Wendy McElroy and Anthony Benezet on Frugality

Wendy McElroy shares her frustration about friends and family members who think her deliberately frugal lifestyle is an affliction rather than a blessing:

They value money and prestige above happiness — indeed, above all else. They judge a person as successful or a failure based on bank accounts, cars, bling… whatever costs a bundle to have means you are a success; if you don’t have it, you’re a failure. I honestly don’t think it occurs to them that someone would deliberately reject what they consider to be success.

A family member called specifically to tell us an old friend was now a millionaire and urge us to “get in touch with him!” I don’t know what he expected would happen… perhaps he thinks being rich is a communicable condition or we could hit the friend up for a loan and, so, finally replace the 16-year-old car that I love. I don’t know. But the message of the phone call was clear. People in our family think we are failures because we are not as wealthy as we should be… however wealthy that is. It doesn’t occur to them that wealth is a trade-off and, beyond a certain point, it becomes a terrible deal for us. After making their disappointment clear, such family members always say “just as long as you’re happy”… but they don’t mean it. They would vastly prefer us to be rich and miserable. For one thing, we could then leave mattresses full of money to nieces and nephews… thus living a miserable but successful life for the sake of others’ happiness.

I’ve been reading some of the writings of Anthony Benezet over the last few days and I came across many passages that are harmonious with what Wendy McElroy wrote. Benezet was a proponent of voluntary simplicity in the Quaker style — plain dress, avoidance of unnecessary ornament, disdain of riches, and an eagerness to do good to others instead of to do well for himself.

But whereas McElroy’s motives are for true satisfaction in this life, over the false and frequently-advertised promise of satisfaction mediated by wealth and bling, Benezet took for granted that riches could provide satisfaction in this world but denied that this world was where the action was — his sights were set on heaven and he didn’t want anything earthly (and therefore ultimately worthless) getting in the way.

Still, the similarities are striking. I think it’s satisfaction in this life, and not merely anticipation of reward in the next, that Benezet is thinking of when, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, he notes that “I have solicited & obtained the office of teacher of the Black children & others of that people, an employment which tho’ not attended with so great pecuniary advantages as others might be, yet affords me much satisfaction, I know no station of life I should prefer before it.”


On , representatives from the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting addressed a “memorial” to the Pennsylvania General Assembly pleading for some relief from the property seizures that Quakers were being victimized by as a result of their refusal to pay war taxes.

Some observations offered to the serious consideration of those in legislative authority, by a number of the inhabitants of Lancaster County and the western part of Chester County, on behalf of themselves and many other peaceable sufferers, who are restrained, by a principle of tender conscience, from joining or contributing towards the support of warlike measures, lest they should offend him who is the Supreme Lord of conscience and dread of nations.

Also, a representation, offered from a sense of duty, concerning the cruel havoc and spoil of property of many industrious people under some late laws.

The people called Quakers, ever since they became a religious society, under every power, in every nation, island, and province, where they have lived, have, as a body, been men of peace. Nor can they act inconsistent with this character while they live up to their principles, founded on the doctrine and precepts of the Prince of Peace, our Lord and Saviour, and his apostles and followers. These teach us not to resist evil, to do violence to no man, to love our enemies, to follow peace with all men, to seek the good of all, and to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness. These peaceable fruits are produced by taking heed to the manifestations of the Spirit or Grace of God, which has appeared to all men, teaching and assisting those who believe in and observe it, to live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; to deny pride, envy, strife, with all ungodliness and the world’s lusts, from whence contention about worldly matters, wars, and fightings proceed. This doctrine we believe ought to have great weight with all Christians, being expressly taught and clearly held forth in the New Testament, as absolutely needful to be observed, which we may find was also taught and maintained by Christians of the first three hundred years after Christ.

Therefore, why should Christian rulers of this age seek to suppress it, by laying grievous burdens on those who apprehend they are called, and in duty to the Almighty believe themselves religiously bound to maintain it? Or why should any think it strange if this peaceable doctrine should spread more, and even rise higher in these latter days than for many ages past, seeing many prophecies in Scripture give us encouragement and sufficient grounds to believe that it will rise and spread.

And although individuals may have fallen short, yet we as a religious body have endeavored to maintain this testimony, through all the changes in power which have happened since we were a people. Neither have the difficulties we have been subjected to in these latter days of contest lessened our constancy herein, nor our zeal for the advancement of this peaceable doctrine and testimony, however we may be misrepresented by some as being obstinate, or having party views to promote.

Now we think it necessary to inform you, that being lately met together (near fifty persons) to consider of the circumstances of our suffering brethren, we were sensibly affected with the accounts of increasing sufferings, which have been remarkably felt, especially in these parts, for our adherence to the peaceable principles before mentioned, whereby many respectable families are, and others likely to be, much deprived of the means of procuring the necessaries of life; by having their grain, horses, cattle, sheep, household goods, etc., in an extraordinary manner wrested from them, for demands of fines and taxes imposed by late laws, which, for the reasons aforesaid, they are conscientiously restrained from complying with. And feeling near sympathy for all sufferers on these accounts, and much good-will towards those who are or have been the instruments thereof, we are concerned to lay before you, who are in legislative authority, a representation of some striking circumstances, which we apprehend demands your serious attention.

Visits having been paid by some of us in a friendly manner, to diverse officers concerned in the executive part, who we find shelter themselves under the laws now in force; and at the same time some of them express a sense of the injustice and unequal burdens thereby imposed. And as it is righteousness alone that exalts a nation, oppression on those who are under religious restraints being displeasing to the Lord, and thereby of dangerous consequence to the well-being of any country, ought much to be feared by those in authority, lest they draw down his displeasure. We doubt not, but if you seriously weigh the following propositions and representation of matters of fact herewith presented, and bring things to trial, by that unerring standard whereunto, sooner or later, we shall all be brought, you may be favored to see and judge aright.

First — Whether laws imposing fines on those who, in obedience to the doctrine of Christ, are restrained from mustering to learn warlike exercise, or from marching out in a warlike manner, and giving liberty to hard-hearted men, officers and others, whereby the property of honest, industrious persons, at a rate double, treble, or sometimes manifold more in value than the sums demanded, are, without mercy, torn away from the proper owners, can be safely approbated and continued by a legislative body composed of members professing faith in Jesus Christ, who blessed the peacemakers, the meek, and the merciful, and at whose tribunal righteousness only will meet with approbation?

Second — Whether laws imposing heavy taxes, which are often very unequally laid, and doubled, or in a higher proportion, on those who are religiously restrained from taking a test, or giving in returns of their estates upon affirmation, and who cannot join with or contribute towards the support of war, should continue, or can be countenanced by Christian legislators, where they pay a proper regard to equity in the sight of the Almighty, who will plead the cause of the oppressed, and render to all men, in every station, a reward according to their works?

Third — Whether guilt is not likely to be increased on that country where laws are enforced requiring the unusual imposition of oaths, rendering such solemnities cheap and trifling, whereby weak and earthly-minded persons may be brought under temptation to swear falsely, or to make false returns to save themselves from high taxation; and their innocent neighbors, who cannot swear at all, because Christ has forbidden it, nor take an affirmation to countenance taxation for warlike purposes, are brought under the penalties of unjust and exaggerated levies, whereby their property is rent from them, often as it were by wholesale: allowing room for collectors to become purchasers themselves of their neighbor’s goods greatly under value, whilst men who would choose to act in moderation, care not to take upon them such offices under those laws?

Other things respecting the laws above hinted at, and their effects, might be mentioned, concerning the insolent conduct of collectors and others under them; some of whom have rifled houses, broken doors, etc., while sufficient property was to be had without such measures. Likewise the bringing in pistols, and other warlike weapons, in an imperious, hostile manner among peaceable, tender women and innocent children, while their husbands and fathers were absent. And this, with much other unchristian conduct and severity, all done under color of executing the laws, which we incline not to enlarge upon, committing our cause to the Lord, the righteous Judge; humbly believing that where his fear prevails, equity will take place, unrighteous laws and unequal burdens cease, and the attention of those in authority be principally given to things which are for the promotion of peace on earth and the proper execution of justice, for the punishment of evil-doers, and the praise of them that do well.

A specimen of the sufferings of Friends in parts of Chester and Lancaster Counties in the cases following named: not chosen as the most oppressive, but briefly to represent the general devastation of property for non-compliance with requisitions appertaining to war, .

From Samuel Cope, three horse-creatures, a yoke of oxen, seven other cattle, fifteen sheep, nine swine, seventy-five bushels of wheat, twenty of corn, ten yards of fine linen, a ton of hay, etc., £126 8 6
From Abiah Taylor, six horse-creatures, nine cattle, sixteen sheep, two swine, a feather-bed, two casks of flour, one hundred and twenty-five bushels wheat, and seventy of corn, rye, and buckwheat, 234 1 6
From John Hoopes, Jr., four horse-creatures, a yoke of oxen, seventeen other cattle, thirty sheep, six swine, a watch, five sides of leather, etc., 233 15 0
From Moses Coates, two horse-creatures, nine cattle, four sheep, cash £5, and four and a half cwt. of iron, 98 11 0
From Benjamin Hutton, a horse, nine cattle, thirty and a half bushels corn, and bed clothing, 66 16 9
From William Dixon, four horse-creatures, and six bushels of wheat, 101 19 0
From Thomas Millhouse, a large yoke of oxen, ten other cattle, a mare, four sheep, eighteen bushels oats, wearing apparel, etc., 96 18 0
From John Pusey, three horse-creatures, fourteen cattle, and bed clothing, 100 2 6
From Moses Brinton, twenty-one cattle, fifty-two bushels wheat, ten of rye, and seven and a half tons of hay, 122 9 0
From Andrew Moore, one horse, twelve cattle, a wagon, and other farming utensils, and household furniture 76 8 6
From John Webster, Jr., two cows, thirteen sheep, a hog, a case of drawers, a hearse, a cart, etc. (He being a tradesman in low circumstances, holding no land.) 26 15 0
From Isiah Brown, one cow, six bushels of corn, one hundred and twenty pounds of bacon, a stack of hay, smith’s bellows, etc. (He holding about forty acres of land, and in low circumstances.) 21 6 0
From John Ferree, four horse-creatures, thirteen cattle, seven and a half bushels of wheat, twenty of clean rye, one stack of do., forty bushels of corn, two stacks of oats, and one of hay, 187 7 0

Within one of our Monthly Meetings alone has been taken, , exclusive of the late large tax and diverse preceding demands, not yet taken account of by us, from about one hundred and twenty families, property to the amount of £6,108 19s. 11d., rated at such prices as the several articles would have generally sold for eight or ten years ago, without having regard to the fluctuating prices of later years. For instance, wheat not exceeding 6s. 6d. per bushel, in our valuation, and other things in proportion.

Diverse of those recited are farmers having families of small children, who live on poorish land, and, in prosperous times, just lived reputably above want; but are, with many others, so reduced by the conduct of collectors, under the sanction of law, as to have no cow left, and some but one horse, some no sheep, and greatly stripped of other utensils, clothing, etc.

And many of us, before we were acquainted with such usage, had purchased plantations to live on, for which we run considerably in debt, expecting, through the blessing of Providence on our industry, to have paid for them in a few years; which is now rendered impracticable, by having the means taken from us, even to a considerably greater amount than our plantations would have rented for. Thus are an industrious and very considerable part of the community made a spoil of, and many likely to suffer for the necessaries of life, if a stop is not put to such proceedings; which, in the end, certainly will greatly affect the public, as well as themselves; for it is not the acquisition of large tracts of uncultivated land, but the produce of the industrious, raised by cultivation, which supports the community at large.

Signed, on behalf and by appointment of the committee aforesaid, , by

Joshua Brown, Benjamin Mason, William Swayne, Joshua Pusey, Richard Barnard, Isaac Coates, Amos Davis, Samuel Cope, William Lamborn

This plea didn’t have much effect. One report from late read:

From Friends of Sadsbury Monthly Meeting, for refusing to pay fines and taxes, chiefly for war purposes, was taken… horses, cattle, sheep, grain, flour, hay, farming utensils, household furniture, wearing apparel, provisions, etc., amounting to £1,185 18s 7d.

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.