“Great power often corrupts virtue; it invariably renders vice more malignant. . . . In proportion as the powers of government increase, both its own character and that of the people becomes worse.” —John Taylor of Caroline, 1814

John Taylor of Caroline has a secure place in the history of American political thought. Charles Beard’s historical writing did much to revive Taylor’s reputation in the early twentieth century. Eugene T. Mudge saw Taylor as a “prophet” of sectional struggle, while English historian M. J. C. Vile saw him as “in some ways the most impressive political theorist that America has produced.” New Left historian William Appleman Williams thought Taylor “made the best case against empire as a way of life.”

Other historians are dismissive. Louis Hartz chided Taylor for failing to become the American Disraeli, and Richard Hofstadter called him “a provincial windbag.” For Hof-stadter, Taylor’s Jeffersonian ideas were “negative” and “laissez faire,” ending as mere conservatism in the hands of “men like William Graham Sumner.” Manning Dauer saw Taylor as—paradoxically—the father of both Southern Agrarians and “states’ rights industrialists.”

Despite the attention given Taylor over the years, he remains (in my view) somewhat neglected, relative to his actual merits.

Raised in the home of his uncle Edmund Pendleton, John Taylor (1753–1824) attended The College of William and Mary, studied law, served as a major in the Continental Army, and became a successful lawyer and planter, owning several plantations and 150 slaves. He preferred his rural life, but entered politics to defend republican values, serving in the Virginia legislature (1779–81, 1783–85, 1796–1800) and filling out unexpired terms in the U.S. Senate (1793–1794, 1803, 1822–24). Taylor was clearly no archaic-radical republican like Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He did not find freedom in political participation as such, but he would step forward in a crisis, as his sponsorship of the Virginia Resolutions, damning the Alien and Sedition Acts, shows.

Taylor began as an “Anti-federalist.” Once the Constitution won ratification, he meant to hold the victors to the assurances they gave while promoting it. Generally, Taylor’s books (1814, 1818, 1822, 1823) arose from immediate political questions; they included attacks on federal economic policies and reasoned polemics against the centralizing decisions of John Marshall’s Supreme Court. A book by Taylor levels much learning and colorful language against pressing issues, in the manner of Jeremiah.

There are some awkward moments in Taylor’s literary style, as Adams, Jefferson, and John Randolph all noted, but there are also interesting compression and apt expression. Taylor was a secular preacher. Like William Faulkner, he is sometimes better understood when read aloud. He is also a stepfather of semantics and semiotics, as his running critique of “artificial phraseology,” or counterfeit language, shows. He was not an especially successful politician. Taylor served the public better as a critic.

Here I must at least mention the Forty-Years War between historians of the Republican School and the Liberal-Lockean School over early American ideology. For J. G. A. Pocock, classical republican themes—court versus country, the mixed constitution, balanced social orders, “virtuous” agrarian landowners—dominated revolutionary thinking. The Lockeans have Americans abandoning those in favor of abstract individualism and natural rights. But the two political “languages” co-existed throughout the Revolutionary era. What matters is their exact “mix.” Taylor, for one, employs republican language within a liberal framework.

Beginnings of Centralization

Not long after independence, centralizing Federalists replaced the Articles of Confederation with a constitution (1788) aimed at creating a mercantilist political economy. Their opponents coalesced as “Republicans,” broadly continuing the Anti-federalist cause. Federalist-Republican debates over the National Bank, excises, public debt, standing army, and tariffs echoed English debates after 1688.

Perhaps the worst tragedy that can befall an ideology is to have a political party professing allegiance to it come to power. (Think of “conservatism” today.) So it partly was after 1800, with Jeffersonian republicanism in power. Taylor defended Jefferson’s measures into 1804, but gradually drifted into the “Quid” opposition movement within Republican ranks. He railed against the administration’s half-Federalist policies. Along with John Randolph of Roanoke and a few other Republicans, he opposed the War of 1812—his own party’s war—as a “metaphysical war.” He rightly feared its potential for state-building.

For Taylor, the laws of nature suggested political equality instead of the fixed social orders found in John Adams’ archaic republicanism. Popular sovereignty “flows out of each man’s right to govern himself.” Similarly, Taylor traces the right of free speech directly to the right of self-government, which presupposes open discussion.

On solidly liberal ground, Taylor sees human nature as “compounded of good and evil qualities.” Men should frame governments “with a view to the preservation of the good and the control of the evil.” Self-interest was the only real constant in human affairs, and bad structural incentives might make governments “vicious.” Suitable structures would “secure the fidelity of nations to themselves,” even if the people were individually “vicious.” Here Taylor broke decisively with archaic-republican “virtue,” mixed constitutions, and social balance. Americans had chosen to divide rather than “balance” power, and in so many ways—vertically (federally) and horizontally (departmentally)—as to prevent serious abuse.

Protecting men’s lives, liberty, and rightful property was the purpose of government.

The goal of “political law” (the Constitution) was control over all representatives and agents. Taylor hails election, divisions of power, and an armed people (militia) as among the means to republican liberty. “Oaths of agents,” he observes, “are prescribed to enforce, not to destroy, the duties of agency.” Taylor’s overall conception thus far surpasses any tame notions of “checks and balances” or “separation of powers.”

Taylor frowned on notions of absolute sovereignty. Where he does use the word, he is normally referring to self-government, which results from men’s living together in a community. He does not explain community as arising by conventional social contract; indeed, he tends to reject his contemporaries’ half-digested Lockeanism, thereby postponing any final surrender of natural rights. (Here he comes close to Thomas Paine.)

There was, however, an actual contract—the Constitution—creating a limited union with a common agent subjected to structural, procedural, and substantive restraints on its power. This contract was between the peoples of the several states, not between the members of a single, aggregate American people as individuals. The constitutional agreement “derives its force, not from the consent of a majority of the states, but from the separate consent of each” (italics supplied).

Taylor denied the common assertion that the people, “having thought and spoken once, had lost the right of thinking and speaking forever.” If so, “its first will, must be its last will”—something Taylor found absurd. If, for example, the states should call a convention and approve a constitutional amendment previously blocked in the Senate, “any one state may refuse to concur in [it], because each state will resume its original right to refuse or consent, as being independent of each other in negociating the terms of a new union” (italics supplied). Implicit here is renegotiation of the agreement—and even secession in an extreme case. Any other conclusion conflicted with outstanding historical facts, as Taylor saw them.

Taylor observes that no governments—federal or state—could, in their status as subordinate agents, dissolve the union on their own. (The constituent peoples could.) And Taylor was so far from being a positive “disunionist” that, in describing the geographical advantages of the United States, he attributed Americans’ safety to their maintaining a union of some kind. But he was not an unconditional unionist.

Taylor always tried to bracket sovereignty. He supposed the states to possess full concurrent jurisdiction with the federal government, except where one or the other clearly had an exclusive delegation of power. He denied that the Supreme Court’s reasoning necessarily bound the state courts; decisions applied at most between the parties to a case. Taylor thought an occasional inconsistency of outcome preferable to letting the Supreme Court remodel all of American law. To concede final interpretive power to the Court would transfer sovereignty to the general government, as the Court imported consolidation into the Constitution. Finally, the Court would assert “an immoveable power of construction” over the Constitution, over the other branches, and over the people.

Continue: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=2269


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