Quakers Debate War Tax Resistance During American Civil War

In , a vigorous debate about war tax resistance hit the pages of the Friends’ Intelligencer. You can find most of this in Volume ⅩⅩ at Google Books… with the exception of the opening article in the debate. The two pages that contain that article are tantalizingly missing from the on-line volume. I had to delve into the microfilm in the basement of the Berkeley university library this morning to find it.

First, some context: on , two years into the American Civil War, U.S. President Lincoln signed the Enrollment Act, which organized the first federal military draft in U.S. history.

The Friends’ Intelligencer debate is prompted by this Act, which allowed drafted men to either hire a substitute or to buy themselves out of the draft for $300. The long-standing Friends “discipline” instructed Quakers never to pay such a commutation tax, but, of course, neither could they serve in the military or hire a substitute.

Nathaniel Richardson, who was about 23-years-old at the time, opened the debate (he’s referred to as “N.R.” — “our friend from Byberry”). The Intelligencer knew they were stirring up a hornets’ nest, and so prefaced Richardson’s piece with an introductory paragraph reading “The subject here brought into view… may be considered as a disputed point, and in giving this essay a place, we of course open our pages to other friends who may feel it right to offer their sentiments.”

I’ll reproduce the whole of Richardson’s argument below (since you can’t find it anywhere else on-line), but I’ll try to briefly summarize it here first:

I acknowledge that there is a Quaker testimony against paying war taxes and commutation money, but this tradition that we have been handed down from our ancestors is unsuited to the present crisis where we are surrounded by difficulties unknown in former times. Past generations could uphold the testimony against paying war taxes and commutation money without encountering much serious difficulty aside from distraint of property or occasional imprisonment. Now, though, Quakers who refuse to pay or to fight risk being shot as deserters. So Quakers ought to closely examine their discipline and make sure it is strictly necessary to uphold their principles.

I think we can abandon this practice without violating our principles. When the government demands money from us, they are asking for something — property — that is a creation of government. It is the government’s to bestow or to demand just as surely as the coin with Cæsar’s image on it belonged to Cæsar. If the government were to ask us to act in violation of our consciences, it would be overstepping its bounds, but not if it merely asks for the return of the property that it superintends.

Some Quakers argue that to pay money in lieu of military service would be a tacit agreement that the government has a right to compel such service (and that such an agreement is itself a violation of our peace testimony). But this isn’t good reasoning, since, for instance, when somebody settles a lawsuit out of court by paying some portion of the suit’s demand just in order to avoid the expense going to court, nobody insists that this necessarily means that the lawsuit was valid. Similarly there’s no contradiction between paying the $300 in order to avoid military service and believing that you shouldn’t have to pay to avoid military service.

In the following issue, W.G.” wrote in to chide the Intelligencer for calling this “a disputed point,” since it was a firmly-settled part of the Quaker discipline that Quakers could not “either openly or by connivance pay any fine, penalty, or tax in lieu of personal service for carrying on war.” The render-unto-Caesar episode, thinks W.G., doesn’t fit the case, since it did not involve a tax in lieu of personal service or one expressly for funding war.

, H.S.K.” wrote in to dispute Richardson’s characterization of property as being solely an arbitrary creation of government and therefore the government’s to dispose of as it wills. H.S.K. argues that since it is easy to come up with examples in which the government enforces property rights justly or unjustly, there must be a law of justice regarding property ownership that precedes and supersedes the arbitrary decisions of government. Property may be defended (or threatened) by government, but it is not invented by government. Because of this, Richardson must be wrong when he says that government requests for money are not questionable on grounds of justice. My money, says H.S.K., “is an instrument of power just as certainly as is my right arm,” and I’m responsible for how I use that instrument.

H.S.K. also disputes Richardson’s lawsuit-settling analogy, saying that settling a lawsuit to avoid the expense of a court battle is a qualitatively different decision than paying a commutation tax to purchase a substitute to fight a war in your place, because avoiding expenses is a morally neutral thing while purchasing a substitute is not. “What would we think of the moral rectitude of that man who would pay for the support of crime, merely to avoid litigation?”

Meanwhile, the draft proved to be very unpopular. In mid-July, the New York City draft riots broke out. One of the frequent complaints about the draft was that the $300 commutation fee allowed rich people to buy themselves out of the war, leaving the poor to fight their battle for them.

Gideon Frost continued the debate in the first issue of the Intelligencer. He starts by saying that the published discipline of the Society of Friends is explicit and unambiguous about not permitting Friends to pay military exemption taxes. It’s one thing to say that maybe Quakers ought to reconsider that part of their discipline, but it is improper, says Frost, to do as Richardson did and encourage Quakers to disregard it. Frost thinks it is extremely unlikely that the U.S. government would actually shoot a Quaker for desertion because he refused to enlist, hire a substitute, or pay a commutation tax, so Richardson’s panic is unwarranted. Frost also wonders if Richardson suggests Quakers who can afford to do so go ahead and pay the $300, what does he suggest for Quakers who cannot afford it?

Frost also disputes Richardson’s reading of the render-unto-Caesar episode. He denies that Jesus’s reply suggested that all money belongs to Caesar, or that it has anything to do with a tax in lieu of government service or a tax to pay for war (after all, he suggests, the reign of the Caesar in question was “rather a pacific one”), or that what Jesus had to say about Caesar specifically can necessarily be extrapolated into a teaching about government in general.

C.O.N.” then writes in, saying, in part, that the property the government seizes from tax resisters by distraint and then sells is just as useful to it in carrying out its war policy as cash money would be, so the practical effect is the same, with the only difference being in the resister’s conscience. He recalls an episode from his youth when a tax collector came to seize property for such a military tax and, “out of what he professed to be a humane charitable feeling” confiscated money from an unlocked cash drawer instead, so as to cause “the least trouble and distress.”

W.G.” wrote in again and put the argument this way: Quakers happily render unto Caesar what Caesar is due, but they have determined that Caesar is never due their military service. Therefore, Caesar cannot be due the monetary equivalent of military service either.

A draftee wrote in next, saying that in spite of his sympathy for the Union cause, he cannot join in the war or pay the commutation money “or even the hundredth part of it” for this “would be bartering my conscience, a gift from heaven… it would be purchasing an ‘indulgence’ for the right of enjoying a divine principle. It would be giving the means to others to purchase flesh and blood to take my place. No! the ‘filthy lucre’ proposition on the score of principle is hypocrisy of the worst kind.”

R.H.” put it this way: “If Friends cannot themselves fight, it is wholly inconsistent for them to pay a fine or tax in lieu of it, as that would be an acknowledgment that the demand is just, and that liberty of conscience is not our due… Shall we pay our money, to save ourselves, our sons, or our friends, from going to the battle-field to slay, or to be slain, and lay down our testimony against this awful evil, war?”

Nathaniel Richardson then responded to his critics. In his view, when someone asks us for money, he says, the primary moral consideration is always, do you owe the money or not. If you do owe it, you must pay it, and there is no reason to investigate further and try to decide whether the recipient will spend the money wisely or not before you hand it over. So when the government asks us to pay a tax, all we should do is ask whether the law requires this tax from us, and if it does, we should pay it without inquiring further. By doing this we in no way violate the laws of Christianity because “we make no contract, exercise no influence, and are in no respect accountable: we sacrifice no right of conscience.”

That added fresh fuel to the fire. Y.T.” replied next, warning that “to allow our money to be made use of to procure substitutes — for that is its meaning — would permit the taunt to be hurled at us that we were too cowardly to fight ourselves, but allowed others to be hired to fight in our places.”

A.H.L.” noted that the Conscription Act explicitly says that the $300 commutation money is meant “for the procuration of [a] substitute,” and so to pay the money is just an indirect way of hiring a substitute to fight in your place, which everybody agrees is against Quaker principles. He also disputes Richardson’s argument that the government can create an unquestionable monetary obligation by fiat. Furthermore, he says there’s something rotten about trying to purchase a conscientious stand — “such a conscience as can be purchased with money and for an advertised price is not worth having.”

He then alludes to a “late decision” that if a conscientious objector refused to fight, hire a substitute, or pay a commutation fine, the amount of the fine would “be made a lien against the Society of which he may be a member.” That, he says, puts Quakers in quite a spot, and he thinks that either they will stick by their principles, or, by abandoning them to save their meetings they will end up killing “the Society itself, as a true religious body.”

I later found that I’d overlooked some other exchanges in this debate. See The Picket Line for 26 December 2011 for some additions.

Friends and Government Requisitions

by Nathaniel Richardson

It is wise for us, even in times of ease and tranquility, often to recur to first principles, but how very important this reference becomes, when the stability of our institutions is jeopardised by surrounding commotions! Such, unhappily, is now the condition of the Society of Friends in relation to some of their long-cherished practices. The mutations in the elements of human society, which we now behold, threaten the subversion of some of the venerated formula and usages of our predecessors, and which we of this generation have adopted. But we now find ourselves surrounded by difficulties unknown in former times as regards the manner — the outward formula — by which we have been accustomed to support one of our vital testimonies, and it becomes increasingly important for us carefully to consider our position; and in doing so, to discriminate correctly between the substantial principle and the particular method by means of which we have been accustomed to maintain it before the world.

That manners, usages and forms, may and do change without infringing on the immutable principle with which they are connected, may be seen in many particulars, in which the faithful of different generations vary from each other.

The Society of Friends believe that they have a testimony to bear to the peaceful nature of the Christian religion, — to its being essentially a religion of love — that it teaches and enables its followers to love their enemies, to do good to those that hate them, and to pray for those who despitefully entreat them. They, therefore, feel bound to abstain from bearing arms and from enlisting in any military service, which it is manifest they cannot do, whilst they love and desire to do good to all.

But in addition to thus abstaining from military service they have thought it right as a further means of upholding their testimony, to refuse to pay money in lieu of such service. This course they have generally pursued through their whole history, without encountering much serious difficulty; where they have refused to pay money, they have suffered the loss of property of some other kind, perhaps of greater value, or they have suffered imprisonment for a short period in county jails; but no means have been taken to force them into the ranks.

We are now placed under very different circumstances; instead of the mild State legislation, which was satisfied with taking our goods and chattels where money was refused, we now have bearing upon us the more stringent law of the general government, which, though it is willing to take $300, in money, in lieu of personal service, yet where that is not paid, seizes upon the person as a deserter, and conveys him to some military rendezvous, where he will be subjected to the summary and severe discipline usual in military institutions.

In this momentous crisis in our history it becomes us as a Society, and individually, to re-examine the stand we have taken, — to ascertain for ourselves in the light of Truth and an enlightened reason, whether the ground we occupy is all tenable, and should the inquiry result in an affirmative answer, let us endeavor through Divine assistance to maintain it with unflinching firmness; but if, on the other hand, we should discover that any part of our position has been assumed and is held without due authority, let us agree to surrender it with Christian dignity.

The law presents to us the alternative (where drafted) of rendering personal military service, or paying to the government $300, and as we cannot render such service, it remains for us to determine whether we can pay the alternative, the $300. That is the important question; and in order to its solution, let it be borne in mind, that the thing demanded, and for the non-payment of which we are to suffer, is money; that the party demanding this money is the government. Now, it must be conceded that if the government has, in the nature of things, a right to this money, we, the holders of it have no right to refuse its demand. The relations which subsist between government and property may be deduced from a remarkable passage in the history of Jesus, as related in the ⅹⅻ. of Matthew.

“Is it lawful,” (said the Pharisees to that great authority,) “Is it lawful to give tribute to Cæsar? and he said, show me the tribute money, and they brought him a penny, and he saith unto them, render therefore unto Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

This reply is full of wisdom and instruction, which should not be confined to that particular occasion, (though even in that sense the Jews were amazed at it,) but it has a wide and enduring import. Cæsar, the head of the government, being put for the government itself, and for all governments — and the piece of money, that representative of property, being put for property, and for all property. For as the penny bore the image and superscription of Cæsar, so does property, all property, bear the impress of government. Examine this subject and turn it as we may, we cannot avoid the conclusion, that property is the creature of government, and we can have no idea of property without presupposing the existence of government, without which it is an unmeaning term.

The conclusion, therefore, seems inevitably to be, Render therefore unto government this thing which is proven to be his. Friends have always acted in conformity to this view to a large extent; they pay taxes, duties and excise, they buy stamps, receive and pay government notes and invest in government securities; they do these things not only in times of peace, when the expenditures of government are chiefly for civil purposes, but also in time of war, when the money goes for military purposes. Upon this point they make no distinction, and failing to make distinction here, they appear to admit the relation of government to property as above described, and yet they make a distinction when money is demanded in lieu of personal military service. Is there valid grounds for such a distinction?

The demands of the government are of two kinds, one of which affects the conscience, for its requisitions are in direct conflict with a Divine law. The government claims a right to our services in maiming and killing these very persons whom we understand the Divine law enjoins upon us to love, do good to and pray for. This then is a matter touching the conscience, which we are bound above all things else to keep void of offence towards God. He is the sovereign lord of conscience; — conscience, of right, bears his image and superscription, and is the very thing which we are to render unto Him, in contradistinction to that which we are to render to Cæsar.

And has conscience no connection with property? Yes, in many ways: In the mode of its acquisition, that we do no injustice nor be guilty of covetousness; that in possession we should not be proud, nor lose sight of our dependence; and in our expenditures that we should act rather as stewards of Divine Providence in the management of his bounty, than as the absolute owners of it.

And so whilst we justly deny to government the right to control the conscience, we concede to it a measure of the control of property which we call ours, though it is so in a sense which has many limitations.

There are some, however, who object to our paying taxes which go to defray the expenses of war, as inconsistent with our profession, but for this very practice we have the example of our Holy Pattern, of whom it is recorded that he wrought a miracle to enable Peter to pay tribute to a military government, as he said to Peter, “For me and thee.”

It is also argued that paying money in lieu of personal military service is an admission that such service is due; is not this a non sequitur? Do we reason thus in our ordinary business transactions? Demands which are held to be unjust are often paid to avoid litigation, &c., without any suspicion that our so doing is an admission of the justice of the claim. But should any fear they will be misconstrued, it would be easy for them to deny the inference.