THE Global Justice Movement Website

THE Global Justice Movement Website
This is the "Global Justice Movement" (dot org) we refer to in the title of this blog.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Orestes Brownson and Socialism, II: The Civil War

Following the American Civil War the danger represented by the twin evils of capitalism and socialism became increasingly evident. Abraham Lincoln's 1862 Homestead Act forestalled the spread of both for a while, but by 1893, as Frederick Jackson Turner pointed out, the "free land" available under the Act had to all intents and purposes run out. The effect on the American spirit was profound, even to the extent that, as far as Turner was concerned, it meant the end of democracy — and democracy in America, as Alexis de Tocqueville had pointed out in the 1830s, seemed custom-made to foster Catholic political and moral principles (if not the Catholic faith) in both public and private life.

After the war, the reaction against the obvious injustices of industrial, commercial and financial capitalism took two forms. In the west, with its tradition of widespread ownership of landed capital fostered by the Homestead Act, and the south, where the emphasis had always been on agriculture, the reaction took the form of populism. In the east, where economic growth was not generally land based, and there was no industrial or commercial Homestead Act to slow the trend, the rise of the proletariat caused the reaction to take the form of socialism. As the opportunity to own land disappeared, populism began to merge with socialism, obscuring differences, causing confusion, and giving capitalism in contrast a credibility it didn't deserve.

The affinity of the American system with Catholicism was only the case so long as ordinary people had access to the means of becoming owners of landed, commercial, or industrial capital. The Homestead Act had, for a while at least, made landed capital available on relatively easy terms. There was, however, no provision for making the rapidly expanding commercial and industrial frontier equally available. "Power," as Daniel Webster had observed in the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820, "naturally and necessarily follows property." As the land ran out and there was little or no access to the means of acquiring and possessing the new commercial and industrial capital, the American people became increasingly proletarian — and increasingly tempted by the glamour of socialism.

The financial system installed by Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase and his inflationary monetary and fiscal policies implemented to finance the Union war effort seemed designed to concentrate ownership of big business by providing it with adequate credit. At the same time, the system severely restricted the amount of capital credit available to farmers, ranchers and small businessmen. The British Bank Charter Act of 1844, on which the United States National Bank Act of 1863 was modeled, ensured that industrial and commercial interests could draw bills of exchange which, when accepted, created all the money necessary to finance economic development on a large scale. At the same time, the restriction of the banknote currency in the United Kingdom, and the policy of deflation followed in the United States after the Civil War to restore parity of the paper currency with gold ensured the disappearance of the existing accumulations of savings on which the farmers and small businessmen relied for financing new capital formation.

Consequently, Brownson saw the American Civil War as much larger than a fight to free the slaves or save the Union. It was that, of course, but even more in Brownson's eyes it was a titanic struggle for the soul of America, a nation that, inexplicably to many people today, the popes seem to have singled out for a special role in the destiny of humanity. In The American Republic (1865), his magnum opus, Brownson saw the war as being between individualism/capitalism and collectivism/socialism on the one hand, and the "catholic principles" embodied in a true understanding of the Constitution on the other. As he explained,

"I write throughout as a Christian, because I am a Christian; as a Catholic, because all Christian principles, nay, all real principles are catholic, and there is nothing sectarian either in nature or revelation. I am a Catholic by God's grace and great goodness, and must write as I am. I could not write otherwise if I would, and would not if I could. I have not obtruded my religion, and have referred to it only where my argument demanded it; but I have had neither the weakness nor the bad taste to seek to conceal or disguise it. I could never have written my book without the knowledge I have, as a Catholic, of Catholic theology, and my acquaintance, slight as it is, with the great fathers and doctors of the church, the great masters of all that is solid or permanent in modern thought, either with Catholics or non-Catholics." (Orestes A. Brownson, "Preface," The American Republic.)

The war marked a turning point in what it meant for this country to be the United States. Whether that change was for good or for ill, however, would be determined in Brownson's analysis by whether the country would begin the seemingly inevitable pendulum swing between capitalism and socialism as a result of basing financing for economic growth on past savings, or whether it would find its soul in the application of Catholic social principles of life, liberty (freedom of association/contract), property, and the pursuit of happiness — the acquisition and development of virtue.