John Taylor: Republicanism, Liberty, and Union

John Taylor

Part 1 of a Five Part Series

1. The Relevance of John Taylor

John Taylor of Caroline (1753-1824) has a secure, if minor, place in the history of American political thought. Charles A. Beard considered him “the philosopher and statesman of agrarianism” and “the most systematic thinker” of the Jeffersonian Republican party. Indeed, Beard’s writing on Taylor, early in the 20th century, did much to revive interest in the Virginia polemicist. Eugene T. Mudge, writing in 1939, saw Taylor’s chief importance in his role as “prophet” of sectional struggle, and even civil war. English legal historian M. J. C. Vile sees Taylor as “in some ways the most impressive political theorist that America has produced.” Gordon Wood writes that Taylor “brilliantly expressed the conception of American politics that had emerged from the revolutionary era….” Avery Craven calls him “the most profound and the most persistent champion of individual and local democracy….” New Left historian William Appleman Williams once dismissed Taylor as “physiocrat” but later came to believe that Taylor “made the best case against empire as a way of life.”

Others have been less favorable. Louis Hartz faults Taylor for posing as a radical democrat, when Taylor ought to have tried to be the “American Disraeli.” The celebrated historian Richard Hofstadter calls Taylor “a provincial windbag” and seems aghast that Vernon Lewis Parrington found anything in Taylor worth his time. For a liberal historian of Hofstadter’s stamp, the views of Taylor and other Jeffersonian Republicans were entirely too “negative”: ‘The predominant strain in their economic thinking was laissez faire, their primary goal essentially negative – to destroy the link between the federal government and the investing classes. Acute and observant, their economic writing was at its best in criticism, but it offered no guide to a specific agrarian program. They had no plan; indeed, they made a principle of planlessness.’

And so, in time,

… Jeffersonian laissez faire became the political economy of the most conservative thinkers in the country. Fifty years after Jefferson’s death men like William Graham Sumner were writing sentences exactly like Jefferson’s and John Taylor’s to defend enterprising industrial capitalists and railroad barons from government regulation and reform…. William Jennings Bryan, leading the last stand of agrarianism as an independent political power, was still striving to give his cause the color or respectability by showing that, after all, the farmer too was a businessman!

There is much confusion in the passages just quoted, but for now suffice it to say that, first, Sumner saw himself as a critic and enemy of plutocracy; and, second, farmers certainly could be businessmen in the ordinary sense of the word. As for capitalism – and Taylor’s views of it – we shall get there soon enough. Writing in the same year, Manning Dauer managed to find in Taylor the father of “the present day agrarians, and also the present day states’ rights industrialists.”

2. John Taylor’s Life and Career

There have been a number of full-scale studies of Taylor. Older studies include those by William E. Dodd (1908), Henry Simms (1932), and Mudge (already mentioned). More recent are Robert E. Shalhope’s John Taylor of Caroline: Pastoral Republican (1978) and C. William Hill’s Political Theory of John Taylor of Caroline (1977). An older study, to which I shall return, consists of a two-part essay by Andrew Lytle, first published in 1924. Despite this body of work, it seems fair to say that Taylor has been neglected relative to his actual merits.

John Taylor certainly met the requirements for an Old Dominion planter-statesman. Born to a good family, raised at the home of his uncle Edmund Pendleton, he attended William and Mary College, set up a law practice, served as a major in the Continental Army, and became a successful planter, owning several plantations and 150 slaves. Taylor preferred the quiet life of a country gentleman and devoted much time and energy to agricultural “reform” in his capacity as an applied agrarian, but did enter politics, at times, to defend free, republican society. Never a professional politician, he served in the Virginia legislature in 1779-81, 1783-85, and 1796-1800, and was appointed to fill out unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate in 1793-94, 1803, and 1822-24.

This suggests that Taylor was not the sort of classical republican who professes to find freedom in political participation as such. But Taylor did put himself forward in a crisis, as witness his apparent advocacy of secession and his sponsorship of the Virginia Resolutions, in the crisis set off by the Alien and Sedition Acts, the late 18th-century Patriot Act.

3. John Taylor’s Writings

As one who always set himself against consolidated government, Taylor took an “Antifederalist” position during the debate over ratification of the constitution, as an associate of Patrick Henry’s party in the Virginia ratifying convention. Not surprisingly, most of his political writing seeks to square Antifederalist principles with the constitution and to hold the victors to the promises about and understandings of the constitution, which they gave in the ratification debates.

With one notable exception, Taylor’s works reflected immediate political battles of the day. His earliest essays attacked the Federalist funding system. His later works included reasoned polemics against the centralizing doctrines of both Congress and the Supreme Court. Taylor’s magnum opus (the exception just mentioned), An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814), which took him more than a decade to write, was a delayed reply to John Adams’s A Defence of the Constitution of Government of the United States (1787-88). Another work, Arator (1813, 1818), was a compilation of Taylor’s newspaper articles on agricultural and political topics. His last major works were Tyranny Unmasked (1822) and New Views of the Constitution of the United States (1823).

A typical Taylor book brings much learning and rhetoric to bear on a set of related issues, typically in the mode of jeremiad. As befits a Christian, Taylor had a deep sense of the failings of human nature. At times, he seems quite Calvinist. There are of course felicities and infelicities in Taylor’s literary style. Writing to Thomas Jefferson on September 15, 1813, John Adams noted that he had received some unsigned printed pages in the mail. “The Conclusion of the whole is that an Aristocracy of Bank Paper, is as bad as the Nobility of France or England. I, most assuredly, will not controvert this point, with this man. Who he is, I cannot conjecture. The Honourable John Taylor of Virginia, of all men living or dead first Occurred to me.” In reply, on October 18, 1813, Jefferson commented that the author of the unsigned “pamphlet on aristocracy… may be known from the quaint, mystical and hyperbolical ideas, involved in affected, new-fangled and pedantic terms, which stamp his writings.” Adams wrote in reply on November 12, “The style answers every characteristic, that you have intimated.” Yet there was “a great deal of good Sense in Arator. And there is some in his ‘Aristocracy.’” John Randolph of Roanoke thought Taylor’s Inquiry very good but cried, “For heaven’s sake, get some worthy person to do the second edition into English.”

Taylor’s sometimes difficult style detracts only slightly from books well worth reading. Often there are interesting compressions and apt expressions. And Taylor’s work provides welcome relief from James Madison’s Latinate and periodic sentences. Indeed, Taylor resembles William Faulkner in that his work is sometimes better understood when read aloud, for Taylor was both a rhetor and a preacher. He was aware of complaints about his writing. He ends the preface to Tyranny Unmasked, as follows: “As to its style, it is dictated by a wish to be understood by every reader.The writer has not an ability to angle for fame with the bait of periods; nor a motive for consulting a temporary taste, by a dish of perfumes.” Finally, Taylor’s semantic/semiotic turn bears noting – his interest in the abuses of “artificial phraseology” and counterfeit words aping the real ones. Historian Robert Shalhope has remarked on Taylor’s “perceptiveness” in this regard.

4. Taylor as an Impractical Politician

Taylor was not much of a practical politician. He worked best as a critic trying to keep the public, and indeed his own party, honest. His attacks on the entrenched Federalists included pieces written under the pen-name “Franklin” in the mid-1790s in Oswald’s Independent Gazetteer. Pamphlets like An Examination of the Late Proceedings Congress Respecting the Official Conduct of the Secretary of the Treasury (1793), An Enquiry into the Principles and Policy of Certain Public Measures (1794). A Definition of Parties (1795) and An Argument Respecting the Constitutionality of the Carriage Tax (1795) followed. Banning sees these minor works as “probably the most important source for an understanding of Republican thought in the middle 1790s.” Certainly, we can see in them the beginnings of Taylor’s mature system of thought.

Perhaps the worst tragedy that can befall a set of principles is to have a political party professing allegiance (however false) to them, come to power. We have seen this in our days with “conservatism.” And so it probably was with Jeffersonian republicanism. Certainly the luminous Henry Adams and the contemporary historian Forrest McDonald tax Jefferson’s party with failures allegedly stemming from a too-rigid adherence to republican ideas. Taylor, Randolph, and the Quids drew a different conclusion. It is worth pointing out here that while Taylor’s writings exercised an ongoing influence on Jefferson’s views, Jefferson was more open to Taylor’s ideas when out of power.

In 1801-1802, with the aid of a committee in Caroline County headed by his uncle Edmund Pendleton, Taylor promoted “amendments restricting the powers of the government in regard to the army, the navy, finances, and the making of treaties.” As late as 1804, he could still write A Defense of the Measures of the Administration of Thomas Jefferson. But discontent within Republican ranks had begun and John Randolph went into opposition in 1806. This was the beginning of the so-called Quids as a minority Republican opposition. In 1810, Taylor gave his reasons: he saw the republican split as resulting from the administration’s compromise between republican and federalist policies.

Along with Randolph and a few others, Taylor opposed the War of 1812 – his own party’s war – calling it “this metaphysical war….” An account set down much later records an exchange between Taylor and war hawk John Roane Jr.:

Once, during the War of 1812, he beat John Taylor, of Caroline, for Congress, and in one of the conflicts at the Bowling Green, Taylor’s own stronghold, Taylor, who opposed the war said: “But Mr. Roane, the taxes, sir, the taxes.”
“Well, sir; the taxes, what of them? I do not fear taxes, nor do the people. They want freedom; they don’t want money.”
“How high would you tax for this war?”
“I would tax them, sir, ten cents in the dollar.”
“Suppose, sir, that should be insufficient?”
“Then, sir, I would tax them twenty cents in the dollar.”
“But suppose they would not stand it?”
“Then, sir, I would not ask them. I would tax them thirty, forty, fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety, one hundred cents in the dollar. Col. Taylor, I would tax the shirts off the peoples’ backs and make them free, whether they would or not. What is your next bugbear?”

Evidently, such war hawk bombast proved popular with the voters. Andrew Lytle describes the period as follows:

Jefferson had hamstrung himself with the all-Federalist-all-Republican doctrine…. In trying to keep the ship of state afloat during squalls from foreign parts, Jefferson and Madison neglected domestic principles, until dissension spread into mutiny. The embargoes and later the War of 1812 ruined New England’s shipping and turned her capital towards manufacturing. At the conclusion of hostilities the factories demanded protection. The depleted currency and the debt contracted to prosecute the war made the richest ground for patronage, a National Bank, and the sectional taxation of the Southern planter and farmer.

The war strengthened the standing army and “discredited” the militia – by showing it was not useful for invading Canada, even if it might be adequate for local defense. Wartime monetary expansion by the new bank led to the Panic of 1819 and in this context a Congressional Committee report arguing for expanded protectionism, a suggestion which drew forth Taylor’s Tyranny Unmasked (1822).

5. Ideological Background of Taylor’s Writings

This brings us, alas, to the Forty Years War in American Historiography between the paladins of the “republican school” and the defenders of a “liberal” American Revolution and founding. J. G. A. Pocock, a prime mover of the republican school, sees classical republicanism (also “civic humanism” or “country ideology”) as the essence of English Opposition thought. This outlook, radically opposed to liberalism, descended from Nicolò Machiavelli through James Harrington and the Commonwealthmen into the American Revolution. It centered on such categories as court vs. country, mixed constitutions, balanced orders, and independent, armed, agrarian proprietors as bulwark and defenders of the state. Further, these ideas came over to America in two bread streams – from Henry St. John Bolingbroke and his allies and from a more “bourgeois” group of Radical Whigs. Both tendencies fought the state-financial revolution which, by means of monetized public debt, made possible standing armies, necessitated higher taxes, and supported absolute monarchy.

Historians tend to lump all such figures together as agrarians “nostalgically” resisting expanded commerce. This interpretation can be quite misleading. As Isaac Kramnick writes: “One can be both a bourgeois radical and a thinker concerned with themes important to the civic humanist tradition.” On the republican school’s reading, John Locke was out as the main influence on the American thought of the 1770s and after.

6. Republican Revolution

But certainly American revolutionary Whig ideology drew on liberal, Lockean notions of self-ownership, natural law, and natural rights. American Whigs appealed to the “rights of Englishmen” and employed classical republican ideas as well. These ideas, combined and cross-fertilized, constituted what Bernard Bailyn calls a “transforming ideology.” American Whigs evidently fused several compatible ideologies into a reasonably coherent libertarian/republican Weltanschauung informing the American Revolution.

Radical Whigs on both sides of the Atlantic viewed power as inherently expansionist: only constant public vigilance could keep liberty safe. They took British imperial policies after 1763 as proving an intention to use standing armies and taxes to subvert liberty. To the former threat, American ideologists posed militias as the viable alternative. In Bernard Bailyn’s view, the themes of Country vs.Court and Liberty vs. Power fell completely together, leading Americans to take “a negative view of government” and to see “the rulers and the ruled” as antagonistic forces.35 We may concede the coexistence of various political “languages” without prejudging the main commitments of the American Revolution. Luigi Marco Bassani has written an interesting autopsy for the unrepentant republican school of historians and we may leave the historians’ Forty Years War to one side. I merely note the sheer ethereality of some republican school writers and the absence of materially motivated actors in their work.

7. Confederation, Constitution, and Union

Within a few years of the victory of the revolution, a group of centralizing Whigs sought to replace the Articles of Confederation with a new constitution capable of undergirding an American mercantilist political economy.39 The ratification debates unleashed old themes, as the misnamed Antifederalists attacked the constitution as a betrayal of the Revolution. At the same time, the misnamed Federalists (nationalists) restated republicanism and tried to annex popular sovereignty to the projected central government.

The centralizers prevailed and governed until 1800. Their opponents gradually organized under the name of Republicans and broadly continued the Antifederalist cause. The Federalists found their mercantilist policies – the National Bank, excises, redemption of wartime certificates, standing army, and tariffs – assailed by the Republicans in a replay of English debates after 1688. The parallels were in fact close and John Taylor did his part in underscoring them. In his assaults on the Federalists’ funding system, Taylor can be seen as “an American Bolingbroke, speaking for an American ‘Country’ party.” As Pocock puts it, Taylor wrote “anti-Hamiltonian polemics in which the ghosts of Swift and Bolingbroke stalk on every page.”

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

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