John Taylor of Caroline County, Virginia, was the chief pamphleteer of the Jeffersonian Republicans during the 1790s. With vigor, he attacked the Hamiltonian system with its national bank and privileges for the wealthy. Despite Taylor’s prominence in the Jeffersonian party and in forming its ideological expression, his significance has not always been understood. Historians have differed in their interpretation and classification of his thought. Some have labeled Taylor a classical republican whose intention was to form a republican society that “depended entirely upon the moral character of its people.” These scholars dismiss Taylor by arguing that his thought, by 1820, “no longer bore any relevance to American society.” But Taylor explicitly rejected the idea that the republic had to be founded on the private virtue of individuals. Taylor was a modern, not a classical, republican, as is attested by his emphasis on good forms of government and his acceptance of commerce as a positive good. Taylor, influenced heavily by English libertarian thought, rejected the classical republican analysis of government created by Aristotle, which classified all governments according to three good forms (monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy) and three bad forms (tyranny, oligarchy, and anarchy). Taylor charged that the Aristotelian orders limited political analysis and treated political power as undivided and not responsible to the people.
Other scholars have called Taylor a classical liberal who exemplified the general liberalism of the Jeffersonian Republican movement. While Taylor did hold many ideas of classical liberalism he did not express traditional liberal ideas such as optimism, faith in an inevitable force of material progress, and the view of man as primarily an economic creature. Taylor appears to have been more of an oppositionist than a liberal. Still other scholars have called Taylor an agrarian, but this broad term fails to distinguish Taylor’s thought from that of other agrarians such as Jefferson, whose radical ideas on property Taylor would have disagreed with. These scholars also fail to take into account Taylor’s Enlightenment view of man as a creature of self-interest. Taylor has been pegged too closely in each of these three ideological holes. What Taylor himself did was to weave different strands of thought into a new whole, creating an American agrarian philosophy of government and society that would have a tremendous impact on the American mind.
Every political philosophy begins with an assumption about the end of man and society, and Taylor saw that end as public and private happiness. Public happiness, in his view, derives from self-government and independence under a limited, decentralized state. In his Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814), Taylor quoted Jonathan Swift approvingly that “the happiness of the people … is the end of government, and therefore that form of government which will produce the greatest quantity of happiness is the best.” Taylor maintained that a government which involves the people in making policy, and divides power in order to prevent its abuse, is the most desirable. “Powerful and wealthy orders,” which limit popular participation in government, have never produced happiness in any country. Independence, which Taylor defined as “the right of self government,” is necessary for political happiness. He wrote, “Political liberty consists only in a government constituted to preserve, and not to defeat the natural capacity of providing for our own good.” Taylor’s libertarianism entwined itself with his conception of political happiness.
Taylor viewed private happiness as possession of family, farm, and leisure. In Tyranny Unmasked he declared that man needs “a home, independence and leisure” to have happiness.” Thus, as Jefferson also noted, man is not solely a political animal who finds happiness only in political pursuits, but needs to pursue private interests without which his happiness is incomplete. Taylor included economics in his view of private happiness by noting that man is happiest when he is his own master on his own farm. He placed great stock in his personal family and farm, considering them necessary to complete his public life. The republican ideal of the independent landholder retained its prominence in Taylor’s thought because it best secures both private and political happiness.
In order to understand Taylor’s advocacy of self-government and the division of power, it is necessary to understand his view of human nature, for to Taylor government was simply man written large. According to Taylor, human nature is not completely depraved, but is composed of good and evil qualities which contend for domination. Man’s nature can change morally, added Taylor, and political systems must recognize this truth.” Thus any government or society based on unchanging, fixed orders does not respect the capacity in man for improvement. Taylor’s commitment to self-government reflected his emphasis on man’s progressive moral nature. In looking at history, Taylor noted the great progress that had been made from states ruled by “Kings, nobles” and “priests” to the United States, with its founding principles of self-government and the division of power.
Thus Taylor objected vehemently to the idea of some theorists, most notably John Adams, that orders and classes in society were inevitable even in a republic. Such a view, Taylor thought, harkened back to the tyrannical systems of past rule, which the United States could avoid because of its principles. Taylor argued that since government is exercised by man, all its virtues and vices must be human and, therefore, mutable. The orders and classes in society have moral causes and can be abolished. Orders are man-made constructs and have been used to subvert liberty and republican principles. Tyranny and decay are not inevitable as most republicans thought; rather, privileges—artifices created by man which bring tyranny—can be changed and corrected through law. What man makes, he can unmake. Taylor, therefore, believed that the “people are the patrons of government” and can direct government’s power to achieve a moral common good through strict adherence to good principles which will enhance the protection of liberty from individual or class interests.
Taylor affirmed that self-interest drives men and must be tied to the public interest by the structure of government. He wrote that the “strongest moral propensity of man, is to do good to himself.” Since man inevitably will look after himself. Taylor considered him capable of self government. But man’s self love also presents a strong tendency to do evil to others in order to promote his own interests. Self-interest causes in man a strong desire for power and wealth, which can infect the entire social order with ambition and avarice unless proper measures are taken. Thus certain principles, namely responsibility and the division of power, must be part of government to protect against the evil tendencies. Taylor saw a tendency in men to identify their interests with the interests of government. Whereas the Hamiltonian system. as Taylor saw it, would applaud the connection of self-interest and government, Taylor noted that republicanism “perishes, whenever one man by any means whatever has obtained the direction of the common interest.” Popular sovereignty and pursuance of the common good (decided on by the people as a whole) are necessary for encouraging man’s good principles.
In discussing moral principles, John Taylor argued for the existence of an objective moral law and natural rights. Though he thought that man’s moral nature progressed, he affirmed that there were “some principles always good, and others always bad.” He did not believe in moral relativism, nor did he leave moral standards to individual whim or fancy. Taylor’s morality was certain, objective, and binding on all men and governments. He discussed equality in the context of an equality of moral rights and duties, which he believed to be contradicted by Adams’ idea of a balanced government and class orders. Adams and others who argued for a natural aristocracy or even an aristocracy of merit thought that some men were naturally better than others and thus should benefit by receiving greater privileges. Taylor rejected aristocracy in any form, maintaining that all aristocracies are mere human inventions because all men are morally equal and are subject to the moral law in the same degree.
Taylor believed that liberty was the most important moral natural right. He refuted those who argued that the government granted rights and liberty to the citizens. Natural rights, Taylor said, existed prior to government and were separate from government, and the same was true of the natural law. Government can protect natural rights but it cannot grant them or take them away. Taylor’s insistence on natural rights supported his libertarian attitude. He knew that what government gives, it can also take away. Thus, to limit government’s power, he posited the existence of natural rights as universal checks on government. Liberty, the foremost natural right, “consists in having rights, beyond the reach and independent of the will of another; slavery, in having none.” Liberty is so important that both government and the nation (the people) must preserve it or else “oppression and hatred” would result. Governments, like men, must be subject to moral restraint.
Since Taylor believed governments are founded on moral bases, he was concerned that good moral principles be included in government and evil ones excluded. He thought that the United States must battle to keep its forms of government and laws endowed with good principles or else tyranny would arise. His checklist of good principles included truth, freedom of religion, knowledge, limitation of power, equal rights, honesty, self government, and justice. Throughout his writings he defended such moral principles, demanded their incorporation in government, and judged all governments against those standards. which he considered objective and universal. Taylor listed bad principles as: fraud, force, ignorance, despotism, exclusive privileges, ambition, avarice, and superstition. Repeatedly he insisted that if a government is founded on good principles, good will result; and if government is founded on evil principles, evil will result. Thus principles are more important than either the form of government or the virtue of private individuals. For Taylor reasoned that virtuous men ruling a government founded on bad principles cannot produce good. A government founded on good principles respects self-government, free commerce, and a decentralized agrarian environment. Good government, therefore, protects man from evil propensities caused by ambition and avarice and prevents the degeneration of society into “ignorance, savageness and depravity of manners.”
Some scholars have called John Taylor a classical republican for his vision of man and government. But really he embraced a mixture of liberalism and modern Harringtonian republicanism. In the 1650s, republicanism surfaced in English political thought and from there was brought to America. There were two basic approaches to republicanism: a personal approach and an institutional approach. The personal approach held that republican government, the only good form of government, was dependent on the virtue of the individual, virtue usually connected to a radical Protestant outlook. Every individual had to sacrifice his private self-interest to the common good for the republic to function well; indeed, without a virtuous public there could be no republic. The institutional approach maintained that individual virtue was unnecessary for a republican government, but that a good superstructure was imperative. Good laws, not good men, would rule. The institutional approach, devised by James Harrington, sought to move government out of the hands of individuals, who were by nature untrustworthy. and place it in good laws, which could not be manipulated by individuals. Taylor agreed more nearly with the Harringtonian approach. though he modified it: he argued that a good superstructure was not enough, that adherence to good principles was also necessary for having a just republican government.
Taylor rejected the notion that a virtuous citizenry is necessary in order to have a good republic. He refuted the idea that “the members of society cannot form equal and just laws for self government, unless these members are virtuous.” Taylor did so for two reasons. First, he wrote, the “more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it.” That rejection of reliance on individuals extended to the opposite view, associated with David Hume and, as Taylor saw him, Alexander Hamilton, that public good could be derived from harnessing private vice. According to Taylor that opened the door to destruction from public evil produced by private vices. He wanted to insulate the state from all manipulation by individuals. Taylor disliked monarchy precisely because one man’s will rules the nation, inspiring the rise of factions and unbridled self interest, which would bring privileges and corruption into government. A republic based on private virtue would be “founded in the self same principle with monarchies, namely, the evanescent qualities of individuals.” Second, Taylor pointed to the historical record, which showed that despite the continued rule of “vicious men,” by which he meant “nobles, priests, merchants, stockjobbers and robbers,” some societies had preserved “individual social rights” by means of laws which were “free, just and virtuous respecting themselves.” Taylor argued that it “is in the governing principles, and not in the subject to be governed that the virtue or vice resides, which causes the freedom or oppression.”
He also rejected the idea that good forms of government are all that is needed for a good republic: they were necessary but not sufficient. Taylor pointed out that a good form of government, a republic for example, could be overtaken by evil principles. In name and organization the overtaken government could be called “republican,” but really be something different in spirit and legal construction of its constitution. Taylor recognized that this process began in faulty construction of the state’s constitution, resulting in fraudulent laws. He noted that fraudulent laws could enslave a virtuous nation, a process Taylor believed was occurring in the United States. In sum, a good form of government did not ensure good laws; good principles also were needed.
Taylor regarded the United States government, though not perfect, as the best yet formed because it divided power both vertically and horizontally and rested on popular sovereignty. Despite his idealization of the United States, Taylor was not a utopian. He argued that all governments are imperfect because they are administered by men. But just because all governments are imperfect does not make all governments equally evil. He believed that the United States embodied good moral principles in most of its laws; he even called the United States “the light of the world,” indicating its exemplary demonstration of morally good principles. America had the best government because it incorporated into its laws good principles such as “the sovereignty of the people; a republican government, or a government producing publick or national good; and a thorough system of responsible representation.” Taylor also stressed that the division of powers is a necessary element of American political liberty. Because power was divided and placed in the hands of the many, no one person or interest could use government power for his own benefit. Since government power was divided, it was easier to watch, guard against, and use for the public good. Taylor argued that one of the strengths of America was its strong state governments, which acted as “tribunes of [the people.” The state governments were “intrusted with rights bestowed for the preservation of the people’s] liberty” and could not surrender the protection of these rights or liberty. Taylor’s commitment to local government, especially the primacy of the state legislatures, echoed a preference for small, decentralized power. Taylor’s praise of the United States rested on his own notions of government, which, on many accounts, he believed were the principles of the Founders of the nation.
He also argued, however, that serious problems, including the strength of the executive branch, confronted America and would decide whether Americans would retain their freedom. Taylor feared that the president was too much like a king, having too many powers that remained outside the control of the people. He declared that the president had too much liberty in appointing judges, and, like kings. would appoint only people who agreed with him. Thus the president would have the capacity to dictate the law of the land, whereas according to the Constitution his only relation to law was to enforce it. The president would practice patronage, an action which Taylor thought would corrupt individuals, introduce factions, orders, and aristocracy in America, and destroy the Constitution. Through patronage granted to members of both the legislative and the judicial branch, the president would corrupt all government. For “when one man dispenses the rewards to merit.” merit will consist in the government’s “attachment to the interest of one man,” and mon-archy will result. Taylor continued, “A president, by the legislative instrument, may provoke war, introduce funding and banking, raise armies, increase taxes, multiply offices, and commit the freedom of the press to the custody of venal laws, with as much certainty and system as a British king.” Thus the executive power in several respects displayed dangerous tendencies to usurp liberty and introduce evil principles into government. Therefore, Taylor affirmed that the division of powers and independence of the separate branches of government, two of the cornerstones of American government, were violated in the executive branch.
Taylor also saw danger in the prospect of improper interpretation of the law by the Supreme Court. He believed that a change in American policies “can only be effected by laws” that protected the true interpretation of the Constitution and the agrarian social order. But laws “can change the nature of a government, without changing its form.” Thus law must be controlled so that the Court could not fundamentally change it. Taylor thought that Supreme Court justices, because they are appointed for life, were not responsible to the people, and thus their power to interpret the Constitution could not be checked. He firmly believed that the judiciary, in its practice of repealing the acts of the state legislatures, exerted power that was both unconstitutional and dangerous to liberty. In Tyranny Unmasked, Taylor argued that the Supreme Court could not bind the states because it could not justly usurp the powers of the states to govern themselves. The states and the people of the states were the true guardians of liberty and the Constitution. Therefore, the judiciary must be somehow divided so as to preserve state sovereignty and self government.
Taylor considered false construction of the Constitution as a grave danger to liberty. Since he held that the United States Constitution must be interpreted according to its original principles, he regarded as illegitimate any construction of the Constitution that contradicted its intent, namely free government. He wrote, “Constitutional powers, being all subordinate and subservient to the end of preserving a free and moderate government, do not admit of any constructions subversive of these ends.” He further declared that the government could not grant any power that could be “constitutionally used to defeat the intention for which it was given.” Besides existing to protect liberty, the Constitution also protected the federal system of government, which was not a “national government” but a “league between nations.” The construction of the Constitution must respect states’ rights in its federal organization. Taylor therefore denounced both the capitalist system and the defense of nationalism in the decisions of John Marshall as usurpations not only of natural rights, but also of constitutional government.
In his discussion of law, Taylor made a key distinction between political law and civil law. Political law is constitutional law enacted by the people. It is the principles on which government is founded. It prevents and punishes public vices—those injuries committed by governments against the people—and thus restrains the power of government. Since it is enacted by the people, only the people can change it. Civil law, by contrast, is enacted to restrain individuals and keep society running smoothly. Civil law can be changed by legislatures. (Judicial power properly deals with individuals, not nations.) Taylor’s distinction between political and civil law was central to his opposition of the capitalist system, which he perceived as fundamentally altering the political law of the United States.
For that reason, Taylor wrote much about economics. He staunchly believed that political freedom and economic freedom were inseparable. He insisted that wealth consisted in natural means, coming from the profits from land and labor. Taylor embraced laissez faire and defended the farming and laboring interests, but rejected capitalism with its ties to manufacturing interests and paper money. Capitalism, he was convinced, robbed true wealth from the farmers and workers who produced it, and substituted the paper system for true prosperity.
While Taylor railed against capitalism in general, he saved his most potent venom for the Hamiltonian system of funding the public debt and establishing a national bank, arguing that “the principles of our policy cannot subsist in union” with Hamilton’s “paper money system.” Taylor maintained that the system was a species of legislative patronage that enriched individuals through the illicit exercise of government power. It created and corrupted a faction at the nation’s expense, a faction that “will adhere to a government against a nation.” The paper system would bring dependence and slavery by creating two classes, creditors (“masters”) and debtors (“slaves”). For Taylor, money was a sign of either liberty or tyranny. An economic system promoting liberty would have only hard money, regulated by supply and demand through the just exchange of goods between two consenting people. A tyrannical economic system runs on paper money, regulated by capitalist interests and the banks, which make money with no industry. Taylor’s hostility to the Hamiltonian system was so intense because he believed that once it was instituted fully it could not be undone since the Framers, who never envisioned such a system in America, had not provided any checks against it. Moreover, he was convinced that such an order would inevitably grow and thus could never be balanced by government.
Taylor was particularly frightened by Hamilton’s national bank—the cornerstone of Hamilton’s system—and attacked it repeatedly in his writings. Taylor declared it both unconstitutional and contrary to popular will, charged that it resulted from the intrusion of special moneyed interests into the government, and believed it would, by virtue of its monopoly status, destroy both liberty and private property. “If the monopoly of banking will rob a nation of its liberty, by corrupting or usurping the government,” he wrote, “it is almost superfluous to prove, that it will rob it of its property also; because every separate interest acquiring one, has uniformly gotten the latter.” He insisted that “banking in its best view, is only a fraud, whereby labour suffers the imposition of paying an interest on the circulating medium.” Taylor also believed that banking produced avarice, which in turn “breeds the treacheries of privilege against liberty.” Avarice, as an evil moral principle, tempted human nature to embrace evil economic pursuits in order to gain power and prosperity. Therefore, Hamilton’s banking system produced and encouraged immorality and accordingly must be forbidden from operating in the United States.
While Taylor hated Alexander Hamilton’s economic program for creating corruption, capitalism, and patronage, he also opposed it on libertarian grounds, fearing that giving government capitalist interests would expand government power. He noted that “the project of creating a race of capitalists, as an engine to endow the government with more power, seems to me to be unfavorable to all the callings and interests of society, save to the calling of governing, and the calling of capitalists.” As government gained capitalist interests and power, it would necessarily subvert liberty and undermine the fundamental political law—a theme he developed at length in Tyranny Unmasked.
Taylor’s own positive economic ideas contradicted the Hamiltonian system in its entirety. Taylor staunchly supported the ideas of Adam Smith, especially Smith’s advocacy of laissez-faire, his denunciation of mercantilism, and his idea of the division of labor. But while Smith supported a carefully managed banking system. Taylor denounced all banking along with the paper money system. Taylor accepted a laissez-faire approach to the economy as long as paper money was excluded from the economic order. He affirmed, as Smith did, that wealth should be divided in accordance with the industry and talents of individuals rather than by the artificial means of government patronage. Thus Taylor remarked, “Individuals are better judges I think of their pecuniary interest, than governments.” He noted that government was instituted primarily to protect private property, the “acquisitions of private people, which no law can transfer to other private people.” Government, then, protected property both through law and by ensuring the freedom necessary for the individual to “judge of his own employment and interest.” Taylor was certain that by allowing individual talent to acquire wealth, social harmony would be ensured. Such a division of wealth never enslaved any nation, he explained, but always worked alongside political liberty.
Taylor explicitly rejected two ways of artificially dividing private property: the capitalist system and “levelism.” He insisted that “property, like liberty, is only to be secured upon the broad basis of publick will.” Capitalism, through the paper money system, invaded private property rights by taxing the community (against its will) for the enrichment of an aristocracy of paper and privilege. Wealth was redistributed by law from the farmers, the majority, to the bankers and capitalists, the minority. An enriched aristocracy (produced by the capitalist system) would subvert both property rights and the public will, and was thus immoral. Since governments often strove to acquire the power to transfer property, they must be watched closely. Governments that acquired the power of law to transfer property always weakened and impoverished a nation to enrich an aristocracy. In addition to his opposition to capitalism. Taylor vehemently rejected the idea that government had a right to limit property ownership in the form of an agrarian law. The English republican James Harrington, who believed that the form of government a country possessed depended on the distribution of property, had proposed an Agrarian Law in his republican scheme in order to balance land ownership and thus equalize political power among the citizens. But Taylor distrusted agrarian laws contrived by the government to divide property among individuals. Such laws. he insisted, produced only injustice and misery. Taylor did not place limitations on property ownership and thus opposed “levelism” because it was unnatural and intruded on the industry and talents of individuals who had justly acquired their property. In discussing both systems, Taylor displayed his commitment to the principles of Adam Smith.
Taylor fully accepted commerce as part of society. Though naturally secondary to agriculture, commerce played an important role in an agrarian society by relieving farmers of their excess crops. Unlike classical republicans, who would ban commerce from the republic out of fear that it would distract the citizenry from its public duties. Taylor heartily supported commerce and maintained that the acquisition of wealth. which commerce promoted, was healthy for society. He also believed that unrestricted commerce, free trade. and frugality in government would solve America’s economic distress. For example, he mentioned that when the American government allowed free commerce and trade after the Revolutionary War, the economic problems of the nation resolved themselves. Taylor classified commerce as a species of public and private property, and thus would allow the government to tax it. But, he noted, government cannot interfere seriously in commerce without causing national poverty and endangering individual liberty. Taylor also adhered to Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilism, arguing that government should promote free trade because it would benefit everyone in the economy. Free trade and commerce also brought peace, a desired political end. Taylor’s view of commerce flowed both from his libertarian view of government and from his respect for private property.
Taylor regarded excessive taxation as a danger to liberty. He repeated the maxim, “The power to tax is the power to destroy,” in support of his concern over the power taxation gives to government. He did not reject all taxation, but accepted limited, easy “taxation, for the maintenance of civil government or national defense.” While this taxation “will also take away property” it “may bestow liberty.” Taylor opposed excessive taxation because it supported the government against the nation and enriched the capitalist interest. Taylor argued that the paper system always initiated a perpetual increase of taxation as it transferred property. But the increased taxation did not benefit the farmers, who paid the bulk of the taxes. Taylor concluded that the government which was the smallest and the most frugal was the best supporter of the agricultural interest and liberty. He insisted that the federal government, under the influence of the paper system, had usurped the states’ means of taxation, thus subjecting the people to a heavy tax burden and reducing the states to poverty. As with his other economic plans, Taylor’s understanding of taxation reinforced his commitment to a laissez-faire agrarian society.
Finally, Taylor was a committed agrarian who believed religiously that an agrarian society is the best kind known to man, and guards most effectively against capitalist interest. Taylor called agricultural society a “paradise” and asserted that it promotes patriotism. He wrote, “At the aweful day of judgment, the discrimination of the good from the wicked, is not made by the criterion of sects or of dogmas, but by one which constitutes the daily employment and the great end of agriculture.” Taylor believed that God would reward eternally the farmers who fed the hungry by means of their agricultural vocation. He wrote that “the divine intelligence which selected an agricultural state as a paradise for its first favourites, has here again prescribed the agricultural virtues as the means for the admission of their posterity into heaven.” Taylor contended that agriculture is divinely ordained and a moral duty of man. Religious belief did not matter in the pursuit of salvation, only “agricultural virtues.” Though in other respects he specifically rejected political utopianism, in his treatment of agrarianism Taylor grew positively mystical, connecting it with an immanent economic salvation, a creation of a “heavenly” society on earth. Taylor tied the Edenic Myth to an agrarian social order and was certain that the establishment of an agrarian republic was a religiously significant action which would regain man’s lost paradise.
Taylor also thought that agriculture promoted freedom and independence. He noted that agriculture was the mother of all subsistence because it produced food necessary for the survival of all, and that it constituted the wealth of a nation since land was the most permanent source of profit. But agriculture’s greatest benefit was the promotion of freedom and happiness. Taylor wrote that agriculture “both from its nature, and also as being generally the employment of a great portion of a nation, cannot be united with power, considered as an exclusive interest.” While agriculture could be abused by a tyrannical government, under a free government “where power is not an exclusive, but a general interest, agriculture can employ its own energies for the attainment of its own happiness.” Therefore, Taylor concluded, “Under a free government it [agriculture] has before it the inexhaustible sources of human pleasure, of fitting ideas to substances, and substances to ideas; and of a constant rotation of hope and fruition.” Taylor also thought that trading agricultural surpluses would create foreign dependence on the United States and would extend competition. Such conditions, he believed, would ensure peace and happiness by making both the farmer and his country independent and safe from the ravages of modern capitalism.
Government, therefore, should encourage agricultural improvement but not interfere with it: it should protect it through good laws and easy taxation. Taylor insisted that two things had hampered agriculture in the United States: poor farming techniques and government interference. Taylor was the South’s leading scientific farmer, and he tried to remedy the poor farming techniques used by most Southern farmers both by writing about farming in Arator and by giving tours of his productive plantation to visiting Southerners. He always promoted responsible care of the land. Concerning government interference in agriculture. Taylor maintained that government should not meddle with the prosperity of agriculture because the more government interferes, the more agriculture suffers. Taylor feared that the fraud and folly of the statesman had irreparably hurt America’s agricultural interests, especially through the protective tariff and the system of internal improvements.
Taylor strongly opposed a protective tariff. His commitment to laissez-faire economics provided many principles for his critique of the tariff. Taylor wrote: “Protecting duties to enrich manufacturers [meaning productive workers], are like banks to enrich farmers, bishops to save souls. or feudal lords to defend nations.” Moreover, the tariff, like other government interference in the economy, never had the desired effect. In fact, the tariff, which was supposed to enrich manufactures, really enriched only capitalists in alliance with the government. Taylor argued that “one-sixth of the laboring manufacturers, constantly occupy prisons or poor houses. whilst the rest may be said to die daily upon their daily wages.” In addition, the tariff impoverished the nation as a whole. It raped agriculture, transferring the wealth of the farmers to the capitalists. Taylor also predicted that a protective tariff would produce retaliatory tariffs against the United States’ exported goods, thus reducing the buying and selling power of the farmer who relied on the market for trading his surpluses. The tariff, therefore, destroyed revenue and increased taxation. Taylor thought that the farmers, bled by the tariff, actually contributed the money needed to transform America’s agricultural social order into a capitalist, manufacturing society, the very opposite of their interests. This was Taylor’s worst nightmare.
Taylor opposed internal improvements at federal expense on libertarian grounds, asserting that the federal government should not bring its influence into local matters, thereby destroying self government. Taylor argued that internal improvements should be conducted strictly on an individual basis. If a farmer wanted to get his crops to market. let him and his neighbors build a road. Internal improvements sponsored by the federal government hampered the natural development of the industry and talent of individuals. In order to pay for the improvements, government must raise taxes, which defeated the government’s professed intention of generating the prosperity of agriculture and manufacturing. In reality, declared Taylor, only extremely light taxation could encourage prosperous agriculture to develop. He thought it was counterproductive to try to create prosperous agriculture by taxing it. He wrote: “But nature should be our guide. This has decreed that a good state of agriculture must precede that which it begets. It inevitably produces, by an easy birth, the best modes of transportation. by awakening the efforts of individuals.” A laissez-faire approach to the economy would ensure its prosperity and encourage individuals, uncoerced by government, to use their industry and talents to build up the nation.
Taylor’s political actions centered upon his belief that the government should leave farmers and workers alone. Though a committed agrarian, he included manufacturing as well as commerce in his economic plans because he saw their vital necessity to the state. Thus he strongly supported the mechanics, farmers. and wage laborers against the destructive flow of the capitalist economy. Taylor wrote, “My fellow laborers, mechanical or agricultural, let us never be deluded into an opinion, that a distribution of wealth by the government or by law, will advance our interest.” He maintained that the mechanics and farmers were “the least successful courtiers of any rank in society” and had little prospect of sharing government’s gifts to any class. The mechanics and farmers, Taylor added, “constitute the majority of nations,” but “a minority administers governments and legislates.”
He insisted that all farmers and mechanics throughout history had been subordinated to government designs and the rule of a minority. The capitalist system was simply the present manifestation of an ancient pattern. As Taylor showed that farmers and mechanics could not depend on the government’s bounties, he urged government to leave mechanics and farmers alone to enjoy their earnings in peace. Taylor held that the opposite scenario had already been played out in England, leaving both the agricultural and the mechanical interest there “shackled by protecting duties, bounties and prohibitions” and in “the hands of an inconsiderable moneyed aristocracy, or combination of capitalists.” Taylor warned that the United States would go down the same course unless the farmers and the mechanics became politically informed and active.
Taylor encouraged farmers to form an agricultural party that would protect agricultural and mechanical interests. He noted that “farmers and mechanics have been political slaves in all countries, because we are political fools.” Though farmers “know how to convert a wilderness into a paradise, and a forest into palaces and elegant furniture,” politicians, who seek to “monopolize the sweets of life,” had convinced them that farmers could not understand the intricacies of political life. Then the capitalists gained ascendancy because the farmers and mechanics, not having much political sense, did not know how to resist them successfully. According to Taylor’s plan, such political ignorance must end through popular vigilance and the political organization of farmers, for “national watchfulness is the only preservative of liberty.”
Taylor also defended laborers and mechanics against capitalist tyranny. arguing that workers in capitalistic factories were wage slaves because they were not their own masters. Besides being a slave, the laborer was paid a daily wage that supported him only for a day and left no money for savings. Thus he was made a pauper by the capitalist. Capitalists got the working class to work for them, and therefore the mechanics exerted their industry and talent but were not rewarded for their efforts. Taylor despised the factory system, saying that factories degraded human nature. Human nature needed liberty to attain happiness, and the factory system denigrated man’s freedom and thus his happiness.
In one sense, Taylor’s thought was more influential than Jefferson’s, and was better understood by the populace than Madison’s because it reflected more clearly and commonsensibly the cultural ideal of much of agrarian America. Taylor’s great influence, though often overlooked by scholars, is evidenced by the continuing attraction of the ideas he espoused. In the nineteenth century, Taylor’s ideas infused three schools of thought that were to have considerable historical consequences: sectionalism, libertarianism, and populism. By 1820, Taylor recognized that the United States could either recapture the principles upon which it was founded or blunder ahead to an era of large centralized government. By the end of his life, Taylor had come to believe that the country as a whole would not revert back to its founding principles, and thus he argued for an increasingly sectional mentality, thinking that the agrarian South could be saved from following the doomsday course of the whole nation. In Tyranny Unmasked, he invoked states’ rights as the principle that could save Southern farmers from the capitalist seizure of the reins of power. Taylor had made his first argument for sectionalism in 1781, but he backed away from the argument during the Jeffersonian ascendancy, hoping that Jeffersonian policies would return the country to “good principles.” He also restated the ideas of eighteenth-century English libertarians, ensuring that Americans would not forget their oppositionist heritage for some time. He held fast to the idea of objective truth, and refused to yield to those who argued that there was no truth that society could determine and base itself upon. Unlike modern libertarians, Taylor never desired liberty for liberty’s sake. Rather he treasured liberty because it was necessary to morality.
Finally, Taylor’s concerns over agriculture’s survival in the age of capitalism and his sympathy for factory workers and mechanics led him to embrace a form of populism, albeit in a limited form. Taylor argued for the formation of a farmers’ and workers’ party to ensure the protection of agricultural interests and the craft tradition. He did not advocate farm subsidies, but he did argue for greater government involvement in limiting capitalism, especially by ending protective tariffs. The central tension in Taylor’s thought is between his libertarianism and his concern for the farmer and worker. While he feared government’s coercive power and preferred local, decentralized government, he realized that his vision of society could not exist without the power of government to limit capitalism. As American society and government have evolved into forms which Taylor would abhor, some Americans still appeal to Taylor’s ideal in their longing for the simplicity of the early republic, as evidenced by the rhetoric of modern politicians such as George Wallace and Pat Buchanan. As politicians continue to describe the tension between liberty and tyranny, decentralized government and centralized government. Taylor’s political thought and social vision remain relevant as a uniquely American political ideal, forged from historical experience and the founding ideals of the country.
Reprinted with the gracious permission of Continuity: A Journal of History, (Spring 1998).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
1. Robert E. Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline: Pastoral Republican (Columbia, S.C., 1980), 3.
2. Ibid., 3-4.
3. John Taylor, An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, 1814. Reprint (New Haven. Conn., 1950), 357.
4. Eugene T. Mudge, The Social Philosophy of John Taylor of Caroline: A Study in Jeffersonian Democracy (New York. 1939). Grant McConnell. “John Taylor and the Democratic Tradition,” Western Political Quarterly 4 (March 1951), 24. Manning J. Dauer and Hans Hammond, “John Taylor: Democrat or Aristocrat?” The Journal of Politics 6 (1944), 384. For the Jeffersonians as liberals see Joyce Appleby, Capitalism and the New Social Order: The Republican Vision of the 1790s (New York. 1984).
5. Taylor believed that man could progress morally but did not consider that progress inevitable. Nowhere does he support a materialistic notion of Progress as technological innovation.
6. For Taylor as an Oppositionist see: Lance Banning, The Jeffersonian Persuasion (Ithaca, N.Y., 1978), Chapter 7. F. Thornton Miller, Introduction to Tyranny Unmasked, by John Taylor. Washington City. D.C., 1822. Reprint, edited by F. Thornton Miller (Indianapolis. 1992). See also C. Wilham Hill, Jr., The Political Theory of John Taylor of Caroline (Rutherford, N.J., 1977).
7. For Taylor as an agrarian see Andrew Nelson Lytle. “John Taylor and the Political Economy of Agriculture,” American Review (Sept., Oct., Nov., 1934), III, 432-47, 630-43; IV 84-89. M.E. Bradford, Introduction to Arator, Being a Series of Agricultural Essays, Practical and Political, by John Taylor, Petersburg, Va.) 1818. Reprint, edited by M.E. Bradford (Indianapolis. 1977). Loren Baritz, City on a Hill: A History of Ideas and Myths in America (New York, 1964). For Jefferson’s radical agrarian vision see: Richard K. Matthews, The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson: A Revisionist View (Lawrence, Kan., 1984).
8. Taylor, Inquiry, 453.
9. Ibid., 132.
10. Ibid., 80.
11. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 17.
12. Ibid., 88.
13. Ibid., 88.
14. Taylor, Inquiry, 161, 365, 384.
15. Ibid., 38.
16. Ibid., 38.
17. Ibid., 390.
18. It is important to note that Taylor did not believe, as Madison did, that the republic would inevitably decline. He had faith that man could exercise his rational powers and progressive moral nature. Taylor was a realist as well and understood the fragility of human rationality and the trials of political life.
19. Taylor, Inquiry, 167.
20. Ibid., 36.
21. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 229.
22. Ibid., 194-95.
23. Ibid., 95.
24. Taylor, Inquiry, 545.
25. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 96.
26. Ibid., 95.
27. Taylor, Inquiry, 192.
28. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 190.
29. Taylor, Inquiry, 358.
30. Ibid., 222-24.
31. Ibid., 86.
32. Ibid., 393.
33. Ibid., 460.
34. Ibid., 542.
35. Ibid., 62.
36. Ibid., 62, 408.
37. Ibid., 62, 408.
38. Ibid., 62.
39. Ibid., 63.
40. Ibid., 264. The quotation is from Taylor, Arator, 119.
41. See Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline.
42. Scholars have started to revise the earlier consensus on republicanism. Leading the way is Paul A. Rahe’s massive work, Republics Ancient and Modern (Chapel Hill. 1992). He examines the nature of British and American republicanism and finds it extremely different in fundamental ways from the republicanism of the classical Greeks. See also his essay “Antiquity Surpassed: The Repudiation of Classical Republicanism.” in David Wootton ed., Republicanism, Liberty, and Commercial Society, 1649-1776, (Stanford, Calif.. 1994). British scholarship has also been influenced by Rahe’s work, especially on the subject of James Harring¬on. See Jonathan Scott’s “The Rapture of Motion: James Harrington’s Republicanism.” in Nicholas Phillips and Quentin Skinner, eds. Political Discourse in Early Modern Britain, (New York. 1993), for an insightful attack on J.G.A. Pocock’s portrayal of Harrington as a classical republican. See: J.G.A. Pocock. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, (Princeton, N.J., 1975). The republican school was never dominant and the new studies being done simply reemphasize some of the conclusions of Joyce Appleby and Thomas Pangle. See Appleby’s Capitalism and the New Social Order, and Pangle’s The Spirit of Modern Republicanism (Chicago. 1988). Most of the revisionists point out that one of the main ways modern republicanism differs from its classical variety in its acceptance of commerce and its changing notion of virtue.
43. This distinction was evident in the 1650s in the famous revival of classical republicanism by the Commonwealthmen. John Milton and Marchamont Nedham shared the personal approach to republicanism, stressing private virtue as sacrifice for the good of the whole. See John Milton, The Ready and Easy Way to Establish a Free Commonwealth. (New Haven, Conn., 1915). Marchamont Nedham, The Case for the Commonwealth of England Stated. (Charlottesville. Va.. 1969). James Harrington ascribed to the institutional approach. considering good structures the guarantors of liberty and republican order. See James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (Westport, Conn., 1979) and Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Secforum (Lawrence. Kan.. 1985), 70-75.
44. Taylor, Inquiry, 390.
45. Ibid., 443.
46. Ibid., 443.
47. Ibid., 461.
48. Ibid., 390.
49. Taylor, Inquiry, 390. In 1809, he wrote, “An adherence to men is often disloyalty to principles.” It can easily be seen that a foundation in good principles is more important to Taylor than the private virtue of the citizens. See Taylor. “A Pamphlet Containing a Series of Letters,” (Richmond, 1809), 12.
50. Taylor, Inquiry, 390.
51. Ibid., 258. Taylor also wrote, “Nothing human is absolutely perfect.” in “A Pamphlet Containing a Series of Letters,” 42.
52. Taylor, Inquiry, 268.
53. Ibid., 122.
54. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 202.
55. Ibid., 202.
56. Taylor, Inquiry, 179.
57. Ibid., 195, 216, 230.
58. Ibid., 222.
59. Ibid., 227.
60. Ibid., 179.
61. Taylor, Arator, 336.
62. Taylor, Inquiry, 507.
63. Ibid., 212-14.
64. Taylor, Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated (Richmond, 1820), 132.
65. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 209.
66. Taylor, Inquiry, 511.
67. Ibid., 511.
68. Taylor, Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated, 234.
69. Taylor, Inquiry, 161.
70. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 196.
71. Andrew Nelson Lytle, “Taylor and the Political Economy of Agriculture,” American Review (October 1934), III. 640.
72. Taylor, Inquiry, 75. See McDonald, Novits Ordo Seclorum, 119-31. For another treatment of Taylor’s economic ideas, see Duncan Macleod, “The Political Economy of John Taylor of Caroline.” Journal of American Studies 14 (1980), 387-405.
73. Taylor, Inquiry, 231.
74. Ibid., 230-31.
75. Ibid., 247. Also see his pamphlet “An Enquiry into the Principles and Tendency of Certain Public Measures,” (Philadelphia,1794), 8.
76. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 34-35, 56.
77. Ibid., 34.
78. Ibid., 30-31.
79. Taylor, Inquiry, 335.
80. Ibid., 276.
81. Ibid., 306.
82. Taylor, “An Enquiry into the Principles and Tendency of Certain Public Measures,” 18.
83. Taylor, Inquiry, 282.
84. Taylor, Arator, 102.
85. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 21.
86. McDonald, Novus Ordo Secloruni, 130. In an interesting passage, Taylor tried to explain away his differences with Smith. Taylor insisted that Smith had to support “a wealthy and powerful banking aristocracy” because the authoritative forces in government that regulated free speech kept Smith from denouncing them and their capitalist interests. Thus, Smith did not really mean what he said
about supporting banking but was forced by government censors to support it in his writings. See Taylor, Inquiry, 475.
87. Taylor, “A Pamphlet Containing a Series of Letters.” 25.
88. Taylor, Inquiry, 329.
89. Taylor, “A Pamphlet Containing a Series of Letters,” 26.
90. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 14.
91. Taylor, Inquiry, 534.
92. Ibid., 128.
93. Taylor, “An Enquiry into the Principles and Tendency of Certain Public Measures,” 11.
94. Taylor, Inquiry, 486.
95. Ibid., 532.
96. Ibid., 125.
97. Ibid., 328-29.
98. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 22.
99. Ibid., 21.
100. Ibid., 22.
101. Ibid., 101.
102. Taylor, Inquiry, 263.
103. Taylor, Arator, 321.
104. Taylor, Inquiry, 263.
105. Taylor, Arator, 89.
106. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 12.
107. Taylor, Arator, 314.
108. Ibid., 134.
109. Taylor, Inquiry, 157.
110. Taylor, Arator, 313.
111. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 170.
112. Taylor, Arator, 100, 293, 320.
113. Ibid., 93.
115. Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 48. Also, see Taylor, “A Pamphlet Containing a Series of Letters,” 23.
116. Taylor, Arator, 338.
117. Ibid., 94.
118. Ibid., 95.
119. Ibid., 96.
120. Ibid., 96-97.
121. Taylor, “An Enquiry into the Principles and Tendency of Certain Public Measures,” 1.
122 Taylor, Tyranny Unmasked, 105.
123. Ibid., 104.
124. Ibid., 16.
125. Ibid., 104.