Orestes Augustus Brownson was among the most illustrious thinkers of the United States in the nineteenth century. To his contemporary John Henry Newman (1801-1890) he was “by far the greatest thinker America has ever produced.”
In his great classic The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny (1865), Bronson states that the American republic’s
“idea is liberty with law, and law with liberty. Yet its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual– the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. IN other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of natural rights of man and those of society.”
Brownson offers, in his clear and felicitous prose, an analysis of the Greek and Roman republics and of European states so as to contrast the United Staes with previous political systems. “The real mission of the United States,” he writes,
“is to introduce and establish a political constitution which, while it retains all the advantages of constitutions of states thus far known, is unlike any of them, and secures advantages which none of them did or could possess. The American constitutions has no prototype in any prior constitution.”
Brownson states that the book is his “attempt to set for the principles of government, and to explain and defend the Constitution of the American Republic.”
The word “controversial” is often used to describe the life and work of Orestes Brownson. Another is “influential.” Born to a poor Vermont family and largely self-educated, Brownson memorized scripture at an early age. He had a passionate love of truth and was perfectly wiling to admit to changing his mind. He adhered, briefly, to one belief after anther. By turns a Presbyterian, an atheist, a Universalist minister, and a Transcendentalist in the same vein as Emerson and Thoreau, in 1844 he was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church where he remained until his death.
Brownson made his influence felt, in Europe as well as in the United Staes, through books and journals. He edited The Boston Quarterly Review, the Democratic Review, and, from 1844 until the year before his death, a publication that he founded, Brownson’s Quarterly Review. His loft vision of his country’s destiny manifested itself in much of his writing.
Peter A. Lawler calls The American Republic Brownson’s “comprehensive political work,” “this fine–and unjustly neglected” book, and sees parallels between it and Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Thomas E. Woods, Jr., in his Introduction to the edition we have chosen to reproduce for the Classics of Liberty, quotes T.S. Eliot’s comment that he found it “remarkable that a Yankee a century ago should have held such views as his, and depressing that he has been so ignored and most of us have never heard of him.”
Brownson and The American Republic are no longer neglected. Russell Kirk admired him; Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., published in 1939 a biography of him; several more recent biographies have appeared; and a new edition of his political works is being issued.
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This volume has been photographically reproduced form the edition of 2003 with an Introduction by Thomas E. Woods, Jr., and thus preserves the authenticity of the original, including typographical errors and printing irregularities.