Roman Catholicism And American Utopianism
The Divergent Paths of Orestes A. Brownson and Isaac T. Hecker
Dr. Justin Walsh
Fourierism may be theoretically true, but it is a theory, a spirit without a body, and therefore remains, and will remain dead, unless taken up and quickened by the Church. - Orestes Brownson to Isaac Hecker, Nov. 8, 1843.
[William Henry] Channing is down further and further into the Fourier Movement. Without religion as the basis and that presupposes the Church, [it] seems to me there is no hope for these movements. - Isaac Hecker to Orestes Brownson, Mar. 19, 1844.1
From its beginning America has attracted dreamers searching for a perfect society. America continued to attract Utopians after the birth of the United States. The Harmonists, a close-knit group of German immigrants who followed the teachings of George Rapp, were among the first, settling in Pennsylvania in 1803. They migrated to Harmony, IN, in 1814. Rapp was a pacifist who believed in communal ownership of worldly goods. He also insisted that his followers practice celibacy as they awaited the second coming of Christ. Since "it is very rare that children are born among them," the Harmonists were on the verge of extinction by 1825 when Rapp sold his holdings to the Scottish industrialist Robert Owen. This socialist visionary who planned to supplant the Rappites with a secular Utopia, developed the first commune in North America along lines advocated by Frenchman Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Owen saw universal education as the linchpin of a scientifically constructed society in which mankind would be freed at last from the "shackles" of family and private property. Under his lead Harmony became New Harmony, a place where free love replaced celibacy and the sexes were integrated in schools for the first time in the United States.2
During the next 20 years dozens of emulators founded Owen-like communes in the United States. Brook Farm, established in 1841 near Boston, was by far the most famous. The roster of communards who resided there for at least awhile reads like a "who's who" of radical intellectuals in the 1840's. The names Orestes A. Brownson (1803-1876) and Isaac T. Hecker (1819-1888), perhaps the two most famous American converts to Roman Catholicism in the 19th century, were included. So were the names Frances ("Fanny") Wright and Margaret Fuller, shameless advocates of free love as a necessary prerequisite to the emancipation of women. Others present from time to time included poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, and ministers of the gospel Theodore Parker and William Ellery Channing.
Brook Farm was best known as the home of "Transcendentalism," a term Brownson defined in 1840:
So far as Transcendentalism is understood to be the recognition in man of the capacity of knowing truth intuitively, or of attaining to a scientific knowledge of an order of existence transcending the reach of the senses, and of which we can have no sensible experience, we are Transcendentalists.3
This heady stuff became even headier in 1843 when Albert Brisbane transformed Brook Farm's 200 acres into a "phalanx" (communal farm) that followed the plan of Charles Fourier, a French utopian who insisted that man could not be free until both the marriage relationship and private property were abolished. Fourier's disciples in Massachusetts practiced what they preached in "phalanasteries" (dormitories) where they lived according to a philosophy that Fourier called "Natural Optimism." This philosophy was defined by the Encyclopedia Britannica as:
...the view that the full, free development of human nature as the unrestrained indulgence of human passion is the only way to happiness and virtues and that misery and vice spring from the unnatural restraints imposed by society on...gratification of desire.
While dormitories based upon Fourier's "law of passional attraction" attracted a few newcomers, they repulsed many supporters of Brook Farm and a substantial number of outsiders. Among the repulsed were Orestes Brownson, at age 40 a mentor to Hecker, and Isaac Hecker, at age 24 in a sycophantic (a servile, self-seeker who attempts to win favor by flattering influential people) relationship with Brownson. Each ended his association with the collective in 1843. On March 3, 1846, the phalanastery at Brook Farm was torched; financial losses followed and in late 1847 America's most famous 19th century commune was dissolved.
Orestes Augustus Brownson was born in Stockbridge, VT, on Sept. 3, 1803, into a non-practicing Congregationalist family. At age 14 he moved with his widowed mother to Albany, NY, where both mother and son became Presbyterians. At age 23, repelled by Calvin's stern doctrine of predestination, Brownson fled to Detroit and became a Universalist minister. From 1826 to 1829 he preached the salvation of all mankind while ministering in Michigan, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. During these years Brownson considered himself a Christian although he denied the divinity of Christ and the Last Judgment.
In 1829 Brownson forsook his ministry and "associated with Robert Owen and Fanny Wright in their war on marriage, family, and religion" at New Harmony.4 Thus, at age 26, he began a 15 year sojourn into radical utopianism, a sojourn that did not end until he discovered Catholicism. The year 1832 found the peripatetic preacher-socialist in Massachusetts where the Reverend William Ellery Channing converted him to Unitarianism and ordained him as a minister in that sect. In the mid-1830's Brownson helped found the Workingmen's Party which he tried to integrate with the most radical wing of Andrew Jackson's Democratic Party. Soon both Brownson and Channing became infatuated with the dialectical idealism of the German philosopher Friedrick Wilhelm Hegel. The combination of proletarian radicalism and Hegelian dialectic led Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Brownson's most prominent non-Catholic biographer, mistakenly to call Brownson "a forerunner of Karl Marx."5
Schlesinger was mistaken because Brownson was too religious to embrace the kind of militant atheism associated with Marx. Brownson's religiosity was established beyond doubt in 1836 when he published his first book, New Views of Christianity, Society, and the Church. The book envisioned a "Church of the Future" that would merge antithetical elements of Catholicism and Protestantism into a more advanced form of Christianity. According to Brownson, a positive factor (thesis) of "spiritual or sacramental Catholicism" would combine with its negation (antithesis) of "material or earthly emphasis of Protestantism" to produce a synthesis in which "Christ the God-Man would reconcile earth and heaven, spirit and matter." This Hegelian fusion would occur at the second coming, when Christ would be "truly incarnated in universal humanity," making God and man one.6
Sometime in the mid-1830's, while he combined radical politics with his work as a Unitarian minister, Orestes Brownson met Isaac Hecker. Hecker placed the time as "during the summer of 1834 [when] Dr. Brownson...came to New York and delivered a course of lectures in favor of the principles and aims of (the Workingmen's Party)." Henry F. Brownson, Orestes' son and first biographer, set the initial meeting in 1837 when "Rev. Channing invited Rev. Brownson to New York to exchange pulpits."7 Either way, Isaac Hecker would have been very young and impressionable, 1518 years old, when Brownson first enthralled him.
At the time they met Orestes Brownson was at his peak as a largely self-taught orator and essayist. By all accounts he spoke with spellbinding bombast, from a repertoire that allowed him to roam at random through Sacred Scripture, Greek and German philosophy, medieval Latin, the American Founders, Transcendentalism, and the musings of French socialists. Absolutely self-assured, he did not hesitate when founding the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838 to write as follows to Martin Van Buren, the President of the United States: "I wish...to say that this review is established for the purpose of enlisting literature, Religion, and Philosophy on the side of Democracy."8
Religion, Philosophy, Democracy! These were precisely the things young Hecker found intriguing. Forty years after the event and four years after Brownson's death, Hecker recalled approvingly the theme of what Brownson had said in a speech on March 4, 1841: "...Christ was the big Democrat and the Gospel was the true Democratic platform." Indeed, Isaac Hecker was so taken with Brownson's approach to both religion and politics that he acted as a booking agent for the minister. Hecker arranged Brownson's famous July 4, 1841, oration in New York City wherein Brownson proclaimed "The principles involved in the American Revolution were but the application of those political associations involved in the principles taught by Jesus Christ." Following this talk Brownson was a guest at the Hecker home where Isaac met with his "client" to discuss social problems and work out a schedule for future talks. The result was "Civilization and Human Progress," presented in four lectures in New York in early 1842, when Brownson was once again a guest of the Hecker family. The speeches attempted to formulate a framework for a properly ordered society and occasioned the beginning of "an amiable companionship between Isaac Hecker and Orestes A. Brownson."9
In October, 1840, Orestes Brownson summed up his career in the Boston Quarterly: "It has been with us a leading object to bring out...the great fact, that Jesus was a social reformer, that the aim of his mission was to establish equality on earth, as well as to secure salvation to the soul hereafter." The thought that Jesus might have an interest in securing salvation to the soul marked a new departure and provided the first hint that Brownson might find the answers he sought in Catholicism. He said later he had concluded "early in life" that if Christ really did found a Church, it could be no other than the Catholic Church. "But that Church," he added, seemed out of the question. "It was everything that was vile, base, odious, and demoralizing."10 Long associations with Universalists, Utopians, Unitarians, Proletarians, Transcendentalists, and Democrats had convinced Brownson that the Catholic Church was indeed "evil." He began to change his mind and heart in 1840, just as his friendship with Hecker was commencing. A Paulist priest who worked with Hecker wrote in 1891 that "Isaac's acquaintance with Dr. Brownson marks a turning point in his views, his opinions, his whole attitude of mind toward our Lord Jesus Christ."11
Isaac Thomas Hecker was born in New York City on Dec. 18, 1819, the third son in an immigrant German family. Although his mother was a devout Methodist, young Hecker received no formal religious training. In the 1830's, influenced by his brothers, he became a young activist for the Workingmen's Party. For spiritual nourishment he turned to Transcendentalism "because it encouraged people to find meaning in life." In 1842, at the urging of Orestes Brownson, Hecker took up residence at Brook Farm. He left the commune in 1843, shortly after it became a Fourierite "Phalanastery," but not before Brownson dismissed all utopian societies as "humbugs."
If a majority of Orestes Brownson's Catholic biographers are to be believed, the free-thinking minister enjoyed the extraordinary grace to maintain a strictly platonic relationship with Fanny Wright for 15 years despite their admitted mutual attraction and despite their simultaneous residence in three different communes where free-love was part of the daily regimen.12 If Hecker's first biographer is to be believed, young Isaac Hecker enjoyed even more extraordinary graces during his time as a Transcendentalist Utopian:
(Hecker)...never lost his baptismal innocence....This opinion rests on the testimony of Hecker himself [who] told a friend of his mother "that he had never used drink to excess, and that he had never sinned against purity, never was profane, never told a lie," and "he certainly" adds the lady "never was dishonest."
Hecker's own words regarding his "youth and early manhood" are equally "remarkable," coming as they do from one who admitted to keeping bad company steadily between his 13th and 23rd years:
While I was a youth, and in my early manhood, I was preserved from certain sins and certain occasions of sin, in a way that was peculiar and remarkable. I was also at the same time, and indeed all the time, conscious that God was reserving me innocent with a view to some future providence. Mind, all this was long before I came into the Church.13
About the same time as Brownson derided utopias as 'humbugs" he also became disenchanted with the Transcendentalist literati. The pages of his Boston Quarterly bristled with claims that Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter was "immoral" and that Emerson's poems "while beautiful," were really "hymns to Satan." Throughout 1843 and into 1844 his criticisms became more and more Catholic in tenor. During this same time Isaac Hecker moved closer and closer to Catholicism, prompted by what he termed "interior locutions from the Holy Ghost" as well as by Brownson's open leanings towards the Faith. Thus was the stage set for a dual entry by mentor and acolyte into the Church in 1844.14
Orestes Brownson had to exorcise one last demon, however, before he could be baptized - the demon of proletarian democracy. The erstwhile workingman's advocate turned against the Democratic Party during the campaign of 1840 because he felt Martin Van Buren had betrayed the monetary policies of Andrew Jackson. Things appeared even worse to Brownson in 1841 under the Whigs. Soon he questioned the viability of the entire process of American democracy. Faced in 1844 with a choice between equally demagogic politicians in the persons of Democrat James K. Polk and Whig Henry Clay, Brownson penned his brilliant essay entitled Demagoguism. Trusting his appeal would not be too late, he wrote "Sensible men...feel that the success of the partisans of [either Polk or Clay]...would be fraught with the most serious injury." Corruption was so widespread that Brownson could only see hope if a sufficient number of men not enrolled in either party joined together to save the republic. "Let these men...make themselves heard before it is too late; let them select their man, let them rally to his support; and they will succeed."
Then Brownson described the kind of man he had in mind:
We want a man of high moral integrity, of a high order of intellect, of great firmness, decision, and energy and character, who shall look more than four years ahead; a man who is above all party trickery, and who disdains all appeal to party machinery as the means of his elevation....We want a man at the head of the government who is a man, feeling his accountability to his Maker, and his duty to sacrifice himself, if need be, for the good of his country, and the moral and social elevation of his countrymen....15
Demagoguism was more than a tract for a political campaign. Drawing his argument from clearly integral Catholic principles, Brownson considered some priorities for a properly functioning social order and warned of dangers peculiar to democracies. He pleaded with his countrymen to listen lest the United States succumb to a social and political malady akin to cancer in the physical order. Although no evidence was found that Brownson ever read or knew about Alexis de Tocqueville (no reference to the Frenchman appears in indices to Brownson's voluminous correspondence), the American articulated some of the same concerns about republicanism that were spelled out in Democracy in America.
For instance, echoing Tocqueville, Brownson said the popular election of office holders caused candidates everywhere to prostitute themselves before the gods of public opinion. As a result Americans had "lost our manliness...sacrificed our independence...become tame and servile, afraid to say that our souls are our own." They remained in this state until they either obtained permission of the public to speak their mind, or until they had "pretty well ascertained that it will not be unpopular to so speak." According to Brownson this condition was an inevitable consequence of John Locke's doctrine that sovereignty rests with the people:
Now this we contend is a natural result of the principle of responsibility to the people, contended for by our politicians. If you repeat always to your statesmen "Remember your accountability to the people," you must expect them to ask always, not, What is right? but, What is popular? And when you have led your statesmen to do so, made popular opinion their guide, you have made it so for all who aspire to place or power; and then you have made it so for the great body of your whole community, and not in relation to politics only, but in relation to every department of life. Popularity will become the leading object of ambition, and popular opinion the standard of morality. The public will intervene everywhere. The minister of religion will court the public, and the pulpit will soften or suppress the unpopular truth. [Emphasis in the original.]16
What Brownson offered in the essay was an integral Catholic critique of the American way in both theory and practice. The critique came from a man ready to convert because decades of fruitless seeking in American Utopianism had convinced him that the Church alone provides mankind with the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Brownson articulated in Demagoguism perhaps more clearly than any other American Catholic of the 19th century an understanding that the true Faith and civic Americanism are irreconcilable. What else could he possibly have meant by predicting popular governments were doomed to self-destruct? First they would create "a multitude of demagogues" who make what is popular "the standard of what is right or proper." Then they would engender great prosperity "for a time, so long as there remains a large body of the people as yet uncorrupted." However:
[A]s soon as the principle, on which they are founded, reaches the heart of the community...prosperity comes to a standstill, and the state falls to pieces by its own internal vice and rottenness. What are called free states are always marked by a sudden and surprising prosperity, and by almost as sudden and surprising a decline and fall. And this lies in the nature of things, unless independent of the government proper, there be in the community a counteracting and conservative principle....No man can attentively study our political history, and analyze with some care our popular institutions, but must perceive and admit that our state contains the seeds of its own dissolution....seeds which have already begun to germinate. [Emphasis added.]17
Clearly, in the summer of 1844 Orestes Brownson saw what no American Catholic prelate dared even think, let alone articulate: the freedom so lionized by partisans of democracy was in fact a cancer eating into the very vitals of society. Americans might dismiss the physician who warned of the danger and call in another "who will tell us smooth things" like there is no danger and we may "eat, drink, dance, sing, and be merry as usual." But that would avail nothing. "The cancer is there, and eats, eats," spread principally by means of political parties. Devotion to party replaces devotion to the public welfare and there "springs up a system of party tactics" from which the United States has more to fear than from any other cause. The situation could not possibly be worse, Brownson concluded:
Regular organized parties, in a republican government, organized with a view to permanence, so as to make it the primary duty of the citizen to support them, are fraught with the greatest danger to liberty.18
Orestes Brownson studied Catholicism throughout 1844. On June 8 he decided to enter the Church and approached Boston's Bishop Benedict J. Fenwick. This prelate, feeling the editor-essayist was not ready for Baptism, turned Brownson over to his auxiliary, Bishop John B. Fitzpatrick. With his usual self-assurance, Brownson had no doubt that he was ready. In July he announced his conversion in print:
We have no wish to disguise the fact, nor could we, if we would - that our ecclesiastical, theological, and philosophical studies have brought us to the full conclusion, that either the Church in communion with the See of Rome is the one, holy, catholic, apostolic church, or the one holy catholic church does not exist.19
In the meantime Isaac Hecker, through what he termed "a series of transforming ecstatic experiences" and with constant prodding from his friend Brownson, also decided to join the Church. He first approached Bishop Fitzpatrick shortly after Brownson wrote him on June 6, 1844, calling the Catholic Church "the appointed medium of salvation." Urging Hecker to enter the Church, Brownson wrote "You cannot be an Anglican, you must be a Catholic, or a mystic." When Hecker found the auxiliary's rigorous approach to dogma uninviting, he presented himself for Baptism to the coadjutor bishop of New York, John McCloskey. Convinced of Hecker's "sincerity," McCloskey shortened the course of instruction and baptized the convert on August 2 in St. Patrick's Cathedral, eleven weeks ahead of Brownson.20
Dr. Justin Walsh has an undergraduate degree in Journalism and a Master's degree in History from Marquette University and a doctorate in History from Indiana University. He spent 18 years as a university professor before resigning from teaching because of the deterioration of university standards in morals and academics. He currently teaches at the Society of Saint Pius X's St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, Winona, MN, USA.
1. Joseph F. Gower and Richard M. Leliaert, editors, The Brownson-Hecker Correspondence (Notre Dame, University of Notre Dame Press, 1979), pp.76 and 83.
2. Justin E. Walsh, The Centennial History of the Indiana General Assembly, 1816-1978 (Indianapolis, Indiana Historical Bureau, 1987), for Rapp and the Harmonists, pp.138-139, for Owen and New Harmony, p.140.
3. Brownson's Boston Quarterly Review, (July, 1840), as quoted in Gower and Leliaert, Introduction, p.6.
4. See "Orestes Augustus Brownson" in Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), vol.2, p.1.
5. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Orestes Brownson: A Pilgrim's Progress (Boston, 1939), as quoted in Theodore Maynard, Great Catholics in American History (New York, Hanover House, 1957), p.160.
6. Gower and Leliaert, Introduction, pp.5-6.
7. ibid., p.12, and footnote 23, p.47.
8. Orestes Brownson to Martin Van Buren, as cited in ibid., p.6.
9. ibid., "Christ a big Democrat" p.10, July 4 oration and series on Civilization, pp.11-12.
10. Brownson's summary of his career in 1840, Boston Quarterly Review, as cited in ibid., pp.l-2; Orestes Brownson on his early life, as cited in Maynard, Great Catholics, p.158.
11. Walter Elliott, The Life of Father Hecker (New York, Catholic World, 1891), as cited in Gower and Leliaert, p.11.
12. Brownson's intermittent association with Wright lasted from 1829 at New Harmony to 1843 at Brook Farm and Fruitlands. The relationship has been an embarrassment for 20th century Catholic biographers. For example, Theodore Maynard defied all probability with these gratuitous observations: "She was a fairly good-looking person and a good public speaker. Brownson was captivated. The relations between the two were completely innocent, for they were brought together by their absorbed discussion of social questions, in which both took an extremely radical line....Long before getting acquainted with her, he had himself married, and was an irreproachable if somewhat stormy husband. There is not the slightest reason to believe that his wife was in the least bit jealous of Fanny; she was too sensible and knew her husband too well." See Maynard, Great Catholics, pp.159-160. According to the dust jacket this book contains "stirring portraits of 21 notable Catholics and the times in which they lived." The notables range from Isaac Jogues (1606-1646) to Alfred E. Smith (1873-1943) and include Brownson, pp.157-169, and Isaac Hecker, pp.181-191.
13. Elliott, Life of Hecker, pp. 13-14. as cited by Charles Maignen, Father Hecker, Is He A Saint? (London, Burns and Oates, 1898), pp.10-12.
14. For Brownson's criticisms see Maynard, Great Catholics, p.168. For basic facts about Hecker, see David J. O'Brien, Isaac Hecker: An American Catholic (New York, the Paulist Press, 1992). This most recent biography is comprehensive and well documented, but the reader should know that O'Brien sees Hecker as a pre-Vatican II visionary, "a man ahead of his time" in the Church.
15. Orestes Brownson, Demagoguism (1844, as reprinted by Neumann Press. Long Prairie, Minnesota, 1992), p.5. This essay was originally published by Brownson in his Quarterly in the Summer of 1844.
16. ibid., p.17.
17. ibid., p.18.
18. ibid., p.19-20.
19. Brownson's Quarterly Review (July, 1844), as cited in Gower and Leliaert, Correspondence, p.19.
20. ibid., pp.18-19.