God likes farmers. Not gigantic corporate agribusiness, but farmers. He made man from the dirt and for the dirt, to cultivate His Garden. Adam means “of the red” or “of the soil.”
When the children of Israel clamored for a king, so that they might rely on him to protect them from foreign invaders, the prophet warned them that “he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants.” God had been their sovereign, but they wanted what the other nations had. So He gave them what they wanted.
Any system of government, from a democracy to an aristocracy to a monarchy, is capable of drowning its people in tyranny. “I see no infallible criterion for defining the nature of a government, except its acts,” wrote John Taylor of Caroline in Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated (1820). “If the acts of a monarchy, aristocracy and democracy are the same, these forms of government are to a nation essentially the same also. To contend for forms only, is to fight for shadows.”
How, then, should we define the nature of a republic? The word itself was batted around by all of the Founding Fathers, but its usage varied. John Adams, who favored aristocracy and “balanced power,” wrote that the only “rational” definition of republic is “a government, in which all men, rich and poor, magistrates and subjects, officers and people, masters and servants, the first citizen and the last, are equally subject to the laws.”
Taylor assailed this sort of “republic,” which puts its faith in the “rule of law.” Answering Adams in 1814 (An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States), he asked how this was any different from the government from which they had declared independence. What guarantees that the law to which everyone is “equally subject” is just—or good?
[T]he bishop would be subject to law in receiving his benefice and his tythes, the labourer, in paying them; a nobility is subject to law in exercising its privileges; a corporation, in growing rich by the aid of its charter; a bank, in collecting from a nation, usury upon nominal money; and a king, in receiving a million, and expending thirty millions annually in corruption and patronage, at the national expense.
Adams’ imagined government would counter this injustice with a “balance of power,” by which each class, emerging “naturally” according to a divine distribution of talent, would find equal representation. But do such classes really arise “by nature,” according to “God’s design”? Taylor argues that Adams’ classes are artificial—special interests created by laws and sustained by government. (Government’s creation of a standing army, for example, creates a “soldier class,” a military interest. Central banking creates a banking interest. Etc.) And man’s lust for power being what it is, these artificial classes would (did) seek to advance their standing among the others, if not dominate them altogether, even taking the moral high ground for doing just so. “One tyrant may thank God that he is not another tyrant.”
During the infant days of the United States, the means by which the federal government was creating this phony aristocracy was, according to Taylor, its control of the economy, through central banking and taxation—unjust transfers of wealth from one interest to another.
Wealth, established by law, violates the principle, which induced the American states to wage war with Britain. It separates the imposer from the payer of taxes. No nation would tax itself to enrich an order or separate interest. When therefore a nation is so taxed, it must proceed from the power of the order itself, which is invariably the imposer and receiver of the tax; whilst the rest of the nation is the payer.
For Taylor, a true, sustainable republic is not characterized by a “balance of power” among artificial interest groups but by self-government. “The distinguishing superiorities of our policy, are, the sovereignty of the people; a republican government, or a government producing publick or national good; and a thorough system of responsible representation.”
Who, then, are these sovereign “people,” and what is this “good”?
The people are the farmers. At the time of the War of Independence, 95 percent of Americans were engaged in farming. And as many as two thirds of the farming families owned their own land. The prospect of owning a farm was what had made the colonies attractive in the first place. The wealth they sought in America was not cash but crops. But this way of life had been threatened by a distant central government that was cash-strapped and weary from financing its own imperial adventures. The small colonial farmer found it difficult to hold on to his land when the crown began to manipulate the money supply. Slapping taxes on him and stifling free trade only made things worse. What had once been thought a vast land in which a man could own his own farm, pass it on to his son, and help to establish his other children on farms of their own threatened to become a land of tenants, subservient to the central government.
The Federalists’ “consolidated republic” threatened to do just the same. Federalist fiscal policy created new interests, a new Court Party of paper wealth. These sundry interests could not live without the farmers, yet they must live off them. “Mankind are united by the necessity for subsistence in a common interest,” Taylor wrote to Adams.
Those who furnish the subsistence, pay all the taxes. As subsistence flows from the earth, that may be called the mother of men, liable to make all the disbursements they need. Hence, all, or nearly all taxes, must be ultimately paid by agriculture, and ought of course to be inflicted by her . . .
According to the Jeffersonian tradition, of which Taylor was the greatest exemplar, the farmer is capable of self-government. His is the only vocation that is “natural”—that is not a creation of government. He depends on God to sustain him. His hands know the soil and the hard work necessary to cultivate it. His product sustains his family and his community. His people and his soil are his interest. Thus, he takes up his arms to defend hearth and home in the local militia, and the mantle of statesman when called upon—all the while eager, as Taylor was, to get back to his land, to the plow. “And the interdependence of such solid citizens,” wrote M.E. Bradford, “all of them capable of honor in each other’s eyes, all with a share in the patria, is the closest we can come to the providentially provided Garden or ‘golden age’ under the present, unpropitious dispensation.”
This is the true republican ideal—a nation of farmers. It abounds not it laws but in corn. Its people are defined not by party affiliation or political law but by the mores majorum, the “customs of the fathers.” It is the agrarian republic Cato wrote of when he spoke of his ancestors who, “when they would praise a worthy man,” would say “good husbandman,” “good farmer.”
Those who would see a republic restored in our time should first seek to be worthy of that adulation, in the season allotted each of us before we return to the earth from whence we came.
This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.