events and his intellectual responses to them. Since about 1850, Brownson feared the breakup of the American Union because of intractable hostilities over slavery. In the early 1850s, abolitionists' campaigns threatened the Union; by the late 1850s the threat came mostly from the southern states-rights campaigns to extend slavery into the territories and states. After about 1855, once he had moved from Boston to New York City, Brownson responded to these antebellum political events by what he called a doctrine of life by communion. Brownson's philosophy, then evolving in interaction with political and ecclesiastical affairs in Europe and the United States after 1855, emphasized communion in the political as in the religious community. For Brownson, freedom and authority, the individual and the social, existed in a dialectic union or dialectical synthesis in which authority did not devour freedom, and freedom did not diminish authority.

After 1855, according to historian Theodore Maynard, Brownson lapsed into liberalism. In fact, Brownson emphasized one side of his dialectical synthesis from 1855 to the end of the Civil War. His religious views and attitudes shifted considerably from positions taken immediately after his conversion. He began to stress, for example, the compatibility (not the conflicts) of Catholicism and American culture and called for Americanization of Catholic immigrants—a view drawing opposition from New York's Archbishop John Hughes. He corresponded regularly with European Catholic "liberals" like Charles René Forbes Montalembert, read and published articles in Le Correspondant, a liberal French Catholic publication, and in general sided with Catholics in Europe and the United States who accentuated freedom. In the U.S., moreover, he sided with Catholic clergy and other Catholics who were attacking what some called ecclesiastical despotism in episcopal administration of dioceses...

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