John Taylor of Caroline: Liberal, Radical, and Reactionary

John Taylor

Part V of a Five Part Series.  Part I, II, III, and IV.

1. Taylor as a Liberal “Individualist”

Taylor writes that society not made up of individuals is a pointless abstraction:

‘Society exclusively of individuals, is an ideal being, as metaphysical as the idea of a triangle. If a number of people should inclose themselves within a triangle, they would hear with great astonishment, that they had lost the power of changing the form of the inclosure; and that the dead form of the triangle governed living beings, instead of living beings who created that figure, governing it.’

Taylor is not trying to do without law, social order, intermediate institutions, or even virtue in the ordinary sense of the term, but he is trying to prevent our being locked beforehand into political institutions beyond the reach of alteration, starting with the federal union. Taylor was also at pains to discredit those artificial intermediate orders or legally supported castes championed by Adams, which we may easily distinguish from the sociological notion of naturally occurring intermediate institutions.

Taylor certainly expounded a kind of methodological individualism characteristic of the liberal thought of his time. As Michael O’Brien puts it: “Perhaps no Southern thinker was more radically invested in the idea of individualism….” Thus, Taylor considered “society a reification.”  This leads – it would seem – to a certain contradiction: if states, federations, and so on, were entirely artificial constructions, then “society” in Taylor’s usage might itself seem equally artificial.  At bottom, however, Taylor does not appear to believe this. Even so, the critique Taylor makes of systems he opposes seems more solid than the grounding he chooses for his own positive conception of social order.

In any case, writers who wish to deny Taylor’s standing as a liberal, individualist, or democrat because his “social background ‘determined’ his political theory” are denying that he could write what he wrote. But he did write it. Perhaps someone in Taylor’s position should have held different views for various reasons, but that is another matter.

Even so, it hardly seems satisfactory to leave Taylor as the Thomas Paine or Henry David Thoreau of Hazelwood. First, it may be that political analysis grounded on individuals – as a matter of method – does not automatically entail antisocial conclusions. Next, Taylor could (and did) simply take society as he knew it as largely given. In practice, then, Taylor’s vision of society would resemble what Richard M. Weaver called “social-bond individualism,” which “battles unremittingly for individual rights, while recognizing that these have to be secured within the social context,” and knows that “the battle must be fought within the community, not outside the community and not through means that would in effect deny all political organization.”

Third, there was religion, which Taylor could leave in the background, since there was in his kind of political liberalism no conflict with Protestantism. Indeed, in his day, American liberalism and Protestantism shared the same historical narrative. Taylor frequently and violently criticized “hierarchy” – identified with the medieval Catholic order – and equated it rhetorically with the Federalists’ paper-feudalism. But if Protestantism reinforced a certain kind of individualism in Taylor and others, it was not individualism without any community at all. Overall, then, Taylor’s applied views call to mind the Protestant conservatism of Wilhelm Röpke, a free-market economist with considerable interest in intermediate and local institutions. Unlike Röpke, Taylor did not spend much time on intermediate institutions (other than the states), since in his time and place, those still seemed sufficiently intact to be assumed into the background.

2. Taylor as an Agrarian 

Historians have called John Taylor an agrarian liberal or democrat and a prophet of secession. As noted, Williams saw him as a “physiocrat” who sought to realize a Southern feudal utopia by way of laissez faire economics. None of these labels adequately describes him. Taylor loved the land, but cannot be confined to the historians’ conventionally narrow agrarian box.

In his introduction to Arator (1977), M. E. Bradford calls Taylor “a Virginia Cato,” and sees him as revealing “the ‘patriarchical’ side of his mind” in that book. He writes, “Reasoning after the fact, from history, Taylor denies that government and society are necessarily one.” In all this, says Bradford, Taylor reasoned from historical materials and not a priori, whatever his occasional remarks on natural rights might mean.  Indeed, Bradford believes that underneath his 18th-century liberal language, Taylor – influenced, like his contemporaries, by classical Roman models – was in the last instance a defender of those republics that are “closed, rural, religious, and corporate societies.”

Such a republic need not be anti-commercial, but it did not define its purpose as primarily commercial, nor did it see the state’s role as that of broker, promoter, and subsidizer of business enterprise. The state’s role was to provide justice and security in a society already formed, not to make the economy go or to reform society according to blueprint.The achievements of the American Revolution, embodied in local self-government under the Articles of Confederation, “forestalled the instability inherent in the ‘balance-of-power’ regimes praised in commercial republican theory: in regimes where the guarantees of order are converted by natural declension into the engines of exploitation.” Bradford’s insight cuts through some of the debris left behind by republican-school historians and suggests that many figures classified as modernizing liberals were deeply indebted to a “Venetian” model of commercial republicanism requiring an imperial and mercantilist state – the “republic for increase” of Machiavelli and Harrington.

In Taylor’s writings, agrarian themes appear frequently, but unlike Jefferson he never asked to be “on the footing of China,” that is, to live in a literally “isolated” agrarian state. For Taylor’s society was alreadyagrarian and this fact goes far toward explaining why he felt no need to speak as a conservative or communitarian. As he wrote: “In America, the landed interest, as the majority, cannot be an aristocratic order.”

Taylor believed that his “policy” of political liberalism (“republicanism”) would allow agrarian communities to flourish, if carried out within a decentralized political order. And now we seem to find ourselves in the 1920s and 1930s, with Vernon Louis Parrington, J. Allen Smith, and (to a lesser extent) Charles A. Beard, and see that agrarians were perhaps liberals of a kind. But how do we (or Taylor) get anyone to go along withthis liberalism instead of five or six other programs also called “liberalism”? Here the Hartz problem returns.The modern liberal Hartz read American history through left-of-center glasses. He concluded that given the absence of real feudalism in America, Americans had always tended to be Lockean liberals. Hartz was not entirely happy about this “fact.” He took it to mean that thinkers like Taylor were either defending a nonexistent feudalism or foolishly trying to establish it under impossible social conditions. Naturally, such fellows ended up as fringe agitators ancestral to the John Birchers.

Hartz’s reading ignored the many substantive issues Taylor addressed and was entirely too convenient for modernizing liberals. Yet owing to inherited categories, we are still overcoming false alternatives put forward in the mid-20th century. Even the “republican paradigm” of recent memory (ca. 1955-1990) was superimposed on existing false alternatives, thereby robbing it of what real merit it had. (There is a price for insisting that decentralization is feudal—and only feudal.)

Even if we choose to remain with Hartz inside a vaguely defined American liberalism, that outlook was broad enough in itself to provide us with many serious internal struggles, mistaken analyses, and competing strategies. Lytle faults Taylor and his allies for “believing and acting upon the belief that the Constitution, a political contract, could take the place of all those traditional institutions which make for an abundant and complete life…” He chalks this failing up to “the contradictions which Republican liberalism subjected him….”  Indeed, “Taylor’s predicament was common to most of the early Republicans: conservative instincts and desires coupled with liberal intellectual principles.”

Referring to Tyranny Unmasked, Lytle noted that Taylor “makes the philosophical defense of agrarianism; but it is because it is a philosophical defense that it fails.” Taylor’s argument against centralization was sound, “but like Jefferson, he fails to offer a medium by which the bad may be destroyed and the good set up and maintained.” He adds: ‘[Taylor] can only appeal to the intelligence of the voter for the remedy. Liberalism inevitably used the terms good and bad. It needed, as a fighting cry, virtue triumphing over evil. Cromwell’s leadership was shrewder. He did not concentrate on discussions of the morality of the Stuarts. He threw his Ironsides against the devil’s agents.’

Lytle, speaking from an organic sense of Southern society across time, more than implies that Southern statesmen, including Taylor, might have better served their society by calculating the value of the union much sooner than they did. Lytle, who was trying to write from outside liberalism, had little sympathy for Taylor’s liberal moments. Lytle’s point dovetails somewhat with Gordon Wood’s complaint that despite Taylor’s rhetorical victory over John Adams in the Inquiry, Adams did have something to say after all. Taylor urged that good institutions would overcome “avariciousness,” but he does not seem to explain why the avaricious would permit those institutional structures to survive. His lifelong project was, after all, one of showing how much they were threatened. As a result, his laborious works served to demonstrateprecisely how his opponents had overthrown his hope that unalloyed “interest” might “secure the fidelity of nations to themselves.” Taylor’s easy dismissal of virtue had a place, no doubt, in his polemic against John Adams. But virtue, repressed in theory, will come back, perhaps in distorted form. Taylor was relying, in fact, on inherited virtues – Christian, societal, even political – while attempting to do without them at a foundational level.

3. A Note on Economic Development under Agrarian Republicanism

Taking John Taylor as a key critic of America’s main political-economic drift, we must briefly address the question of economic development under Taylor’s program. In a country that believes in unceasing material progress, the charge that Taylor’s ideas would have slowed growth and mechanization seems damning. The noted historian Henry Bamford Parkes writes: “In a country governed in accordance with agrarian ideals, manufacturing could have developed only very slowly, since there would have been no large accumulations of capital and no supplies of cheap labor.”  Many, perhaps most, Americans had another vision – one of rapid growth and universal prosperity – and took national banking, “internal improvements,” and other such measures as the best route to the general welfare so defined.

French economic historian Paul Mantoux wrote (1947) of the English enclosure movement, that if “the bulk of the rural population [had] remained on the land the triumph of the factory system might have come later, but it could not have been indefinitely postponed, as is shown conclusively by what took place in France.” Now the alleged impossibility of “modernization” under republican laissez faire recedes to manageable proportions. We could add (as Taylor would have) that this other path to modernization might have been more natural, organic, and less chaotic than the actual route followed. To be told endlessly, after the fact, that the 19th-century American “road to capitalism” was inevitable in all its details, is to add insult to injury. It was only as inevitable as the victory of Northern armies serving as the vanguard of Lincoln’s developmental coalition of northeastern industrialists and western farmers.

Noting the similar views on economic concentration held by both “conservatives” like Theodore Roosevelt and sundry Marxists, the neo-republican critic Walter Karp observes:

‘The political distortions engendered by class analysis [are] well illustrated in a common ideological treatment of America’s small farmers. Since they, like small businessmen, were antimonopoly, they have often been categorized as “capitalists.” One result of this is that the great Populist revolt against the party machines is often described as “essentially conservative.” This is because “small capitalists,” by ideological definition, are in the backwash of history trying to “hold back social change,” a mealy-mouthed way of saying that the oligarchs were trying to get rid of them.’

Karp adds:  “Ideological categories always describe as natural, inevitable or inherent what the wielders of corrupt power are actively trying to accomplish.” Taylor knew this and never shied away from stating justwho it was that was bringing about so much “inevitable social change.” All this might be taken a step farther.  Recent discussions of small-scale production as an alternative to modernization from above suggest it was possible not merely to delay industrialization, as Mantoux wrote, but to confine it within a quite different social framework.

4. The Continuing Relevance of John Taylor of Caroline

We have seen that for John Taylor, men were a blend of good and evil, guided by self-interest, whose political relations worked best in the right institutional framework. Rejecting archaic republicanism and transcending the old “checks and balances” and simple “separation of powers,” Taylor aimed at breaking power up geographically and functionally, thereby preventing the establishment of effective tyranny. He believed in an individually held “right of self government,” which made possible the cooperative creation of governments as responsible agents.  In practice, he located self-government (“sovereignty”) in the peoples of the states (“state-nations”) and not in a fancied, aggregated people of the United States. Summarizing his views, Taylor wrote: “Our policy divides power, and unites the nation in one interest; Mr. Adams’s divides a nation into several interests and unites power.”

Taylor denied that virtuous or vicious popular character as such produced “factions” aiming at overthrowing the public good. As Grant McConnell notes, rather than arrange a constitution (like Madison) to mitigate “the effects of factionalism,” Taylor sought “to remove [its] causes.” Class struggle resulted from unjust legislation andespecially from arbitrary transfers of property. Taylor’s remedy, as summarized by McConnell, was: ‘Remove the legal base from under the stock jobbers, the banks, the paper money party, the tariff-supported manufacturers, and so on; destroy the system of patronage by which the executive has corrupted the legislature; bring down the usurped authority of the Supreme Court.’

This analysis greatly resembled that of English and French radical liberals and English Ricardian socialists. In their view, governments were unproductive and must be kept to a minimum; minimally regulated markets could better provide for society’s economic needs. Taylor’s program of divided power, substantive limits, and constitutional strict construction by the concerned parties (and not just one federal court) would stifle faction from the outset. With faction already denied any property-transferring powers, the republic need not expand geographically – certainly not just to “dilute” factions. And a non-expansionist policy was good on other grounds, since expansion could undermine free institutions through aggressive wars, standing armies, debt, and taxes – an array of Court policies amounting to mercantilism and empire. Because Taylor wanted to sustain and perfect American republicanism, he had no room for Jefferson’s compromises and firmly opposed the mercantilism of Madison and other latter-day Republicans.

Taylor’s ideas enjoyed renewed attention when the Jacksonian movement rose up against the all-Federalist-all-Republican synthesis of the Era of Good Feeling. He was a prophet for hard-money and free-trade advocates like the Benton brothers and William Leggett – a Northern Jacksonian and “an unconditional, almost obsessive advocate of laissez faire.” Leggett, indeed, thought that hard money, free trade, and laissez faire positively promoted an agrarian society.

In Taylor’s political economy, artificial aristocracies (paper or otherwise) can only sustain their projects in the long run through some form of despotism.  Late 18th-century critics often characterized what they opposed as consolidation, empire, or monarchy. As Thomas Paine put it, “monarchy is the knot that ties the robber’s bundle.” The monarchy feared by Taylor, Antifederalists, and republicans, is indeed upon us – a plebiscitary and illegitimate thing, which entrusts the temporary occupant of the mighty presidential office with powers beyond the ken of any great historical despot.  As J. G. A. Pocock has written:

‘Democratic federalism grew into the greatest empire of patronage and influence the world has ever known, and remains to this day dedicated to the principle that politics cannot work unless politicians do things for their friends and their friends know where to find them. New democrat is but old Whig writ large; and the Federal Constitution, that great triumph of the eighteenth-century political art, seems to have perpetuated the eighteenth-century world it was designed to deal with…. America may have guaranteed the survival of the forms of corruption it was created to resist.’

This suggests that we have a problem on our hands. Do we have the materials, somewhere in American traditions, with which to meet it – “Country-party ideas” perhaps?  Some might say, no. Historian Roland Berthoff, for example, sees the “prolonged domination of the American mind by an outmoded theory of politics as a great tragedy.” But if we are dominated by these outmoded ideas – whether “republican,” “liberal,” or both – why do we never get corresponding policies? Why do we get instead the tragedy of American diplomacy as narrated by Williams and the corruption described by Pocock? In quest of answers, Taylor’s critique of actually-existing American capitalism could prove very useful.

It might be added that the new social history of American economic life, which emerged in the late 1980s, is quite consistent with Taylor’s understanding of his time. The historians in question (see note) agree that between 1790 and 1830 America underwent a transition from self-contained, largely local economies and markets to a new “national” and increasingly unified market economy under rules favorable to capitalist development. Further, recent writing (chiefly Marxist) on “small commodity production” as a mode of production separate from capitalism is very much to the point. And where was this mode found? Precisely in North America (and similar colonial environments) in the period specified by the new social historians and precisely the period of Taylor’s work. Finally, the work of certain Marxist legal historians reinforces an obvious interpretive convergence: what drove the “transition” from a modest scale of economic life to the economics of continental enormity was the new political and legal order instituted by the Federalist movement; the resulting economy was largely what the Federalist vanguard consciously intended. The constitution, under their constructive reading, was the anvil of this “social change.” Charles Beard told us as much. It is too soon to say whether an historiographical coalition of small-commodity theorists, pro-peasant Marxists, the heirs of Beard, agrarians, and others is on the horizon, but if so, it  would have its uses.

I would only add that we could have avoided many vexed questions and false alternatives, had even a few American historians made Taylor’s definitions of parties and fundamental issues (especially in New Views) into organizing principles of their work. It is true that judged as a way of reading the constitution or as a model of politics, Taylor’s thought “failed.” But it has its value as a critical benchmark, a standard by which to measure what has happened to us since. Despite the many epithets – “nostalgia,” “reaction,” “agrarianism,” “provincialism” – there remains in Taylor a hard core of intelligent and rigorous analysis of economic and political institutions and the follies of mankind.

 

About Joseph R. Stromberg

Joseph R. Stromberg is an independent historian born in southwest Florida and currently living in northeastern Georgia. He earned a B.A. and M.A. in History at Florida Atlantic University (1970, 1971) and did further graduate work in History at the University of Florida (1973-75). He was a Richard M. Weaver Fellow in 1970-1971. He has taught college level courses in World Civilizations, American History, and Florida History, as an adjunct instructor. His work has appeared in the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Telos, Chronicles, the Freeman, Future of Freedom, Independent Review, and the American Conservative. He has contributed essays to various collections including Secession, State, and Liberty (1998) and Opposing the Crusader State (2007). On the web he has appeared at Antiwar.com (over a hundred short essays in “The Old Cause” column, 1999-2003), First Principles Journal, Arator, and Anamnesis Journal. His research interests include the Old Right non-interventionists, the American South, peasantries in history, English Enclosures, constitutional issues, secession, and the origins of states and empires. More from Joseph R. Stromberg

You might also enjoy these articles...