John Taylor of Caroline (1753-1824), Federalism, and Empire


Progressive historian Charles A. Beard called John Taylor of Caroline "the most systematic thinker" of the Jeffersonian Republican party. Taylor was an American exponent of republican theory as developed by English opposition movements in the 17th and 18th centuries. A successful lawyer and planter – and, yes, of course, a slaveholder, let’s get that out of the way at the outset – he served in the American Revolution as a major in the Continental Army. He was a member of the Virginia legislature 179-1781, 1783-1785, and 1796-1800, and by appointment of the Governor served in the United States Senate, 1793-1794 and 1822-1824, on the death of the incumbents.


Taylor preferred managing his properties and promoting agricultural improvement, to politics, as his brief forays into political life suggest. On the other hand, he could not overlook anti-republican folly and wrote a number of important works to set out his views on the proper relation of people and government. Among these was An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814), an answer – twenty years in the writing – to John Adams’ Defense of the Constitutions of the United States.

Taylor had been an "anti-federalist" (a term of art) during the debate over ratification of the Constitution. After the new government came into being, Taylor and other former anti-federalists argued for interpretations of the new document in line with their principles. This was hardly arbitrary and it can be argued that the "intentions" of the ratifiers outweigh those of Mr. James Madison. Ten amendments incorporating the anti-federalists’ chief concerns – especially as to the scope and powers of the new government in relation to the states – had been quickly adopted, giving enemies of centralization and mercantilism an entirely plausible platform (the fantasies of Garry Wills notwithstanding.).


Naturally, the triumphant federalists kept their side of this constitutional bargain or compromise in much the same way that England honored the details of the treaty uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland in 1707, which is to say that violations began immediately. Faced with federalist mercantilism and specific outrages like the Alien and Sedition Acts, Taylor weighed the secession of Virginia to secure the reserved rights of the state and its people. The revolution of 1800 – the election of Jefferson and the eclipse of the Federalist Party nationally – averted the crisis. Taylor was soon to learn that his own associates – in power – were quite capable of taking up where their opponents had left off.

In the writings which came out of his confrontation with national state-building, Taylor drew alike on the heritage of republican theory and the newer ideas of laissez faire liberalism. In the end, his synthesis bore a great resemblance to that of the French "industrialist" (radical liberal) school from the 1820s onward. Government, improperly framed, he believed, gave some men the opportunity to live parasitically by political means.

As Taylor put it: "No nation was ever oppressed, ruined or enslaved by the prodigality of individuals; all nations have suffered some of these evils from the prodigality of governments." Instead, the people were ruined by the "regular advances, which artificial interests or factions are forever making in straight or zigzag lines, against the citadel of our rights and liberties." The result, in America, was a "paper aristocracy" resting on tariffs and national debt, which threatened to be more costly and oppressive than even the feudal system had been. Established churches, after all, had been content to make a prior claim on a mere ten percent of the people’s production. Taylor estimated that the paper aristocracy was extracting as much as forty percent of its victims’ earnings.

Getting to the heart of what we now variously call neo-mercantilism, corporatism, or interest-group liberalism, he wrote: "As the members of the government, and members of legal frauds, both extract power and income from the majority, they are apt to coalesce; and each party to favour the designs of its ally, in their operations upon the common enemy. Hence governments love to create exclusive rights, and exclusive rights cling to governments. The ligament of parent and child, binds them together, and the power of creating these abuses, must make them props for its support, or instruments for its subversion." [my emphasis]

This, in a word, is the political basis of "class conflict" – politics as plunder – and here Taylor agrees with the French liberals and anticipates the similar arguments of John C. Calhoun.


As matters stood, considerable power of patronage and corruption had accrued to the American presidency. In time of war these powers were greatly increased: "War is the keenest carving knife for cutting nations up into delicious morsels for parties and their leaders." Given such views, it is not surprising that Taylor opposed the War of 1812 – the creation of his own political party.


The solution seemed clear enough: "Remove the legal base from under the stock jobbers, the banks, the paper money party, the tariff-supported manufacturers, and so on; destroy the system of patronage by which the executive has corrupted the legislature; bring down the usurped authority of the Supreme Court." This was a tall order, and one never fully put into practice even by Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren, who carried out some of the details.

Like F. A. Hayek in his last works, Taylor thought that a proper political/legal framework could remove most of the incentive for the policies he opposed. Thus he sought to distribute power: "Our policy divides power, and unites the nation in one interest…." Power was to be divided between branches of government and between the federal and state governments, leaving no one "sphere" able to claim a final sovereignty over all. Hence Taylor’s insistence on "strict construction" of constitutions and the notion of delegated, limited powers. And hence his disagreement with James Madison’s proposition that endless territorial expansion across the continent would prevent the evils of faction. Expansion, periodic elections, and all the rest were not as decisive as the proper division and distribution of power.


Now, there may be those who will say that Taylor overlooked a great abuse – chattel slavery – in which he himself participated. Perhaps so. Like many of his contemporaries, he wished to be rid of slavery in some remote future, if emancipation could be undertaken without destroying his own society. But I leave this matter to one side, as there are tens of thousands of scholars working overtime on such matters, a good many of whom find therein the justification of a permanent federal campaign against actually existing American life. Let us leave them to their fun.

Taylor’s views survive their limitations. Chattel slavery, after all, was only one institution, one abuse, and it could be and indeed was abolished, although one might wonder whether a state-strengthening war with some 620,000 deaths was the best or only way to accomplish that end. I do not wish to argue the last point here. Rather, my point is that all the other abuses – the ones John Taylor so ably took on – are still with us, and in aggravated forms which could only astound both Taylor and his 19th-century antagonists. It was therefore with good reason that William Appleman Williams wrote that John Taylor "made the best case against empire as a way of life."

Taylor clearly understood the connection between state power at home and abroad. A republican empire was contradictio in adjecto.


Robert E. Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline (Columbia, S.C., 1980), William Appleman Williams, Empire As A Way of Life (New York, 1980), pp. 49-50, John Taylor, Arator (Indianapolis, 1977 [1818]), and An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (New York, 1969[1814]), and Joseph R. Stromberg, "Country Ideology, Republicanism, and Libertarianism: The Thought of John Taylor of Caroline," Journal of Libertarian Studies, VI, 1 (Winter 1982), pp. 35-48.