Philadelphia Quakers Petition for Exemption from Militia Tax

On , Nicholas Waln, clerk of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, sent the following petition to the state legislature on behalf of the meeting:

The government of the consciences of men is the prerogative of the almighty God who will not give his glory to another. Every encroachment upon this his prerogative is offensive to his spirit, and he will not hold them guiltless who invade it but will sooner or later manifest his displeasure to all who persist therein.

These truths we doubt not will obtain the assent of every considerate mind.

The immediate occasion of our now applying to you is, we have received accounts from different places that a number of our friends have been and are imprisoned, some for refusing to pay the fines imposed in lieu of personal services in the present war and others for refusing to take the test prescribed by some laws lately made. The ground of our refusal is a religious scruple in our minds against such compliance not from obstinacy or any other motive than a desire of keeping a conscience void of offence towards God, which we cannot without a steady adherence to our peaceable principles and testimony against wars and fightings founded on the precepts and example of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace by a conformity to which we are bound to live a peaceable and quiet life and restrained from making any declarations or entering into any engagements as parties in the present unsettled state of affairs.

We fervently desire you may consider the generous and liberal foundation of the charter and laws agreed upon in England between our first worthy Proprietary William Penn and our ancestors whereby they apprehended religious and civil liberty would be secured inviolate to themselves and their posterity, so that Pennsylvania hath since been considered an asylum for men of tender consciences and many of the most useful people have resorted hither in expectation of enjoying freedom from the persecution they suffered in their native countries.

We believe every attempt to abridge us of that liberty will be a departure from the true spirit of government which ought to influence all well regulated legislatures and also destructive of the real interest and good of the community and therefore desire the laws which have a tendency to oppress tender consciences may be repealed so that those who live peaceably may not be further disturbed or molested but permitted to enjoy the rights and immunities which their forefathers purchased through much suffering and difficulty and to continue in the careful observation of the great duty of the religious instruction and education of the youth from which by one part of the said laws they are liable to be restrained.

We hope, on due consideration of what we now offer, you will provide for the discharge of such who are in bonds for the testimony of a good conscience which may prevent others hereafter from suffering in like manner.

Signed in and by the desire of our said Meeting held at Philadelphia .
by Nicholas Waln, Clerk.

Petitions like this didn’t always have the hoped-for effect, and sometimes tended to inflame resentment against the Quakers. In , John Pemberton sent a similar letter to the Pennsylvania Assembly in response to a proposed militia act, explaining Quaker pacifism and the history of tolerance of conscientious principles in Pennsylvania, and noting:

It is well known, that for above one hundred years past, we, as a religious society, have declared to the world that we could not, for conscience sake, bear arms, nor be concerned in warlike preparations, either by personal service or by paying any fines, penalties, or assessments imposed in consideration of our exemption from such services.

This infuriated some of the people who had decided to stake their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in the cause of American independence. George Clymer, on behalf of “the Committee of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia,” wrote:

[Y]our Petitioners have seen the copy of an address to your honourable House, entitled “An Address of the people called Quakers,” which, in the opinion of your Petitioners, bears an aspect unfriendly to the liberties of America, and maintains principles destructive of all society and government… These gentlemen want to withdraw their persons and their fortunes from the service of their country, at a time when their country stands most in need of them.

If the patrons and friends of liberty succeed in the present glorious struggle, they and their posterity will enjoy all the advantages derived from it, equally with those who procured them, without contributing a single penny, and with safety to their persons. If the Friends of liberty fail, they will risk no forfeitures, but be entitled, by their behaviour, to protection and countenance from the British Ministry, and will probably be promoted to office. This they seem to desire and expect.

And a group of “Officers of the Military Association of the City and Liberties of Philadelphia” wrote:

We beg leave to remind the honorable House of the constant usage of the province, and that, in all the wars we have been engaged in, no exemption from fines and taxation has been made in favour of any set of people; but, on the contrary, laws and ordinances have repeatedly been made for the purposes of defense, laying general imposts on the inhabitants of the province, of all sects and societies.

We are, however, of opinion that speculative disputes should not now be gone into. The enemy are desolating our country, and danger daily awaits us. Our situation, therefore, furnishes us with arguments, drawn from the laws of nature and reason, which transcend all local establishments. From these laws, and the general principles of civil society, it is undoubtedly certain that all persons who enjoy the benefits should also bear their proportion of the burdens of the state. We cannot conceive it to be consistent with a reasonable conscience to acquire and engross considerable property, in any country, and not part with some of it to defend the rest. We further think, that those who apply taxes, and not those whom the exigencies of the state and the weight of a majority oblige to pay them, are answerable for the consequences of such application. We conscientiously believe that no member of society should be exempted from paying a reasonable proportion of his property towards the general defence, though, he may be exempted from actually bearing arms; and in such case, by paying a fine for such exemption, he is in a better situation than one who risks his life in the service. And if the wealthy members of the society of Quakers are permitted to withhold their proportion, it will in some degree be an invasion of our liberty of conscience, by denying us the means of so effectually making a warlike opposition against our oppressors, which cannot be done without money.