Orestes Brownson, Territorial Democracy, and the Trumpening
What might XIX
In "Orestes Brownson and Territorial Democracy," Gerald J. Russello explains one of this thinker's central ideas:
- In The American Republic, Brownson sought to explain American government in light of the Civil War. Out of that great conflict a new nation had arisen; what was its relation to the old? Some had argued that each of the states had independent existences that could survive the dissolution of the Union. Others believed the nation was, or should become, a unitary state, centralized in Washington. To Brownson, both sides were wrong. The states were neither pre-existing nations that had “contracted” with one another, nor were they mere provinces of a general government. The former, for Brownson, contradicted principles of sovereignty; the latter equated the federal system with the centralized democracy of Jacobin France.
Rather, the states are sovereign in their own spheres, but that sovereignty exists only because they are part of a nation. Brownson calls this understanding of the American system “territorial democracy”: “not territorial because the majority of the people are agriculturists or landholders, but because all political rights, powers, or franchises are territorial.” Power, in other words, is not portable — as it was, for example, in pre-modern nomadic peoples or in medieval Europe, where the “state” was wherever the royal court happened to be.
Rather, sovereignty in the modern state exists only within the physical area of a particular society. The sovereignty of New York, for example, exists only because it is part of the geographical entity known as the United States. As Brownson puts it, “The American States are all sovereign States united, but, disunited, are not States at all.” Brownson’s territorial democracy is consistent with American federalism, and in fact has greater explanatory power than either the nationalist or secessionist versions. The Founders knew that government should be as close to the people as possible, so it could be more accountable. The national and state governments each derived legitimacy from the people, and each had a legitimate claim to govern within its own sphere.