Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876)

Orestes Augustus Brownson (September 16, 1803 – April 17, 1876)

Publisher, editor, minister, social reform advocate, and writer focused on theological, philosophical, political, scientific, and social topics (Library of Congress).

Orestes Augustus Brownson had few constants in his life, including reading, writing, politics, and publishing. Stockbridge, VT, farmers Sylvester Augustus Brownson and Relief Metcalf had 5 children, the youngest were twins, Orestes and Daphne. Four years after Sylvester’s 1805 death, Orestes was sent to a foster home in nearby Royalton. Considered a self-taught intellectual, young Brownson’s informal education began in foster care with the Bible, Homer, and Locke. When he was 14, the family reunited and moved to Ballston, NY, near the resort village of Ballston Spa.

Brownson’s introduction to the world of publishing and politics began when he was apprenticed to James Comstock, the owner, editor, and printer of the Independent American newspaper in Ballston Spa. This time with Comstock introduced the teenager to political and social ideas such as the biggest threats to democracy were money and privilege and that the upper class lived off the labor of the lower classes. These principles remained the basis of Brownson’s politics for several years and influenced his religious beliefs and approach to social reform.

He was well-versed in different branches of Christianity. His mother was a Universalist, his foster parents were Calvinist Congregationalists, he was baptized as Presbyterian, became a Unitarian minister, associated with Transcendentalists, and converted to Catholicism at 41. His religious and political opinions caused controversies that prompted Brownson to sever ties with churches and publications. Given Brownson’s background, it’s understandable why Octavius Brooks Frothingham describes Brownson as “a preacher of all orders in succession” in The History of Transcendentalism in New England (1880).

Brownson established himself as man of letters. He was, at times simultaneously, an editor, writer, publisher, literary and religious critic. By 1824 he was editor of Gospel Advocate and Impartial Investigator, a Universalist journal in which he criticizing organized faiths, religious mysticism, and his own religious doubts. Within 3 years, Brownson declared himself a Universalist, began exploring ministerial life, was ordained as a minister, and got married. During their 45 year marriage, Brownson and his wife, Sally (nee Healy) (1804-1872) had 8 children.

Shortly after a six-week trip to New England in 1829, he became co-editor of the Free Enquirer, an anti-religious paper, and formerly separated from Universalist church. Completely renouncing sectarian religion, Brownson embraced social reform and the Workingmen’s political party. He was briefly an editor of the Genesee Republican, a Le Roy, NY, newspaper of the Workingmen’s party before deciding the party was ineffective due to a lack of widespread support. Brownson believed in a “divine voice within his soul,” became an independent minister and publisher, and established his first journal, the Philanthropist (1831-1832).

Turning toward Unitarianism, Brownson was influenced by Rev. William Ellery Channing, D.D.’s sermons, particularly “A Discourse Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Frederick A. Farley,” often referred to as “Likeness to God.” The September 10, 1828, sermon guided the minister-editor to the conclusion of the impossibility of separating religion from reform, which became a lifelong conviction that Christianity was comprised of social and moral reform principles. Brownson was ordained a Unitarian minister in 1832 and led several churches before moving his family to Walpole, NH. While in NH, he began publishing essays in Boston Unitarian periodicals, including the Christian Register, the Unitarian, and the Christian Examiner. Brownson also read English Romanticism and French reports on German Idealism, becoming passionate about Victor Cousin and Pierre Leroux. During his time in NH, the man of letters came in contact with a group of similarly minded people, later called the Transcendentalists, including journalist George Ripley.

Ripley convinced Brownson to move closer to Boston, MA. The publisher relocated his family to Canton, MA, where he became minister of the First Congregational Church from May 1834 to May 1835. In his July 4, 1834, sermon, he noted the nation was failing to meet the principles of equality laid out in the Declaration of Independence, which alienated some Unitarian parishioners and began his separation from the church.

During this period, young Henry David Thoreau left college for financial reasons. Earlier that year, he interviewed for a teaching position in Canton and one of the interviewers was Brownson, with whom the Concordian would board and study German during his stay. Thoreau taught approximately 70 students while in Canton. Although Thoreau was scheduled to teach for 3 months, he stayed only 6 weeks. Nearly two years later, after quitting as teacher in the Concord public school, Thoreau wrote to Brownson with a request for assistance in finding a new teaching position. In a 30 Dec. 1837, letter, Thoreau writes:

“Dear sir.—I have never ceased to look back with interest, not to say satisfaction, upon the short six weeks which I passed with you. They were an era in my life—the morning of a new Lebenstag. They are to me as a dream that is dreamt, but which returns from time to time in all its original freshness. . .”

The year 1836 brought more changes to Brownson’s life. Ripley convinced him to become a minister-at-large for Boston’s poor and working classes and Brownson founded the Society for Christian Union and Progress, to which he preached in the Old Masonic Temple, on Tremont St. in Boston. He hoped this new church would allow him to unite Christianity and social reform. Brownson published New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church (1836), in which he wrote of problems within contemporary Christianity and proposed the theological principle of atonement as a cure. This book combined Transcendentalist views, radical social egalitarianism, and sharp criticisms on the unchristian, unprincipled, and unequal social distribution of wealth. He attended early meetings of “Hedge’s Club,” what became known as the Transcendentalist Club, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Frederic Henry Hedge, Theodore Parker, and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

As Brownson’s opinions became more radical, and therefore scandalous, he spoke against the same institutions and statuses that benefited some of his contemporaries, including Emerson. During the Panic of 1837, Brownson gave a piercing sermon, Babylon is Falling, about the economic status quo, in which he railed against commercial banks, paper money, and other aspects of inequality, which displeased less liberally minded Unitarians. He supported the principles of Transcendentalism even while criticizing Emerson’s 1838 Harvard Divinity School graduation address and Parker’s 1841 “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” sermon, publishing these reviews in his journal, the Boston Quarterly Review (Jan. 1838-Oct. 1842).

Thoreau told Brownson, in the 30 Dec. 1837 letter:

I have perused with pleasure the first number of the ‘Boston Review.’ I like the spirit of independence which distinguishes it. It is high time that we knew where to look for the expression of American thought. It is vexatious not to know beforehand whether we shall find our account in the perusal of an article. But the doubt speedily vanishes, when we can depend upon having the genuine conclusions of a single reflecting man. . .

Review contributors included A. Bronson Alcott, Fuller, Ripley, George Bancroft, and Peabody. Among his intellectual, religious, and political essays was a favorable review of Thomas Carlyle’s Chartism (1839), an essay Brownson republished as The Laboring Classes (1840). He offered his journal as a Transcendental literary vehicle, which was declined before Emerson, Fuller, and Peabody launched The Dial (1840-1844).

Another pivotal year for Brownson was 1842. Once again, he changed his mind on religion, leaving the church he founded and rejecting organized religion in favor of a personal relationship with God exemplified through social reform. Emerson reviewed Brownson’s open letter to Rev. Channing, D.D., The Mediatorial Life of Jesus (1842) in The Dial (Oct. 1842). That month’s issue of Boston Quarterly Review announced the merger with The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review (1837-1859), a periodical to which Brownson continued contributing. He visited Brook Farm (1841-1847), writing a review of the utopian community in The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review the month following the merger. After a series of Brownson’s essays focused on the American government proved controversial, he left the publication and founded Brownson’s Quarterly Review (1844-1865, 1872-1875). The new journal contained a combination of Brownson’s opinions,—social, political, and religious,—sometimes in the form of literary reviews.

Often straddling the fence on important social issues, Brownson approved of women’s equality without endorsing the suffragist movement. In the same vein, he disapproved of the premise of slavery, owning people as objects, yet did not agree with the abolitionist movement. The publisher believed labor for wages was, essentially, another form of slavery, though did not think the abominable institution justified risking the nation. It seems Emerson attempted to change Brownson’s stance by encouraging his attendance at a Lyceum, though the specific date and place are unknown. In an article for The Atlantic Monthly (June 1892), Frank Sanborn notes the Sage of Concord requested Thoreau bring Brownson to an anti-slavery lecture. Sanborn believed this to occur between 1842 and 1847 and quotes an undated letter from Emerson to Thoreau:

Dear Henry,—I am not to-day quite so robust as I expected to be, and Freedom itself is educatory. The energy of representative institutions is a valuable schoolmaster. To control one’s labor, to enjoy the earnings of it, to make contracts freely, to have the right of locomotion and change of residence and business, have a helpful influence on manhood. These concrete and intelligible acts affect the negro far more than abstract speculations, or effusive sentiment, or the slow so have to beg that you will come down and drink tea with Mr. Brownson, and charge yourself with carrying him to the Lyceum and introducing him to the curators. I hope you can oblige me so far.

Yours, R.W.E.

However, once the Civil War began, Brownson supported the Union, viewing emancipation as a war measure instead of a social equality or equity issue. He visited Washington, DC, to speak with Pres. Lincoln about the abhorrent institution of slavery. After publishing American Republic (1857), Brownson joined the Republican party, unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1862, and was briefly an advisor to Lincoln. Brownson suspended his Review for several years following the deaths of 2 sons in the Civil War and his own continuing health issues.

Among the most prolific writers, Brownson penned more than 2.5million words over the course of his life. In fact, the majority of his writings were collected and arranged by his son Henry F. Brownson and published in 20 volumes as The Works of Orestes A. Brownson (1885) and his letters are archived at Notre Dame University.

On April 17, 1876, Brownson died of pneumonia at the age of 72. He was survived by 2 of his 8 children. Originally buried in Detroit, Michigan, his remains were re-interred in Notre Dame University’s Brownson Memorial Chapel of the Sacred Heart Church, in a crypt below the chapel in June 1886.

Selected Works

An Address, Delivered at Dedham, on the Fifty-Eighth Anniversary of American Independence July 4, 1834 (1834)
New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church (1836)
Babylon is Falling” (Sermon, 1837)
An Oration Before the Democracy of Worcester and Vicinity, Delivered at Worcester, Mass., July 4, 1840 (1840)
Charles Elwood: Or, The Infidel Converted (1840)
The Laboring Classes (1840)
Brook Farm” (in The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review, Nov. 1842)
Synthetic Philosophy” (in The United States Magazine, and Democratic Review, Dec. 1842)
Review of Theodore Parker’s A Discourse on Matters Pertaining to Religion (in Boston Quarterly Review, Oct. 1842)
The Mediatorial Life of Jesus. A Letter to Rev. William Ellery Channing, D.D. (1842)
Essays and Reviews Chiefly on Theology, Politics and Socialism (1852)
The Spirit-Rapper: An Autobiography (1854)
The Convert; Or, Leaves From My Experience (1857)
The American Republic (1857; 1865)
Conversations on Liberalism and the Church (1870)