Posted by: Democratic Thinker | November 6, 2009

Despotic Principle: Distribution of Wealth and Poverty by Law

Financial Responsibility

John Taylor of Caroline argues in his 1820 treatise, Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated, that one of the founding principles of the United States and one of the reasons for the Revolution was that government has no more right to regululate personal property than it has to regulate religion.

The Principles of Our Revolution.

John Taylor of Caroline.

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, tliough 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 multiplier 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.

Of what value is an exchange of one system of monopoly for another? How shall we estimate the difference between noble and clerical orders, and between combinations of exclusive pecuniary privileges? Is pure avarice better than some honour and some sanctity? The encroachments upon property by noble and clerical combinations, once fixed by law, remained stationary; and each individual could calculate his fate with some certainty: but pecuniary combinations, once sanctioned as constitutional, will perpetually open new channels, and breed new invaders, whose whole business it will be, to make inroads Upon the territories of industry. Legislatures will become colleges for teaching the science of getting money by monopolies or favours; and the deluge of laws will become as great in the United States, as was once the deluge of papal indulgences in Europe for effecting the same object. What an unaccountable feature of the human character it is, that it should exert so much ingenuity to get the property of others, and be so dull in finding out means for the preservation of its own?

The morality of the gospel and that of monopoly, seem to me, not to bear the least resemblance to each other. A christian “loves man. His light must shine before men. He keeps judgment and does justice. He trusts in the Lord and does good. He lives in goodness and honesty. He is a doer and not a hearer only of the divine law. Whoever doeth not right, is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother. Repentance and an avoidance of sin, constitute the claim to the atonement of a saviour. By their works ye shall know them.” The pope of Rome for many centuries persuaded the people of Europe, that he fulfilled all these texts of scripture, by uttering annually a great number of indulgences, to cheat the people of money.

Is there a man who could be so infatuated, as to foster zealously both bible and missionary societies, and also a spirit of avarice and monopoly? Geographical malice, combined frauds, individual deceit, and civil commotion, some of the effects of this latter policy, suggest the idea, that the same person is equally zealous to convert the heathens to christianity, and the christians to heathenism. This ideal character may be also a philosopher, who ridicules the notion of being saved by faith without works; and yet contends that the people ought to confide in forms without acts, and take it for granted that their property will be safe under a theory, which exercises an absolute power over it. If he should make an eloquent speech, one half in favour of the theory of equal laws, and the other half in favour of actual exclusive privileges, what should we think? that it was like placing Christ on the car of Juggernaut, and dressing the United States in British regimentals.

There are sundry points of resemblance between the English revolution in the time of Charles the first, and ours, replete with edification. Let us go into a comparison. The English reformation of religion, by compromising with the rapaciousness of individuals, and by retaining sundry of the principles and habits of popery, inoculated the government with a poison, which diffused its virulence throughout the body politick, and contaminated the blessings promised by the experiment. Those who resisted the frauds of selfishness, and the artifices of ambition, were called puritans; and the derision of a nickname, united with the excesses produced by oppression, to render the doctrine of a freedom of religion, both ridiculous and detestable. Those who contended for it, were successfully represented as wild visionaries, whose views were unnatural and impracticable. Yet to these puritans the United States are indebted for the religious freedom they enjoy; and the whole world, for a refutation of the arguments advanced by ambition and avarice, to obstruct the progress of political improvement, and the advancement of human happiness.

The same contrivances practised in England to destroy religious freedom, are using in the United States to defeat civil liberty. The puritanism of republican principle’s is ridiculed; it is called democracy; and violations of the freedom of property (an important principle of our civil puritanism) are providing combustibles for some calamitous explosion. Our political reformation is daily corrupted by the principles and habits of the English system, as was the English religious reformation, by the principles and habits of popery; and we are exchanging the pure principles of the revolution, for the garbage of aristocracy, and compromises with venality. By disregarding these principles, our fluctuations of parties invested with power, have been made to resemble the bauble called a Kaleidescope, which at each revolution exhibits new scenes of glittering delusions, whilst the pebbles from which they are reflected, remain substantially the same. The remedy for an evil so mischievous, is that by which religious freedom has been established. Freedom of property will beget civil liberty, as freedom of conscience has begotten religious. The success of one experiment proves the other to be practicable. Every man, except he belong to a privileged combination, is as much interested to effect a freedom of property, as he is to maintain a freedom of religion, except he could become a priest of an established and endowed hierarchy.

The English protestants had adopted a variety of imaginary habits and opinions. The several American States also entertained a variety of opinions and habits, fixed by real interest, more reasonable and more stubborn, as being derived from natural and unconquerable circumstances. Each of the sects in England, after the religious revolution was established, as power fluctuated among them, endeavoured when uppermost, to impose its own opinions and habits upon the others. The apparel of the clergy, surplices, tippets, caps, hoods and crosiers; and ceremonies; such as the sign of the cross in baptism, the ring in marriage, the mode of administering the sacrament, and the consecration and powers of bishops; all inconsiderable compared with the cardinal end of religious freedom; became subjects of controversy in England. The endowment of certificate holders, banking corporations, exclusive privileges, compulsory laws over free will in the employment of the earnings of industry, and violations of the local interests and habits of States, more materially affecting the cardinal end of civil liberty, have become subjects of controversy in the United States. In England, the force of opinions, less substantial, produced a frightful civil war. In the United States, opinions, better founded, have already produced awful ideas of dissolving the union. In England, the religious controversies terminated in an act of uniformity, by which a majority of the people are cruelly oppressed; there are more meeting-houses than churches, and more dissenters than conformists; yet by bribery with publick money, so as exorbitantly to increase taxation, the majority are both excluded from civil offices, and subjected to the payment of tithes for the suppression of their own opinions and interests. In the United States, the majority of the people of each state, are subjected to the payment of more than tithes, to deprive themselves of free will as to their own interest, and to foster exclusive privileges. Our division into state governments of great extent, and embracing a great variety of local circumstances, will render a compulsory uniformity of temporal interests, habits and opinions infinitely more difficult, than a religious uniformity in England; and require means, more coercive and severe to effect it. A very powerful standing army, so necessary in England for one purpose, would be more indispensable here for the other. Whole states will more sensibly feel, and be more able to resist burdens, inflicted to enrich privileged civil sects, bearing heavily on their local interests and habits, than individuals only combined by the slight threads of ceremonials and speculative prejudices. Had the freedom of religion been established in England at the Reformation, a mass of civil war, national inquietude and oppression would have been avoided. A greater mass of these evils was foreseen by the framers of the Union, and attempted to be avoided, by restricting the powers given to Congress, and by retaining to the states those powers united with the local interests, habits and opinions of each state; in fact, by securing the freedom of property.

This wise precaution was suggested by the character of human nature, sound reason, substantial justice, and unequivocal experience drawn from the consequences of the different policy pursued by England in her religions revolution. Why ought not industry to enjoy a freedom of will, simitar to that demonstrated in the United States, to be so wholesome and happy in the case of religion? How can an expensive, compulsory uniformity in one case, generate blessings, when it has generated curses in the other? It was not intended by our revolution to destroy the freedom of will, in relation either to speculation, actual habits or personal interests. It designed to draw a plain line between the foreign relations of the United States, and the internal concerns of each state; and the vitality of the union, as well as the vitality of religion, lies in a strict adherence to the same principle. Each state, however different in its habits and interests, like each sect however different in its tenets and ceremonials, has its liberty and happiness embarked and hazarded upon its preservation; and if any are tempted by the bribe of delusive advantages to abandon it, they will, like the religious sects which yielded to the temptations of pride, enthusiasm and avarice, when possessed of the majority, produce civil war, forge chains for themselves, and obtain a toleration of property instead of its freedom. A combination of corporations, exclusive privileges and pecuniary speculations, assails republican puritanism, as protestant puritanism was assailed by a combination of Roman Catholick princes, and for the same reason. It obstructs frauds.

The maxim of James the first, “no bishop no king,” was a political truth; not limited to the idea of hierarchical orders, but an exemplification of the necessity of intermediate orders between an individual and a nation, for the support of a despotick government. It applies to all intermediate orders or exclusive privileges between a nation and a government, whether pecuniary, civil, religious, or military; whether they be called lords, mandarins, bashaws, generals, bishops, bankers, exclusive privileges, corporations, or companies. Adhering to the maxim in its amplified sense, the English government, for its own security, has extended it gradually from bishops and a nobility, to an army and to a vast pecuniary order; which, though compounded of various corporations, companies and exclusive privileges, as the noble order is compounded of a variety of titles, is united in the support and defence of the government, whatever it may do, as being dependant upon it for all the privileges, however denominated, enjoyed by its favour. These dependant orders are even better props of an oppressive government than a hereditary nobility. Accordingly, they are more ardent in defence of political severities, and more rapidly create the evil of excessive taxation, than the orders of ancient coinage. Hereditary titles were more honorable than lucrative, embraced, and corrupted fewer individuals, and extorted less from the savings of industry, than dependant privileges entirely mercenary, and only capable of being fostered by perpetual drafts from the majority of nations. And, therefore, the latter have accomplished in England a degree of oppression, which the former could never effect. Did our revolution meditate an intermediate order between the government and the people? Are not privileged mercenary combinations, dependant on the government, both such an order, and of the worst species? Have we then adopted the essence of James’s maxim, and subscribed to the opinion, “no exclusive privileges, no republick?”

During the reigns of the Stuarts, there existed two kinds of puritanism; one for purifying religious, the other for purifying civil government. The natural affinity between the two objects, combined the individuals devoted to each; and although the imperfect state of political knowledge, and a spirit of fanaticism obstructed their efforts, and prevented their complete success, yet the English were indebted to this double impulse for some accessions both of civil and religious liberty, which constituted a platform upon which we have raised a more perfect superstructure. The civil and religious patriots of that period were united by the conviction, that a despotick power over the mind will absorb a despotick power over property; and that a despotick power over property will absorb a despotick power over the mind. The English government, by retaining such a power over property, has been enabled to retain a similar power over the mind. Our revolutionary patriots evidently entertained the same opinion, and therefore endeavoured to destroy both kinds of despotism; and their complete success in the establishment of religious freedom, ought not to render the freedom of property hopeless, especially when it is considered, that if the latter is impracticable, the former, in time, will become abortive. The consideration of the principles of our revolution will be resumed in several of the succeeding sections.

—John Taylor of Caroline, Construction Construed, and Constitutions Vindicated, § 1.