Quakers Beg Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention to Exempt Them from Militia Tax

In 1837, Pennsylvania held a constitutional convention (about which there is much more at The Picket Line). A committee of Quakers addressed the convention concerning the language it was considering about requiring militia service or, for conscientious objectors, the payment of an equivalent:

To the Members of The Convention elected to revise the Constitution of Pennsylvania.

The committee appointed to present the memorial of the religious Society of Friends, on the subject of military requisitions, having had very little opportunity, at the time their memorial was submitted, to enforce or explain their views in relation to military demands, now take the liberty of presenting to the members, severally, a few explanations of their principles, and the principles of those whom they represent; in order that the convention may understand the ground on which they ask for themselves, and for all others who are conscientiously scrupulous of contributing to the prosecution of war, an entire exemption from military penalties and demands.

In the first place we would observe, that the first minister in the Society, in the early periods of his ministry, distinctly and unequivocally professed a belief, that the practice of war was inconsistent with the principles and tenor of the Christian religion. About the twenty-seventh year of his age, and third of his ministry, he was strenuously urged to accept a commission in the parliamentary army; but he rejected the offer as inconsistent with his religious principles, and suffered nearly six months’ imprisonment, in a filthy jail, on account of his refusal. From that time to the present, the Society of Friends have always believed that wars and fightings are inconsistent with the nature of the Messiah’s reign. Amidst the plots and struggles for power, by which the history of the nations where they reside has been marked, they have still professed and maintained the same doctrine. They have submitted peaceably to the governments which have been placed over them; but have taken no part in setting them up or pulling them down, by military force. When subjected to fines or imprisonment, on account of their religious principles, they have patiently endured whatever has been imposed upon them; but have always refused to contribute to the prosecution of war, whatever its ostensible object may have been. And certainly the experience of a hundred and eighty years must be admitted as amply sufficient to establish the sincerity of their belief, whatever may be thought of the correctness of their doctrine.

In the second place we would observe, that the rights of conscience are in their nature unalienable; and that every act of government, which abridges or destroys them, is an usurpation, not a legitimate exercise of authority. This is clearly attested in the present bill of rights, which declares that “no human authority can in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience.” If it is asked, what is meant by conscience — we answer: By conscience we mean that apprehension and persuasion a man has of his duty to God; and the liberty of conscience we plead for, is a free and open profession, and unmolested exercise of that duty. Such a conscience as keeps within the bounds of morality in all the affairs of human life, and requires us to live soberly, righteously, and godly in the world. Such a conscience, where its influence extends, must promote the happiness of individuals, the stability of governments, and the peace of civil and religious society.

In the charter of William Penn, granted in , we find the following declarations, in regard to the rights of conscience:—

Article 1. — “Because no people can be truly happy, though under the greatest enjoyment of civil liberties, if abridged of the freedom of their consciences, as to their religious profession and worship; and Almighty God, being the only Lord of conscience, Father of lights and spirits, and the Author as well as object of all divine knowledge, faith, and worship, who only doth enlighten the minds, and persuade and convince the understandings of people; I do hereby grant and declare, that no person or persons, inhabiting in this province, or territories, who shall confess and acknowledge one Almighty God, the Creator, Upholder, and ruler of the world, and profess him or themselves obliged to live peaceably under the civil government, shall be, in any case, molested or prejudiced in his or their person or estate, because of his or their conscientious persuasion or practice, nor be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place, or ministry, contrary to his or their mind; nor do or suffer any other act or thing contrary to their religious persuasion.”

Last article. — “And because the happiness of mankind depends so much on the enjoying of liberty of their consciences, as aforesaid, I do hereby solemnly declare, promise, and grant, for me, my heirs and assigns, that the first article of this charter, relating to liberty of conscience, and every part and clause therein, according to the true intent and meaning thereof, shall be kept, and remain, without any alteration, inviolably for ever.”

This charter, we may remember, was granted by a conspicuous member of the Society of Friends, when the power and administration of the government were chiefly, if not wholly, in the hands of members of that Society. The liberty thus solemnly and irrevocably guarantied, was unquestionably applicable to practice as well as belief; to every thing, in short, which could become a matter of conscience. In this charter the rights of conscience are first declared in broad and general terms; and subsequently the general principle is applied to a particular case. But this specification does not weaken the force, nor diminish the extent of the general declaration. A specific disavowal, on the part of William Penn, of an authority to demand any military service from those who were conscientiously restrained from the use of arms, would have appeared supererogatory, if not absurd; as he could not, consistently with his acknowledged principles, require such mllitary service from any persons whatever. But in relation to worship, and the support of a disapproved ministry, the case was not quite so obvious. The intolerance of that and the preceding age related chiefly to worship and ecclesiastical establishments. William Penn and his friends had suffered more on account of their dissent from the established worship, than from any other cause. Some of those colonists who had sought an asylum from persecution in the western world, became persecutors themselves. To secure the settlers of Pennsylvania against all apprehension of any encroachment of their conscientious rights, by himself or his successors, William Penn not only made a general declaration in favour of liberty of conscience, but gave a specific assurance, in regard to ecclesiastical exactions. The faith of government was thus solemnly pledged, for the maintenance of a complete toleration of the religious principles of those who were then settled, or might afterwards settle, in the province. Under this assurance, a large part of the province, now state of Pennsylvania, was settled; and we conceive that the grant thus made could no more be revoked, without a breach of faith, than the title to their lands. And it is worthy of notice, that while William Penn or his fellow-professors held the reins of government, this engagement was faithfully observed. If any inconvenience has ever arisen from this grant, or its faithful observance, the circumstance has escaped our notice. These considerations certainly furnish no inconsiderable ground for hope, that the Society of Friends will not, in the nineteenth century, be deprived of those rights, which their predecessors, on the same soil, in the beginning of the eighteenth, extended to every class of natives and emigrants.

We however wish it to be understood, that we do not ask for ourselves, to the exclusion of others similarly conscientious, an exemption from military exactions. Although the Society of which we are members have, as already stated, always professed a testimony against wars and bloodshed; yet we are convinced that this testimony is not confined to us, but that many serious Christians of other persuasions unite with us in our opinion respecting the antichristian character of war. And we can see no reason why the sacred and unalienable rights of conscience should be restricted to any particular denomination of Christians.

Thirdly, we observe:— That as we cannot, consistently with our conscientious persuasion, contribute our personal aid in the destruction of human life, so we cannot, for the same reason, voluntarily employ others as substitutes. To engage another to do what we cannot conscientiously do ourselves, appears to us totally irreconcileable with Christian morality. Believing, as we do, that the dispensation has already commenced, in which “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, or the people learn war any more,” we cannot employ any part of our time in learning the art or discipline of war. And to purchase, by pecuniary equivalent, the privilege of abstaining from military measures, would be an implicit acknowledgment that we were actuated rather by views of convenience, than religious principle; and that the right of performing our duty to our Creator may be justly granted or withheld, by the authority of government. The application of the proceeds of such equivalent to civil purposes, even to those which we fully approve, does not change the principle. It is the payment of an equivalent, as the purchase of a religious right, not the purpose to which it may be applied, to which we conscientiously object.

It is worthy of special notice, that from the first settlement of the colony until the year , about twenty years after the members of our Society had chiefly withdrawn from the legislature, there never was a compulsive militia law enacted in Pennsylvania. At a previous date, it was declared, in a preamble to one of the laws, that a compulsory law for the purpose of raising a military force, was unconstitutional, and a breach of the privileges of the people. A measure first adopted in the midst of the turmoil of a revolution, and in a highly excited state of the public mind, certainly furnishes a very unsafe precedent for its indefinite continuance under a settled government.

Fourthly,— The opinion so generally embraced, that it is the duty of all the citizens of a state to contribute their part toward the general defence, appears to be founded upon two gratuitous assumptions, which are neither demonstrable nor self-evident:— To wit, That defensive war is not only justifiable, but may become a duty: aud that the safety of the people depends upon military defence.

As the first of these assumptions is one from which we conscientiously dissent — the practical inference to which it tends cannot be pressed upon us, without infringing our religious liberty. With regard to the second it may be fairly presumed, that if war, whether offensive or defensive, is inconsistent with the spirit and tenour of the Christian dispensation, the wisdom and goodness of our Creator have provided means to maintain the necessary relations of civil society, without resorting to hostile measures. Believing, as we certainly do, that the Author of nature is the founder of Christianity, and that he is perfect in wisdom and power, we are convinced, that a reliance on Divine protection, in the performance of our duties, furnishes a firmer ground of hope, than any thing which the art or policy of man can supply. Indeed, the experience of Pennsylvania, as long as its government was administered upon principles purely pacific, affords conclusive testimony of the possibility of preserving a national existence, even in the midst of savage tribes, without the aid of military defence. While several of the other colonies, which were planted by men of military principles, acting upon the usual policy of nations, were involved in barbarous and exterminating wars, so far were the settlers of Pennsylvania from being overrun by the savage tribes, among whom they erected their peaceful dwellings, that the growth of the province in population and wealth was unusually rapid. The name of its founder has been transmitted with veneration, from age to age, among the aborigines of the country; his treaties with them, supported neither by oaths nor arms, were never infringed; and it is believed, that no English blood was ever shed by an Indian tomahawk, on the land which he purchased of them. Here was a practical demonstration of the doctrine, that a peaceable demeanour, and the strict observance of justice, are capable of preserving friendship and peace, with a people unacquainted with the benign doctrines of Christianity — whose usual avocation was the chase, one more nearly allied than any other to war, and among whom the retaliation of injuries was inculcated as a religious duty. If peace could be thus preserved, in the midst of such nations, surely we ought not to judge so meanly of the religion we profess, us to deny the possibility of maintaining it when surrounded by people professing a religion which breathes glory to God in the highest, peace on earth, and good will to men.

If, however, the military policy should still be preferred, and an equivalent for personal service be insisted on, it may not be impertinent to enquire, whether those who abstain, on religious grounds, from participating in hostile measures or preparation, do not furnish an ample equivalent. The diffusion of their principles, and the influence of their example, must, to a greater or less extent, counteract the spirit of war, and incline the community to the preservation of peace. Hence, they act as a preventive of war; and it is certainly more eligible to prevent an evil, than to cure it. A community among whom the pacific principle is habitually predominant, collects a moral atmosphere around it, in which war can hardly originate. Whatever security may be expected from military measures, it is impossible to deny that war is in itself an evil. It would therefore appear to be a necessary part of a just and liberal policy, to encourage every effort to prevent its occurrence. And we cannot rationally deny, that the diffusion of opinions, such as Friends have always held, must operate in favour of peace.

Fifthly,— We find in some of the state constitutions of the Union, that provision is made for exempting from military service such persons as are conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms. A number of them are silent on the subject, and consequently impose no obligation on the legislatures to enact laws which may operate oppressively on the consciences of the citizens.

The constitution of Maine provides, that “persons of the denomination of Quakers,” and some other descriptions, “may be exempted from military duty.”

The constitution of Vermont provides, that “the inhabitants of this state shall be trained and armed for its defence, under such regulations, restrictions and exceptions, as congress, agreeably to the constitution of the United States, and the legislature of this state, shall direct.”

The constitution of Tennessee directs, “the legislature shall pass laws exempting citizens belonging to any sect or denomination of religion, the tenets of which are known to be opposed to the bearing of arms, from attending private and general musters.”

The constitution of Mississippi directs the legislature to provide by law, for organizing and disciplining the militia, in such manner as they shall deem expedient, not incompatible with the laws and constitution of the United States in relation thereto.

The constitutions of Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and Missouri, contain no article requiring the enrolment of the militia, or imposing a penalty for the non-performance of military service.

The constitutions of New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Louisiana, Alabama, Indiana, and Illinois, profess to exempt those citizens who are conscientiously opposed to bearing arms, from being compelled thereto; but the exemption is rendered nugatory, by the provision that they shall pay an equivalent.

We are not aware of any inconvenience having been witnessed in those states, where military exactions are not made, from the conscientious citizens. But we have ample reason to believe, that in Pennsylvania, where large sums have been distrained from members of our Society, and sometimes in a very vexatious manner, under the character of equivalents for personal service, very little has ever reached the treasury of the state. The sums thus distrained, we apprehend, are mostly dissipated, and lost in the hands of those who are intrusted with their collection.

We deem it needless to insist on the utter uselessness of the military service on account of which these exactions are professedly made; for we apprehend there is very little difference of opinion, among the reflecting class of citizens, respecting the nature and effect of militia trainings. It is generally agreed that, to those who attend them, they are efficient schools of vice; but totally powerless in relation to their ostensible object. In regard to those who are conscientiously restrained from bearing arms, it certainly is not expected that they shall be armed and disciplined for the defence of the state. The only object of demanding an equivalent, must therefore be to replenish the treasury. But the hope of attaining this object, besides the injustice of deriving a revenue from the conscientious scruples of the citizens, appears from experience to be wholly illusory. Must, then, the peaceable citizens continue, under the authority of the constitution, to be subjected to fines and imprisonment, in support of a system which is confessedly useless in relation to its ostensible object, and does not enjoy even the negative credit of doing no harm?

Lastly,— We cannot but desire, that the convention may embrace the present opportunity, of placing the state of Pennsylvania, which has heretofore led the way in several important improvements, on ground equally elevated with any of her sister republics, by introducing into the constitution such provisions as shall secure to all the citizens a full and unmolested enjoyment of their civil and religious rights; and that they may thus bear to the world a noble testimony, that they regard the privilege of serving our Creator, according to the dictates of our consciences, in life and conduct, as well as in faith and doctrine, as sacred and unalienable. We have no doubt that experience would prove the wisdom and safety of the measure, and in this, as in other cases, confirm the conclusion — that whatever is intrinsically just, is also politically expedient.

We are respectfully your friends,

Thos. Stewardson,
Enoch Lewis,
Israel W. Morris,
William Evans.

Philadelphia, .

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