Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 26 January 1838

, James M. Porter stood up for Bell’s proposal:

The proposition of the gentleman from Chester, (Mr. Bell) is not a proposition to exempt persons who have conscientious scruples against bearing arms from paying an equivalent for personal service; but it is a proposition to submit the subject to the legislature, in order that they may act upon it in such manner as they, in their wisdom, may think proper. This proposition involves two questions. First, can the legislature be trusted? And, secondly, is not this such a matter of detail as ought properly to belong to the legislature rather than to the fundamental law of the land?

My venerable friend from Juniata (Mr. Cummin), thinks that this matter is to be settled by the Scriptures of the Old Testament, and he believes that the proposition now before us involves the lawfulness or unlawfulness of all wars. For my own part, I cannot conceive with what propriety such topics can be brought into this discussion. They are altogether collateral, and might be an argument addressed to the legislature if the question were before that body for decision, but they can have no reference to the subject-matter now before this body. I believe that the question which we have to settle is simply whether it would be proper or prudent to vest in the legislature the power contemplated in the amendment of the gentleman from Chester. I may here be permitted to say that in relation to another class of our citizens, the legislature has had this power granted, or that at all events, the legislature has exercised the power upon the supposition that it had been granted. It is known to all of you that persons working upon the canals are exempt from the performance of military duty or from the payment of any equivalent. And why is this? Because it is supposed that the service in which they are engaged in behalf of the commonwealth is an equivalent for the performance of military duty.

Under the regulations adopted by the government of the United States in relation to the militia, we know that all persons engaged in the transportation of the mail — and in ferries upon mail routes; — and that all officers, executive, legislative, and judicial in the United States government are exempt, because it is supposed that the other duties which they perform to the government or to the community are equivalent to their performance. As to some persons, therefore, we do trust this matter to the legislature, and why, let me ask, may it not safely be committed to them so far as regards that class of our citizens who entertain conscientious scruples?

But in reference to this obligation to bear arms, I might ask whether, independent of their conscientious scruples, these persons have not at all events a plausible reason to assign, why they should be excused. I have spoken of other portions of our citizens being excused from the performance of military duty on the ground of a supposed equivalent to the commonwealth. The Society of Friends embraces the greater portion of that part of our citizens who entertain conscientious scruples against bearing arms; and though there are other sects in the state of Pennsylvania who accord with them in this view, still they are but few in point of numbers. As to the Society of Friends, one or two illustrations may not here be out of place.

We all know — all of us at least who have resided in a community where they are to be found — that it is one of the principles of the Society of Friends to maintain their own poor, and I ask my friend from Juniata (Mr. Cummin) to point to a single instance in this commonwealth, if he can do so, in which a member of that society has been maintained under the poor law of the commonwealth? The Society of Friends, we are also aware, educate their own children in their own schools; and yet, I will ask the gentleman from Juniata, do not the members of that society pay their portion of the taxes imposed for the support of a general system of education for the poor throughout the state? I speak of that which they are bound to render under the tax law of the state. And, independent of all this, might I not point to the proud monuments of charity with which this commonwealth is filled by their influence? What noble enterprise is there for the advancement of science, for the proud law of charity, as for the development of the resources of your state, where involuntary contributions have been asked, in which the Society of Friends have not at all times been found among the foremost of its supporters?

Joseph R. Chandler gave his approval as well:

[I]t is well known that persons have gone into the houses of a portion of our citizens, carrying off their property and insulting their families, under the pretext of fines due for their non-performance of military duty, which duty they regard as a violation of their rights of conscience.

The Society of Friends maintain all their own poor and they contribute to the maintenance of the poor of other classes. They exhibit, in their characters and lives, the examples of pure morality and virtue; they are the friends and patrons of science, and they ask at our hands only that they may be allowed to enjoy that blessing which they came here to enjoy, and for the enjoyment of which their fathers first settled this country; that blessing which we took from them, in asking them to adopt our manners and our customs instead of their own. Whenever we assemble to hear a lecture — to promote any charitable or scientific object — or to encourage the cause of morality and virtue, there at all times is this class of our citizens to be found among us. And shall we extend to them no consideration? What do they ask from us? They ask of us only a simple boon; they ask of us only that they may not be compelled to contribute to the demoralization of the community by doing that which, in the best performance of it, they believe to be contrary to their duty.

It has been said that they refuse to fight for the dearest rights of freemen; that they live in the enjoyment of all the good in land, and yet that they refuse to protect it; that they will give up their own land to rapine and to plunder, and ask us to defend it for them. Sir, I concur in the opinion that every citizen — be he a Quaker, a Catholic, a Menonist or to whatever other sect or denomination he may belong, is bound to defend his dearest rights. But the question presents itself, what are his dearest rights? Do they consist of his palace or his house? Do they consist of those treasures which take to themselves wings and fly away? Do they consist of those possessions which the “moth eats, and the rust corrupts, and where thieves break through and steal?” No, sir, in my opinion such is not the case. The history of this country at least, if of no other, would show a very different state of things. Who peopled Maryland? Who but the Catholics flying away from persecution, that they might enjoy their dearest rights? Who peopled Pennsylvania? who but the Quakers, flying away from persecution to enjoy their dearest rights? What induced the pilgrim fathers who landed on the ice-bound rock of Plymouth, to leave their homes for that inhospitable shore, but that they might enjoy the dearest rights of men and of freemen — liberty of conscience and freedom from persecution? If then the conscience of a man refuses to allow him to take up arms and to shed blood, why should we deny him the exercise of that right, and compel him either to take up arms or to pay an equivalent for personal service?

But Bell’s amendment was rejected, 52 to 65, and the original wording of the section — which, after all of this hot air, was essentially identical to that of the constitution of  — was approved, 92 to 21. But that wasn’t the end of the story. John Cummin was still smoldering about those darned Quakers.

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