With Brownson and Murray, we can say that there is an American tradition of Thomistic realism that opposes itself to the dominant American tradition of contractualism and pragmatism, while also resolutely affirming the achievement of American constitutionalism. We might add to the American Thomist tradition the great literary artists Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor. Percy, for example, realistically affirmed the truth and goodness of science while also rejecting scientific claims that do not acknowledge the reality of the distinctive excellence, and destiny, of human beings.
Brownson and Murray teach us the important lesson that the beliefs we hold in common as Americans must really be true if our liberty is to be defensible. Where Brownson goes beyond Murray is in his robust defense of the necessarily national or territorial character of democracy. This was arguably his keenest insight--and one that contemporary Catholics, in America and elsewhere, inclined as they are toward skepticism of national sovereignty and admiration of transpolitical institutions, would do well to ponder.
For Brownson, national solidarity is a natural human potential rooted in necessary human dependence. It also accords with the real but limited human powers of knowing and loving one another. The universality of reason and even religion, given our natural possibilities and limitations, cannot be the model for political order. The proper political form is thus the nation, the modern equivalent of the polis. Brownson thought national solidarity perfectly compatible with the solidarity of the human race through reason and faith, as long as the state was properly oriented toward the truth.
Given our need to flourish as social but limited beings, government deserves our love, loyalty, and obedience. "Loyalty," Brownson writes, "is the highest, noblest, and most generous of human virtues, and is the human element of that sublime love or charity which the inspired Apostle tells us is the fulfillment of the law." Loyalty is more specifically human or particular than the supernatural virtue of charity. And charity cannot replace loyalty as a political or national passion. So Christianity elevates "civic virtues to the rank of religious virtues [by] making loyalty a matter of conscience." Brownson even asserts that "he who dies on the battlefield fighting for his country ranks with him who dies at the stake for his faith." More precisely, "Civic virtues are themselves religious virtues, or at least virtues without which there are no religious virtues, since no man who does not love his brother does or can love God." Human beings approach the universal through the particular, and love of the personal Creator cannot be separated from other particular human beings. Human love is never for human beings in general. All men are brothers, but men come to know brotherly love only when they experience political solidarity with their fellow citizens.
The ancients summed up the whole of human wisdom in the maxim, Know Thyself, and certainly there is for an individual no more important as there is no more difficult knowledge, than knowledge of himself, whence he comes, whither he goes, what he is, what he is for, what he can do, what he ought to do, and what are his means of doing it.
Nations are only individuals on a larger scale. They have a life, an individuality, a reason, a conscience, and instincts of their own, and have the same general laws of development and growth, and, perhaps, of decay, as the individual man. Equally important, and no less difficult than for the individual, is it for a nation to know itself, understand its own existence, its own powers and faculties, rights and duties, constitution, instincts, tendencies, and destiny. A nation has a spiritual as well as a material, a moral as well as a physical existence, and is subjected to internal as well as external conditions of health and virtue, greatness and grandeur, which it must in some measure understand and observe, or become weak and infirm, stunted in its growth, and end in premature decay and death.
Among nations, no one has more need of full knowledge of itself than the United States, and no one has hitherto had less. It has hardly had a distinct consciousness of its own national existence, and has lived the irreflective life of the child, with no severe trial, till the recent rebellion, to throw it back on itself and compel it to reflect on its own constitution, its own separate existence, individuality, tendencies, and end. The defection of the slaveholding States, and the fearful struggle that has followed for national unity and integrity, have brought it at once to a distinct recognition of itself, and forced it to pass from thoughtless, careless, heedless, reckless adolescence to grave and reflecting manhood. The nation has been suddenly compelled to study itself, and henceforth must act from reflection, understanding, science, statesmanship, not from instinct, impulse, passion, or caprice, knowing well what it does, and wherefore it does it. The change which four years of civil war have wrought in the nation is great, and is sure to give it the seriousness, the gravity, the dignity, the manliness it has heretofore lacked.
Though the nation has been brought to a consciousness of its own existence, it has not, even yet, attained to a full and clear understanding of its own national constitution. Its vision is still obscured by the floating mists of its earlier morning, and its judgment rendered indistinct and indecisive by the wild theories and fancies of its childhood. The national mind has been quickened, the national heart has been opened, the national disposition prepared, but there remains the important work of dissipating the mists that still linger, of brushing away these wild theories and fancies, and of enabling it to form a clear and intelligent judgment of itself, and a true and just appreciation of its own constitution tendencies,--and destiny; or, in other words, of enabling the nation to understand its own idea, and the means of its actualization in space and time.
Every living nation has an idea given it by Providence to realize, and whose realization is its special work, mission, or destiny. Every nation is, in some sense, a chosen people of God. The Jews were the chosen people of God, through whom the primitive traditions were to be preserved in their purity and integrity, and the Messiah was to come. The Greeks were the chosen people of God, for the development and realization of the beautiful or the divine splendor in art, and of the true in science and philosophy; and the Romans, for the development of the state, law, and jurisprudence. The great despotic nations of Asia were never properly nations; or if they were nations with a mission, they proved false to it--, and count for nothing in the progressive development of the human race. History has not recorded their mission, and as far as they are known they have contributed only to the abnormal development or corruption of religion and civilization. Despotism is barbaric and abnormal.
The United States, or the American Republic, has a mission, and is chosen of God for the realization of a great idea. It has been chosen not only to continue the work assigned to Greece and Rome, but to accomplish a greater work than was assigned to either. In art, it will prove false to its mission if it do not rival Greece; and in science and philosophy, if it do not surpass it. In the state, in law, in jurisprudence, it must continue and surpass Rome. Its idea is liberty, indeed, but liberty with law, and law with liberty. Yet its mission is not so much the realization of liberty as the realization of the true idea of the state, which secures at once the authority of the public and the freedom of the individual--the sovereignty of the people without social despotism, and individual freedom without anarchy. In other words, its mission is to bring out in its life the dialectic union of authority and liberty, of the natural rights of man and those of society. The Greek and Roman republics asserted the state to the detriment of individual freedom; modern republics either do the same, or assert individual freedom to the detriment of the state. The American republic has been instituted by Providence to realize the freedom of each with advantage to the other.
The real mission of the United States is to introduce and establish a political constitution, which, while it retains all the advantages of the constitutions of states thus far known, is unlike any of them, and secures advantages which none of them did or could possess. The American constitution has no prototype in any prior constitution. The American form of government can be classed throughout with none of the forms of government described by Aristotle, or even by later authorities. Aristotle knew only four forms of government: Monarchy, Aristocracy, Democracy, and Mixed Governments. The American form is none of these, nor any combination of them. It is original, a new contribution to political science, and seeks to attain the end of all wise and just government by means unknown or forbidden to the ancients, and which have been but imperfectly comprehended even by American political writers themselves. The originality of the American constitution has been overlooked by the great majority even of our own statesmen, who seek to explain it by analogies borrowed from the constitutions of other states rather than by a profound study of its own principles. They have taken too low a view of it, and have rarely, if ever, appreciated its distinctive and peculiar merits.
As the United States have vindicated their national unity and integrity, and are preparing to take a new start in history, nothing is more important than that they should take that new start with a clear and definite view of their national constitution, and with a distinct understanding of their political mission in the future of the world.
The idea that the United States has a mission, that we are in the process of becoming (or of not becoming, as the case may be), is foreign to most people, precisely because we so little understand the the nature of the Constitution and of the Republic that the Founders bequeathed to us. If you get a couple minutes today and want to reflect on America, try reading especially the last two chapters of Brownson's book. Even if you reject them utterly, it would seem useful to ponder what purpose the nation does then serve and whether the ideas that animated the Founding are things we no longer believe in as a people. Because if we don't understand those ideas and/or don't believe in them, then the American Republic will join many other noble experiments in the dustbin of history.
Today, July 4, we celebrate a declaration, and that in itself is something special among nations. It is wars that nations often celebrate as their most patriotic of days, but our focus is on words about the "unalienable rights" of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; our focus is on a statement that the American colonies are now independent, not that they will be after armed conflict, but that they are as of the declaration's adoption.
July 4 is a celebration of a people deciding to choose a destiny free from the dictates of others. The decision--an act of mind --is what counts most. And what have we done with that independence? We have become incredibly powerful, of course, but not because we sought power. We are where we are because we afforded common men and women opportunities nowhere else equally available.