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John Taylor of Caroline

Hedges lined the main quarters. The lawn was nicely trimmed. The brick house and coordinating outbuildings maintained a level of dignity appropriate for the landed gentry. The white columns rose to intersect a pediment, which was centered between the remaining windows, demonstrating the balance and structure so characteristic of the Greco-Roman architecture revived in the South. As guests entered the estate, they were greeted by the lovely Mrs. Lucy Penn Taylor, whose warm and generous demeanor instantly set them at ease. The furnishings matched the Taylor’s lifestyle—tasteful but never extravagant, “comfortable but not grand,” stylish but not aristocratic.[1] The house overlooked the Rappahannock River and 1200 acres of farmland. It was a respite from the political corruption that crept into burgeoning cities. It was a revival of the ancient art of farming. It was a recapturing of tradition paired with innovative agricultural methods.

The Hazelwood Plantation manifested the free and virtuous spirit that defined John Taylor of Caroline. His home became the center of his family life, where Taylor spent time with his wife, educated his boys, and entertained guests. His land became the center of his professional life, and when he was not managing his plantation or inventing new farming techniques, he was writing essays based in agriculture. Thus, for John Taylor of Caroline, his land defined him more than any other factor. From the time he was young, Taylor found that the agrarian life garnered men with liberty and virtue. The ability to till the soil, plant crops, and sustain a family with the work of his own hands liberated him from social restrictions and dependence on the government. The beauty of the agricultural life lies in the fact that while it enabled Taylor to be free, it also nurtured his desire to defend his property, his family, and his community. Farming also caused Taylor to exercise liberality, foresight, and unduplicated effort, and the practice of these virtues lead to a fruitful crop and a pleasurable existence. Gaining liberty while acquiring virtue produced the republican man—a man who loved his land and devoted his life to making it fruitful. Only after men embodied this liberty and virtue could they protect the republic. Taylor dedicated his life and writings to reviving the agrarian republic. For Taylor, the organic cycle of nature paralleled the cyclical history of the republic, and though centralized government and moneyed interested threatened to desecrate the old Anglo-American ideas and way of life, Taylor believed that it was his duty to cultivate the liberty and virtue essential to the republican roots.

John Taylor’s life at Edmundsbury provided him with a father figure, Edmund Pendleton, who not only treated him as his own son, but also prepared him for a successful career. In 1758, little John’s father passed away, and soon after, John went to live with his uncle. The six-year old boy could never have known that this move would play a crucial role in his development, instead, he simply knew he was being taken away from his mother and sister. Yet, any fear he had soon left, as his uncle took on the responsibility with pleasure. Because Pendleton had suffered from a similar fate—his own father had died before he was even born—he wanted his nephew to have a father figure that had always been absent in his own life. Pendleton had apprenticed for years to save enough money to become a lawyer, and by the time his nephew arrived, he had earned a respectable reputation, married a daughter of a prominent Virginian family, and purchased a family plantation. In addition to these accomplishments, “he had been admitted to practice in the General Court, become a justice of the Caroline County Court, a vestryman of his Episcopal parish, and a member of the House of Burgesses.”[2] Industry, determination, and talent had allowed Pendleton to live a comfortable life, and he wanted to ensure that his nephew learned these virtues without quite as many obstacles as he had faced. Pendleton and his wife, Sarah, never had children, allowing Pendleton to give everything that had been devoid in his own childhood to “Johnny.”[3] He sent John to Donald Robertson’s boarding school, where he gained a liberal arts education characteristic of the colonial era, including Latin, Greek, mathematics, geography, and literature. Pendleton also lived a virtuous life, serving the community while remaining devoted to his family. His example “instilled in [John] a lifelong respect for honesty, integrity, loyalty, and a tough-minded business sense.”[4] John never forgot his uncle’s upright living, and from a young age, he imitated his uncle’s behavior. In this way, Pendleton equipped John with the potential for greatness. While John Taylor’s childhood could have easily set him on a seemingly dim tract, Pendleton’s generosity and his example prepared John Taylor for a life of service.

As a young adult, Taylor sought opportunities to serve the state of Virginia. Soon after Taylor graduated from William and Mary College, and then started his law career, he traveled with his uncle to Philadelphia. Taylor arrived on May 9, just soon enough to witness the upheaval that had arisen after the battle at Lexington and Concord. Taylor, filled with enthusiasm and vigor, scorned the British “barbarities, such as burning houses, forcing women in child bed to fly to the woods, and shooting old men in their beds.”[5] The twenty-one year old man would not miss his moment to defend his community, so he served as the quartermaster for William Woodford for a year before he was appointed as a major in the Second Canadian Regiment of the continental army. Taylor quickly became disappointed at the slobbery and apathy he found present in the Northern troops. He went as far as writing to his uncle that “a set of Vultures are preying on the very Vitals of their Country; the trappings of an Army are composed of thourough [sic] paced Villains.”[6] His experience with Northern troops forever shaped his prejudice about the North, always wishing that “we had more Virginians” to perpetuate republicanism.[7] Though Taylor suffered from sickness for many months, he was determined to fight as long as “there [was] a possibility of Battle.”[8] Yet, Taylor became frustrated with the disorder and lack of promotion, so after nearly four years of service, he resigned in February 1779 and returned to Edmundsbury. Taylor’s experience in the army, however, solidified prejudices that would remain an integral part of his character. These prejudices included, first, the Northern way of life produced inferior men. Second, government intervention in the war only caused more chaos and confusion. Third, mercenaries and standing armies ultimately failed because they have no true patriotism, or attachment to the particular place. Finally, the Virginia yeoman would always defend and cultivate the republic more than any other citizen. Taylor’s prejudices were for the most part Burkean in the sense that they were based on a cultural tradition and common notion of truth, which formed his thinking and consequently, his decision-making.[9] His prejudices, however, departed from Burke in the sense that Taylor believed the American common law took on its own character, growing into a tradition distinct from their mother country.[10] Because Taylor’s experience confirmed his prejudices, when he finally came back to the South, he would remain rooted in Virginia for the rest of his life.

As soon as Taylor returned, he whole-heartedly poured himself into his law practice. John Taylor’s dedication to his career brought him to a highly respected place in society and to a financial stable position. Serving in the war had caused Taylor to sell his patrimony on credit. He wanted to pay off the debt as soon as possible and repay his uncle for the security he had provided in times of need. He kept to his promise, working endless hours to establish his law practice. As more and more lawyers respected him and came to him for legal advice, his work did produce wealth. In addition to his flourishing law career, he also succeeded in regaining his speculative land. Pendleton had given him land bordering Indians and squatters, which caused controversy immediately. Yet, through his persistence and tact, Taylor eventually arranged a compromise that would secure almost all of his land. In 1781, Taylor served in the Virginia legislature, defending Virginia from British forces by writing a remonstrance to the General Assembly. The address, which is in Taylor’s handwriting, contrasts the Northern abandonment with the Virginian loyalty, concluding that they opposed each other more than they remained united “for the common defense.”[11] Amidst his professional life, Taylor became acquainted with Mary Penn, and he married her in 1782. In the first years of their marriage, Mary seldom spent time with her husband because he poured his young and bright mind into his law career while also serving on the Virginia legislature. “He became one of the most successful and sought-after attorneys” in Virginia.[12] Yet, Taylor never wanted money for the sake of money; his heart remained in the land. Thus, he lived within his means in preparation to buy his ideal plantation. Finally, in 1789, only ten years since he resigned from the military, Taylor purchased Hazelwood and then retired from his legal career. Thus, more than anything else, Taylor’s early career allowed him to buy a plantation and eventually devote his life to his family, plantation and writing. His fame and success were simply means to living the life Taylor envisioned—one set apart from the trivialities of ephemeral politics and instead rooted in nature.

John Taylor’s love of his land dominated his time, actions, and thought, breathing life into the mythic figure of the Southern Agrarian.[13] Taylor believed that the act of farming inculcated three virtues: liberality, foresight, and unduplicated effort.[14] Liberality, being the first and most important gift of agricultural life, rested on Taylor’s belief that “the more we give the more we shall receive.”[15] In other words, the more men cultivated the land, through proper care and farming ingenuity, the more the land would produce good fruit. Taylor’s definition of liberality synchronized the classical and biblical understanding of farming, hosting guests and even the treatment of slaves[16].[17] For example, in Taylor’s Arator, he reminds readers, “liberality in warm houses produces health, strength, and comfort.”[18] Even in this rather simple example, Taylor argues that keeping the house comfortable produces a vivacious house. His understanding of liberality could lead to one of two conclusions. First, men must work tirelessly in order to pursue a good, whether they are pursuing fatherhood, good cultivation, or political theories. Or, second, men must work hard to gain a more useful, efficient, comfortable life. But, finally, as is often the case, Taylor could have blended the virtuous and the utilitarian pursuit, suggesting that men should work diligently and live liberally because it lead to a more complete life while also producing better results. In another example, Taylor implies that both the good and the useful are results, as he argues, “liberality in the utensils of husbandry, saves labour [sic] to a vast extent, by providing the proper tools for doing the work both well and expeditiously.”[19] Providing a liberal amount of nutrients fulfills the primary goal of good farming and the secondary goal of efficient productivity.

Foresight also played a crucial role in the life of the farmer. As Taylor defines it, “[Foresight] consists in preparing work for all weather, and at proper times.”[20] One aspect of farming that underlies all John Taylor’s writing is his understanding of Nature’s unalterable sovereignty: A man may plant precisely and carefully, but if rain does not fall, or bugs plague the crops, or ice comes early, all man’s efforts will still produce little fruit. Thus, an aspect of farming lies outside the realm of human control. Even with this uncertainty, farming remains the best profession not only because it produces the most virtue but also because foresight can prevent the effects of disasters. “It consists in preparing work for all weather, and doing all work in proper weather, and at proper times. The climate of the United States makes the first easy, and the second is less difficult than in most countries—Ruinous violations of this important rule are yet frequent from temper and impatience.”[21] Man’s understanding of nature, allows him to take necessary precautions and plant crops at precise times. Foresight requires knowledge and patience, studying the cycles of nature and then waiting until the right time to plant and harvest crops. Yet, when men worked in harmony with nature, their efforts produced a “constant rotation of hope and fruition.”[22] The blessings of agriculture rested in men mastering the art of cultivation, understanding nature’s cycles while employing man’s ingenuity to enhance the land.

Finally, unduplicated effort ensures that man’s work produces a fruitful crop. Taylor warns, “not to kill time by doing the same thing twice.”[23] If men perform work for expediency, they compromise quality, and actually waste time in the long run. For example, Taylor explains, farmers have choices between making a dead-wood fence, stone fence, or live-wood fence. The dead wood fence requires the least work to begin with, but will demand more repair work in the following years. The stone fence demands much physical labor and careful structure but little maintenance, and it will stand for posterity. The live-wood fence provides a moderate alternative, more time consuming than the first, but also more durable, and less labor demanding than the second, but more affordable and achievable.[24] Taylor’s example illuminates a crucial tenant of farming—men must be willing to place quality above convenience. Only after farmers recognize this principle will they reap the benefits of an agricultural life. Taylor’s promotion of unduplicated efforts played into many aspects of his farming endeavors. From live-wood fences to making good manure to his four-crop rotation system, Taylor’s methodical patience did not sprout up profit immediately; instead, it gradually produced a rich soil, diverse crops, and strong defense that allowed roots to grow deeper and harvest a fruitful crop for years to come.

These agrarian virtues produced the quintessential “county gentleman”, perpetuating the virtues necessary to secure the republic. Nelson Lytle characterizes the country gentleman as a man who believes that owning private property is the first and most treasured right.[25] Besides the deep devotion to place that comes with property rights, “because his wealth and power depended partly upon his personal relations with the governed, he assumed the moral responsibility for his action; and when the economic well-being of his society was threatened, he did not shirk his obligations.”[26] The country gentleman embodied the right to life liberty and property, derived from British Common Law and the English enlightenment; yet, he also understood that with rights came associating duties. These duties included man’s willingness to sacrifice his life, fortune, and sacred honor for his community.[27] John Taylor revered both his rights and duties from the time he served in the War for Independence to his last days, spent in the Virginia legislature, and his devotion stemmed from his agrarian virtues. For, liberality, foresight, and unduplicated effort cultivated generosity, wisdom, and ingenuity in John Taylor. These qualities allowed him to serve America in a unique way—through his example, he revived the agricultural republic.

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1. Robert E. Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline: Pastoral Republicanism (Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1980), 111.

2. Ibid., 16.

3. This nickname, along with most background information in this paragraph was gleaned from Shalhope’s John Taylor of Caroline, 13-19.

4. Ibid., 18.

5. John Taylor quoted in Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline, 21.

6. John Taylor quoted in Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline, 23.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., 26.

9. Edmund Burke defines prejudice in Reflections on the French Revolution (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1992), as he explains that the revolutionaries tried to abandon all traditional notions of right behavior and instead attempted to look at truth in the Abstract. Burke argued that prejudices give us digestible bits of the truth, with prevent humans from falling into an idealism that leads to upheaval. Some modern scholars think that Taylor completely departed from Burke. Specifically, Garrett Sheldon and William Hill, in The Liberal Republicanism of John Taylor of Caroline (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson Univ. 2008), argue that Lockean and classical principles characterized Taylor.

10. Taylor’s understanding of the republic being something distinct from Britain while still being rooted in tradition would define his political and social thought the rest of his life.

11. John Taylor quoted in Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline, 30.

12. Shalhope, John Taylor of Caroline, 32.

13. The idea of all the Southern Agrarians possessing a coherent set of virtues oversimplifies this very diverse group of people. As Adam Tate carefully describes in Conservatism and Southern Intellectuals (Columbia: University of Missouri, 2005), 1-7, these group of men differed on many issues, like the meaning of virtue, community and the republic.

14. These are three ideas that Taylor discusses in Arator (Baltimore: Printed by J. Robinson, 1817), but in Sheldon Hill’s The Political Theory of John Taylor of Caroline (Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson, 1990), 240, he titles the third virtue “unduplicated effort,” because Taylor simply defines it as “not to kill time by doing the same thing twice over,” Arator, 239.

15. John Taylor in Nelson Lytle’s From Eden to Babylon, ed. M. E. Bradford (Washington, D.C.: Regnery, 1990), 53.

16. Though Taylor does agree that slavery is an evil, he believes that it has become necessary to the agricultural life. Because he recognizes the worth of the slaves as humans, he believes all men should treat their slaves with the proper care and nourishment, making their “employment” civil and reasonable. As M.E. Bradford in the introduction of Arator, 39, summarizes, “Slaves are for Taylor among the possessions which in turn possess and measure the moral stature of their owners, or more properly, the ultimate test of ethics of ownership.”

17. John Taylor rarely references God in his works, and while I did not come across one reference to Christ, he does mention God as an ordering force of nature. These references could lead to the conclusion that Taylor adopted the Deist beliefs so common during the enlightenment. Taylor, however, was a private person and wrote little about his private life, so it is plausible that he simply chose not to write about his specific religious convictions.

18. John Taylor, Arator, 238.

19. Ibid., 238.

20. Ibid., 238.

21. Ibid., 238.

22. Ibid., 241.

23. Ibid., 239.

24. Ibid, 239-240.

25. As Nelson Lytle observes, modern Americans are so far removed from what he calls the “country gentleman” that it is difficult for them to understand the vital role they played in the success of the American experiment. On page 47 of From Eden to Babylon, Lytle believes so strongly in this mythic figure that he asserts, “The country gentleman was the most powerful single influence in early American society.”

26. Ibid., 47.

27. The list of sacrifices is shortened from the Declaration, which states, “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor.”

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