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John Taylor of Caroline wisdom

John Taylor of Caroline

During a recent meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters in Baltimore this summer, radio personality and [r]epublican man of virtue, Mike Church, called for a revival and remembrance of the thought of John Taylor of Caroline. Perhaps, Church persuasively argued, we might very well find some answers and solutions to our current problems in the work of this great man, this aristocrat of Virginian, this defender of order and liberty.

While Taylor (1753-1824) never embraced (or was possessed of, depending on one’s point of view) the eccentricities of his fellow Old Republican, John Randolph of Roanoke, he certainly defended much that we at The Imaginative Conservative believe good with rigorous and elegant argumentation, steeped, unfortunately, in often rather stiff and poor prose.

Church is absolutely right, and we need to recover this man of the revolutionary and early republican eras.

In this spirit, I began re-reading Taylor’s book, On Tyranny. In his many works, the prolific Taylor emphasized the Cato-esque constant need for vigilance against any corruption—political or otherwise—in society. Taylor especially feared the use, misuse, and manipulation of republican and libertarian language for the benefit of the powerful who used their power to beget more power. Deeply rooted in the classics, especially in the Roman classics of Cicero and Virgil, Taylor also reflected much of the thought of his generation, especially as taken from Adam Smith.

There is much in this work to appreciate. Let me offer just a few quotes:

Tyranny is wonderfully ingenious in the art of inventing species phrases to spread over its nefarious designs. ‘Divine right, kings can do no wrong, parliamentary supremacy, the holy alliance,’ are instances of it in Europe. ‘Common defense, general welfare, federal supremacy and political economy,’ impressed into the same service here. When the delusion of one phrase is past, another is adopted to work out the same ends as its predecessor

Frankly, that Taylor recognized the malicious power of what would one day be called “propaganda” is nothing short of astonishing. Especially in this day and age, words and symbols become things only to manipulate and distort. One only has to think of the example of the “Patriot Act” to realize how powerful certain words can be. It should be remembered, that Taylor lived not only in a relatively well-ordered society, but in a society relatively free of ideology and mass-communications technology. 

The following, too, applies in a post-stimulus package age:

 A passion for carnage, is the tyranny of savages. Ambition and avarice are the passions which produce civilized tyranny. A policy for encouraging the latter passions, is like one for training savage nations to become bloodhounds. If ambition is cultivated by feeding it with excessive power, it extorts from industry the fruits of its labour; its avarice is cultivated by feeding it with excessive wealth, it acquires political power to pillage industry also. Enormous political power invariably accumulates enormous wealth, and enormous wealth invariably accumulates enormous political power. Either constitutes a tyranny, because the acquisitions of both are losses of liberty and property.

Again, could a modern or post-modern have argued it better? 

Taylor is brilliant, not simply because he himself possessed and employed a fine mind,but because he knew his place in the order of creation. His mind benefited immensely by understanding the long tradition of the West that came before him. Mike Church is absolutely correct. We must revive the thought of Taylor, because reviving him also revives all of those before him as well. Perhaps, with some wisdom, we can confront the problems of our age armed with the strength and might of our ancestors. 

Whatever despair the RNC and election brings to me personally at the moment, I take great solace in the fact that many, many have come before us, and, God willing, many, many will come after us.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. I believe one reason to look harder at John Taylor of Caroline is to consider the role of some kind of neo-agrarianism as a sustainable future model for American society. I am personally of the opinion (and I think Taylor and Jefferson would agree) that "God made the country; man made the town; the devil made the city."

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