Orestes Augustus Brownson (1803-1876), American theological, philosophical and sociological writer, was born in Stockbridge, Vermont, on the 16th of September 1803. Having spent some time in active religious, reformatory and political (Democratic) work in the interior of New York state, and at Walpole, New Hampshire, and Canton, Massachusetts, Brownson removed in 1839 to Chelsea, Mass. He at once began to take an independent part in the movements then agitating New England, which between 1830 and 1850 was stirred by discussions pertaining to Unitarianism, transcendentalism, spiritualism, abolitionism and various schemes for communistic living. He was one of the founders, in New York, of the short-lived Workingman's party in 1828, and established the Boston Quarterly Review, mainly written by himself, in 1838. This periodical was merged in the U.S. Democratic Review of New York in 1842. In religion he first became a Presbyterian (1822); was a Universalist minister from 1826 to 1831, editing for some time the chief journal of this church, the Gospel Advocate; was an independent preacher at Ithaca, N.Y., in 1831; became a Unitarian minister in 1832, and in 1836 organized in Boston the Society for Christian Union and Progress, of which he was the pastor for seven years.
In 1844 he became a Roman Catholic and so remained, though the question of the orthodoxy of his writings was at one time submitted by the pope to Cardinal Franzelin, who recommended Brownson, to little purpose, to express his views with more moderation. In his philosophy Brownson was a more or less independent follower of Comte for a short time, and of Victor Cousin, who, in his Fragmens philosophiques, praised him; he may be said to have taught a modified intuitionalism. In his schemes for social reform he was at first a student of Robert Owen, until his later views led him to accept Roman Catholicism. His first quarterly was followed, in 1844, by Brownson's Quarterly Review (first published in Boston and after 1855 in New York), in which he expressed his opinions on many themes until its suspension in 1864, and after its revival for a brief period in 1873-1875. Of his numerous publications in book form, the chief during his lifetime were Charles Elwood, or the Infidel Converted (1840, autobiographical), in which he strongly favoured the Roman Catholic Church; and The American Republic: its Constitution, Tendencies and Destiny (1865), in which he based government on ethics, declaring the national existence to be a moral and even a theocratic entity, not depending for validity upon the sovereignty of the people.
Brownson died in Detroit, Michigan, on the 17th of April 1876.
After his death, his son, Henry F. Brownson, collected and published his various political, religious, philosophical, scientific and literary writings, in twenty octavo volumes (Detroit, 1883-1887), of which a condensed summary appeared in a single volume, also prepared by his son, entitled Literary and Political Views (New York, 1893). The son also published a biography in three volumes (Detroit, 1898-1900).
His daughter, Sarah M. Brownson (1839-1876), who married in 1873 William J. Tenney, was the author of several novels, and wrote a Life of Demetrius Augustine Gallitzin, Prince and Priest (1873).