Born in Vermont, Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876) was a largely self-educated New England radical, Universalist minister, and (finally) Catholic layman and polemicist. During the American war of 1861-1865, he wrote as a conservative War Democrat. The War Democratic position, awkward enough in its context, had definite limits. It was rabidly Union-nationalist and effectively anti-Black, although in holding such views, Brownson was “typically American.” He undertook his famous trip to the White House to urge emancipation on Lincoln purely as a war measure. One supposes that Brownson’s complete works abound in good insights on matters of theology, church-state relations, and more. Nonetheless, his writings on American history and politics have their flaws, and that is our interest here.

Total War for Eternal Principles

Brownson’s Quarterly Review at war was a wellspring of Jacobin nationalism offset with random “conservative” outbursts. Death was far too good for enemies of the Union, and the war could not rightly end a minute before the Southern foe surrendered unconditionally, failing which, merciless, total physical destruction was the only policy conceivable. Meanwhile, it seemed, Christian virtues would (like parts of the new-found wartime Constitution) remain in suspension.

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