Can the Legislature Absolve the Conscience of Its Subjects?

The Edinburgh Review for included a long article about the church-rates controversy. A couple of things in it caught my eye. One was a quote the article attributes (approvingly) to William Gladstone:

When the legislature makes a demand on its subjects for a part of their property, whatever be the purpose to which it is applied, the demand of the legislature absolves the conscience of its subjects.

I thought that was a concise and well-put statement of this particular opinion, though it’s not an opinion I have much respect for. The article sources this quote to “Hansard, ”. Hansard gives the quote slightly differently:

[W]hen the Legislature made a demand on its subjects for a part of their property, whatever might be the purpose to which it was applied, the demand of the Legislature absolved the conscience of its subjects.

Gladstone was speaking in opposition to dissenters who claimed conscience as their legal justification for refusing to pay church rates. Gladstone recommended that they instead willingly take on the consequences of their illegal actions, as the Quakers do:

They might use every means of getting rid of [the church rates], but as long as the payment was law, no scruple of conscience could fairly resist it. Every kind of suffering and hardship, as in the case of the Quakers, should rather be endured, than that they should be entitled to absolve themselves, under a scruple of conscience, from its payment.

The Review also brings up the example of the Quakers, grudgingly admitting their sincerity thusly:

We freely allow, indeed, that in a few cases (as amongst the early Quakers, for example) where extreme fanaticism is united with ignorance of the first elements of moral philosophy, they may by possibility be genuine.

The author later expands on this:

The Quakers, as we have just said, are an exceptional case; they give implicit obedience to all the traditions of George Fox, and oppose passive resistance to all ecclesiastical payments, as he taught them.… [S]o perverse is human eccentricity, that we believe Fox and his followers were honest in pursuing this line of conduct. But then it must be remembered that they proved the reality of their scruples not by noisy opposition, but by patient endurance, and in times when they had everything to lose and nothing to gain by refusing to pay what they allowed the law to take.

And that passage was footnoted as follows:

Even the Quakers are not consistent in their scrupulosity, for they pay war taxes. In the committee on church-rates, Mr. Bass, a Quaker witness, is asked, “Should you object to pay a national rate for the support of a war?” Answer. “Yes, I should.” Question. “But have you not done it all your life?” Answer. “…The taxes for war are so mixed up with unobjectionable charges, that it is impossible to dissect them.… If the Government were to ask me for a war tax, I should not pay it.” Mr. Bass now has an opportunity of showing his consistency, by refusing the double income-tax, which is expressly declared by the statute book to be a war tax.

The tax in question had been inflicted to pay for The Crimean War. I was able to find a more complete version of that exchange in another book, and I reproduce it here:

Q
Should you object to pay a national rate for the support of a war?
A
Yes, I should.
Q
But do not you; have not you done it all your life, for instance?
A
I do not know that that has anything to do with this question; but the taxes for the carrying on of war are so mixed up with demands for civil services, and other unobjectionable charges for the support of the country, that it is impossible to dissect them, whilst this church rate comes only and simply as an ecclesiastical demand.
Q
I asked you whether, in a national rate mixed up with other rates, you would not pay for the support of the fabric of the church?
A
If there was any means of escaping it I should, and very likely should suffer for it. I do not know how that would be. I can hardly give an answer to that.
Q
You pay to a national rate for a war, which you think an unjust purpose?
A
Yes.
Q
Religiously?
A
Yes; I pay taxes on the principle of rendering to Cæsar the things that are Cæsar’s
Q
You pay for a war when the money is collected in a national rate?
A
We have no means of dissecting it; if the Government were to ask me for a war tax I should not pay it.
Q
If they could blind the church rate sufficiently, you would pay it?
A
It is not blinding it; they ask me for a rate ixed up with all other purposes and we cannot dissect it.
Q
If that tax was a little heavier, and you only supposed that it might be for church rate, you would pay it?
A
Measure has nothing to do with it, either heavy or light.

That was a portion of the examination of Isaac Bass, a Quaker from Brighton, before the House of Commons’s Select Committee on Church Rates on .

I can’t remember any examples in my research so far of British Quakers refusing to pay the double-income-tax for the Crimean War, but absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, so there may be some out there waiting for me to discover them.