Part III of a Five Part Series. Part I, Part II.
1. Republicanism and Liberalism Revisited
As noted previously, 18th-century Anglo-American opposition writers employed several political languages. One of these, classical republicanism, asserted reciprocal causal relations between power and property such that a republic secures stability and liberty by way of a “mixed constitution” resting on a broad class of independent proprietors. Critics of England’s post-1688 Whig Oligarchy and its state-financial revolution often deployed this language. This allows many historians to read such “republicans” as vaguely outlined “agrarians” futilely resisting inevitable capitalist development and social change.
In the American context, as Taylor argued over and over again, the archaic-republican theme of social “balance” between constitutionally embedded orders was thoroughly misleading. Even the republican notions of “corruption” and “virtue” had somewhat different meanings. As Robert Kelley writes, for Jeffersonians: ‘…the great danger for the public lay in the fact that aristocracies had more subtle weapons than their opponents. With their wealth they could buy off the opposition, could indeed recruit them. This was what made “corruption” perhaps the most resonant of all issues….’
And as Lance Banning notes, “The target was not business enterprise, not wealth itself, but a particular variety of paper wealth that seemed too closely tied to governmental favor.” A tour of Taylor’s Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, finished in 1811 and published in 1814, will uncover many such themes.
2. Taylor’s Political Economy as Revealed in the Inquiry
Owing to its long gestation, the Inquiry is a great handbook of republican ideas as understood in late 18th and early 19th-century Virginia. Taylor’s “republicanism” was consistent and radical, but not especially anti-commercial, nor overly concerned with “virtue,” and certainly not Rousseauian or communitarian in any proto-socialist way. A rather wide-roaming answer to John Adams’ Defense of the American Constitutions, the Inquiry covers the whole range of 17th and 18th-century political thought, English and continental alike, a great deal of English legal and political history, and much else besides.
A preliminary observation is that for Taylor, the political “common good” involves the maintaining of a liberal political order over time. Part I of the Inquiry –“Aristocracy” – begins with a refutation of Adams’ archaic-republican “numerical analysis” of states into government by one (monarchy), the few (aristocracy), and the many (democracy). In Taylor’s view, Adams had failed to justify (practically) ancient Greek aristocracy. Further, Adams consistently overlooked the artificial causes of aristocratic wealth. Since the age of aristocracies, says Taylor, “knowledge and commerce” have eroded those orders.
To answer Adam’s archaic republicanism, Taylor, like many thinkers of his time, organized history into three ages, each with a corresponding artificial aristocracy: 1st, an age of superstition, 2nd,, a feudal age of conquest, and 3rd, an age of paper and patronage. The last age was a present reality in Britain, and the Federalist Party longed to have the British system here. “Talent and virtue are now so widely distributed,” writes Taylor, that such systems were unnecessary. As a result, “Modern taxes and frauds to collect money, and not ancient authors, will therefore afford the best evidence of its present character.” Despite the irrelevance of the two earlier forms of aristocracy, Taylor as a thorough comparative anatomist examines them before turning to artificial capital and credit as the probable sources of an American unnatural aristocracy.
Taylor observes that paper credit fled the field in the American Revolution and “anticipation” proved delusive. Even so, paper systems won friends because paper stock is more profitable than slavery. Worse, we are exhorted to pay such public debts in the name of protecting property in general. It would be more honest for the stockjobbers to say: “Our purpose is to settle wealth and power upon a minority. It will be accomplished by national debt, paper corporations, and offices, civil and military.”
Though a nation may be enslaved by force (armies), or fraud (paper money), “few are jealous of stockjobbers.” But paper stock is not a source of national strength; nor does wider access to monopoly cure its evils. A majority cannot live off a minority. Taylor thought it strange that Americans had more readily spotted abuses of the taxing power under British rule, than under their own republic – especially since the upkeep of a paper aristocracy required higher taxes than a landed one did. As for the supposed English “balance” between orders, contended for by Adams, that social structure was long since overturned, hence the irrelevance of Shaftesbury’s ideas on the matter.
As to more modern forms of artificial property, Taylor writes that Americans had managed to “explode… the antiquated social compact dogma” only to submit to “the modern law charter dogma,” which made new state-created rights and properties eternally inviolable. Such English “private property” did not suit America, despite the attempt under slogans about “publick faith” or “national credit” to make it a key moral precept, so as to sustain privilege.
In Part 2, “The English vs. the American Policy,” Taylor noted that Americans mean to divide power rather than “balance” it. Just as “‘An uncertainty of law’ is a ‘glorious’ object to avaricious lawyers,” so, too, would “‘An uncertainty of republicanism’… be an object, not less desirable to ambitious politicians.” To achieve his purpose of telling good governments from bad, Taylor adopted a classical liberal welfare analysis, which he built into his republican outlook. On this analysis, we see how false property must ally itself to justly acquired property while raising the cry of “Leveling” against its critics of the former. Taylor writes: “I consider those possessions as property, which are fairly gained by talents and industry, or are capable of subsisting, without taking property from others by law.” On such a view, proto-socialist leveling and aristocratic-feudal exactions had much in common. For just this reason, “balanced orders” were hardly needed to shield us from phantom leveling, which “never will have advocates” in North America.
Taking a Protestant and liberal historical line, Taylor writes that printing lessened ignorance and “commerce and alienation gradually destroyed the balance of property and power among orders.” With the old order worn away, “taxation becomes the only engine for distributing and balancing property; and must arrange society into the two orders of payers and receivers.”113 Given that “human nature is compounded of good and evil qualities,” writes Taylor, “government ought to be modeled with a view to the preservation of the good and the control of the evil.” In his view, “political law” (constitutions) will keep governments moral. Even so, governments may be “vicious” owing to bad incentives. Constitutions may be improved.
In Part 3, “The Evils of the US Government,” Taylor focused on constitutional defects, and urged amendments. The American executive was so constructed as “to excite evil moral qualities” and drive us “toward force and fraud.” Elections alone could not correct the evil. Secrecy and exploitation of war powers might allow a president, who already had more effective power than Caesar needed to enslave Rome, to overawe the people. Exclusive control of military patronage, and its extension during war, inclined the president to war, while “the military power is not even divided, and is only subjected in a state of complete accumulation, to the suffrages of an unarmed people.” Hence, Taylor’s commitment to a genuine revitalized militia system – for practical, political (and even liberal) reasons – and not out of ancient republican theory. The treaty and appointment powers added to the president’s weaponry, and to his already excessive military power was “subjoined a mass of civil power” and “the prerogative of conferring lucrative offices upon members of congress,” which allowed the president to control the legislature. Election “procures a confidence [for the president] which has no foundation.” By contrast, the states had made much headway in “unmonarchising” the executive by various devices.
Anticipating Lord Acton, Taylor writes that, “Power changes moral character, and private life regenerates it” – a republican enough sentiment in Virginia, but not perhaps in ancient Greece. Absent English social orders, “the only reason for a strong executive, does not exist…“ Closing his remarks on the presidency, Taylor can find no “reason why war, peace, appointments to office, or the dispensation of publick money, should have been counted in the catalogue of the [executive], except for the efficacy of these powers in one man for begetting tyranny….”
Turning to the federal courts, the danger there lies in their ability to convert their “independence” from other political branches into “an immoveable power of construction” over the constitution and thus over other branches, and finally, over the sovereignty of the people. This outcome looms, if judges successfully assert “the exclusive right of declaring a law void.”
In Part 4, “Funding,” Taylor deconstructs national (or public) debt, which arises from a particular generation’s wish “to anticipate the riches of posterity and bequeath it their misfortunes.” He writes:
‘But an opinion that it is possible, for the present generation to seize and use the property of future generations, has produced to both the parties concerned, effects of the same complexion with the usual fruits of national errour. The present age is cajoled to tax and enslave itself by the errour of believing that it taxes and enslaves future ages to enrich itself; and the future ages submit to taxation and slavery, by being reduced into an erroneous opinion, that the present age have a right to inflict upon them these calamities.’
Taylor again remarks how “anticipation” fled the field in the Revolution after distracting Americans from the real means of winning the war: a public spirit able to overcome the usual “free-rider” problems. In addition, a false analogy with everyday commercial borrowing at interest muddled the paper stock/public debt question. Paper stock/national debt is not necessary in order for commerce to flourish, even if, coincidentally, “they exist together in England. That one is the bane of the other, we have already inferred from the necessity of England to resort to war and conquest to cultivate her commerce.” Paper contrivances are mere “signs or representations” of real things, and paper stock is in fact a kind of tax on money and its circulation.
At the end of the Inquiry, Taylor comes back once more to Americans’ earlier experience of paper money, arguing that “the final success of the revolutionary war, was produced by the depreciation of the paper money, and the other causes by which government was prevented from creating parties of interest by pecuniary laws; an impotence which guaranteed the patriotism even of both ins and outs.” Mark well that Taylor does not equate the success of the Revolution with the success of the government. He is happy that the Revolution “succeeded” without – indeed because governments could not create – permanent public debt in lieu of paper currency.
Extending his dialectic of true and false property, Taylor observes: “Despotick power strives to blend itself with a legitimate government, as paper stock does with private property….” This was the rule in England, even if new players now ran the game:
‘The nobility in England no longer foment wars, because they are not aggrandized by it, and war has been still more ardently fomented in that country than ever, because their system of paper and patronage gain spoil by it in any event. Conquest furnishes it with funds on which to bottom more stock, and the war which made the conquest, with a pretext for quartering more patronage and paper in its own nation. Is not that a separate aristocratical interest which gains more by war and conquest, than orders of titled nobility formerly did?’
Increased taxes were another consequence of such systems.
In Part 5, “Banking,” Taylor characterizes banking as generally bad as currently practiced. He notes the advantage of coin in being difficult to multiply, that is, inflate. He sees bank profits as a “tax” paid by the public to privileged corporations. The Bank of the United States is of course bad, although Taylor thinks that the old Bank of Pennsylvania can be defended.
Taylor compares patronage gained by banking with that obtained by conquest. He writes that if patronage “is obtained by foreign conquest, as in the acquisition of India by England, the people still suffer by the unconstitutional power it confers,” even if patronage “is infinitely more calamitous to a nation, when gotten by domestick operations.” The phrase which I have italicized is surely one of the earlier notices of the problem of “blowback” in Anglo-American writing! (Alas, that financial-industrial game could not go on successfully forever. Writing specifically of the British Empire in India, historian David Washbrook notes that “reliance on external agencies came to have its costs. British capitalism tended to become parasitic: living off the easy profits of imperialism affected the character of its later drives towards ‘rationalization’ and corporatism.”)Taylor also spots the very monetary illusion that would one day become a centerpiece of Keynesian economic policy: “an advancement of the price of labour, pari passu, would produce neither gain nor loss.” He shows a good grasp of international money and goods flows, whether of paper, specie, or commodities. He again compares bank slavery to chattel slavery. Taylor also notices than under hard money, any supply of money is optimal and discusses the bankers’ “privilege” of operating on fractional reserves. With increased interest (subsequently counted as assets) and multiple lending of the same capital (as if it were really on hand, warehoused), massive transfers of real goods proceed under a monetary illusion. Monetary fluctuations accompany the process. Taylor comments, “The tyranny of fraud is not less oppressive than that of force.” Despite all the theoretical knowledge and historical experience that could be brought to bear on these questions, writes Taylor, Americans have allowed the experiments of Walpole to be repeated on our soil.
In Part 6, “The Good Moral Principles of the US Govt.,” Taylor proceeds (he says) on the ground of the laws of nature. These require political equality. (All this is part of Taylor’s polemic against John Adams’ fixed social orders.) Taylor wants to see real divisions of power and real agency. He asserts that popular sovereignty “flows out of each man’s right to govern himself.”
Taylor comments that, “Oaths of agents are prescribed to enforce, not to destroy, the duties of agency” – a rather different view than that of Lincoln and other defenders of presidential prerogative, who take the oath as another source of power. He repeats that self-government is superior to sovereignty. A rather vague discussion of the sovereignty of the people follows. He observes that no governments – federal or state – could, as subordinate agents, dissolve the union on their own motion. Taylor hails election, divisions of power, and an armed people as the means to secure republican liberty.
Again sounding like Lord Acton, Taylor asserts that “Great power often corrupts virtue; it invariably renders vice more malignant…. In proportion as the powers of governments increase, both its own character and that of the people becomes worse.” As for what we now call National Security, “A protector is unexceptionally a master… without a ‘well-regulated militia,’ the military sovereignty of a nation, exactly resembles its civil society under a government of hereditary orders.” Addressing the Alien and Sedition Acts, Taylor urges that freedom of discussion arises directly from the right of self-government, while the election of mere agents is not a participation in the sovereignty. The sovereignty created the “political law” which uses elections as one device for dividing and controlling power. Contrary to Adams and others, the procedure for amending the constitution and the makeup of the US Senate do not at all answer to English-style orders.
In Part 7, “Authority,” Taylor notes the perils of confidence. He deploys the words of the revolutionary John Adams against the later John Adams. He undertakes further repudiations of “virtue” as the basis of republicanism:
‘If virtue, as a basis of government, be understood to mean, not that the principles of the government, but that the individuals composing the nation must be virtuous, then republicks would be found in the self same principle with monarchies, namely, the evanescent qualities of individuals. But interest is a better and more permanent basis… Its wonderful capacity for concretion bestows on noble orders, hierarchies and stockjobbers, power for oppression, and loyalty to each other in defrauding; and why may it not also secure the fidelity of nations to themselves, though composed of people equally as vicious?
Taylor reviews Adams’s ideas in relation to the debate between Malthus and Godwin. He shows himself to be more impressed with Godwin, and displays much interest in the plight of the working poor in England. Along the way, referring to English politics after the Glorious Revolution, he aims at an inviting target: ‘The English writers during the specified period, contain whatever is to be found in the Federalist; but all their theories sunk, as soon as they were promulgated; in a vortex of corruption…. What is to keep the same doctrines from the same fate, or shield the United States under their guidance, from the same effects?’
In Part 8, “The Mode of Infusing Aristocracy into the United States,” Taylor avers that, “Aristocracy is no where agrarian.” He notes that a paper-military-patronage aristocracy gets along without titles, but is no less dangerous for that. (Today, we might say military-industrial-financial-congressional-university complex.) “Money and armies are the instruments of power,” writes Taylor, in another post-Harringtonian statement. Such are the main lines of attack in Taylor’s Inquiry, lines continued in Tyranny Unmasked.
3. ‘Tyranny Unmasked’
Tyranny Unmasked, written (as noted above) in response to Congressional support for protective tariffs, carried forward Taylor’s politically-grounded class analysis. Along with the usual fireworks, the book displays great sociological penetration. One example will suffice here. Summing up the consequences and character of the combined stock-jobbing and tariff system, Taylor declares it “incapable of contradiction” that,
‘… no species of property-transferring policy, past or existing, foreign or domestick, ever did or ever can enrich the labouring classes of any society whatever; but that it universally impoverishes them…. The mercantile class, as merchants only, must be impoverished by this policy; but a few individuals of this class, more frequently evade its oppression, than of other labouring classes, by blending the capitalist with the mercantile character; and becoming bankers, lenders to government, or factory owners. So far also, as the agricultural and mechanical classes, are interspersed with individuals endowed with pecuniary privileges, such individuals derive emolument from the property-transferring policy, not as mechanicks or agriculturists, but in their privileged characters. Those who gain more by banking, by the protecting-duty monopoly, or by loaning money to the government, than they lose by these property-transferring machines, constitute no exception to the fact, that the property-transferring policy invariably impoverishes all labouring and productive classes. A few individuals are enriched by every species of tyranny, as its essence in civilized countries consists of transferring property by laws.’
Here, methodological individualism meets class conflict kindled by the property-transferring activities of the state, and the resulting discussion does not so much “foretell” Marx’s style of analysis as demonstrate a similar but earlier analysis.
4. Liberal Class Analysis: Labor, State, and Markets
Taylor seems to have been perfectly sincere when he championed “labor” and “agriculture” and denounced paper feudalists. It would be unhistorical to take him as seizing on the word “labour” in the service of hypocrisy. In truth, Taylor was applying a class-conflict analysis that contrasted property created by political force and fraud with property earned through productive effort (whether by farmers, entrepreneurs, tradesmen, or laborers). At a time when special interests, classes, and even whole regions sought to batten on the state, such an analysis was an important moral and sociological tool.
There is a striking resemblance between Taylor’s sociology and that of the French Restoration liberal school of J. B. Say, Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Augustin Thierry. In their doctrine of “industrialisme” we meet with the same distinction between true and false property and between productive and parasitic social classes understood in relation to state power. We find also the same readiness to reduce government’s role to some strict minimum, the same ascription of class conflict to political measures. Taylor also bears comparison with the English Ricardian socialists of the 1820s and 1830s (“socialists” because they converted David Ricardo’s economics into an attack on English capitalism). In 1987 economist Michael Perelman characterized Taylor as the “most eloquent” of those who used the term “labor” for “the activities of almost everyone other than those who profited from extending credit,” and added that “the similarity between the rhetoric of Taylor, an arch-conservative, and the so-called Ricardian socialists would make an excellent subject for further study.”
Jefferson and Taylor were conversant with the English economists and with the French laissez-faire liberals Jean-Baptiste Say and Antoine Louis Claude Destutt de Tracy. But Taylor has flashes of complete originality. After all, none (or very few) of the French or English writers undertook to apply their critical ideas to the new American system, since they fondly hoped it would repudiate European mercantilism entirely. Taylor was breaking new ground.
In fact, Taylor’s critique is ideally fitted for grappling with the state-assisted triumph of the modern corporation, ending in a thoroughly rationalized corporatist order. Here it would be better to reexamine the legal form of the corporation itself, instead of blaming Taylor and Jefferson (as modern critics like Hofstadter were wont to do) for those late 19th-century corporate defenders who used their language. It was Taylor after all who wrote, “There are some words innately despotic” – notably “hierarchy” and “corporation.” He added: “Both are appurtenances of sovereignty, and sovereignty being despotick because it is indefinite, both are appurtenances of despotism.” On this line, we might begin to see 19th-century general incorporation laws as a “democratic” broadening of access to special privileges that were illegitimate and mala in se. Taylor already knew that giving monopolistic privilege a wider base did not resolve the problem or fact of monopoly. A search for the deeper roots of American corporatism might well demonstrate the relevance of Taylor’s critique across all of American history.
In any case, Taylor saw great extremes of wealth and poverty as the invariable result of extra-economic coercion and deceit. In his treatment of wealth and power, Taylor, the successful Southern planter, perhaps resembled no other Anglo-American laissez faire liberal as much as Thomas Paine, a self-taught petty bourgeois radical. With the obvious exception of slavery, which Paine denounced and Taylor despaired of changing, the two men had much in common.
Taylor does, indeed, sound puzzlingly proto-Marxist at times. This confuses commentators who imagine that any analysis involving class conflict and exploitation necessarily “looks forward” to Marxism. Compare Louis Hartz: “Taylor’s historical theory is a kind of Marxism ending in a smashing anticlimax.” And here is Taylor answering the question of why protectionism has not helped English workingmen: “Because it has established a monopoly which operates only in favour of their employers, increases the expenses of government, and feeds unproductive capital by sacrificing productive labour.” This is especially true, he writes, in agricultural and seafaring occupations, where the workers have “very little capital except their bodily labour.” Here is “Marx’s” category of labor-power several decades before Marx. (And who should grasp the value created by labor better than an owner of laborers?) But no, Taylor does not need to be a proto-Marxist. Radical classical liberals and Ricardian socialists had their own analysis of political-economic structures founded on a state-centered theory of social conflict. This was a theory of plunder or spoliation, with the state and its legal system making important and rather “autonomous” – contributions to artificial class differences and social conflict.
5. Slavery and Colonization
Taylor’s greatest “deviation” from political liberalism came (as with other Southern thinkers) over slavery. Here, like centralizing Whigs concerned with international relations, the planters could plead necessity (but with more justice). As often happens in human affairs, those philanthropists most open to the radical and simple solution, immediate emancipation, were those who would be least affected by such a revolution in social relations. It is a truism that the growth of antislavery feeling in the northern states drove Southern spokesmen to focus on their legal rights in the union and later to defend slavery in the abstract.
Taylor writes in Arator,‘The fact is, that negro slavery is an evil which the United States must look in the face. To whine over it, is cowardly; to aggravate it, criminal; and to forbear to alleviate it, because it cannot be wholly cured, foolish.’
As a successful planter, Taylor was deeply involved in the use of slave labor; as a spokesman for Virginia, he could not escape certain dilemmas arising from that illiberal institution. Unlike Jefferson, whose evasions and contradictions fascinate historians, Taylor met slavery (nearly) head on. It was an evil, he said, but one without a short-term cure, what with the constant threat of slave revolt, racial struggle, and general slaughter. In time, he wrote, ‘If England and America would erect and foster a settlement of free negroes in some fertile part of Africa, it would soon subsist by its own energies. Slavery might then be gradually re-exported, and philanthropy gratified by a slow reanimation of the virtue, religion and liberty of the negroes, instead of being again afflicted with the effects of her own rash attempts suddenly to change human nature.’
All through his writings, Taylor was quite realistic on the subject of slavery. Recall his assertions, already mentioned, that financial exploitation is even worse than chattel slavery, which implicitly concedes that chattel slavery was exploitative. He writes further:
‘It has often been said, that poor labouring people in Europe, encounter more penury and distress than the Negro slaves in the United States. The profit extorted from the negro slave is moderated by the immediate interest of his master in his existence. It is moderated by the master’s benevolence, and by his respect for his own reputation. But the slave of stock enjoys none of these ameliorations….’
Finally, in rejecting claims that the existence of superior managerial intelligence in some people permitted establishment of privileged orders, Taylor notes the “evils resulting from the usurpations of a power of direction, founded in the false assumption of superior intelligence….” In fact, “freedom of intelligence” made church and state “more productive” of good for mankind and we would logically expect similar results in the case of “labour” (= all unprivileged productive activities). Taylor asks rhetorically:‘Are slaves free, because their labour is made more productive, (if such be the fact,) by the intelligence of their masters? Is the white population of the world justified in converting to its own use the labour of Africa, on account of superiority of intellect? Would the intelligence of the negroes in Africa be diminished by a freedom of labour?’
The whole discussion, carried over into the next page, assumes an answer of “no.”
Unfortunately, actual circumstances left Taylor with no interim choice, if he sought one, except to defend slavery as it existed, especially after he saw how the Federalists and their heirs meant to employ the slavery issue to curtail Southern power in the Union. Taylor’s espousal of eventual colonization of emancipated blacks “back” to Africa shows that he, like all white American statesmen of his day, intended America to be a white man’s country. In this, Taylor was probably no worse than his contemporaries and successors, including Abraham Lincoln.
6. State-Financial Revolution and Paper Aristocracy
In words reminiscent of Harrington, Taylor writes that “enormous political power invariably accumulates enormous wealth, and enormous wealth invariably accumulates enormous political power.” It is possible that he viewed coercive political power as the primary causal element in this reciprocal relationship. Taylor’s attack on “paper feudalism” asserted the parasitic character of state-created capital. At best subsidized capital transferred real wealth to new owners from the economically productive; at worst it cemented an aggressive alliance of artificial capitalists, corrupt courtiers, and officials.
Further, increased taxation necessary to pay the expenses of the public debt drained additional real wealth away from productive uses. Public credit made possible the standing army, an instrument of constitutional subversion and imperialist war. England, Taylor continually noted, had followed this road to ruin and America was on the same path under Federalists and Republicans alike.
And here, we are finally in a position to understand the actual meaning of Jefferson’s constant references to the necessity of “periodic revolutions.” Consistent with Taylor’s views on state-created artificial orders, the people must somehow be able to undo these creations, even if the Supreme Court was hard at work turning them into sacred, permanent entitlements through English charter-law dogma. The Yazoo land grants come readily to mind. The legislature of Georgia handed out millions of acres of western land to those who corrupted and bribed them. When a later legislature undid the grant, Chief Justice John Marshall found that the original act had become a sacred trust under the contract clause – a textbook example of why Taylor hated “charter law.”