John Taylor (1753—1824) of Caroline County, Virginia
According to the master historian Charles A. Beard, writing in the early 20th century, Taylor’s work “deserves to rank among the two or three really historic contributions to political science which have been produced in the United States.” Taylor was the philosopher of Jeffersonian republicanism. He systematically presented in his writings the principles of government and economy that Jefferson represented to the public and that John Randolph of Roanoke dramatized on the floor of Congress. Jefferson said that Taylor had seldom written a word with which he disagreed.
Taylor was born, lived, and died at his plantation north of Richmond. He fought in the War of Independence (being thereafter often referred to as “Colonel Taylor”), refusing to accept any pay or bounties. He never sought political office. His standing was such, however, that Virginia, a commonwealth overflowing with talented statesmen, several times sent him to the United States Senate to fill unexpired terms. For Taylor, a good farmer was worth more to society than any number of politicians, judges, bankers, stock traders, bureaucrats, military heroes, and do-gooders. Large numbers of Americans of his time agreed with him, and his understanding of politics and economics has inspired much “populist” thinking ever since. In his Arator (see 10.11.01) Taylor provided a guide for agriculturalists for both their practical and their political concerns.
Taylor’s major writings are:
The arguments in these works overlap to the degree that they may be conveniently reviewed together. He was usually inspired to write in response to bad ideas being promoted: for instance, the rulings and reasoning of the United States Supreme Court and the bad historical analysis by John Adams in his A Defense of the Constitutions and Government of the United States of America.
The desire of Federalists like Adams and Alexander Hamilton at the founding of the Federal Government was a for a limited and qualified popular rule. History showed, they believed, that under majority rule society would be destroyed when the majority inevitably discovered that they could vote themselves the wealth of the well-to-do. Thus, strong checks and balances were needed to restrain the majority: an independent executive, a bicameral legislature, and powerful judges. A strong, active, well-funded government and armed forces were needed to nurture the people and ensure progress. Of course, in their deeds the Federalists also showed that such a system could be used to increase their own wealth through government.
Taylor turned this on its head. Conflict most of the time was not between the rich and the poor but between the producers and the parasites (the non-producers). The producers (mostly but not entirely farmers) were that large number of people who labored in the earth to produce real, measureable wealth. Usually the masses of producing people went quietly about making a living and thought little of government unless it became oppressive. The real problem in government was the inevitable conniving elitists who manipulated the public law for their own benefit . Such exploitive groups in the past had often ruled by force and superstition. But by Taylor’s time, through mastery of demagoguery, they had learned more sophisticated tricks—schemes presented prettily as if they were a boon to everybody. The Federal Government was being used by a “paper aristocracy” for its own profit. “Public debt,” so praised by Alexander Hamilton as a blessing, really meant bondholders drawing interest effortlessly and risk free. Banks were being used to issue pieces of paper that claimed to be money, profiting the bankers but leaving the public with a steadily depreciating medium. Manufacturers clamored for tariffs to protect them from competition and guarantee their profits. And so on. The end result of all this “progress” and “growth” was simply an ever-increasing tax burden on the productive. If this was allowed to go on, it would end in Americans being as heavily taxed and burdened with debt as the poor masses of Europe. Prophecy? This was not what the courage and sacrifice of the War of Independence had intended.
Something stood in the way of the “paper aristocracy”—the United States Constitution that had been ratified by the peoples of the States. The parasites could only proceed by a de facto distortion of the Constitution that assumed powers in the Federal Government that had not been delegated by the people of the States. Taylor eloquently exposed this misinterpretation agenda of the Consolidationists and how it worked, and refuted it more thoroughly than it ever has been before or after. The Constitution and the Jeffersonian political economy that Taylor defended long ago ceased to have any government power, but his works brilliantly describe an ideal of what might have been that it is most useful to contemplate in the 21st century.
It has often been said that Taylor’s works make for difficult reading. His friend Randolph reportedly said that Taylor’s books would have great influence—if they could only be translated into English. The criticism is exaggerated. Taylor writes in an l8th century style, like a gentleman conversing at ease with his neighbors on the veranda. With a little immersion the writing becomes agreeable. And he is full of humour—satirizing the proponents of the policies he opposed.