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

John Taylor

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.

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.