Resisting U.S. Stamp Taxes that Paid for War

In , in order to finance the United States’ war effort in the American Civil War, Congress passed a tax law that included the first federal income tax and that gave birth to the Internal Revenue Service (or Bureau of Internal Revenue, as it was known at the time).

But the income tax was only one of the taxes specified by the law. Also to be taxed were several categories of (mostly legal and financial) documents, medicines, playing cards, matches, photographs, and certain other consumer goods. People paid the tax on these items by purchasing a tax stamp and affixing the stamp to the item to demonstrate that the tax had been paid — in much the same way that you see stamps affixed to cigarette packages today to indicate that the excise tax on tobacco has been paid.

After the war, in , most of the stamp taxes went away (except for stamps on bank checks), but a stamp tax returned in to help pay for the Spanish American War, and again during World War Ⅰ.

Seeing as how the stamp taxes were collected for the purpose of war funding, you would expect that there might have been some concern from Quaker quarters, though I haven’t seen much evidence of this.

In , the Friends’ Review published a piece by Joseph Potts in which he said, in part:

…although it is known that the Income and Excise taxes are essentially war taxes, and that even the National currency in daily use was issued mainly if not exclusively to pay the expenses of the army and navy and other military demands, yet the payment of these taxes and the purchase and use of the Government notes, appear to be almost universally regarded by Friends as unavoidable.

As Friends, in common with other citizens, were happily exempt before the rebellion from the trouble and expense of using revenue stamps, we are not aware that there is any special advice in our American Disciplines on the subject. That contained in the English Discipline may, however, be considered as now applicable in this country. It is as follows: “The writing in books, or on invoices, or other unstamped paper, or the accepting of terms intended to convey the substance of what should be written on receipt stamps, is illegal, an is an evasion unworthy of the character of a member of our Society. Where Friends observe, in any of their members, deviations in this respect from that uprightness which becomes us in every part of our conduct, we desire that they will extend tender private admonition on the subject, which will, we believe, be found the most effectual means of removing this occasion of concern.”

In other words: although these taxes are clearly war taxes, there is no easy way to straightforwardly avoid paying them, and any attempt to evade this tax sneakily would be unbecoming of a Quaker.

The next example I have is also very much in the form of a resigned surrender. It comes in the middle of an article in The Friend beseeching Friends to give aid to help the Doukhobors:

We sometimes look upon each red stamp that we spend on a bank check — a tax imposed by war — with the sad confession, “It is the price of blood.” For every two cents which the demon of War extorts, shall we not assign at least an equal tribute to the Prince of Peace? If by the professed Friends of Peace throughout our land the stamp tax were repeated to save the lives of these Christian standard-bearers, the amount would go far in tiding them over to a season of self-support.

The only example I’ve found so far where a Quaker wrote about resistance to the stamp war taxes came in a letter to the editor from “J.H.” in a edition of the Friends’ Intelligencer:

I am one of those (I suppose there are others), who have felt an extreme unwillingness to help maintain our wars by the use of the revenue stamps, which were legalized expressly for war uses. Our forefathers would have made an emphatic protest against it, if indeed they would not have refused entirely to use the stamps, and borne the consequences, whatever they might have been. Within a day or two, in a letter from a young Friend, I observed his feeling on the subject; he said that at least we could restrict the use of checks (for example) wherever possible, and diminish in this way our contributions to the war fund.