- The Liberal Republicanism of John Taylor of Caroline
This review provides an opportunity to look back on the work of Garrett Ward Sheldon, who teaches political science at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Sheldon has written books on the political philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and now, with C. William Hill, Jr,. on John Taylor of Caroline.1 Taken together, Sheldon’s [End Page 177] three books make two major claims. First, they all argue that classical republican ideas were invoked as means to sustain a liberal society, and therefore there is no theoretical tension between republicanism and liberalism. Sheldon and Hill call this framework “liberal republicanism.” Second, his books argue that the American ideal is local participatory democracy. John Taylor is best remembered by historians today for his republican critique of Hamiltonian federalism. He is considered a hostile critic of liberal modernity. In contrast, the authors argue, Taylor embraced liberalism’s assumption—most famously expressed by Locke—that human beings are born “free, equal, and independent.” To Taylor, Europe represented the past, where society remained divided into orders and one was born into one’s station. The promise of the United States was to liberate the individual from this past.
But this did not mean individual liberty was secure. Threats to individual liberty, to liberalism, emerged from every direction. Classical republicanism provided a language to understand this threat. To Taylor, as to Sheldon’s Jefferson and Madison, the Hamiltonians sought to centralize political power in order to serve the few instead of the many. But when Jefferson, Madison, and Taylor invoked the republican language of corruption, they did so in order to protect individual rights. Their common good was the expansion of individual liberty—Lockean liberalism—even if the threats were understood in classical terms.
There is a dramatic difference between Taylor’s liberal republicanism and that of Jefferson and Madison, however. As Sheldon makes clear in his earlier books, both Jefferson and Madison believed that the state must aid people in their enjoyment of their personal liberty. Madison argued that threats to individual liberty could come from local governments as well as distant ones—hence Madison’s evolution from nationalist to federalist to nationalist again after the War of 1812. Sheldon and Hill’s Taylor, on the other hand, does not seem to recognize the ways in which individual liberty requires active government. Hence, the authors are unable to overcome historians’ long connection between Taylor’s hostility to national government and his defense of states’ rights and slavery. Lacking Madison’s awareness that the states might also threaten individual liberty, Taylor actively defended the states against the nation, and actively protected slavery from federal interference.
To Jefferson and Taylor, individual rights depend on citizens’ control of their government. But Jefferson understood in ways that Taylor apparently did not that local democracy itself required cultivating the people’s [End Page 178] abilities. In his earlier work on Jefferson, Sheldon argued that Jefferson believed that before the people could govern themselves—and thus protect their natural Lockean rights—they needed the “substantive rights” necessary to enter deliberation—education, economic independence, and opportunity to shape one’s destiny via participation in government. “Put another way,” Sheldon concludes, “Jefferson’s theory implies the right to be free from inadequate education, degrading poverty, and bureaucratic fiat.”2 Would Taylor have agreed with Jefferson that Locke’s natural man was socially cultivated? If not, Taylor’s understanding of government’s role in American society is vastly different from Jefferson’s. Sheldon and Hill do not provide any evidence of what positive role government might play in Taylor’s political thought.
Sheldon’s work has done historians of the early republic good service. It demonstrates that the fears and dangers we associate with the republican tradition were not incompatible with what we consider liberalism; they were necessary to it. If we are to have a society that values individual freedom and a government that protects...