In John Woolman’s journal is another episode that touches on war tax resistance, this one from . In it, Woolman gives a strong answer to the criticism of tax resistance that sees it as a violation of a social contract:

One evening a Friend came to our lodgings who was a justice of the peace, and in a friendly way introduced the subject of refusing to pay taxes to support wars and perceiving that I was one who scrupled the payment, said that he had wanted an opportunity with some in that circumstance, whereupon we had some conversation in a brotherly way on some texts of scripture relating thereto, in the conclusion of which he said that according to our way of proceeding it would follow that whenever the administration of government was ill, we must suffer distraint of goods rather than pay actively toward supporting it. To which I replied men put in public stations are intended for good purposes, some to make good laws, others to take care that those laws are not broken. Now if these men thus set apart do not answer the design of their institution, our freely contributing to support them in that capacity when we certainly know that they are wrong, is to strengthen them in a wrong way & tends to make them forget that it is so, but when from a clear understanding of the case we are really uneasy with the application of money, and in the spirit of meekness suffer distress to be made on our goods rather than pay actively, this joined with an upright uniform life may tend to put men a thinking about their own public conduct.

He said he would propose a medium. That is, where men in authority do not act agreeable to the mind of those who constituted them he thought the people should rather remonstrate than refuse a voluntary payment of moneys so demanded, and added, civil government is an agreement of free men, by which they oblige themselves to abide by certain laws as a standard, and to refuse to obey in that case is of the like nature as to refuse to do any particular act which we had covenanted to do. I replied, that in making covenants, it was agreeable to honesty and uprightness to take care that we do not foreclose ourselves from adhering strictly to true virtue in all occurrences relating thereto. But if I should unwarily promise to obey the orders of a certain man, or number of men, without any proviso, and he, or they command me to assist in doing some great wickedness, I may then see my error in making such promise and an active obedience in that case would be adding one evil to another: That though by such promise I should be liable to punishment for disobedience, yet to suffer rather than act to me appears most virtuous.

The whole of our conversation was in calmness & good will. And here it may be noted that in Pennsylvania, where there are many friends under that scruple, a petition was presented to the Assembly by a large number of friends, asking that no law might be passed to enjoin the payment of money for such uses, which they as a peaceable people could not pay for conscience sake.


Another Woolman piece that has been influential to war tax resisters, particularly the low income / simple living variety, is a chapter from his “A Plea for the Poor.” It doesn’t touch on tax resistance directly, but culminates in this exhortation: “Oh! that we who declare against wars, and Acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the Light, and therein examine our Foundation & motives in holding great Estates: May we look upon our Treasures, and the furniture of our Houses, and the Garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions, or not.”

The way of Carrying on Wars, common in the world, is so far distinguishable from the purity of Christ’s Religion, that many scruple to join in them. Those who are so redeemed from the Love of the World, as to possess nothing in a Selfish Spirit, their “Life is hid with Christ in God,” and these he preserves in resignedness, even in times of Commotion.

As they possess nothing but what pertains to His family, anxious thoughts about wealth or dominion hath little or nothing in them to work upon, and they learn contentment in being disposed of according to His Will, who being Omnipotent, and always mindful of his Children, causes all things to work for their good. But where that spirit works which loves Riches; works & in its working gathers wealth, and cleaves to customs which have their Root in self pleasing. This Spirit thus separating from Universal Love, seeks help from that power which stands in the Separation, and whatever name it has, it still desires to defend the Treasures thus gotten. This is like a Chain, where the end of one link encloses the end of another. The rising up of a desire to obtain wealth is the beginning. This desire being cherished moves to action, and riches thus gotten pleace self and while self hath a life in them it desires to have them defended.

Wealth is attended with Power, by which Bargains and proceedings contrary to Universal Righteousness are Supported, and here Oppression, carried on with worldly policy & order, clothes itself with the name of Justice, and becomes like a seed of Discord in the soil: and as this spirit which wanders from the pure Habitation prevails, so the seed of War Swells & Sprouts and grows & becomes Strong, till much fruit are ripened. Thus comes the Harvest spoken of by the prophet, which “is a Heap, in the Day of Grief & of desperate Sorrow.”

Oh! that we who declare against wars, and Acknowledge our trust to be in God only, may walk in the Light, and therein examine our Foundation & motives in holding great Estates: May we look upon our Treasures, and the furniture of our Houses, and the Garments in which we array ourselves, and try whether the seeds of war have any nourishment in these our possessions, or not. Holding Treasures in the Self pleasing Spirit is a Strong plant, the fruit whereof ripens fast.

A day of outward Distress is coming, and Divine Love calls to prepare for it. Hearken then, O ye Children who have known the Light, and come forth! Leave every thing which our Lord Jesus Christ does not own. Think not his pattern too plain or too coarse for you. Think not a Small portion in this life too little: but let us live in His Spirit, & walk as he walked, and he will preserve us in the greatest Troubles.

browse«»
Find Out More!

For more information on the topic or topics below (organized as “topic → subtopic → sub-subtopic”), click on any of the ♦ symbols to see other pages on this site that cover the topic. Or browse the site’s topic index at the “Outline” page.