The great struggle that Orestes Brownson saw for possession of the soul of the United States had its origin before the American Civil War. His concern for individual and social rights — as opposed to individual or social rights — make Brownson, to a great extent, a "proto-progressive." The progressive movement in American politics, an effort to return to the original founding principles of the American Republic, "officially" began in the late 19th century and reached its zenith under Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20th. The movement, however (weak as it seemed at times), had never been silenced, even by the growing conflict between capitalism and socialism that characterized the latter half of the nineteenth century in America.
Briefly, if somewhat inaccurately, described as a political movement in opposition to conservatism, progressivism was actually an effort to return America to its constitutional and philosophical roots. Progressivism was in contrast to both individualism/capitalism ("conservatism") and collectivism/socialism ("liberalism").
The period following the Civil War saw the rapid passing of the way of life described in Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America. This is best summarized as having embodied the three principles of economic justice — participation, distribution and harmony — in the "four pillars of an economically just society," covered in the previous posting.
Still, the period before the Civil War was anything but halcyon, due principally to the abomination of chattel slavery. William Crosskey posited that the "power grab" by the Supreme Court that resulted in the decision in Scott v. Sandford in 1857 (the Dred Scott case), was the culmination of a decades-long effort to defend slavery. To accomplish this, the theory of "states rights" had been invented, and judicial review expanded far beyond what the Founders had ever intended.
Economically, Scott v. Sandford was a triumph of southern agrarian capitalism over northern industrial, commercial and financial capitalism. This undermined the natural law basis of the Constitution, and fostered the belief that socialism was the only alternative — viable or otherwise — to capitalism. It can be said that the southern agrarian capitalists found their position justified by the economic arguments best presented in David Christy's Cotton is King (1855). At the same time, the emotional presentation in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) inspired the northern "socialist" humanitarians in their abolitionist crusade.
As we have already noted, the war itself was — in economic terms — a struggle between two forms of capitalism, a system depending on a twisting of the natural law. In a supremely ironic circumstance, the northern capitalists took as their justification socialist abolitionist arguments, while the southern capitalists (somewhat more consistently) twisted the natural law right of private property to justify theirs. In more fundamental terms, the war raised the question whether the country would be locked into a seemingly permanent struggle between individualism and collectivism, or whether it would return to what the Founders originally intended, purified of the taint of slavery.
With the passage of the 13th and 14th Amendments, it appeared as though the Founders' natural law orientation had won. The Homestead Act seemed to put the seal on the triumph of "Catholic" political philosophy and respect for the dignity of the human person by opening up near-universal access to the means of acquiring and possessing capital, at least in land.
Brownson, however, foresaw problems. There was, of course, the usual anti-Catholicism. This, however (especially in light of the courage shown by Catholic soldiers on both sides during the war), seemed to be fading. A greater concern, at least according to Brownson, was the growing power of northern capitalism, and the incentive it gave to socialism to oppose the abuses.
From a constitutional perspective, the greatest danger to the United States appeared in 1873 after Brownson published The American Republic. This was a number of lawsuits grouped together as "the Slaughterhouse Cases."
The story is complex, and we need not get into the details here. We only want to note that, according to William Crosskey's analysis, in the ruling in the Slaughterhouse Cases, the United States Supreme Court took the opportunity to nullify the 14th Amendment, which had been passed largely to overturn Scott v. Sandford. Despite the fact that the majority opinion seemed to favor "states rights," Crosskey noted that the opinion was so vaguely worded as to be completely meaningless. It could be — and was — used to make the 14th Amendment mean anything the Court wished, depending on the specific political goal sought.
Up through the 1940s, the precedent set by the Slaughterhouse Cases was used to justify the erosion of private property, especially in corporate equity. It formed the basis of the New Deal, and laid the groundwork for the rapid acceptance and spread of Keynesian economics.
The effort to counter the movement away from the natural law and return to the original intent of the Founders came to be known as "progressivism." While usually characterized as a late 19th and early 20th century movement, we can hypothesize that Brownson was, in a sense, a founder of the movement, and his magnum opus, The American Republic, as its manifesto of a sort.
The latter half of the 19th century was characterized by the struggle that Brownson seems to have anticipated. The more powerful northern capitalism grew, the stronger the socialist resistance became in response. Populism, especially in the west and the south, initially offered an alternative to socialism. The east, with its growing population of propertyless workers, tended more toward socialism.
As the "free land" available under the Homestead Act ran out, however, and the opportunities for small ownership disappeared, populism became increasingly socialist in tone. Ultimately, there was little to distinguish populism from socialism. This left the great mass of people propertyless and thus helpless before the growing power of both the government, and the industrial, commercial and financial power centers of the private sector.
A true understanding of the constitutional basis of the United States was rapidly fading. This had proceeded so far that, when Pope Leo XIII issued the "encyclical" Rerum Novarum ("On Labor and Capital") in 1891, capitalists took it as a defense of their position, while socialists insisted it really supported theirs. The thought that the encyclical is neither individualist nor collectivist, but political in the Aristotelian sense, rarely intruded into discussions then or now.
As a result, by 1900 the country was in serious danger. As described by Herbert Knox Smith, Commissioner of Corporations under Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, and a key man in the "trust busting" effort,
"In 1900 the surface of American life was, as it were, hardening, was growing less plastic. Dangerous division lines were opening from the pressures beneath, splitting the unity of the nation. The great trust movement was in full force, sweeping into a few hands special industrial privileges, the control of natural resources, and decisive advantages in transportation. Individual opportunity and the open highways of commerce were narrowing. Great corporations were considering themselves above the law, with the cynical but increasing concurrence of the public. A sinister atmosphere was gathering, menacing to American initiative and American ideals.
"These recognized inequalities, with the twisted standards which they implied, were moving strongly toward national disunity — that profound disunity which in a democratic people must result from confessed differences in privilege and opportunity." (Herbert Knox Smith, "The Great Progressive," introduction to Social Justice and Popular Rule, by Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926, xi.)
The failure of populism as an effective counter to capitalism left what amounted to a power vacuum among reform-minded citizens. This set the stage for a potential convulsion that could tear apart the nation as surely as slavery had forty years before. By what could only be described as a series of unforeseen circumstances (again, much too lengthy to relate here), however, Theodore Roosevelt was picked as William McKinley's vice president. The idea was both to bring into the Republican fold the reforming, progressive elements of the Republican Party and the more conservative Democrats who rejected William Jennings Bryan's "silver socialism," and to get the reforming Roosevelt shunted aside into a dead end office where he could do little to annoy the reactionary elements in the party.
The tragedy of McKinley's assassination in 1901 catapulted Roosevelt into the presidency at exactly the right time for the reform movement to gain a champion untainted with populism, socialism, or (especially) capitalist greed and corruption. McKinley, while honest, had been expected to carry out business as usual, which was why the party bosses had tried to make certain of his election. The country had only recently pulled itself out of the Great Depression of 1893-1898, apparently validating the refusal of the federal government to inflate the currency or intervene in any other way. (It was actually the combination of bumper crops in the U.S. and crop failures in Europe that brought the country out of the first Great Depression, just as World War II, not FDR's "New Deal" that brought the country out of the second Great Depression.) Only five years before the Supreme Court had ruled that the new income tax, as a direct tax levied without apportionment among the states on the basis of population, was unconstitutional, a decision that outraged the populists and socialists. The Republican Party was seen as catering to the demands of the rich, leaving the poor and downtrodden out in the cold. The road seemed clear for the ever-increasing concentration of ownership and control of industry, commerce and finance in fewer and fewer hands. "Don't rock the boat" might well have been the national slogan to replace "In God we trust."
Roosevelt, however, was a man consumed with reforming zeal — and the intelligence, energy and even the sense of humor needed to carry it through. Today's historians like to point out that Roosevelt's actual legislative accomplishments to carry out reforms were relatively few compared with those of Taft. The authorities tend to forget, however, that without Roosevelt to lead the way, there would have been little or no reforming legislation at all. Pioneers build few cities, but few cities are built without the pioneers to pave the way. As Herbert Knox Smith related, "In 1901, Colonel Roosevelt, with his seer's insight into Americans and American conditions, became President. He saw the danger, and with increasing clearness he framed the issues, speaking directly to the people." (Ibid., xi-xii.)
Throughout his first administration Roosevelt moved the Republican Party toward progressivism, emphasizing "trust busting," increased government oversight to stem the abuses of laissez faire capitalism, and a "square deal" for the average man. In these and other areas Roosevelt, while not a Catholic, seemed more in tune with Pope Leo XIII's view of the American political system expressed in the 1899 "Apostolic Letter" to Cardinal Gibbons, head of the American Church, Testem Benevolentiæ Nostræ ("Concerning New Opinions, Virtue, Nature and Grace, with Regard to Americanism"), than many Catholics. The high regard that Leo XIII exhibited for American civilization and the pope's recognition of its weaknesses was a virtual restatement of Brownson's position set forth in The American Republic.
(The Apostolic Letter is frequently misunderstood, even today, as a condemnation of the American political system. On the contrary, the letter is a virtual endorsement of the American system as a model for civil society. The dangers against which Leo XIII warned Cardinal Gibbons were those associated with applying American civil democratic principles to religious society, particularly in the determination of theological doctrines.)
Of particular note are the efforts of Judge Peter S. Grosscup in advancing progressive ideas in the area of widespread capital ownership, an absolute necessity in a program to secure a "square deal" — respect and support for essential human dignity. One of Roosevelt's "trust busters," Grosscup authored a series of articles in the early 20th century on the necessity of countering the rapid decay of small ownership of farms and businesses with small ownership of the large corporations — something in which G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc later concurred.
The problem with the proposals of Grosscup as well as Chesterton and Belloc was that all of them assumed the necessity of access to existing accumulations of savings to finance acquisition of existing or new capital. This locked them into what Louis Kelso and Mortimer Adler would later call the slavery of past savings. The effect was to restrict capital ownership either to a private wealthy elite to maintain the natural right of private property, or to the State through the abolition of private property to try and guarantee results instead of opportunity, usually through re-defining what "property" means.
Abolishing private property through re-definition (what John Maynard Keynes called "re-editing the dictionary") was made substantially easier in the United States as a result of the decision in the Slaughterhouse Cases. The vague decision (deliberately so, according to William Crosskey) made the status of "person" dependent on whatever a court might decide. The decision was also used to change the meaning of "property," as well as life and liberty (all inalienable rights of "persons"), making them subject to judicial whim or political expedience.
Past savings as the only source of financing for new capital for the non-rich was the shoal on which populism had been wrecked, turning it into just another form of socialism. It would now sink progressivism.