Peoples and Nations

John Taylor of Caroline: More Jeffersonian than Jefferson

John Taylor of Caroline: More Jeffersonian than Jefferson

If anyone could be more Jeffersonian than Jefferson himself, it would probably be John Taylor of Caroline. Jefferson is the recognized champion of states' rights, individual liberty, and the agrarian tradition, but in contrast to Taylor's five published books, a handful of pamphlets, and a number of newspaper articles, Jefferson only produced one published work, his Notes on the State of Virginia. Modern Americans scarcely know Taylor existed, though during his life Taylor was the recognized pamphleteer of republicanism. He was an active patriot, a Southern planter, an Anti-Federalist, and he ultimately became the disinterested spokesman for the Old Republicans, a man who lived like his Roman heroes, faithful to his public duty, always defending the agrarian principles of the republic, and to the end, a resolute antagonist of aristocracy and artificial power. Taylor, in short, was the anti-John Marshall, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton, and most of his public barbs were thrown their way. His philosophy embodied the American tradition of a limited, frugal, and state-dominated central authority, and he was as politically incorrect as a man could be.

Born in 1753 to a wealthy Virginia family, John Taylor had the rearing of a gentleman. His father, James Taylor, died when he was three, and his mother, Anne Pollard, died shortly thereafter, so the task of caring for the young boy fell to his wealthy uncle, Edmund Pendleton, a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses and the Justice of the Peace for Caroline County. Taylor was educated in the classical tradition at the finest schools in Virginia, including Donald Robertson's Academy, where many American statesmen received their training, and the College of William and Mary. Following his formal education, Taylor was given the opportunity to study law at his uncle's office, and, in 1774, was admitted to the Virginia Bar, but his original practice was cut short by the American Revolution.

He joined the Continental Army at the outset of war, served in New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, and earned the rank of major before resigning his commission in 1779 when the army contracted. He returned to Virginia and served for a brief time in the Virginia House of Delegates before returning to the army at the end of the war as a lieutenant- colonel in the Virginia state militia. He served with the famous Frenchman the Marquis de Lafayette, battling Hessians in his state until the conclusion of hostilities.

After the Revolution, John Taylor practiced law and accumulated a sizable fortune. In 1783, he married Lucy Penn, daughter of John Penn of North Carolina, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and by the age thirty was well established in Virginia. His earnings from his law practice ran as high as $10,000 a year (or about $150,000 2007 dollars), but land was his true passion, and he invested most of his income in the sparsely settled West. At the height of his fortune, Taylor owned thousands of acres in Kentucky, three plantations in Virginia, and one hundred fifty slaves. He believed slavery to be an evil institution but did not favor its abolition because it was “incapable of removal and only within reach of palliation.” His main plantation, Hazelwood, was perhaps the finest in the upper South. Taylor spent much of his time perfecting the science of planting.

He strove for self-sufficiency, and he was one of the first planters to recognize the importance of crop rotation. He served in the state legislature three times, from 1779 to 1781, 1783 to 1785, and 1796 to 1800, and in the United States Senate to complete unfinished terms from 1793 to 1794, in 1803, and again from 1822 to 1824. As an admirer of classical republics, John Taylor refused to run for office unless called upon, and would usually return to his plantation once his term had expired or after he had resigned.


John Taylor served very little time in either the state or federal government, but he was productive when there. While in the Virginia legislature in 1798, he introduced the Virginia Resolves in opposition to the Sedition Act. These resolves were milder than their Kentucky counterparts, but they still emphasized that a state had the right and duty to “interpose for arresting the progress” of unconstitutional legislation. For his part, Taylor thought Virginia should just secede.

The subject had been broached before in 1794, when two Northern senators cornered John Taylor and pressed the issue. It was not Taylor who insisted on secession at this point, however, but Rufus King of Massachusetts and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut. Taylor listened, and though in agreement that the Southern and Northern states had substantial disagreements, he believed the North desired an alliance with Great Britain for the purpose of bringing the agrarian South to its knees. He never trusted Northerners, even those who, on the surface, shared his political beliefs.

John Taylor, of course, was no fan of the Constitution and favored the interests of Virginia and the South over those of Northern merchants. He did not attend the Virginia Ratifying Convention in 1788, but argued against the Constitution. He later called his philosophy the “Spirit of '76.” In his view, Federalists and centralizers were working to pervert the goals of the Revolution. Taylor had not fought a war for more centralization. He, and many other Republicans, had fought for individual liberty, limited government, and the rights of Englishmen. Had Taylor lived into the 1850s, he certainly would have supported Southern secession as a remedy for sectional discord.

The pamphleteer

From Hazelwood, John Taylor wrote the most important works of Jeffersonian political economy. Taylor's essays and treatises were widely read. He intended his works to be applicable to any class of farmer, and to be read by what the historian Frank Owsley labeled the plain folk of the Old South, those free-holders with a vested interest in agricultural production and the stability of the agrarian republic.

Jefferson wrote that Taylor's An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States should be required reading for every student of American Constitutional theory. Taylor's Arator, a series of essays on farming and politics, was reprinted five times before the War Between the States, and had a marked influence on Southern agriculture and society. Taylor's polemics on various subjects, from the Missouri Compromise and the McCullough vs. Maryland decision in his Construction Construed andConstitutions Vindicated, to the proposed federal protective tariff and the public debt in his Tyranny Unmasked, were the best exposition of agrarian republicanism. Agriculture and government were linked, in Taylor's opinion, and all his works displayed a solid defense of an agricultural republic.

In 1818, John Taylor wrote,“If agriculture is good and the government bad, we may have wealth and slavery. If the government is good and the agriculture bad, liberty and poverty.” Only by balancing the two would an independent society be secured, and since agriculture was the most common interest of the country, it should be protected from what he labeled as “stock-jabbers” and “a paper aristocracy.” A “master capitalist” would turn “nine-tenths” of the “sound yeomanry” of the United States into “swindlers and dependents” and reduce them to the “daily bread” of the industrial age. “An aristocracy is no where agrarian. And where it has taken deep root… an agricultural interest has ceased to have any influence in the government.” His two most important works, the Inquiry and his Arator, most clearly outline his ideas on American political economyand the relationship between labor and government.

John Taylor designed the Inquiry to challenge John Adams's Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America. Originally written shortly after Adams published his Defense in 1787, the Inquiry was not distributed until 1814. Taylor reworked portions of the Inquiry during that time span in order to let his youthful passions subside, but his conclusions were unchanged. The Arator, published before the Inquiry but written after its conception, provided Southerners with a scientific handbook for increased agricultural production, but half of thesixty-four essays in the book were dedicated to the political economy of agriculture. The political themes Taylor addressed in each were consistent.

Taylor attacked what he saw as the three main vices of American government: artificial aristocracy, banking, and minority rule. The government was heading, in his opinion, toward a consolidated empire ruled not by a king, as in England, but by something far worse: a president who used patronage and government hand-outs to centralize power in the name of the general welfare. Sound familiar? Taxation was the greatest burden the laborer had to bear, and oppressive taxation, Taylor believed, was the device used to secure artificial aristocracy.

“Oppressive taxation, by law and monopoly, direct and indirect, to create or sustain the system of paper and patronage, proposes nothing retributory for reducing a people to the condition of asses, except an aristocracy to provide for them a succession of burdens.” The lion, personified in the working man, would become “cowardly and stupid” if Congress implemented Alexander Hamilton's economic system of excessive taxation on agricultural products for the “common good” of society.

In John Taylor's opinion, industrial capitalism (as opposed to free-market farming) could not exist without government protection in the form of tariffs, banks, internal improvements, and a permanent national debt. The protective tariff was but one device the government used to maintain finance capital at the expense of agriculture. Tariffs seized “upon the bounty taken by law from agriculture, and instead of doing any good to the actual workers in wood, metals, cotton, or other substances,” they created an artificial aristocracy “at the expense of the workers in earth, tounite with government in oppressing every species of useful industry.”

Tariffs not only hurt agriculture, but they impoverished and enslaved workers in manufacturing. The capitalists would seize the bounty taken by the tariff, “appropriate to itself… and allow as scanty wages to its workmen, as it can.” A permanent national debt facilitated this type of theft because the debt paid interest to the rich by taking it directly or indirectly from the productive wealth of agriculture. To Taylor, shuffling paper-financing debt, commercial speculation, and so on-was a dishonest trade.

John Taylor believed “the excrescence of banking” constituted the major crutch for finance capital and the paper aristocracy. Inflation and interest saddled the laborer with unnecessary debt. These taxes were paid by “the public to individuals… to enrich idleness, and supply the means of luxury to a separate interest.” Tariffs, federally funded “internal improvements,” banking, and other government assistance to private companies or corporations transferred property to select interests. This was “the evil moral principle, in which all hereditary and hierarchical orders have been founded,” and was, he argued, in sharp contrast to the founding principles of the United States. The “logarithm of patronage” became the politicians' tool to perpetuate the usurpation of private wealth earned by honest labor. If a representative could “draw wealth from his own laws, by means of office, sinecure or monopoly,” government ceased to be controlled through election.

In the United States, power was given by the majority to an individual, and since a representative could not “be guided by the interest of both the minority and the majority… he will be guided by the interest to which he belongs; if he is a receiver of the tax, he will tax.” Of course, the legislator would profess he was doing this in the name of the public good, but the public would be unable to check his avarice.

If Congress used its power to tax to erect a “stock aristocracy,” it would be “guilty of treason against the constitution, without violating its letter.” Only by maintaining a balance of power between the people and the government, and the states and the federal government, could the laborer maintain his fiscal independence, cripple the “paper-jobber,” and dull the sword of patronage.

John Taylor spoke in majoritarian terms, but did not want the government thrown to the masses. He criticized both an aristocracy composed of minority interests, such as a military or stock interest, and mob rule. The business of minority interests was to “get what they can from the rest of the nation.” Demagoguery would prevail, as these interests would enlist the help of government to secure their desires. Unless they could be checked or balanced, Taylor feared “paper systems”-i.e. banking and commercial speculation-because they bestowed “exorbitant wealth” at a level dangerous to society. A landed gentry would be able to hinder this process, to a degree. Though vested with a certain amount of inherited power, a landed interest was preferable to an aristocracy of paper and patronage because power radiated from the land in the former and oppressive taxation in the latter. The landed gentry were the natural ruling class, whereas a paper aristocracy was only able to maintain itself by using patronage and taxation. Taylor, for example, did not advocate the extension of the franchise to a landless proletariat because they would only help prolong the power of the demagogue. The only other safeguard in the American system was division of power, which prevented the twin dangers of excessive democracy: mob rule and minority rule.

Taylor, of course, was not some type of communist progressive who hated capitalism. What he feared was a fusion of government and finance, not markets or profit. He was wealthy, and he sold a good portion of his crops for cash, but he distrusted banks and the effect central banking could have on the yeoman farmer and the laborer. He also despised powerful central government. His ideology was grounded in the history and traditions of Virginia. Like George Mason, John Carroll, and Nathaniel Macon, and many other planters in the Founding generation, Taylor shunned political life. The historian Norman Risjord labels Taylor a conservative because he fought to preserve an agrarian society in the face of the industrial revolution, and also to sustain the interests of the landed gentry through decentralization

John Taylor died at Hazelwood in 1824 at the age of seventy-one. Jefferson wrote in 1820 that Taylor's An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States provided “many valuable ideas, and for the correction of some errors of early opinion, never seen in the correct light until presented to me in that work… I know that Colonel Taylor and myself have rarely, if ever, differed in any political principle of importance. Every act of his life, and every word he ever wrote, satisfies me of this.” Such a ringing endorsement should have provided Taylor with a more substantial reputation.

But today not many historians pay attention to the wealthy planter who loathed centralized government and disparaged a future where voters would be governed by demagogues awarding government jobs and economic redistribution. Where is John Taylor when you need him?