A Constitution in Full

The journal Anamnesis has just published my essay on the 19th century political thinker Orestes Brownson. I am attempting in this essay to apply Brownson’s insights on America’s 19th century constitutional dysfunction that produced the Civil War to the problems posed to our constitutional order by progressivism. I do this by focusing on Brownson’s identification of the misunderstanding of American constitutionalism posed by the personalist democracy of the Southerners and the humanitarian centralized democracy of the Northerners. The latter found its clearest expression in the consolidationist approach of the abolitionists. Brownson’s warnings here of the proto-progressives of his day can clearly provide us with resources to addressing the progressives of present day.

So I’ve posted on Orestes Brownson before regarding his notion of territorial democracy, and what this entails for republican self-government as opposed to the ongoing rule by judicial philosophers, administrative bureaucrats, or EU’s transpolitical seers. Unfortunately, Brownson is somewhat neglected by American historians. Although widely read in his day, even consulting with Abraham Lincoln on the Emancipation Proclamation in 1861, his voice has never received that wide acclaim one might have expected given his contributions to public debate. That is unfortunate, and is probably owing to his criticisms of democracy, and his even deeper criticisms, though offered in friendship, of the American founding.

In short, when America was marching triumphant, he urged a reexamination of our political principles in order for us to survive as a self-governing republic in line with the Framers’ expectations. Brownson’s soberness on America and her ambitions, however, might be the voice we most need to hear today. His understanding of the Gnostic tendencies inherent within the abolitionist movement, the European revolutionary year of 1848, and the willingness of many Americans after the Civil War to jettison self-government and federalism in favor of abstractions, should serve as a warning and instruction to us. I hope that my essay makes a contribution in this regard.

Richard Reinsch

Richard Reinsch is the editor of Law and Liberty.

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