American Quaker War Tax Resistance After the American Revolution

In two previous Picket Line entries ( & ) I’ve included excerpts from Stephen B. Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery: A Study in Institutional History () concerning Quaker tax resistance in the years before the American Revolution, and during the Revolution. Today, an excerpt that covers the post-Revolutionary period:

The question of the testimony against war becomes unimportant in North Carolina after the Revolution. It does not appear that Quakers ever served in the American armies in that State, that they took the oath of allegiance, or that they suffered serious inconvenience from their refusal. On , a new militia act was passed, which exempted all Quakers from attendance on private or general musters. This clause was re-enacted in the new militia law passed in , and with the enactment of this law Quakers obtained all their demands in the matter of military affairs. But it is probable that Friends suffered more or less in North Carolina in the war of . They had renewed their testimony against military training in . In they repeated their warning and prepared a protest against the war tax, but it does not appear that they refused to pay it. The North Carolina law of remained substantially unchanged . Chapter twenty-eight of the laws of repealed the clause exempting Quakers and others from bearing arms because of religious scruples. It provided that such persons should be exempt on the annual payment of a fine of $2.50, which was to go to the literary fund. The Quakers expostulated against this law. They did not object to a tax for schools, but in this form it “is a groundless and an oppressive demand. It is a muster fine in disguise and violates the very principle which it seemed to respect.” Public opinion forced the repeal of this law in , and with this exception I have not found that Friends suffered in North Carolina from military laws from the Revolution to the Civil War.

…I have been able to find the name Quaker nowhere in the exhaustive index to Cooper’s Statutes at Large of South Carolina.

The Georgia military law of provided that Quakers should be exempted from service on producing a certificate from a Quaker meeting of their being bona fide Quakers and paying an extra tax of 25 per cent in addition to their general tax. This was re-enacted in the supplementary act of .

In these States Quakers seem to have remained, theoretically, under disabilities; but from the fact that they nowhere speak of sufferings to the North Carolina Yearly Meeting, we may conclude that these disabilities were in reality very small — that they were really suffered to go without performance of military duty.

Their experience in Virginia was by no means so pleasant. In that State they continued under disabilities longer. The law of , exempted Quakers from attending private or general musters provided they produced testimonials showing their affiliation with the Society. The law of , renewed these privileges. The new law of , exempted all Quakers, but the law of , exempted Quakers and Menonists only on condition that they held certificates indicating that they were regular members, and furnished “a substitute for such service, to be approved of by the commanding officer of the company.” The law of , repealed all earlier laws exempting Quakers and Menonists from militia service. But the law of , provided that they were not to be fined for refusing to receive public arms.

In Virginia there were instances in , and probably in , when Friends were fined and imprisoned for not bearing arms, but the officers were said to be very friendly to them, so far as the case would admit. About they presented to the Legislature of Virginia a protest against the then existing militia law, in which, and in an accompanying letter, Benjamin Bates presents a remarkably strong plea for release from this species of discrimination. The editor of Niles’s Register, which reprints on , the petition and letter, says that it perhaps “forms a body of the ablest arguments that have ever appeared in defense of certain principles held by this people.” This petition had, unfortunately, no effect. But there is no mention of Quakers in any way in the later codes of Virginia, and we might conclude that the law was allowed to die by non-enforcement. But such was not the case. In a complaint was made in the Yearly Meeting that some Friends were acting in a military capacity; in the meeting directed that Friends make a report of their sufferings under the militia law. In the meeting discussed the propriety of addressing the Legislature on the subject. This was not done. We hear no more of sufferings after they became a part of Baltimore Yearly Meeting.

To the hardness of the law of distress the officers added by taking more. The following sufferings were reported:


An excerpt from that “accompanying letter [by] Benjamin Bates [that] presents a remarkably strong plea for release from this species of discrimination” that one reviewer said “forms a body of the ablest arguments that have ever appeared in defense of certain principles held by this people” follows:

…[A]dmitting that the liberty of conscience is both a natural and constitutional right, and that it is physically impossible to control the free agency of the mind, still, it is contended, an expedient may be found which shall protect those rights from violation, and at the same time satisfy the law, which would otherwise infringe them. Thus — if the legislature enjoin the performance of certain duties, on which it is supposed, the very existence of the government depends, and those duties happen to interfere with the constitutional rights of any individual, let that individual pay an equivalent and be excused. If it be a military service, for instance, and his religious principles forbid him to fight, let him pay a tax for the support of schools, and make the tax equal to the military service. The argument, fairly stated, stands thus — the legislature shall not restrain the free exercise of conscience; but they may levy a tax upon the advantages derived from the exemption. Have I any objection to the support of schools? Far from it — I should rejoice to see knowledge and virtue diffused among the lower classes of society; I would cheerfully pay an equivalent for the purpose, and might even be disposed to encourage it by a voluntary contribution; but when I pay a partial tax, a fine, I am neither discharging the common duties of a citizen, nor doing an act of benevolence. I am paying what is considered by the government as a debt — and for what consideration? — Plainly for being allowed to enjoy the liberty of conscience. But I do not derive the liberty of conscience from the government; I hold it from a tenure antecedent to the institutions of civil society. It was secured to me in the social compact, and it was never submitted to the legislature at all. They have, therefore, no such privilege to grant or withhold, at their pleasure; and certainly no pretence or authority to sell it for a price. It appears then, that this exclusive tax for the support of schools, is a groundless and oppressive demand. It is a muster-fine in disguise — and violates the very principle which it seemed to respect.

It is on this point that the Quakers seem to have gotten ahead of themselves in their tax resistance theory. They object to paying war taxes, because this would make them participants in warfare, which they believe Christians are forbidden to do. But they pay whatever other taxes the government demands because they believe that Christians are required to do that. But then the government comes along and says that they’re demanding a tax on Quakers the revenue from which will not go to pay for anything Christians are forbidden to participate in, as a tax on Quakers for being unwilling to participate in certain other things.

On what grounds could a Quaker object to this? Because he objects to how the tax is allocated, to what it taxes, to the theory under which the government decides what to tax? Where is the scriptural support for such a distinction? Wouldn’t this mean that all taxes are now fair game to critical analysis as to their justness, and wouldn’t that either throw a Quaker into tangled political questions concerning the kingdoms of this earth, or into political opposition to such kingdoms — neither of which seems a particularly Quakerish position to take.