Congressman, governor, U.S. senator. Born near Granby on May 4, 1770, Taylor was the eldest son of the upcountry planter Thomas Taylor and Ann Wyche. Taylor attended academies in Camden and Winnsboro for three years prior to entering the College of New Jersey (Princeton University) as a sophomore in 1788. Graduated second in his class two years later, he returned to South Carolina. There, he read law under the Charleston attorney Charles Cotesworth Pinckney from January 1791 until his own admission to the bar in June 1793. Toward the end of his legal apprenticeship, on March 17, 1793, Taylor married Sarah Cantey Chesnut, daughter of the Camden merchant John Chesnut. The couple settled in Columbia and went on to have sixteen children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
Although Taylor practiced law for several years and enjoyed success as a planter, his long career in public office began well before he proved himself in either of his private callings. In December 1793 he entered the South Carolina House of Representatives, where he served as a member first from Saxe Gotha (1793–1794), then from his home district of Richland (1794–1801), and again from Saxe Gotha (1804–1805). Attentive to upcountry interests, Taylor supported the abolition of plural voting, the reapportionment of representation, the improvement of inland navigation, and the perpetuation of slave importation. He was deemed one of the “ablest” and “most active” members of the House.
In 1806 Taylor won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sat from 1807 to 1810. Defeated for reelection by William Lowndes, Taylor was subsequently elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1810 to 1816, when he resigned for personal reasons. A Democratic-Republican, Taylor became a key player in congressional efforts to make economic sanctions an effective deterrent against British and French violations of American neutral trading rights. The author of Macon’s Bill No. 2, the last of the sanctions acts, which passed in 1810, Taylor continued to believe in economic coercion at least until Congress declared war against Britain in June 1812, when he voted in favor of hostilities. By the return of peace in 1815, he had renounced sanctions altogether. While in Congress, Taylor also played a leading role in the unsuccessful campaign to renew the charter of the Bank of the United States before its expiration in 1811. Refuting allegations that the bank was unconstitutional despite its twenty years of service to the nation, Taylor declined to be “a stickler” for states’ rights: “Preserve your Constitution without abandoning its legitimate powers, such as you have prospered in the exercise of, and I fear not this hobgoblin [consolidation].”
After a two-year hiatus, Taylor returned to public life as a member of the South Carolina Senate, where he represented Richland District from 1818 to 1825. During this period Taylor’s political views, like those of the state in general, shifted from nationalist to states’ rights. In 1824 Taylor joined in passing a set of resolutions that placed a state law intended to help prevent slave insurrections above a federal treaty guaranteed as supreme under the Constitution. Later that year and again the next, he voted for resolutions denying congressional authority to enact protective tariffs or sponsor internal improvements and reserving to the states any power that the Constitution did not explicitly delegate to the federal government.
In October 1826 Taylor lost a reelection bid to Wade Hampton II, only to become governor of South Carolina two months later on December 9, 1826. Throughout his two-year term, Taylor used his position to rally opposition against Congress, whose continued sanction of protective tariffs and internal improvements he denounced as unconstitutional and inequitable. Taylor urged resort to every lawful means of redress but refused to go so far as to question the value of the Union: “If I have any firmness, it will be exerted to preserve the union—to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of this state and of the United States.”
After the expiration of his term on December 10, 1828, Taylor remained politically active for at least another two years, during which time his antipathy for tariffs drove him to increasingly radical stances. In the late summer of 1830, he presided over a pair of public meetings called to advance a state convention to consider nullification of the 1828 Tariff of Abominations. And, in an exchange of letters with U.S. Supreme Court justice William Johnson, he not only declared his preference for secession over submission but also implied that the time to choose was drawing near. On April 16, 1832, Taylor died unexpectedly in Camden. He was buried in his family cemetery in Columbia.
Culler, Justine Bond. “John Taylor: neglected South Carolinian.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1970.