The Greatest Writer of the 19th Century » Brownson's Writings » The Licentiousness of the Press

The Licentiousness of the Press

[From Brownson’s Quarterly Review for October, 1849]

            In the article on Recent European Events, written before we had received the news of the memorable socialist insurrection in June, 1848, which it took four days of hard fighting to suppress, and which resulted in the victory of the party of order under General Cavaignac, we feared that the moderate party, attempting to conciliate the revolutionary party by compromise, would destroy themselves and prepare the triumph of anarchy or despotism, and we regarded Ledru-Rollin as not unlikely to turn out to be a stronger man than Lamartine.

            At that time Lamartine was the man of the revolution, and Ledru-Rollin was apparently without influence.  Yet events have proved, what we then supposed to be true, that the latter was from the first the real leader of the revolutionary party.  He is a bold, reckless demagogue, not without talent of a certain kind, with a determinate end in view, which he is prepared to seek at any and every hazard,- a daring and unscrupulous revolutionary chief, who cares not how much virtue he tramples upon, how many hearts he wounds, how much blood he spills, or how much misery he causes, if he can accomplish his purposes.  Such a man, in times of disorder and confusion, is always sure to have a strong and determined party, and never ceases to be dangerous as long as he lives.

            On the other point on which we expressed our views, our fears have not been fully justified.  The party of order, the moderates, as they were then called, have proved themselves stronger and more resolute and energetic than we dared hope; but the red-republicans, though defeated, have not been vanquished, or ceased to be formidable; and the party of order are yet far from having gained a definitive victory.  One thing, however, they have gained.  “The state,” we said, “cannot be constituted on the revolutionary principle, nor recognize the right of the people to abolish the government; for every state must have as its basis the right of the state to command, and the duty of the citizen to obey.”  “The revolutionary party,” we said, “must be arrested, or it will subvert the new institutions before they get fairly into operation.”  Every sober Frenchman appears now to be well convinced of this.  Three times, within less than eighteen months, the revolutionary party has attempted to subvert the very republican institutions it had forced upon the country, and France seems now to be thoroughly convinced that her regeneration must come from order and liberty, not from revolution and anarchy.  She has taken her stand on the side of the former against the latter,- solemnly proclaimed, No more revolution, no more destruction, no more anarchy; but whether she will be able to maintain the very just and common-sense position she has assumed remains to be seen.  Thus far, she has maintained it firmly, and, under the circumstances, nobly; and the government of Louis Napoleon, thus far, deserves the gratitude of Europe and the Christian world.

            But the enemies of order, of society itself, are in France and in entire Europe neither few nor inactive, and he who today counts on the speedy triumph of authority in the European nations, and the restoration of social peace, will most likely be deceived.  A large portion of the people have been corrupted, and the infection spreads from the cities and towns into the villages and country.  In the earlier half of the eighteenth century, it was the higher classes- kings, nobles, and even to some extent, the clergy- who were corrupt, who had lost their faith, despised morals, and dreamed of a sensual paradise.  The bulk of the people, especially the peasantry, were comparatively sound and virtuous.  Now, it is or is becoming the reverse.  The French revolution of 1789 chastised and corrected the upper classes, and they are now in general the most upright, moral, and religious portion of the community; but the lower classes have taken the infection, have learned to scoff at religion, and ceased to look for a celestial recompense, or to believe in immortality.  They become the ready instruments of base and unscrupulous demagogues,- combustibles, which a licentious press can at any moment kindle for a universal conflagration.  In all European countries there are plenty of educated scoundrels, especially Poles and Italians, ready to inflame them with their incendiary appeals, and of able military men to conduct them in their nefarious war against society,- and plenty of decently dressed sympathizers in England and the United States to cheer them on, to pass resolutions in their favor, and even to vote to send them a flag.  Under these circumstances, we cannot but apprehend a protracted struggle, although as to the ultimate issue we have no fears.

            Unquestionably, for the party of order, one of the first and most important means of self-defense and of the preservation of society is to restrain, as far as possible, the radical press.  In this country, we hold the freedom of the press sacred, and regard its censorship with horror; and not without reason, for here the imbecility of the press renders it comparatively harmless, and we have few motives to rebellion.  Englishmen and Americans have little confidence in ideas,- believe in few things except roast-beef and plum-pudding.  They retain much of the old Anglo-Saxon character, and seldom feel, except in the pocket and the stomach.  They have been bred under Protestantism, which disdains logic, and renders reason superfluous.  Protestantism blunts the intellect, destroys confidence in principles, and superinduces a habit of stopping midway in a chain of reasoning.  People trained under it never find any difficulty in asserting premises, and denying the conclusions which legitimately flow from them.  Besides, it is an Anglo-Saxon characteristic, never to put one’s self in the way of learning what is repugnant to one’s prejudices.  The Anglo-Saxon takes a paper, not to learn what he ought to think, but to learn from it what he already thinks.  If a journal advocates a view contrary to his own, or to what he has a vague suspicion is his own, he eschews it, or resolutely refuses to believe one word it says.  The press, has, therefore, little other influence, in England and this country, than it exerts by expressing already existing views of the several coexisting parties, and no more influence on the ultimate action of either country than the speeches of congress have on the final vote of the house, which, it is said, is just nothing at all.  We can therefore understand no reason why, in England and the United States, the press should not be perfectly free; for in both, though pretentious, it is, comparatively, uninfluential.  It rarely strengthens or weakens a party, rarely determines any public measure, or affects the final issue of any public contest.  Things would go on without, pretty much as they do with it, while it operates as a sort of safety-valve to the superfluous stream of demagogues. 

            But on the continent of Europe, the case is altogether different.  Mental culture there is of a superior order to what it is in Great Britian, or in our own country, and the people are more disposed to act in conformity to their principles.  There is and always has been in the continental nations more mental freedom than in Great Britian, and there is more in Great Britian than in the United States.  Of all civilized countries, ours has the least freedom of thought, and is, not by the laws, but by the manners, habits, and customs of the people, subjected to an intolerable mental slavery, unequalled elsewhere.  He is a brave man, who, among us, dares publish his honest convictions; and he is still a braver man who dares examine convictions contrary to his own with candor and impartiality.  We are the freest people in the world- on paper, but in reality, especially in the interior world, the most enslaved.  But on the continent of Europe, even with those who have thrown off the Catholic faith, there remain some traces of Catholic culture,- a respect for intellect, for systematic thought, and a strong feeling that what a man holds to be truth he should seek to reduce to practice.  Hence the press has there, and must have, an influence for good or for evil, of which we, in this country, can form no conception; not because the European populations are more ignorant than our people, but because, in reality, they have more mental freedom, are more logical, and have received a superior intellectual culture.

            In revolutionary times, the press, with these populations, is a tremendous engine; and a revolutionary press cannot coexist with peace and safety.  It is absolutely necessary, if order is to be preserved, if revolutions are to be arrested, and liberty consolidated, that the law should restrain the license of the journals, and suppress them, as promptly as it would arrest and imprison the conspirator.  The journal is a conspirator; its words are deeds, and must be prevented; for it is too late to punish them after it has been spoken.  As well might you consider it a sufficient precaution to lock the stable door after the colt has been stolen.

            Entertaining these views, and believing no government can fulfil its mission if perpetually assailed with impunity, we were among those, though a violent liberal at the time, who, with the late Secretary Livingston, approved the famous September laws of Louis Philippe, restraining the seditious press.  We cannot but rejoice, then, that the present French government has had the courage and firmness to propose and adopt similar laws.  The necessity and the motives of the recent French legislation on the press, are forcibly expressed in the masterly speech in its defense of Count de Montalembert, made in the legislative assembly July 21st.  M. De Montalembert was a member of the former chamber of peers; he is a man without ambition, a man of extraordinary talents, of a highly cultivated and polished mind, a genuine orator, a sincere Catholic, and the acknowledged political leader of the Catholic party in France.  In times past, we feared that he had a taint of liberalism, and that he would not bear up with sufficient firmness against the revolutionary and socialistic ideas of the age.  Nobly has he disappointed us, and earned the reputation of being, if not the first, one of the very first Catholic laymen of Europe.  The speech was received by the assembly with unbounded applause, and proved a terrible blow to the Mountain, whom it virtually silenced.

            Count de Montalembert is very far from asserting that the Catholic party, under Louis Philippe, were wrong in opposing the government, or implying that there motives were not justifiable, or that the ends they sought were not both legitimate and desirable; all he means to censure is the means in which they conducted their opposition, or the spirit and tendencies they indirectly and unintentionally encouraged.  In this he is doubtless right.  Our pages, and the liberal censures of some of our friends, amply prove, that, long before the explosion of February, 1848, we were convinced that the Catholic political party in France, and wherever else it was in opposition, yielded too much to the so-called liberalists of the day, and were not sufficiently careful to mark the line which separates loyal and conservative from factious, radical, and destructive opposition.  M. De Montalembert is himself now aware of this, and, with that candor which belongs to all manly natures, he frankly acknowledges it; and we doubt not that, if the illustrious O’Connell had lived to witness the events of the last two years, we should have had his acknowledgments to the same effect to place along side of those of his scarcely less illustrious friend.

            The age in which we live is by no means one whose spirit can be safely followed.  Man is a social being, and demands society; society is impossible without even a strong and stable government; and a strong and stable government cannot exist, where the great body of the people fail to respect it, and a large minority are actually engaged in undermining its authority, and forming conspiracies and fomenting insurrections against it.  The presumption is always in favor of the government, and against all who seek its overthrow, whether, as to its form, it is monarchial, aristocratic, or democratic.  It is not for it to prove itself in the right, but for those who oppose it to prove themselves free from crime.  The rebel against established and legal authority is guilty of the blackest crime of which man can be guilty against society.  He is even a rebel against the church, for she enjoins obedience against such government,- a rebel against God, for all legitimate power is from God, and whoever resists it resists God, and incurs damnation.  Yet the age sympathizes with every rebel.  Wherever it finds a party in revolt against authority, in arms against their legitimate sovereign, it blesses them; and it has only curses and execrations for those who generously shed their blood in defense of society against them.  It pronounces the traitor taken in arms against his government, and shot as he deserves, a glorious martyr; and pious journalists- pious after a satanic fashion- dip their handkerchiefs in his blood, and preserve them as sacred relics.  The people rejoice over the victories of the insurrectionists, and weep over their defeats, but have not one generous tear to shed over the brave soldiers who are murdered in their heroic endeavours to preserve social order, and whatever else is dear and sacred to the unperverted human heart.  Their heroes and modern men are such enemies of God and man, of society and true liberty, such miscreants, as the Mazzinis, the Kosuths, the Ledru-Rollins, the Blums, the Bems, the Garibaldis,- vile criminals, deserving nothing but the extreme vengeance of the law, and the execration of every man who has a human heart.  As long as such is the spirit of the age, it behooves every one to take care how he embarrasses the government, or exercises even his constitutional right of opposition.  The great danger now is everywhere, not in the strength, but in the weakness, of authority; and all good men are bound in conscience to labor to increase respect for it, to lessen its embarrassments, and to smooth the way for its free and beneficent action.

            Let it not be supposed for a moment, because we thus speak, and judicious opposition to such measures of government as are believed to be contrary to the common weal to be uncatholic, or that it is uncatholic to demand a redress of grievances,- if real grievances, not imaginary,- or to labor for the melioration of society and the advancement of civilization.  This, certainly, may be done, but it must be done with wisdom and discretion, with loyalty of heart, with profound respect for all legal authority, and a sincere regard for the permanence and stability of the existing government.  A weak government, which is constantly assailed, which finds only enemies in its subjects, and is obliged to constant vigilance and effort, not to perform the ordinary functions of government, but to preserve its own existence, is in no condition to prove a blessing to the country; and they who constantly assail it and compel it to bend all its energies to its own preservation have no right to complain if it prove even a curse.  In times like these, all loyal subjects, all good citizens, all honest men, should rally around authority, and uphold the government, even if not so wise or so perfect as they could wish it,- even if it has committed, or commits, grievous faults, and fails to secure all the good they have a right to expect from it.

            We are not disposed to censure with much severity the political conduct of the Catholic party in France, or in other countries where it has found itself in the opposition, for it is suffering severely the penalty of its mistakes, and now appears to be generally aware of them, and to be doing all that can be reasonably expected to repair them.  From 18303 to 1848, it yielded too much to the radical spirit of the age, and too often made common cause with the so-called liberals, whose principles are subversive of all order, and of society itself, and against whom it is now obliged to wage war to the knife.  The heresy of  La Mennais and his associates, who proposed a sort of alliance between Catholicity and radicalism, has not been unfruitful.  It was promptly condemned at Rome, and disavowed by all who had shared it, except its unhappy author; but its subtle poison, nevertheless, continued to spread far and wide in the Catholic body.  We detected it occasionally in some of the masterly speeches, before the revolution of February, of Montalembert himself, and in the writings of Father Lacordaire; and we found it in nearly all its virulence in the famous Funeral Oration on O’Connell by Padre Ventura, who even attempted to make the world believe that he was merely expressing the views of Pius IX.  The terrible consequences of making, or appearing to make, common cause in politics with the radical party throughout Europe, from which young enthusiasts hoped so much, both for society and the church, have pretty well developed themselves during the last two years, and are now apparent to all who have eyes, or who are not struck with judicial blindness.  The mad attempt, it is now seen and admitted, must eventuate, as far as possible, in the destruction of both church and state.

            We claim no  credit for having foreseen and warned our readers of this.  When a liberal, a radical, we had studied the subject, and had regarded the policy recommended by the neo-Catholics, as they were called, as highly favorable to the views we then held, and as hostile to all in church and state to which we were ourselves opposed; it was not difficult for us, when we had ceased to belong to the “movement,” and had, through the mercy of God, been admitted into the church, to see that it was directly hostile to every thing we must, as a Catholic, uphold as dear and sacred.  We had no new discovery to make, no new investigations to go through; we had only to oppose as a Catholic what we had approved as hostile to Catholicity when we were ourselves hostile to it; we had no new judgment to form, for the judgment we had from the first formed was its condemnation in the view of every intelligent Catholic.  We need not say that events have justified our judgment, nor adduce the acknowledgments so frankly made by the illustrious leader of the Catholic political party in France, as our answer to those mistaken, but no doubt well-meaning, friends who have abused us for it.  This is no time for boasting or for recrimination.  Our duty as Catholics, here and elsewhere, is to break loose with any connection we may have had with radicals, and parties animated by a Jacobinical, insurrectionary, or socialistic spirit, to return to the maxims of a sound political science, and to labor to reconstruct and to consolidate social order.  We must call things by their right names, and bestow our sympathy, not on rebel chiefs and insurrectionary bodies, but on men of loyal hearts and firm principles, who stand, in these trying times, by authority, and are ready at any sacrifice to save society from complete shipwreck.  We must look upon the praise of such journals as the New York Tribune and the Boston Chronotype as a deep disgrace.

            We confess that we were obliged to draw upon our Catholic faith for relief, when we heard the whole Protestant, infidel, and socialistic world applauding Pius IX to the echo,- when we saw a Horace Greeley reporting, and a New York sympathy meeting, approved by a William H. Seward and a Ben. Franklin Butler, adopting, an address to the “venerable Father” of Christendom,- when we found multitudes of the faithful half frantic with joy at the supposed popularity of the head of their church with the enemies of God and man; and we even breathed freer when the mob took possession of the Eternal City, and the Holy Father sought an asylum at Gaeta.  Those shouts of “Long live Pius IX!” from infidel throats, would, if any thing could, shake a Catholic’s faith in the promises of our Lord to Peter.  We must be traitors to God and criminals to society in order to command the sincere applause of our age; and whenever we find ourselves commended by any of the popular organs of the day, we should retire and make our examen of conscience , and ask, with fear and trembling, “O Lord, what iniquity hath thy servant committed, that the wicked praise him?”  Redress of grievances, the melioration of society, and the advancement of civilization, are to be effected, if at all, through government, not by overthrowing it and resolving society into chaos.  The nonsense vented about “the people,” “popular governments,” “democracies,” “the republic democratic and social,” we shall do well to despise, and to remember that our first duty is “to fear God and honor the king,”- that is, the prince, the sovereign authority of the state.  We shall do well to remember, that allegiance is a duty, and disobedience- except when the prince commands what is contrary to God’s law- is criminal; that loyalty is a virtue, and rebellion a crime punishable by all laws, human and divine.  Wherever you see a party at war with the government, hold them for traitors, rebels, deserving your deepest execration, till you have clear and indubitable evidence to the contrary.  Give no ear to the modern blasphemous absurdities of “the sacred right of insurrection,”- an absurdity in keeping with the character of Sir Charles Grandison Cromwell La Fayette, as Carlyle not inaptly calls him, with whom, so far as we are informed, it originated, but which every loyal citizen and honest man hears not without horror and disgust.

            What will be the result of the present state of things in France we have no means of determining.  We believe France is pretty thoroughly aroused to the dangers of red-republicanism, or socialism, and we do not think that her principal danger just now is to be apprehended from that quarter.  Judging from such data as we have before us, we should say that her present danger is from the party represented by such men as De Tocqueville, the present minister for foreign affairs.  These men are destitute of all true statesmanship; they are mere theorists, who have not the sense to perceive that a policy that might be admissible when the question is the gradual restriction of an authority too unlimited for liberty, must be wholly misplaced when the question is the reconstruction of power and the re-establishment of order.  They are not exactly socialists; they are not exactly democrats; they reject and accept a little of all parties, and pass for moderate, judicious men; but being men without any consistent principles of their own, men of compromise, neither exactly one thing nor another, and appealing to no great and commanding principle in the national mind or heart, they cannot but prove themselves utterly impotent to found a strong and stable government, such as France now needs.

            We know not when we have read any thing which more disgusted us than the brief report which has appeared in the papers of De Tocqueville’s speech in the great debate in the assembly on the affairs of Rome.  The intervention of France in those affairs, if undertaken in good faith for the purpose of rescuing the Roman people from the oppression of the foreign rabble, miscreants, and vagabonds calling themselves the Roman republic, to put an end to the sacrilege that was daily committed, and to restore the Holy Father to the exercise of his temporal sovereignty, was noble and generous, honorable to her government, and not undeserving the gratitude of Christendom; but if undertaken merely for the purpose of establishing French influence in Italy, and of imposing restraints on an independent sovereign, as the minister asserts, it was mean, contemptible, wholly unjustifiable, and utterly disgraceful to France and her extemporary rulers.  We wish to believe the French government was governed by the more honorable motives, and we would fain hope that the explanation of the minister will turn out to be false as the motives it implies are unjust and contemptible.  But even if so, it proves the weakness, the wickedness, and the blunder of the minister.  France is Catholic; and no government, not administered in accordance with Catholic principles, can hope to restore her internal peace, or to take a strong hold upon her affections.  There are but two principles in French society,- the Catholic principle and the socialistic,- and no government can live, and perform the proper functions of government, that does not make its election, and conform strictly to the one or the other of these.  The French government must be Catholic or socialist.  Socialist it cannot be, for socialism is incompatible even with the existence of human society.  It must, then, be Catholic; and if so frankly, if it take care to do nothing to wound the Catholic conscience, and make its appeal boldly to the Catholic principle, it will have but little difficulty, and may easily correct the defects of its present constitution, and secure the blessings of liberty and internal peace.

            But men of the De Tocqueville stamp- who is politics are what Anglicans are in religion; who have no decided religious belief or principle, but up to a certain extent pretend to patronize all religions; who are really infidels at heart, without the energy to avow it- are wholly unequal to the courage and wisdom of adopting that which is not, in fact, more injurious and offensive to Catholics than direct and open opposition.  Their wisdom consists in attempting to hold the balance even between them and socialists,- the maddest, or rather the silliest, policy imaginable.  In attempting this policy they will destroy the republic, for it will leave them without a party.  It is the policy to madden the socialists, and to disgust and alienate the Catholics, without whose cordial support no government in France can stand.

                If Louis Napoleon himself approves the policy of the De Tocqueville portion of his ministry, he is far less of a statesman as we have supposed him, than we have been anxious to believe him.  Fine speeches in praise of religion which mean nothing, and acts positively injurious to it, will not regenerate France.  The government that admits the necessity of religion and morality, as the basis of social order, betrays its folly no less than its infidelity, if it begins by claiming authority over religion, instead of setting an example of submission to it.  We can assure Prince Louis Napoleon, that the former liberal opposition will prove as impotent for good to France as the now defunct Nationals, who came into power with the revolution of February, have proved themselves; and if he wishes to prove that he is not a mere name, he will as far as depends on him, throw the government into hands of men who do not presume to sit in judgment on Almighty God, and who have firm and fixed principles, religious as well as political.  Away with your Odillon Barrots, your De Tocquevilles and Dufaures, and call to your aid, not a mongrel cabinet, but a cabinet of decided and uniform principles, composed entirely of such men as De Falloux, De Tracy, and the noble De Montalembert,- men who are not ashamed to avow themselves believers in God, and obedient and loving sons of his church.  Heed not the clamor of infidels, and men who affect a homage for religion in general and despise all religion in particular.  The Catholic portion is the only sound portion of the population of France, and is, as it was in the time of the first consul, the only portion on which any government that wishes to be strong and stable can rely for its support.  If this policy is not pursued, we think the republic will be short-lived, and what will succeed we need not undertake to conjecture