How Quakers Lost Pennsylvania Over Pacifism

Kevin Kenny’s Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment tells the story of conflicts between groups of Indians, Presbyterian settlers, the crown-aligned Anglican absentee proprietaries, and Quakers in pre-revolutionary Pennsylvania.

I read it largely to give me some more context as to what was going on in Pennsylvania in the period that was so important to the development of American Quaker war tax resistance.

It was an interesting read, though a depressing one. Pennsylvania seems at the time to have been one massacre after another. The French and British chewing each other up, various Indian nations allying sometimes with one and sometimes with the other; Presbyterian settlers on a take-no-prisoners genocidal war of conquest aimed at anyone Indian, and then on a war against the unhelpful Quakers to the East; Indians butchering settler families; smallpox-laden gifts given to the Indians to reduce their numbers; Connecticut and Pennsylvania land speculators battling back and forth over land each claimed they had the right to steal from the Indians.

The Quaker hard-pacifist faction — the folks I’ve been studying, who crafted the theory and practice of Quaker war tax resistance that was a vital part of the Society of Friends for the next hundred years — comes off pretty well in this bloody company. That said, the book deflates some of the more flattering stories about them, and they aren’t really players in most of the conflicts. This was a time when Quaker influence was waning, and nobody was really taking seriously anymore the idea that Pennsylvania should be a state run on Quaker pacifist principles.

An exception is the “Friendly Association,” which was founded by pacifist Quakers at a time when the British military administration in Pennsylvania had taken a hard-line on the Indian question which mostly amounted to being dismissive of Indians and their concerns, and to seeing them mostly as people who were in the way as the British were trying to kick some French butt. This backfired badly, as the alienated Indians allied with the French and taught the British several painful lessons.

The Friendly Association started negotiating with an eastern group of the Delaware Indians to try to open diplomatic channels again, and did so by helping the Delaware to assert some of their claims of egregious treaty violations and the like in a format that might best succeed in colonial government eyes. The Association did this in the face of government orders not to interfere in such things. But it worked; the grievances were addressed, the eastern Delaware allied themselves with the British, and this helped open the door to further negotiations that ended up securing the neutrality of the other Indian groups and eventual military success against the French.

During this time, the Quaker pacifists had resigned from the Pennsylvania Assembly because the cry to raise a militia and defend the frontiers from French and Indian invaders had become so loud. Quakers in England had begged them to quit so that they wouldn’t be blamed for the military defeat of the colony. There was some talk that for this reason the London Yearly Meeting would formally condemn the war tax resistance stand taken by some American Quakers. When Samuel Fothergill, who had signed an “epistle” urging such resistance, returned to England he expected to be censured for it. Instead, the opposition to such stands in London petered out. Abraham Farrington remarked at the time: “I have now been nearly two weeks in [London], and seven or eight months in this nation, and have not heard a word in opposition to what we did, respecting the epistle. The treaty we had with the Indians, I believe, has opened the eyes of thousands, and stopped the mouths of as many.”

But according to Kenny, the Friendly Association wasn’t quite the miraculous application of pacifist principles this makes it out to be. For one thing, the Delaware Indians they were negotiating with weren’t particularly politically powerful — they had no influence among the Delaware in the west who were actually at war with the colonists, and even their right to negotiate on their own behalf was largely pretended (they were considered a subject tribe by a more powerful Indian nation). Their chief was an unreliable, hopeless drunkard. The Pennsylvania government unwillingly tolerated the Association’s meddling for a time, from necessity, but then banned them from further independent negotiations.

The periodic claims of conscientious scruples on the part of the Pennsylvania Assembly against issuing funds for the purpose of raising a militia, buying arms, or erecting fortifications, also is deflated in the book. As Kenny tells it (and this doesn’t differ much from other commentators I’ve read on the subject), what was really going on was a power-play about whether the Assembly could or could not tax the vast land holdings of the proprietors (the Penn family) — the scruples were just a fig leaf or side note. The Assembly and the governor would use crises like Indian attacks as opportunities for political brinkmanship — the Assembly voting crucial funds, but on the condition that the proprietary estates be among those taxed; the governor vetoing these bills; and each blaming the other for the stalemate. In the end, the Assembly almost always eventually coughed up the money without making any attempts to effectually restrict it to non-military uses.