Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 25 January 1838

Thomas S. Bell put forward an amendment that would have changed a section of the proposed Constitution in this way:

This way it would be up to the legislature’s discretion whether militia exemption fines would be mandatory for conscientious objectors. Bell defended his proposal:

The amendment which I propose gives to the legislature a discretionary power on the subject of requiring, from those who entertain conscientious scruples, the payment of an equivalent for their personal service. As the constitution stands at present, injustice is inflicted upon this class of citizens, inasmuch as they are excused from bearing arms, but must, must pay an equivalent for personal service; thus leaving no discretion to the legislature to relieve them from what they consider an oppressive measure.

The simple question now is for us to decide, is, whether we prefer to leave the constitution as it is — compelling them to pay an equivalent in time of peace; or whether we will leave the discretionary power with the legislature, if they deem it wise to exercise that power, to exonerate them in a time of profound peace not only from the necessity of bearing arms but also of paying an equivalent which they regard as oppressive.

John Cummin wasn’t about to let that slide by, and gave a characteristically long-winded rebuttal. Here are some excerpts:

With respect… to the claims of the petitioners to be excused from military duty, and from fine likewise for non-compliance with the law of the land: He (Mr. C.) had fully and deliberately examined them and came to the conclusion that they had neither right nor justice to sustain them. He should like to know how it happened that these Quakers could, as they had already done, send representatives of their own creed and religious notions to this convention, from the city of Philadelphia, and the counties of Bucks, Delaware, Lancaster, and Chester, and at the same time refuse to render their assistance to their country when assailed by a foreign foe. Notwithstanding that these men are privileged to fill the highest offices in the gift of the people, yet would they refuse to serve in the tented field, and beg to be excused from contributing towards carrying on the expenses of a war if one should take place! Yes! they would enjoy all the rights, privileges, and benefits of their country, but desire to be excused from the patriotic service and duty of defending it, or of contributing towards its defence and safety!

But, sir, these memorialists come here and tell us that the Prince of Peace is opposed to all war. I will ask, where do they derive their authority for such a statement? Where can they point to any assertion which will justify such a conclusion? When he sojourned among men upon earth, where do we ever find that he said a word against the soldier? Where do we find that he said a word against the men who fought the battles of his country? Not a word of such a character is to be found. On the contrary, he did much for the soldier.

But, Mr. President, this is not all. These memorialists say that the Savior came into the world to give peace upon earth. And what is the account which he gave of his own mission? He says that he came to give the sword and not peace. And there has been more blood shed since that day on the score of religion and for the sake of religious creeds and tenets, than there ever was for kingdoms, and power, and property. According to the prophecy then made, I say, there has been more blood shed for the sake of religion than for the claims of monarchs. Should any portion of the people of this or any other country ask for such privileges as are here laid claim to, without at least bringing forward some good satisfactory reason why they should be granted to them? I think not. To my mind it is absurd to ask such things of men elected, as we have been, to form a constitution for the government of the whole people of Pennsylvania, and not of a part of them.

I’ve heard the argument before that “there has been more blood shed… on the score of religion and for the sake of religious creeds and tenets, than there ever was for kingdoms, and power, and property” — but usually from people arguing that this is to the discredit of religion, rather than to the credit of war.

The gentleman from Chester, (Mr. Bell) strives to steal a march upon us, as he thinks this matter is about to go off so smoothly. But, as he is a legal character, I will beg leave to turn his attention to a few remarks which I am now about to make.

Here, then, we have a set of men praying to be exempted, not only from the performance of military duty, but also from the payment of any equivalent for their personal service. This is the claim which is here set up. Now, I will take liberty to ask the gentlemen at the bar — the lawyers of this body — and especially the gentleman from Chester, who has manifested such zeal in behalf of these memorialists — to suppose for a moment that they had a claim for a debt against any one of these memorialists. Would they suffer him to come as a witness in his own behalf, and himself to recover the money? Would they suffer him to sit in a jury box, and to give a verdict in his own favor? Moreover, would they suffer him to be the judge of his own case? Well, you say that this is not a debt — that the money raised in lieu of personal service in the militia is not a debt. I deny it. I take the directly contrary ground, and I say that it is as solemn a debt as ever could be due, and that it ought to be paid the first in the land.

They have acknowledged themselves to be rebels, not only in this country but in England. If they are men, such a people as those of whom our Savior spoke, who when you smite them on the one cheek would turn to you the other, we might think there was something more substantial, something more reasonable in the claim which they here set up. No, sir — nothing of the kind. In refusing to pay these taxes, they refuse to pay the honest tribute and custom that are due, and which they in common with their fellow-men are bound to pay. They direct you to do honor to them and their principles. They walk through these halls with their hats on. These are the men who undertake to direct you how you are to act and what sort of a constitution you are to form for the government of the people of this great commonwealth. I do not speak for myself; I have no personal end to obtain and no personal feeling to gratify. I speak in behalf of the mass of the people of this commonwealth. I speak for a principle which should regulate the conduct and animate the heart of every freeman — and by which every man in the land should be placed on an equality. Will it not be admitted even by the gentleman from Chester himself that we should not accept of such testimony as is offered here? Will it not be admitted that no debtor should be suffered to go into a jury box, or to be a judge upon the bench, so that he may be enabled to give judgment in his own favor? I will thank the gentlemen to give their views on this subject. I invite them to do so. I invite the gentleman from Chester to give his views of the case I have presented, because I have no desire to say all on one side of the question and close my ears to what may be said on the other.

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