In The American Republic: Its Constitution, Tendencies, and Destiny (1865), Orestes Brownson claims (ch. 1 introduction):

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.

*cf. Politics III

Why did Orestes Brownson think that "The American form is none of these, nor any combination of them"? Why is it not a "Mixed Government"?

What St. Thomas Aquinas says about the best form of government in Summa Theologica I-II q. 105 a. 1 c. seems to describe the United States's form of government, a mixed government:

the best form of government [ordinatio principum, lit. “ordering of princes”] is in a state or kingdom, where one is given the power to preside over all; while under him are others having governing powers: and yet a government of this kind is shared by all, both because all are eligible to govern, and because the rules are chosen by all. For this is the best form of polity, being partly kingdom, since there is one at the head of all; partly aristocracy, in so far as a number of persons are set in authority; partly democracy, i.e. government by the people, in so far as the rulers can be chosen from the people, and the people have the right to choose their rulers.

Similarly, St. Robert Bellarmine, S.J., considers monarchy the theoretically best form of government, but that "Monarchy Mixed with Aristocracy and Democracy, Should be More Useful in this Life" (De Romano Pontifice ch. 3; cf. the ch. "Cardinal Bellarmine's Books De Summo Pontifice Considered" of Hobbes's Leviathan).

  • Aristotle's taxonomy is very outdated. I doubt that it could accomodate the Roman Empire, much less the United States. Remember that "democracy", for Aristotle, was fully compatible with slavery. Sep 10, 2018 at 11:56

2 Answers 2


I think the answer is in chapter 15. He doesn't provide a point-by-point analysis describing why the United States is not an aristocracy, monarchy, etc., but does provide an overall-explanation:

The grand error, as has already been said, of the Graeco-Roman or gentile civilization, was in its denial or ignorance of the unity of the human race, as well as the Unity of God, and in its including in the state only a particular class of the territorial people, while it held all the rest as slaves, though in different degrees of servitude. It recognized and sustained a privileged class, a ruling order; and if, as subsequently did the Venetian aristocracy, it recognized democratic equality within that order, it held all outside of it to be less than men and without political rights.

All of Aristotle's definitions include a clear insider-outsider dynamic. Even a democracy had citizens and non-citizens, with non-citizens being subject to the rule of citizens. All people being equal in God, their rule applied unequally. More succinctly in the same section, " ... power was an attribute of birth and of private wealth". He also says that one major flaws in these governments is that they pit different elements of society against each other.

Brownson's over-all thesis is that regime follows indirectly from God's will: God created humanity (and individual humans) as well as the historical circumstances they find themselves in, people then create a government based on their circumstances. Ideally God's will, civil society, and regime are all in perfect alignment.

His view seems to be that the United States is a single people (elaborated in more detail in chapters 10 and 11). As all people are united in God, and God has unified the people of the Americas into a single civil society, they have created a single state which will better reflect God's will. Unlike the Greek and later regimes, there is not an implicit insider/outsider dynamic (no freeman/slave, citizen/metic, lord/serf, etc.). There is also no system by which different strata of society place checks and balances on each other.

Causally, he says this is because God has ordained a unique mission for the United States. This follows from his general claim that all politics is either directly or indirectly God's work (the introduction lays this out the best, I think.)

This is my first reading of Orestes Brownson's work. It was greatly influenced by Parry's article in The Review of Politics. Available here.

  • Interesting. How could he have neglected a dynamic between free and enslaved individuals, writing essentially during the US Civil War? I mean, there certainly were all kinds of ways Americans justified it (justify it?), but did he say it didn't exist?
    – Obie 2.0
    Jan 31, 2019 at 4:57
  • He didn't miss it. He was an abolitionist. Jan 31, 2019 at 5:27

Brownson is keen to emphasise the originality of the US constitution.

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.

What made the USA unique in 1787 was that it had a written document that described the rules of the state. The democracies of Ancient Greece, monarchies (such as the French Ancien Régime) or mixed Governments (such as that in Great Britain) did not have written constitutions, and the powers of governments were essentially bound only by their ability to compel by debate, reason or force.

What made the USA different was that it was a constitutional republic. And, in contrast to other writers, Brownson cautions against making analogies like "The President=Monarch, Congress=Parliament", because the President's power is limited by the Constitution.

Moreover, the USA is federal, in a way that was quite different from other countries. Writing in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, the nature and divisibility of that federation was a major question for Brownson.

The simple fact is, that the political or sovereign people of the United States exists as united States, and only as united States. The Union and the States are coeval, born together, and can exist only together. Separation is dissolution—the death of both. The United States are a state, a single sovereign state; but this single sovereign state consists in the union and solidarity of States instead of individuals. The Union is in each of the States, and each of the States is in the Union.

So while other writers might have tried to fit the USA into an Aristolean model of Monarchy/Oligarchy/Democracy/Mixed. Brownson rejects this and emphasises the unique aspects of the USA.

  • 1
    It's my reading of the book. I've added a supporting quotes
    – James K
    Sep 10, 2018 at 16:57

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