John Taylor (1753–1824) of Caroline County, Virginia, is the most important, profound, prophetic and neglected American political thinker of the Revolution and early national period. To explore his thinking is, for a twenty-first century American, an adventure in time travel. We return home amazed—much enlightened about our forefathers’ world and with new perspectives on our own.
Taylor is the Jeffersonians’ Jeffersonian. He is at the same time more conservative and more radical than his friend, admirer, and fellow Virginia planter and republican Thomas Jefferson. Taylor is Jefferson’s down-home side—what Jefferson would have been if he had been a little less cosmopolitan and not obliged to compromise in building a national party. Indeed, Jefferson is on the record thus: “Col. Taylor and myself have rarely, if ever, differed in any political principle of importance. Every act of his life, and every word he ever wrote, satisfies me of this.”
We are then entitled to consider Taylor as the definitive philosopher of the Republicanism that in the early United States defeated (for a time) Hamiltonian schemes for a powerful and activist central government. An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States is the product of a struggle that began in the 1790s between two different potential configurations of the American federal government and two different visions of the best American future—a struggle we can describe by shorthand as Hamilton versus Jefferson. Taylor is the systematic expounder of the principles that Jefferson represented in the public mind and that Randolph of Roanoke dramatized in the halls of Congress.
Taylor’s father, like Jefferson’s, died when he was a child but left a rich inheritance of land and bondsmen. Like Jefferson, he was educated at the College of William and Mary. Again like Jefferson, Taylor enjoyed the tutelage of prominent and gifted men—in Taylor’s case his uncle Edmund Pendleton, who was to be president of the convention by which the people of Virginia ratified the Constitution for the United States. Coming of age at the outbreak of the Revolution, Taylor saw three years of active soldiering, characteristically refusing to accept pay and bounties for his service. He married a daughter of John Penn, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence for North Carolina.
Thereafter Taylor served various terms in the Virginia General Assembly and the United States Senate, but his office-holding and his publications were occasional. His public standing was such that he was three times elected to the United States Senate from the most prestigious State of the Union—a commonwealth overflowing with talented statesmen—without even campaigning or desiring office. He served reluctantly, only when his service was deemed indispensable by the Jeffersonian party, and resigned as soon as possible.
Taylor’s primary focus was his plantation on the Rappahannock River between Richmond and Fredericksburg. The Caroline County planter was not only an eloquent and persistent spokesman for American farming, he was also a practicing agrarian and an exemplary agricultural reformer. The combination was to be exhibited later by other Southerners like Edmund Ruffin and Wendell Berry. Jefferson said that free farmers were “the chosen people of God” and the only sure foundation for public virtue and republican liberty.Taylor not only propounded the same principle without rest, he lived the idea that a good farmer was of more real value to his fellow citizens than any number of capitalists, politicians, and military heroes. He set aside public honours and a lucrative law practice to be such a truly useful citizen.
The combination of loyalties that motivated Taylor seems unfamiliar to readers of the 21st century, yet it is as American, indeed more American, than apple pie. He unites a conservative allegiance to the soil and those who labour in it and a defense of local community and inherited ways with a radical-populist emphasis on individual liberty and suspicion of government and of the maneuvers of capitalists, “public servants,” and would-be improvers of society. Taylor’s writings are of inexhaustible interest because they are prophetic in portraying the downside consequences of decisions made and tendencies evident in the early days of the United States federal government. His commentary is very relevant to the most troublesome political questions of the 21st century.
If we are unhappy with some aspects of American government today, the Tertium Quid statesman of Caroline County Virginia anticipated them. He saw the unmistakable portents: dominance of rent-seeking in the political process, judicial oligarchy, executive arrogance, intrusion of the state into private society, immense debt and burdensome taxation, the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands. While others were celebrating the promising adolescence of federal government, Taylor saw clearly that the youth was growing up to be a monster of “consolidation.”
Out of the War of Independence Americans had a unique opportunity to secure and preserve
liberty—individual and corporate. They had emerged with written constitutions that were for the first time in history a product of the direct acts of the sovereign people. These constitutions of the thirteen States had established the indisputable subordination of rulers to society, where before the near universal experience had been a subordination of mankind to rulers. In plain language, many times repeated and affirmed, it had been made clear that power comes from the people and that officials are their temporary agents and are to be bound within the limits of specific, delegated functions. In terms of traditional English political discourse, the Country had at last, in the happy conditions of America, got the upper hand of the Court.
Then the sovereign peoples of the thirteen States had made an agreement among themselves (to be joined by future States to be erected by their descendants in the empty lands to the West) which established a machinery for management of common interests—a Union. The Founding generation knew that their happy situation was a rare gift of Providence and could be lost in many ways. The opposite dangers of “disunion” and “consolidation” were often spoken of. For Taylor, as for Jefferson and many others, disunion was no danger. It was not likely and was not to be feared if it came. Americans could be just as free and secure in two or three confederacies as in one. The important thing was not the Union but the principle of consent of the governed. For Jeffersonians the real danger to be guarded against was “consolidation”—that the federal machine would relentlessly over-reach its limits and become just another government like those of the Old World—an engine for transferring wealth from the quietly productive body of society to the minority who could manipulate the levers of power to their own aggrandizement. Power was always stealing from the many to the few, and the Court always conspiring to prey upon the Country.
A magisterial American historian of the early twentieth century, Charles A. Beard, wrote that An Inquiry “deserves to rank amongthe two or three really historic contributions to political science which have been produced in the United States.” As a Progressive in the Era of Big Business, Beard saw Taylor’s portrayal of the manipulation of society by minority interests as revealing much about the history and current condition of the United States. In the Inquiry Taylor had laid out clearly the perils of the Hamiltonian system of collusion between the federal government and large financial interests that has dominated American. life. To him it was a fraud against democratic government and an imposition on the productive members of society in favour of those who produced no real wealth. (In other works, like Construction Construed and New Views, Taylor made the definitive case against a closely related phenomenon, incremental distortion of the Constitution by a Supreme Court bent on the restraint of majority will and the destruction of State rights..)
For John Taylor, government is a moral phenomenon. This does not mean that government is virtuous, but that its essence lies in the realm of human mind and character, good or bad. Government certainly has physical aspects and effects, and responds to material interests, but these do not adequately explain or describe it. “Moral principles constitute the criterion for estimating the nature of a form of government.” So, if we wish to know the political “principles” that dominate our time, we must search in the realm of the moral rather than the physical. Elections, laws, classes, constitutions, parties, even revolutions, are consequence of rather than determinants of principles.
Put another way, Taylor’s approach to government resides in a Christian world of free will and unending struggle against sin, and not in some ideal arrangement of powers and interests. Governments, like men, can be virtuous or vicious, accordingly as they are governed by good or bad moral principle. Beginning thus, Taylor takes the Unitarian John Adams to task for claiming that good government consists of arrangements that are designed to give different classes of society the power of “checks and balances” over each other. In Taylor’s understanding certain bad principles recur in history—especially the tendency of a scheming minority to use government to prey upon the property and liberty of a guileless majority—not from structural faults but because “ambition and avarice” are a part of man’s nature. Enlightened ideas, good motives, and right choices—correct moral principles—can enhance the virtue of governments as of men.
The American Revolution, establishing thirteen free and independent governments resting on the consent of the people, had exhibited enlightened ideas and good motives and presented a rare historic opportunity for right choices. Taylor wrote from a fear that principles being declared and tendencies made evident in the first decades under the United States Constitution embodied wrong choices that threw away the American opportunity. All of his books are reflections of this worried anticipation. Political wisdom requires “an unremitting vigilance to discover interpolations of bad political principles among good.”
Taylor appears in the role of both philosopher and prophet. He has long been dismissed by the majority of commentators as an antique curiosity in both respects. But it just could be that Americans of the 21st century are in a position to appreciate once again how truly discerning and prophetic he was as to the tendencies of American government that he described and as to how far we have deviated from our Founding inheritance. An Inquiry is the most philosophical of his books, that is, the work that explores fundamentals most thoroughly.
To fully appreciate Taylor requires a serious intellectual effort—because the regime he criticized in its incipient stage has long since become the established American orthodoxy in practice and in theory. An orthodoxy rests upon fundamental assumptions that are so taken for granted that they are not noticed. Not until one becomes fully aware of those unacknowledged assumptions can one understand where Taylor is coming from.
Much of An Inquiry is a reply to the ideas put forward by John Adams in his A Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States. Note that Adams based his comments on the plural “Constitutions . . . of the United States,” because his reference is to the constitutions adopted by the States in the course of the Revolution, not to the Constitution for the United States. Later writers have sometimes misstated Adams’s title, apparently from a reluctance to recognize that most of what we regard as American constitutional principles and liberties were already established before the U.S. Constitution—something which Taylor took for granted. Such writers suffer from the notion that the U.S. Constitution involved a unique, miraculous episode of lawgiving, a kind of mystification that Taylor’s works deride and strive to dissipate.
European opinion found the new American arrangements to be either too radical or not radical enough. In the latter category was the Frenchman Turgot. A theoretical democrat, Turgot had written that the American governments were not pure and true governments of the people because they contained too many limitations on majority will, such as bicameral legislatures and executive vetoes. Adams’s Defense argued to the contrary that checks and balances to restrain and refine popular rule were ideal devices for preserving popular governments from the excesses and turbulence that had hisorically destabilized and destrroyed them. He made a dazzling display of historical learning in support of his thesis.
Adams accepted conventional wisdom about the defects of governments of the people. Central to this was a conception that society naturally divided into the mass on the one hand, and an inevitable aristocracy of birth, wealth, glamour, and talent on the other. The mass threatened always to use majority rule to seize the wealth of their betters, while the ambitions of the superior men tended always to subvert the commonwealth to their own purposes. For Adams, the Americans had found the perfect solution in the bicameral legislature (which Turgot rightly observed was copied from England). A lower house was elected by a wide franchise and directly responsible to “the people.” An upper house with a more restricted and distinguished membership would check the excesses of the popular majority and safely contain the otherwise disruptive ambitions of the superior minority. Add to this the “balance” provided by a strong executive and an independent judiciary, and the problem that had heretofore faced popular governments had been solved. (The U.S. Senate was partly a reflection of this conception, though, more importantly, Senators were the representatives of the States, not of the upper orders.)
These notions were much in the air when Adams published hs Defense ini 1787. They were reflected in the Philadelphia Convention. They were reflected in the vigorous campaign underway at the same time to insert more “checks and balances” into the state constitutions that had emerged from the Revolution. (For instance, Pennsylvania’s unicameral legislature and plural and weak executive were being done away with.) More importantly, such ideas were basic to the behaviour of the Federalists during Hamilton’s leadership and Adams’s presidency in the 1790s. The executive was to be forceful, as in the use of armed force against the “Whiskey Rebellion”; the support of the rich was to be cemented by making the government profitable to them on the long term (“Funding”); the less democratic aspects of the government were to inspire in “the people” deferential awe, which is why Adams insisted on being addressed as Your Excellency and rode about in a coach drawn by perfectly matched white horses. Opposition to elected rulers was deemed to be subversive of public order, so there was the necessity of a federal Sedition Act, in clear contempt for the just- passed First and Tenth Amendments but quickly justified by “independent” Federalist judges invoking a non-existent national Common Law.
To those who rejected its economic and philosophical bases, the program looked like a coup intended to reinstall the centralized power and mercantilism that the War of Independence had eliminated. Taylor and his friends honored that part of the English inheritance which had brought about the gradual evolution of freedom beginning with Magna Carta. Indeed, the rights of Englishmen had been a watchword of the War of Independence. But unlike the party of Adams and Hamilton they did not admire the current English government from which America had so recently been liberated. There was a difference, however, between the two advocates of central government controlled by the “betters.” Jefferson recorded that Adams once remarked that the British government, purged of its corruption, would be the best on earth. Hamilton hastily contradicted—it was its “corruption” that gave Britain its powerful and stable regime. With some justice, Jeffersonian Republicans charged the Federalists with being aspiring “monarchists.” The victory of Jefferson and his party in 1800 signalled the defeat, so it seemed, of the Federalist design for America after a decade of struggle. The writings of John Taylor of Caroline contain the most systematic and profound case against the “monarchists” and brief for the Jeffersonian alternative.
Taylor was not buying any of Adams’s notions about government, nor the policies that grew out of them. Adams’s description of society defied reality, especially American reality. By imagining a society consisting of the mass versus the betters and separating them into separate representative bodies, Adams was attempting to create new and troublesome political classes (“orders”), where they did not exist. All to acheive a fantasy goal of “checks and balances.” Taylor scorned “checks and balances,” as completely ineffective restraints on power. (Observers of the 21st century might compare this hallowed American idea with Taylor’s criticism. Have checks and balances ever worked to restrain the federal government or any branch of it?)
For Taylor, Adams was trying to check powers by balancing them when he needed to be dividing them. The necessary restraint of the oppressive tendencies of rulers was the division of power. Separate parts of the ruling regime fighting among themselves or exercising contradictory powers did not prevent oppression of the people. Power should be divided out in strictly limited terms to different agencies, all of which were created by and separately responsible to the sovereign people. For the United States this took for granted that any branch of the federal government exceeding its writ was subject to opposition by the people acting through another division of their power, the States. Such was the point of Jefferson and Madison in the Virginia and Kentucky resolutions of 1798–1800.
Taylor also rejected the assumption that history showed a pattern in which the successful were in constant danger of expropriation by the egalitarian envy of the majority. The lesson of history was exactly the opposite: that the wealthy and powerful had always, by force or superstition, preyed upon the earnings of the mass of mankind and thus constituted a net detraction from the sum total of national happiness—national happiness presumably being the legitimate reason for government. The fortunate circumstance of the thirteen free and independent States of sovereign peoples had provided the opportunity for something better: Taylor defined the proper American creed thus: “The policy of the United States has laboured to prevent the introduction of force by armies, and fraud by corruption; and to secure an allegiance of the government to the understandings of the people, and not an allegiance of the people by force or fraud, to the will of the government. Evincing that reason, and not fraud or force, is its element.”[The capitalization or not of Republican is deliberate and not inconsistent. Also the usage of the unfamiliar but accurate term “Constitution FOR the United States” is deliberate.]