EDITOR’S NOTE: The following text is an excerpt of the book, Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated, by John Taylor (1820). (paperback here, kindle version here)
The book “is a brilliant refutation of John Marshall’s decision in McCulloch vs. Maryland. Taylor dissects the decision based on a Jeffersonian view of the delegated powers of the federal government in the U.S. Constitution. Taylor shows how the decision annhilates the taxing powers of the states within their own borders, and elevates the authority of the federal government above the states. Taylor is especially critical of Marshall’s dictum that the federal government is ” supreme” in it’s ” sphere”. Taylor rejects this view completely.Taylor maintains that the federal government is a government of delegated, limited powers, and that powers not delgated are reserved to the states. It is truly a brilliant states rights interpretation.”
(from Review on Amazon)
by John Taylor
These are the keys of construction, and the locks of liberty. The question to be considered is, whether our revolution was designed to establish the freedom both of religion and property, or only of the former.
It is strange that the human mind should have been expanded in relation to religion, and yet should retain narrow notions in relation to property. Objects unseen, and incapable of being explained by the information of the senses, afford less perfect materials for the exercise of reason, than those capable of being investigated by evidence, within the scope of the human understanding. As the difficulties opposed to the correction of religious fanaticism seemed less surmountable, whilst its effects were more pernicious, the zeal of philosophers was condensed in an effort to relieve mankind from an evil the most distressing; and their attention was diverted from another, at this period the most prominent. But having wrested religious liberty from the grasp of fanaticism, it now behooves them to turn their attention towards pecuniary fanaticism, and to wrest civil liberty from its tyranny also. Between an absolute power in governments over the religion and over the property of men, the analogy is exact, and their consequences must therefore be the same. Freedom of religion being the discovery by which religious liberty could only be established; freedom of property must be the only means also, for the establishment of civil liberty. Pecuniary fanaticism, undisciplined by constitutional principles, is such an instrument for oppression, as an undisciplined religious fanaticism. A power in governments to regulate individual wealth, will be directly guided by those very motives, which indirectly influenced all governments, possessed of a power to regulate religious opinions and rites. If we have only restrained one of these powers, we have most improvidently retained the other, under which mankind have groaned in all ages; and which at this time is sufficient to oppress or enslave the European nations, although they have drawn some of the teeth of religious fanaticism. An adoration of military fame, specious projects and eminent individuals, has in all ages brought on mankind a multitude of evils; and a sound freedom of property is the only mode that I know of, able to destroy the worship of these idols, by removing beyond their reach the sacrifices upon which themselves, and their proselytes, subsist.
Many princes have patronized literature, but none have patronized knowledge. Augustus was celebrated for the former species of munificence; yet the temporary splendors of imperial patronage were soon obscured by the bad principle of a tyranny over property; a principle, unpropitious to knowledge, because it was hostile to individual liberty. We must reason from a comparison between general or universal facts, and not from a contemplation of temporary exceptions, to come at truth; and when we discover that an absolute power over property, though occasionally exercised for the attainment of praise-worthy ends, is yet constantly attended by general evils, infinitely outweighing such particular benefits; we forbear to draw our conclusion from the partial cases, or decide erroneously. A truth, established by its universality, ought to be an overmatch for the sophistries of cupidity. The best general principle, under the destiny of mankind, is capable of producing partial evils. The freedom of the press, of religion, and of property, may occasionally produce inconveniences; but ought mankind therefore to transfer their approbation from these three foundations of civil liberty, to the instruments by which it is destroyed?
No form of government can foster a fanaticism for wealth, without being corrupted. The courtiers of republicks, able to exercise an absolute power over the national property, are more numerous and more vicious than the courtiers of kings, because access to patrons is easier; they have more occasion for partisans, and a multiplication of despots over property multiplies the channels of fraud. New ones also are frequently opened by a revolution of parties, and of patrons, who with their favorites and dependants, are in haste to bolster power or amass wealth, during the continuance of a fleeting authority. Against a propensity so mischievous, and so fatal to republicks, there seems to be no resource, but a constitutional prohibition of the power by which it is nurtured; and a rejection of precedents, by which infringements of so wholesome a prohibition are usually justified. Both reason and morality unite to impress upon nations, a necessity for imposing restraints upon a propensity, which may so easily be concealed under the most glittering robes of patriotism. What real patriot would feel himself molested, by restraints upon avarice and ambition? Are not both unfriendly to human happiness? Some patriots have sacrificed their lives for the happiness of their country. Is the sacrifice of an error, by which fraud and avarice are nurtured, too much to expect of ours?
A love of wealth, fostered by honest industry, is an ally both of moral rectitude, and national happiness, because it can only be gratified by increasing the fund for national subsistence, comfort, strength and prosperity; but a love of wealth, fostered by partial laws for enriching corporations and individuals, is allied to immorality and oppression, because it is gratified at the expense of industry, and diminishes its ability to work out national blessings.
Look for a moment at Congress, as a power for creating pecuniary inequalities, or for striking balances between favours to states, combinations and individuals. If it could even distribute wealth and poverty, by some just scale, which has never yet been discovered, justice itself would beget discontent, and sow among its medley of courtiers, a mass of discord, not more propitious to the safety of the union, than to the happiness of the people. All would weigh their own merits, and none would be convinced that they were light. Even the distribution of those preferences, necessary to civil government, is liable to defects and productive of inconveniences. Where then is the wisdom of extending the power beyond the limits of social necessity, to the despotick principle of a gratuitous distribution of wealth and poverty by law; and of converting a small evil, abundantly counterbalanced by the blessings of government, into a calamity by which these blessings are diminished or destroyed?
To answer this question, turn your eyes towards a government accoutred in the complete panoply of fleets, armies, banks, funding systems, pensions, bounties, corporations, exclusive privileges; and in short, possessing an absolute power to distribute property, according to the pleasure, the pride, the interest, the ambition, and the avarice of its administrators; and consider whether such a government is the servant or the master of the nation. However oppressive, is it not able to defy, to deride and to punish the complaints of the people? Partisans, purchased and made powerful by their wealth, zealously sustain the abuses by which their own passions are gratified. I discern no reason in the principles of our revolution, for investing our governments with such of these instruments for oppression, as were both unnecessary for the end in view, and even inimical to its attainment; and no such reason existing, it is more difficult to discern the propriety of investing our governments with these superfluous and pernicious powers, by inference and construction. Would liberty be well established in England, if her hierarchy was destroyed, whilst the government retained the absolute power of distributing wealth and poverty? Is not that establishment merely one of the modes for exercising this species of despotism; and what substantial or lasting remedy could arise from abolishing one mode, whilst others remained amply sufficient to establish the same pernicious principle? Is not a power of transferring property by pensions, bounties, corporations and exclusive privileges; and even of bestowing publick money by the unlimited will of legislative bodies, as dangerous to liberty, as a power of doing the same thing by the instrumentality of a privileged church? Is the casuistry consistent, which denies to a government the power of infringing the freedom of religion, and yet invests it with a despotism over the freedom of property? A corporation, combination, or chartered church for one purpose, in its pecuniary effects, is analagous to corporations for effecting the other. It has been said, that government in its best form is an evil. This absurd idea seems to have been suggested, by its being usually invested with an army of supernumerary powers wholly unnecessary for effecting the end of preserving social tranquillity and safety. Against these supernumerary powers, the United States waged a long war, upon the ground, that governments are instituted to secure, and not to bestow the freedom of property; and it would be highly absurd to suppose, that having established their great principle, they directly became contented with an unfruitful theory, and surrendered the idea of its application. It was tyrannical in the English government, said the colonies, to insist upon taking away their property, and giving it to placemen and pensioners; and they very justly considered life and liberty as so intimately connected with property, that the rights of the latter could not be invaded, without invading the other rights also. They fought for a revolution, and established governments to secure all three of these natural rights, because a loss of one was equivalent to a loss of all, in a national view.
I see no infallible criterion for defining the nature of a government, except its acts. If the acts of a monarchy, aristocracy and democracy are the same, these forms of government are to a nation essentially the same also. To contend for forms only, is to fight for shadows. The United States did not go to war for nothing but forms. A government is substantially good or bad, in the degree that it produces the happiness or misery of a nation; and I see but little difficulty in finding a mode of detecting the fallacy of form, and the frauds of profession. If we can ascertain the quality in human nature, from which political evil has chiefly proceeded under every form of government, this quality is the cause which can corrupt any form; and instead of amusing ourselves with these new forms, not to be confided in, it behooves us to search for a remedy, able to remove or control the cause itself.
Cupidity, avarice or monopoly, both in the savage and civilized state, is the quality of human nature, always requiring control, and always striving to break down the restraints imposed upon it. To resist this quality, the United States endured the evils of a long war with a powerful nation. They had seen a limited monarchy tried in the parent country, as a remedy for this bad quality of human nature; but ineffectually; because a considerable power remained with the king, and an absolute power was conceded to or usurped by the government, of distributing property. The hostile principles, of leaving men to be enriched by their own industry, or of enriching them by the favours of the government, were to be weighed against each other; that which made many poor to enrich a few was rejected, and that which encouraged industry was preferred, in the most distinct manner, as I shall hereafter endeavour to prove.
Almost all governments have espoused and nourished the spirit of avarice, which they were instituted to discipline by justice; and have betrayed the weak, whom it was their duty to protect. In assuming a power of distributing property by law, they have reduced it in a great degree to a destiny, approximating to its savage destiny, when subjected to force. From this cause have arisen the most pernicious imperfections of society. Aristocracies and democracies, by usurping this despotick power, in imitation of monarchs, have driven nations into a circle of forms, through which they have perpetually returned to the oppression they intended to escape. Had the essentials, rather than the structure of governments, attracted the attention of mankind, they would not have trusted to any theory, however excellent, asserting it to be the duty of a government to protect rights; under a system of legislation, by which governments of the worst forms destroy them. They would have discovered, that a power of distributing property, according to its pleasure, has made governments of the best forms, bad; and that a remedy for an evil, poisonous to the best theories, ought to awaken their solicitude and ingenuity. For want of this remedy, republicks, of the finest theoretical structure, have universally died more prematurely, even than absolute monarchies; because, the more numerous the depositaries of an absolute power over property have become, the more widely has the spirit of avarice or monopoly been excited. If this universal cause of oppression must exist, that government which afforded the most channels for its operation, is the worst; and hence has arisen the general preference of mankind for monarchy. Governments of all forms having exercised an absolute power over property, they have experimentally ascertained, that the oppression derived from this source was the most tolerable, when the tyrants were the least numerous.
If the age has at length arrived, in which knowledge is able to break the fetters forged by fraud and credulity, political enquiry, as in other sciences, may take its stand on the eminence of truth, hail with exultation the happy advent, and direct its arrows straight forward against an error fraught with plagues to mankind.
To define the nature of a government truly, I would say, that a power of distributing property, able to gratify avarice and monopoly, designated a bad one; and that the absence of every such power, designated a good one.
John Taylor, of Caroline County Virginia, was the preeminent theorist of Jeffersonian Old Republicanism. He was a strong advocate of individual and states rights in the face of the growing power of the federal government (â€œtyrannyâ€) and opposed increased tariffs and mercantilist economic policy.