Chapter 4: American Transcendentalism

Orestes Augustus Brownson

Paul P. Reuben
October 17, 2016

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OAB portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy (1813-1894)
Oil on canvas, 1863
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

Philosopher, reviewer, editor, minister, and essayist, Brownson was a nonconformist who questioned the existing social, religious, and political practices.

Primary Works

Selected writings. Ed. Patrick W. Carey. NY: Paulist Press, 1991. BX2350 .B742

The Boston quarterly review. Absorbed by: The United States magazine and democratic review; in 1844 Brownson began the publication of a new periodical under title: Brownson's quarterly review. Boston: Benjamin H. Greene, 1838-1842. LAC: v.1 (1838)-v.5 (1842)

The Works of Orestes A. Brownson. 20 vol. (1882-1887), Henry F. Brownson, Ed.

Selected Bibliography

Doudna, Martin K. Orestes A. Brownson, The Laboring Classes (1840) with Brownson's Defence of the Article on the Laboring Classes. Delmar, NY: Scholar's Facsims. & Rpts., 1978.

Gilhooley, Leonard. Contradiction and Dilemma: Orestes Brownson and the American Idea. Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham U.P, 1972.

Gilhooley, Leonard, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. No Divided Allegiance: Essays in Brownson's Thought. NY: Fordham UP, 1980.

Lapati, Americo D. Orestes A. Brownson. NY: Twayne, 1965.

Marshall, Hugh. Orestes Brownson and the American Republic: An Historical Perspective. Wash., D.C.: Catholic U. of Amer. P., 1971.

Myerson, Joel. ed. The Transcendentalists: A Review of Research and Criticism. NY: Mod. Lang. Assn. of America, 1984.

Newman, Lanc. Common Dwelling: Henry Thoreau, Transcendentalism, and the Class Politics of Nature. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Rathbun, John W. and Monica M. Grecu. eds. American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1800-1850. Detroit: Gale, 1987.

Ryan, James E. "Orestes A. Brownson." in Mott, Wesley T. ed. The American Renaissance in New England: Fourth Series. Detroit: Gale, 2001.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. A pilgrim's progress: Orestes A. Brownson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1966. B908 .B64 S35

Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1973.

Top Orestes Brownson (1803-1875): A Brief Biography
A Student Project by Scott McElhinnie 

Orestes Brownson was born a twin in 1803. He was trained in the Bible and religious matters to hold Congregationalist views. Printing was a large part of Brownson's formative years as he was apprenticed to and eventually became a journeyman printer. Teaching was a short term occupation for Brownson, choosing to move on to editing and writing for his own and other publications, most notably the Boston Quarterly Review and later the Brownson Quarterly Review. The Republican Party nominated Brownson unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1862 after he published his most influential and only surviving book, The American Republic in 1857. Brownson died in Detroit in 1875 and is memorialized at both Notre Dame and Fordham universities.

The role that Brownson played in Transcendentalism was great but limited. He was one of the original members of the Transcendental Club, but Dr. Hedge, another member, found Brownson "unbearable" and was "not afterward invited" to their meetings(Swift 7). Although not always favorable of Transcendentalists like Emerson, Brownson found that poets like Emerson produced "good" literature in that the spirit or "Moral Purpose" (DLB 59 pg 39) prompting the work was good. Brownson was able to give publicity to the lesser known Emerson through reviews and may have contributed to the advancement of Emerson's writings and fame. Brownson lambasted the Transcendentalists in The Spirit-Rappers. In both of the aforementioned journals, Brownson desired to keep them free from holding to much towards any single political party, social class, or religious doctrine, using only the ideal and unity of "Truth" as the only search a journal should find worth printing. Brownson wrote qualified praise of Brook Farm and its role, even showing up occasionally and grumbling, while being still a topic of conversation there (Swift 56).

Brownson was constantly true to the ideals of Individualism, Search for Truth, and Self-Reliance even though he split with and criticized the Transcendentalist movement later. Examples of this are the way that Brownson was forever changing his religious affiliation and whether his views within the religious party were conservative or more liberal. Brownson was a chosen Presbyterian but then quickly rejected the clergy/laity class distinctions and predestination in the church to then join Universalism that believed in a personal salvation through God's Grace, to then joining the Catholic faith which holds or constitutes both of these topics. Was this considered strange? Not to Brownson who felt that personal expressions only have value to the self and community at the time they are experienced. So, Brownson would not stay with a religion that no longer reflected his view presently.

A political belief went the same way with Brownson. While Brownson believed in the suffrage of All men on earth, he did not believe that the federal government had a right to tell the states what to do; Brownson was anti-abolition not on the grounds that slavery was right but that it was a greater evil to take away power from the states. [It should be noted that Brownson also felt that, after a fair review that earned slavery his "General Disapproval" (DLB 73 Pg.33), that the slave life was better than the "wage" life because the wage earner could be considered valueless when he lost his job while the slave had a value that could at least be placed into a more prosperous condition.] So who did Brownson vote for? Why, Lincoln, of course! Brownson even become an advisor to the president. Eventually, or predictably, Lincoln lost Brownson's favor to John Fremont, the "Pathfinder" and rugged individualist of the West. This shift of loyalties seems very Brownson and very true to at least one aspect of Transcendentalism.

Brownson was also noted for his forceful desire for Americans to produce literature that was worthy of the American Idea; literature that was unique to America and displayed the "Spirit of the Nation."(DLB59 pg.39) Brownson did not believe that writers should avoid base subjects, but they should treat base subjects in ways that did not lend sympathy to wrong conduct. Hawthorn's Scarlet Letter was criticized for this sympathy rather than its style because Hester does not repent, in the end, for having a lover. The criticism of Brownson on literature also includes his beliefs that a true poet was really "vatic" or led by God and the poet should be supported by the masses through great popularity. Good American literature should be anti-aristocratic according to Brownson and not be just a copy of European works. This also reflects the Individualism sentiments of the Transcendentalists. 

Brownson's work was nationally and internationally known, from Poe to Lord Acton. Today, his work is overlooked considering how influential he was at the time. Much of his work is not available or has disappeared altogether. The most complete work was done by Arthur Schlesinger in Brownson's biography. Two symposiums on Brownson were held in 1976 and today he is esteemed as one of America's great thinkers. 

Brownson has been found to be very sharp and clear in his thinking to those who have read his work and then criticized it at the time. Father Hecker wrote that Brownson was the "strongest, most purely human influence...we ever knew(Swift 96). The works of Brownson and their style also were thought to be brash and rough both in concept and in delivery. Brownson was an expert on so many broad topics like religion, politics, and philosophy that his intellect never has been questioned although his bearing may have been from time to time. His essay, the "Laboring Classes" especially, were often controversial in topic and nature. "Was Brownson going to be conservative or more liberal in his latest work?" always seemed to be the question. His more controversial writings suggested that private property be returned to the state at death and that the church should be absorbed into the state. Martin Van Buren claimed it was this essay, "Laboring Classes", that cost him the next election. Some response to an editor and writer who has been overlooked until recently! 

The views held by Brownson about women and slavery were certainly his own. Brownson believed that women were equal to the men but never called for them to be allowed to vote even though he wrote extensively on suffrage. While Brownson fostered the written work of women like Margaret Fuller, Sarah Whitman, and Elizabeth Peabody in the Boston Quarterly Review, he rejected women writers of his era that were too "Mannish"(DLB 73 pg.35) like Georgiana Fullerton who wrote with too much "sighing, weeping." (DLB59pg.41) It is likewise a strange conclusion that Brownson reached regarding slavery considering his move to give all men suffrage and his early support of abolition. Brownson's nationalist leanings were strong, while supporting states rights and Catholic Democracy, he ran as a Republican for the Senate. The Republican party at the time was more anti-Catholic than not. Brownson encouraged Irish Democrats to drop the barriers of race and join in making the republic more whole-which was exactly what some of the Republican party was against in the first place. My source text states that Brownson is a hard man to "sum up" (DLB 73pg35) and so he also rejects easy classification. Brownson changed his mind and his loyalties too often to be put in any one category. I think that this would have made him very happy, to find that he was now respected for his own mind and writings rather than just being included in a canon based on his association with a movement like Transcendentalism.

Works Cited

"Brownson, Orestes Augustus." Dictionary of Literary Biographies. Vols. 5, 59,73 ed. 1982

Swift, Lindsay. Brook Farm. Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1973.

Top Insights of ORESTES BROWNSON (1803-1876)

Compiled by Jack Hockel (29Dec2010)

The fundamental error of Liberalism - that political authority is derived from the people, not from God. was already beginning to prevail. Nor could the Constitution arrest "the democratic tendency," since the Constitution, reciting "We the people" as its very source and making no mention of God, could be amended (or expediently disregarded) by the "will of the people" as expressed by their "elected representatives, a creature to be manipulated at will.

Brownson concluded that only religion could preserve the Republic from moral decay and collapse, since only religion can sustain public morality. Brownson, being Catholic, saw what Washington and the other Founders did not: that because Protestantism in its ever-multiplying varieties is by its very nature subject to the popular will, the only religion that could provide a "religious principle" sufficient to sustain the Republic is Roman Catholicism, the Catholic understanding of the relation between reason and Revelation, or nature and the Creator,

"The Roman Catholic religion, then, is necessary to sustain popular liberty, because popular liberty can be sustained only by a religion free from popular control, above the people, speaking from above and able to command them---and such a religion is the Roman Catholic... [W]ithout the Roman Catholic religion it is impossible to preserve a democratic government, and secure its free, orderly, and wholesome action. Infidelity, Protestantism, heathenism may institute a democracy, but only Catholicity can sustain it."

The Church has full freedom to wield political influence through persuasion.

"Protestantism or infidelity in the people (has an) inevitable tendency to lower the standard of morality, to enfeeble the intellect, to abase character and to retard civilization, as even our short American experience amply proves. Our Republic may have had a material expansion and growth, but every observing American... sees that in all else it is tending downward and is on the declivity to utter barbarism."

The cause of our civilization's decline is simply and only this: the State's defection from the true religion after centuries of Church-State comity, and the consequent emergence of governments severed from the Church and her moral guidance.

The Jeffersonian view, according to Brownson, is that government has no natural or divine foundation. It originates "in convention"; the source of its authority is purely human and the foundation of obedience is the enlightened (Lockean) self-interest of the individuals who consent to that authority. Thomas Jefferson worried mainly about "religious tyranny," the use of political authority to impose religious conformity. But his solution to that form of tyranny tended to be another, the imposition of the thoughtless indifferentism of Unitarianism.


Peter Lawler, Why Orestes Brownson Believed The U.S. Needed The Church, ZENIT 11/7/03.

Christopher Ferrara, The Church and the Libertarian, Remnant Press 2010.

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page:

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 4: Orestes Augustus Brownson." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login). 

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