Sep 15, 2015

September 14, 2015: To Sustain a Republic, Wealth Must Be Distributed, Majority Must Have the Wealth.

"Wealth, like suffrage, must be considerably distributed, to sustain a democratic republic; and hence, whatever draws a considerable proportion of either into a few hands, will destroy it. As power follows wealth, the majority must have wealth or lose power." (1)
                          ----John Taylor, "An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States" (1814)
John Taylor 1753-1724, otherwise known as John Taylor of Caroline, was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison.  Present at the creation of the republic, he served as United States Senator from Virginia on three separate occasions, 1792-1794, 1803, and from 1822 until his death in 1824.

“English legal historian M.J.C. Vile views Taylor as "in some ways the most impressive political theorist that America has produced." [2] Historian Clyde N. Wilson describes Taylor as "the systematic philosopher of Jeffersonian democracy,"[3] and as "representing 'both a conservative allegiance to local community and inherited ways and a radical-populist suspicion of capitalism, ‘progress,’ government and routine logrolling politics.'"[4] According to historian Adam L. Tate, Taylor was "an agrarian who 'viewed happiness as possession of family, farm, and leisure,' had no great love for organized religion, social hierarchy, and other such traditional institutions."[5] "Taylor took solid liberal ground in holding that men were a mixture of good and evil. Self-interest was the only real constant in human action. . . . . Indeed, while other thinkers, from Thomas Jefferson to Federalist John Adams, agonized over the need for a virtuous citizenry, Taylor took the view that 'the principles of a society may be virtuous, though the individuals composing it are vicious.'" [6] Taylor's solution to the effects of factionalism was to "remove the 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." [7] "The more a nation depends for its liberty on the qualities of individuals, the less likely it is to retain it. By expecting publick good from private virtue, we expose ourselves to publick evils from private vices." [8] (9)

Described as at the ‘intersection of republicanism and classical liberalism’ Taylor stands as a precursor in a line of political thought that defending the sovereignty of the several states would lead inexorably to the philosophies of John C. Calhoun and the politics of  interposition, nullification and secession.  His defense of slavery would likewise anticipate the works of Edmund Ruffin and George Fitzhugh, laying the intellectual justification for the antebellum south’s ‘peculiar institution’.

Why, then, would Professor Reich light upon what are now the obscure writings of an early 19th century politician and political philosopher, and an early apologist for the ‘lost cause’, in order to make a point about contemporary American politics? 

I can’t speak for the professor but I would suggest it is precisely because Taylor (a relative of a future United States President Zachery Taylor) represents not only significant views held by many of our founding fathers, but because he represents a significant part of the American Political Tradition influencing our politics today.  I am referring here to the strain of classical liberalism that today would be called libertarian, emphasizing local control, state’s rights, and limited government.  But note here how, in an early formulation of what would become libertarian conservatism, one finds clearly evident ‘populist’ economic formulations that would lead Taylor to oppose like Jefferson, the economic policies of the Federalist Alexander Hamilton. The distrust of banking in general and central banks in particular has a long history in this country as Taylor’s writings suggest.  He was not alone.  From Jefferson to Jackson to the “Greenback” party and William Jennings Bryan’s excoriation of the ‘cross of gold’ (referring to the Gold Standard); to FDR’s struggles with Wall Street and the Banking industry; to many on the political ‘right’ today who advocate the abolition of the Federal Reserve banking system; Americans from the first have consistently exhibited a great unease with the centralization of economic power.  

Today we can easily dismiss Taylor’s views on race and slavery, as we can dismiss his view that state sovereignty trumps all.  The Civil War changed all that.  But like Richard Henry Lee, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and others Taylor reminds us that many, if not most, of those who wrote and ratified the founding documents of this nation were deeply distrustful of concentrations of economic power.  They held these views not because they were against ‘free markets’ but because they knew that there is a relationship between economic and political power; that one inexorably produces the other, and that rule by oligopoly would mean an end to the democratic experiment.   Indeed it was precisely to wrest control from the oligarchs that the citizens of Athens rebelled and established a Democracy, demonstrating as they did not only the reasons and justification for the citizens to seize control but that Democracy and a redistribution of wealth have, from the beginning gone hand-in-hand.  To defend Democracy or, in our case, a republican form of government, one must inevitably confront the questions concerning the distribution of wealth in society.  It is comforting here to re-confirm, the thesis of  Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in his “The Age of Jackson”, that the founding fathers were not only suspicious of combinations and cartels but advocated and worked to regulate, or outright prevent, their formation.

I have previously written about this, expressing precisely these points. (10)  That what differentiates a true republican government from a so-called “Banana Republic” is the existence of a healthy, powerful and indeed controlling middle class; and that, therefore, it necessarily follows that to wage war upon the middle class is to wage war upon the republic itself.  Taylor understood this, as did Jefferson, Lee, Madison and Adams.  Modern conservatives do not.


 1. Robert Reich, Facebook post 8/28/15

2.Joseph R. Stromberg, Country Ideology, Republicanism, and Libertarianism: The Thought of John Taylor of Caroline, The Journal of Libertarian Studies, Vol VI, No. 1, 35 (Winter 1982) (citing M.J.C. Vile, Constitutionalism and the Separation of Powers, 167 (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1967)).

3. Wilson, Clyde (2011-11-03) A Little Rebellion, Chronicles

4. Hales, Dylan (2008-12-01) Left Turn Ahead, The American Conservative

5. McCarthy, Daniel (2005-08-01) Liberty and Order in the Slave Society, The American Conservative

6. Stromberg, pp. 39-40.

7. Id. at 41 (quoting Grant McConnell, "John Taylor and the Democratic Tradition," Western Political Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 1, 27 (March 1951)).

8. Forrest McDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum 75 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press 1985) (quoting Taylor).





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