If there was ever anyone who “out Jeffersoned” Jefferson it was John Taylor of Caroline. Thomas Jefferson is widely considered to be the hero of the founding generation when it comes to states’ rights, individual liberty, republicanism and agrarianism. Don’t get me wrong, there is no doubt that the “Sage of Monticello” is to be revered as a champion of all these things. However, regarding written political philosophy, the only official thing Jefferson ever wrote besides miscellaneous papers/letters and the Declaration of Independence was his Notes on the State of Virginia. John Taylor, however, was a true pamphleteer and a prolific writer of books. Due to his influence, the political philosophy of the Jefferson Republicans was able to spread throughout America during late 18th and early 19th century. President Jefferson once famously remarked 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.
It’s easy to think that many of these old guys with powdered wigs have little to offer us today, especially when so many of them have come under unwarranted attack by the cult of progress. On the contrary, political thinkers like John Taylor of Caroline have more to offer (both liberal and conservative) Americans today than ever. Particularly, Taylor’s writings present to the modern reader a fresh take on some of the forgotten benefits of federalism and limited government.
Born in 1753 to a family of planters in Virginia, Taylor was brought up like a true English country gentleman. He acquired an interest in the law from his uncle Edward, a prominent member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. He was educated at William and Mary, fought in the Continental Army, became a representative for the Virginia House of Delegates, served as state representative and eventually as a US senator. His career as a statesman is only shadowed by his career as a writer and a philosopher.
Like the Anti-Federalists and the Old Republicans (1794-1828), Taylor presented the case that the government which governs best governs least. One could make the appropriate observation that since the founding our nation has made a gradual shift from union to empire. In the 21st century, the states are more akin to provinces in a unitary state than actual sovereign entities that operate within a federal republic. This is especially true given the fact that, by now, most of the states in the Union are tied to the economic umbilical cord of the general government. Because of this, it becomes increasingly easy to only focus on the national and the global all the while forgetting about what should be the most important facet of political life: the local. Taylor warned of this 200 years ago, and I posit that a look at Taylor’s thoughts on this would not be out of turn.
Liberty, according to Taylor, is inextricably tied to local self-government and personal independence. You may have heard the mantra “think globally, act locally.” What we really should be doing is “thinking locally and acting locally." In doing so, the idea of “place” becomes more important to otherwise transient modern day people. Instead of constantly focusing on “national politics” we should be taking care of our own communities. Historian of American political philosophy Dr. Brion McClanahan calls this “sweeping around your own back door.” John Taylor spoke of this concept better than anyone else during the founding period. His farm, Hazelwood, was his country just as Jefferson’s was Monticello and Washington’s was Mount Vernon. The crux of decentralization in republican government is being responsible for oneself, and the way in which these men viewed their homes is a manifestation of that idea. This breeds independence or what Taylor called the “right of self-government”. Some people call this rugged individualism but in reality it’s not total isolationism because a citizen still has a role to play in his or her local community. If someone desires to make a difference or bring about some sort of political change or movement the focus should be on the state and local level.
Not everyone is cut out for making grandiose political stump speeches, but everyone has a talent. Maybe yours is writing, inspiring others, volunteering, or perhaps it is speaking after all. The point is is that a citizen can be more influential (in the beginning at least) when they are operating in a place where the representative ratio is closer to 10,000 to 1 at the state level rather than 735,000 to 1 at the federal level. This is especially true regarding voting.
For something like this to be fully realized, however, the states have to once again reclaim their reserved rights and powers. Now this is not anything revolutionary, it is simply a matter of reform. Conservatives and libertarians are largely familiar with these types of 10th Amendment arguments that hark back to Jefferson and Madison’s Principles of ‘98. In 2017 though, we are seeing a rise of left-leaning Americans who are now looking to arguments of decentralization with great interest because a president that they do not like is currently in power. That’s the point of federalism in the first place! If we are “sweeping around our own back doors”, concentrating on our communities, and promoting decentralization it won’t matter as much if a liberal or a conservative president is in office at the time. Taylor’s writings and thoughts present this idea clearly, and they are an example of how a lot of these “old dead white males” still have much to offer us today.
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