Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

John Taylor and the rhetoric of liberty and tyranny (1814)

The Jeffersonian Republican John Taylor (1753-1824) warns us against the abuse of political phrases which are often used “to gull prejudice and varnish tyranny” by powerful vested interests (1814):

Mr. Adams has cautioned us against the abuse of political phrases, whilst he reiterates the expressions ‘a mixed government; checks and balances; middle orders,’ without explaining the qualities or principles necessary to make those checks, balances or middle orders; or considering the influence upon this theory, from armies, patronage, corruption, the poverty of a nominal middle order, or the enormous wealth of a separate interest. … As governments change, names represent different things, but are often retained to gull prejudice and varnish tyranny.

Mr. Adams has cautioned us against the abuse of political phrases, whilst he reiterates the expressions ‘a mixed government; checks and balances; middle orders,’ without explaining the qualities or principles necessary to make those checks, balances or middle orders; or considering the influence upon this theory, from armies, patronage, corruption, the poverty of a nominal middle order, or the enormous wealth of a separate interest. Had Tacitus undertaken to recommend the government of the Emperors to the Romans, he would in like manner have used the terms consul, senate, patrician, plebeian; and by suppressing the qualities of these orders, he might have easily proved, that a limited monarchy existed under the Roman emperors, as well checked, balanced and provided with middle orders, as that existing under the corrupt system of England.

As governments change, names represent different things, but are often retained to gull prejudice and varnish tyranny. For this end, the names of senate, consul and patrician remained in Rome. For this end, the name ‘parliament’ remains in England. In neither case, was ‘free and moderate government’ preserved; and in both, oppression was the effect of real changes under old names. Mr. Adams has even called the English form of government ‘republican;’ but if the United States should slide into it for that reason, they would act as the Athenians would have acted, by giving to Clitomachus (who had been branded with infamy) the command of an army, because his name signified ‘illustrious warrior.’

The hooks of fraud and tyranny, are universally baited with melodious words. ‘Passive obedience’ was a bait sacrilegiously drawn from scripture. ‘Church and state,’ from a fear of popery. ‘Checks and balances, and publick faith and credit,’ are still more musical baits, and however harshly ‘patronage, corruption, paper stock and standing armies,’ may at first sound, even these words are at length thought by some to contain much secret harmony.

Fine words are used to decoy, and ugly words to affright. ’security to private property’ is attractive. ‘Invasion of private property’ deterring. The invader of course devoutly uses the first phrase, and indignantly applies the second to those who oppose him. Where is there an instance of an invasion of private property, equal to that effected by the paper system of England? As its greatest invader, it has of course been the loudest advocate for its safety.

‘Energetick government’ is a phrase happily chosen to please honest men, and to beguile nations of unmanageable power. Under the agreeable jingle in the antithesis, between ‘protection and allegiance’ was long hidden a large reservoir of arbitrary power. Of the same family is the ancient idea of ‘a contract between the king and the people.’ Implying equality, either party might construe this contract, and the active power of construction being in the hands of kings, they made all their own actions, fulfilments, and such actions of the people as they pleased, breaches.

About this Quotation:

As Bastiat showed in his brilliant Economic Sophisms rhetoric is an important tool in debunking false arguments used to defend tariffs and subsidies to special interests. John Taylor does much the same thing in his criticism of John Adam’s Defence of the Constitution (1787) which he provides in An Inquiry into the Principles and Policy of the Government of the United States (1814). He argues, for example that “checks and balances” can also be used to defend the political elites in Imperial Rome or contemporary England; that “security of private property” can be used to protect unjustly acquired property as well as justly acquired property; and that “energetick government” in the wrong hands could be disastrous to liberty. Taylor encourages us to be sensitive to the changing use and meaning of words; that we need to “challeng(e) political words and phrases” from time to time when they are used for purposes they were not originally intended for, since, as he concludes, “Fine words are used to decoy, and ugly words to affright” the people.

More Quotations