“A crocodile has been worshipped,” wrote John Taylor of Caroline, “and its priesthood have asserted, that morality required the people to suffer themselves to be eaten by the crocodile.” Such was his final judgment on the central government of the United States and the advocates of its power. This prophecy, if such it may be called, was rendered in Taylor’s An Inquiry Into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States, published in 1814 but mostly written much earlier in response to the machinations of Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall.
“The present age is cajoled to tax and enslave itself,” says Taylor in the same work, “by the errour [sic] of believing that it taxes and enslaves future generations to enrich itself.” Thus, the people have forged their own chains by the inevitable consequences of a false national opinion “that it is possible, for the present generation to seize and use the property of future generations.” It would seem that the rustic gentleman of Caroline County, Virginia, might have something to say to a time of catastrophic government debt and billion-dollar bank bailouts. Of course, even in his most melancholy moments, Taylor could not have conceived of a vast government debt owed not only to domestic rent-seekers but to foreigners.
Again: “A legislative power of regulating wealth and poverty, is a principle of such irresistible tendency, as to bring all political parties to the same standard.” For “a power in a government of any form, to deal out wealth and poverty by law, overturns liberty universally; because it is a power by which a nation is infallibly corrupted.” Far-seeing as he was, Taylor could hardly have imagined a society in which politics is entirely about seeking favors from government, with occasional distractions by a competition among personalities, self-congratulation that we are not as others are, and fulminations of rulers with adolescent fantasies of endless global empire. For him, politics was a contest between the taxpayers and the crafty tax consumers who preyed upon them. I doubt he could have envisioned a diabolical system in which nearly all of us are both taxpayers and tax consumers at the same time—though he would understand that the former category involves net loss, and the latter net profit.
Alas, Taylor also noted, those most responsible seldom pay the price. “Inferior agents in all wicked plots suffer punishment in this world, whilst their leaders often avoid it until the next.”
John Taylor never sought public office, though three times Virginia, a commonwealth overflowing with gifted men, sent him to the U.S. Senate to fill unfinished terms. He preferred the practice of good husbandry on the plantation north of Richmond where he spent his life. In Taylor’s opinion, a good farmer was worth far more to his fellow citizens than any number of eminent politicians, bankers, stock speculators, judges, military heroes, or busybodies. Of course, the farmers he honored were of the presubsidy variety. What would he have made of agribusiness or a government that paid farmers not to grow their crops?
Published between 1804 and 1823, his books—the Inquiry, Arator, Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated, Tyranny Unmasked, New Views of the Constitution of the United States, and others—compose a dense and systematic exposition of the bad political and economic principles that had been inserted into American thought and practice after the ratification of the Constitution, and the evil consequences likely to ensue. Taylor’s works are reputed to be slow going for readers. His friend John Randolph of Roanoke is said to have remarked that the books would be very influential, if they could be translated into English. The criticism is exaggerated. Taylor’s style is loquacious, colloquial, and full of nuggets of wisdom and wry humor. He well repays the work of perusal. His writing is playful and serious at the same time, like the best of 18th-century English prose, that of a good man discoursing with neighbors in the shade of the front veranda.
Taylor is equally incisive and prophetic about the antidemocratic judicial tyranny under which we live. Though doubtless he could not have imagined the extent to which the Constitution has been twisted, he discerned early and clearly the principle at work. Though the Congress had no delegated power to charter corporations, and indeed such a power had been voted down at Philadelphia, he found almost from the first day Colonel Hamilton avowing that a bank corporation was “necessary and proper” to carry out delegated powers. “To me this new notion of a constitution by implication is, I confess, exactly like no constitution at all; nor has it been proved to my satisfaction, that principles ought to be lost in verbal definitions . . . ” The “habit of corrupting our political system by the instrumentality of inference, convenience and necessity, with an endless series of consequences attached to them, is the importer of contraband principles, and the bountiful grantor of powers not given, or withheld by our constitutions.”
The game that the Supreme Court and others were playing with words to draw unintended inferences from plain language Taylor calls “alchemy,” “superstition,” and “witchcraft,” not inappropriate descriptions of your average Supreme Court opinion. And he was under no illusion about the real agenda behind the legal legerdemain. The “national bank” was not a government institution but a private banking cartel with government powers and privileges, like the later Federal Reserve. Sancho Panza (in Don Quixote), remarks Taylor, if he had only known of the profitability of a bank charter, would certainly have preferred that as his reward rather than the governorship of an island.
There is a convention of nationalist historiography that those who fought the War of Independence had as their goal a powerful central government for Americans. Like most all of nationalist mythology, it is not true. Some soldiers, like Hamilton and Marshall, did subsequently devote themselves to the cause of central-government power. But there were many more whose later careers indicated that they viewed the war as a liberation from central power and its construction as a betrayal. Taylor was only one among a host of such patriots.
As staggeringly incredible as it seems to Americans today, Taylor’s republicanism was not just lip service. He fought the War of Independence from private to colonel while refusing all pay and rewards for his service. He was by no means alone. His behavior was common among revolutionary officers, except for Massachusetts, where a clamor for bounties and pensions from the common treasury for even the most minimal of service was heard almost from the beginning.
By his last years, Taylor despaired of the fate of liberty and virtue once promised by the American founding. Along with Randolph and Nathaniel Macon, he thought that the only hope was for a secession of the Southern states. For that reason they all disliked Calhoun for his futile efforts to save the Union.
As foreign as they may seem now, Taylor’s ideas long enjoyed widespread acceptance. His writings are prophetic in portraying the downside of the course of our history toward ever-greater “consolidation.” He foresaw the dominance of rent-seeking in the political process, judicial oligarchy, immense debt and burdensome taxation, the unhealthy intrusion of the state into society, and the concentration of wealth and power into fewer and fewer hands—evils from which we suffer today.
John Taylor of Caroline is one of the sixteen subjects presented by Brion McClanahan and Clyde Wilson in their recent book, Forgotten Conservatives in American History Pelican).