John Taylor on War, Peace, and Imperial War Finance

John Taylor

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

1. War Finance

Disillusioned by the policies of his Republican allies, who had leapt unprepared into the War of 1812, Taylor writes: “War is among the most plausible means used to delude a nation into the errour of anticipation,” or living on credit:

‘Yet it cannot bring up from futurity a gun, a soldier, a ration, or a cartridge. The present generation suffers every hardship and cost of war, although anticipation pretends that it is covered by future generations. And this delusion is used to involve nations in wars, which they would never commence, if they knew that all the expense would fall upon themselves. It is twice suffered; by the living, who supply all the expenses of war; by the unborn, who supply an equivalent sum, to take up certificates of the expenses paid by the living.’

Indeed, Taylor adds:

‘Nothing exposed the American and French Revolutions to greater danger, than the attempts to use this delusion. Anticipation was tried, it taxed the existing generations by depreciation, it superseded the cultivation of other modes of putting energies in motion, it failed, the failure almost obliterated the memory and suspended the use, of the real means of war, and a dangerous crisis in both cases was produced… Political and religious opinion, and a love of country, are stronger excitements of existing warlike energies, than anticipation. They cannot be stolen or hoarded; but war carried on by paper, is starved by peculation, and produces the utmost degree of publick expense, with the least degree of publick spirit.’

In taking this view of debt-financed warfare, Taylor nicely anticipated the views of the American economist H. J. Davenport, writing just after World War I. As for Taylor’s antimilitarism, it was not the same thing as being unwilling or afraid to fight.The point was to fight only when absolutely essential. Otherwise, we courted the fate of the “European nations” which “exist for the benefit of armies and navies” and where “armies and navies do not exist for their benefit.”

2. Britain: The Negative Role Model

For Taylor the moral was clear: Americans must effectively uproot the new class of subsidized capitalists or suffer the fate of England. Britain served as Taylor’s negative role model, whose evils – empire and domestic oppression – were intimately related. Taylor paints this rather unflattering picture:

‘In contemplating the example of England, we must discern compulsion at the beginning, as well as at the end of her commerce. Her labour is compelled to sell low to her mercantile interest, and foreign nations or her colonies are compelled to purchase high of the same interest. Her maritime power is the instrument of the latter compulsion, and her bank currency of the former. This bank currency cannot force up the prices in foreign nations, as her fleet does by vexing and crippling competition; but it can force down the prices of labour at home. By taxing labour to maintain this fleet, that commerce is enabled to sell high abroad; and by a monopolized currency, regulating the prices of domestick labour, she buys low at home. She draws wealth and opulence from two sources, knavery and violence. To maintain the oppression over foreign nations and colonies, she frequently involves herself in war; to maintain the oppression over home labour, she is forced to use the penalties, corruptions, and mercenary armies, forming the code of all despotisms. But she is enriched, because labour is her slave; goaded by a paper system, and she makes competition shrink by a fleet.’

The relative internal freedom of Britain was little comfort to its dependencies:

‘Mr. Hume has said that free governments are most happy for those who partake of their freedom, but most ruinous and oppressive to their provinces. They dispense ruin and oppression to provinces, as the inevitable effect of a separate interest. The certainty of this moral law, is nearly demonstrated in the relations between England and Ireland, and quite so in India.’

In the United States, the “vicious principle of creating wealth by law” and a knavish submission “to party despotism” had between them made elections “more contemptible than in England” and a “cross patronage between the president and congress” had made other evils worse. On the other hand, “Our [ideal republican] policy has attempted to wrest war from the hands of executive power, lest it should be used as a means of making legislative an instrument for advancing its projects, and representation a mask to conceal them. War is the keenest carving knife for cutting up nations into delicious morsels for parties and their leaders.” Further, war “swells a few people to enormous size,” “puts arms into the hands of ambition, avarice, pride, and self-love,” and “breeds a race of men, nominally heroes, mistaken for patriots, and really tyrants.” Finally, under the superstitions and corruptions of the party system, a mere 26% of the legislature, by controlling a 51% majority, “holds in fact the power of declaring war,” while acting the part of “a genuine republican majority.”

Under this mistaken and centralizing version of republicanism, patronage becomes a mode “of destroying forms of government, by civil law” and “corrupts by hope, by fruition, and by disappointment.” A point is reached, not far off, where, “Accumulated, patronage becomes the real legislator of a nation” under a cloud of “secrecy, both legislative and executive” for which pretenses “can never be wanting…” Alluding to what we would now call “national security,” Taylor writes: ‘Secrecy is good for conquest, say its advocates. Let nations who wish to be free, remember that freedom cannot exist, except by controlling the conquests of their own governments at home. Patronage and secrecy united, are daily carrying some of their defences. Conquests abroad are rare, and no compensation for conquest at home.’

3. Empire and Oligarchy

Now Taylor turns to the structural logic of empire. In his view, the English state amounted to “a confederation of parties of interest,” excluding the people and consisting of “the church of England, the paper stock party, the East India company, the military party, the pensioned and sinecure party, and the ins and outs, once called whigs and tories” – all under the umbrella of the legal monarchy. Since this coalition constituted the state, the English nation as such had “no government” and “no British nation” existed but for these interest groups.

Taylor notes the advocacy of “a brisk circulation of money” by Dr. Samuel Johnson, “the best informed tory,” adding his usual remarks on the ills of paper inflation. Analogously, Taylor writes, “a brisk circulation of power is also produced. Accumulated in a few hands, like money, it breaks down confinement, spreads itself far and wide,” repaying the general public much as paper does, that is, badly. Dr. Johnson has “neglected to tell us… that money attracts power, and power, money; and that by accumulating either for the sake of a brisk circulation, you accumulate and circulate both’.

This seems a good example of Taylor’s sociopolitical acumen and his ability to spell out interrelations among various social phenomena. But there is more, as Taylor undermines two arguments advanced in favor of large accumulations of power: “uniformity of religion” and “the difficulty of governing an extensive territory.” Europe had given up the first, and America the second as far as outright monarchy was concerned. But practical knowledge is widely dispersed over a large territory and this “moral geometry” limits the “knowledge and will” of a king. Hence, “When the territory bursts beyond his orbit, monarchy ceases and some anomalous government ensues; oligarchical, military, deputy-royal, tumultuous, or infinitely variegated by circumstances. Hence neither the virtues nor vices of a monarch are felt at a distance from his person…. monarchy ends at the end of the monarch’s sphere.”

“Monarchy only succeeds,” Taylor says, in cases of appropriate scale, as in “armies, garrisons, savage tribes and private families”; in a wider sphere, the monarch has in fact a mere “power of changing oligarchs.” This brings the analysis back to presidential patronage, “which must depend upon the knowledge and will of the very worst kind of oligarchs; such as are irresponsible and unknown.” This may indeed be a form of government, but it is neither a republic nor a proper monarchy. Hence, where a republic and a monarchy “both exercise the tyrannical power of distributing wealth, the latter must be least oppressive, because it is less expensive to gratify the rapaciousness of one, than of many,” for “spurious republicks… universally afflict the people with the heaviest taxes.”

America’s federal distribution of power had provided the means of warding off such dangers. But the party system and available executive patronage favored oligarchic practice, while vaguely drawn presidential power and ongoing usurpation fostered wars, which extended the reach of patronage and power both economically and geographically. Here, Taylor’s domestic and foreign policy concerns are joined.

Where foreign relations and security are concerned, Taylor will not yield to claims of ironclad “realist” necessity. We Americans do not have to do these things, he says. We were able to resist the European system “more successfully than any other nation”: ‘Extent keeps at a distance from the bulk of the nation the calamities of war, and enables it to reflect. Cut up into sections, not a single individual might escape them. Small nations are continually exposed to the artifice of legal wars… But a nation possessed of extensive territory, happily removed from real causes of collision with other nations, like the United States, is peculiarly favoured by providence for the detection of this artifice…’

America, governed as a monarchy, in fact if not in name, would “only retain the advantage of extensive territory, by an oligarchy composed of deputy-kings, bashaws, satraps or mandarins.” As a decentralized republican confederation, with genuine self-government in its members, the United States might expand indefinitely and “unite the most extensive territories by justice…” Taylor envisioned “forming a great nation, by a chain of republicks….”

This is certainly a straightforward statement of an “isolationism” or non-interventionism grounded on strict republicanism. On Taylor’s view, then, we were not “free-riding” on the British navy, which – according to many 20th-century scholars – was benevolently shielding us from foreign danger. Only Americans themselves could undermine their fortunate geographical and political circumstances.

4. The Balance of Power

It is no surprise that John Taylor, who denied that the laws of nations could of themselves confer sovereignty on any American government, was also skeptical about the doctrine of the balance of power. In this, he agreed with a good many liberals from Kant to Cobden and Bright. As he put it: ‘What is the political attitude of nations toward each other, supposed by a balance of power? Hostility. What is the effect of hostility? War. A balance of power is therefore the most complete invention imaginable for involving one combination of states, in a war with another.’

Nor was Taylor much taken with a parallel idea: the “balance of trade.” Not surprisingly, Taylor’s main interest in balance of power doctrines pertained to the American union of states. Because of the Missouri Compromise, he had begun to worry that geographical blocs within the union would summon up a balancing doctrine as fraught with evils as the European theory. Here the balance would obtain between “slave” and “free” states. But balance-of-power politics would lead to political tinkering and brokering outside the scope of the constitution, and a sustained campaign by antislavery philanthropists against the South as a bloc “would certainly destroy the union.”

Taylor foresees “civil” war, with massive death and destruction. He makes an ironic aside about how the reformers might crusade in another venue: “if our consciences tell us that we ought to enslave freemen, to make slaves free, and to cause the destruction of a million or two of people, white and black, in the good work, nature tells us to give the preference in such favours, to those who need them most” – perhaps in Brazil, Cuba, or Africa. Nevertheless, Taylor was so far from being a “disunionist” in any positive sense that, in describing the geographical immunities of the United States, he attributed Americans’ safety to maintaining a union of some kind. But he was not an unconditional unionist. Instead, he cited “the natural right of self-defence” as the South’s guide, should those states be pressed too hard on the subject of slavery.

5. The Treaty-Making Power

The treaty power has long been prized and feared as a source of new and unknowable federal powers. As late as the mid-1950s a popular movement sought to define and curtail that power by means of the Bricker Amendment. It took all the leverage of the Eisenhower administration to defeat the proposal in the Senate by one vote. Taylor addresses the matter as follows:

‘…. [N]o additional personal or spherical power was conferred by declaring the laws and treaties to be also the supreme law of the land…. The declaration, that the constitution was the supreme law of the land, confirmed all its limitations, divisions, restrictions and limitations of power, and it never was intended that either should be altered in the least degree by laws or treaties, or be placed under the power of those who should make laws or treaties. On the contrary, the laws were to be made in pursuance of the constitution, and the treaties, under the authority of the United States. The United States have no authority, except that which is given by the constitution. Both the laws and treaties to be supreme must, therefore, be made in conformity with the powers bestowed, limited and reserved by the constitution, and by these we must determine whether a law or a treaty has been constitutionally made, before the question of its supremacy can occur.’


‘The first instance of a spherical supremacy which I recollect, was the claim of the treaty-making power, to bind the taxing or legislative power, by stipulating in a treaty for the payment of money. This was a dispute between two federal political spheres; but the principles, upon which it has been or must be settled, are those by which the rights of the federal and state political spheres can alone be ascertained…. As the federal legislative sphere may justly deny to the treaty-making power, a right to abridge the powers delegated to itself by the constitution, under a claim of supremacy, or by any species of construction; so, the state spheres may justly deny to the federal legislative or judicial spheres, a right to abridge by similar modes the powers reserved to them. Suppose the treaty-making power should stipulate with England to declare war against France; would that deprive congress of the right of preserving peace, with which it is invested by the constitution?’

Taylor’s observations on foreign affairs comport well with these comments by Andrew Lytle on the period of Jefferson’s and Madison’s rule:

‘The rub lay in the nature of foreign affairs which, by the crises arising out of world conditions, are able to subvert the best constitutions and reduce the ordering of the internal affairs of a union to the support of a foreign policy which may bring distress, suffering, and revolution. It was not long before New England was asked, on account of foreign policy, to acquiesce patriotically to laws dealing injuries and ruin.’

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 (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

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