A Curious Case of Resistance to Governor Evans’s Pet Tax

Wilson Armistead, who edited an edition of the Memoirs of James Logan (for more on Logan, see ), relates an interesting example of Quaker tax resistance from :

Governor Hamilton being deceased, John Evans came out to the province as his successor. Governor Evans was young and proved inexperienced. He treated the non-resisting principle “as a mere notion, which would never endure a serious trial.” He not only granted a commission for privateering, but in , finding Friends very averse to military requisitions, he determined to quicken them by a false alarm, of a hostile armament coming up the river. His measures were so well concerted for this purpose, that upon the arival of the express bringing the pretended intelligence, the city was thrown into a disgraceful state of alarm; many of the people hastily secreting their valuables, and getting away in boats to the creeks and upper parts of the Delaware, while Evans rode about with his sword drawn, cheaply acting the hero.

Governor Evans also determined, on his own authority, to impose a tax or toll on all outward-bound vessels when leaving the river. The principal inhabitants became alarmed at this innovation of their chartered privileges, which guaranteed that no tax or other impost should be levied but by consent of a majority of the people’s representatives. The council remonstrated again and again, but without effect; and the Governor, being determined to carry his point, ordered a fort to be erected on the banks of the river, and furnished with guns and ammunition. An officer and some men wore stationed there to stop every vessel outward-bound, and to claim a toll according to her tonnage. The toll exacted was half a pound of gunpowder per ton measurement. Should the ship not drop anchor and send on shore for a pass, she was to pay £5 for contempt; besides 20s. for the first gun, 30s. for the second, and 40s. for every subsequent one fired to bring her to.

After this had been endured for a while, and all remonstrance on the part of the peaceful community proving ineffectual, a consultation of some of the principal merchants was held, when Richard Hill…

Here, a footnote: “Richard Hill was a native of Maryland, and a useful member of the Society of Friends. He settled in Philadelphia, and was a member of the Governor’s council, and several times Speaker of the Assembly. He also filled the office of Commissioner of Property, and was, , one of the provincial judges. Proud, in his History of Pennsylvania, says respecting him:— ‘His sound judgment, his great esteem for the English constitution and laws, his tenderness for the liberty of the subject, and his zeal for preserving the reputable order established in his own religious community, with his great generosity to proper objects, qualified him for the greatest services in every station in which he was engaged, and rendered him of very great and uncommon value.’ ”

…a Friend of considerable abilities and influence in the province, offered at his own risk to test the governor’s power or authority to tax the people without their consent. Having a ship ready to sail with produce for the West India market, with which a considerable barter-trade was already established, Hill determined to see his vessel safely down the river himself. He first dispatched two Friends, Isaac Norris and Samuel Preston with the ship’s papers to the fort, to show that the vessel had been regularly cleared at the custom-house, and to endeavour to persuade the officer to suffer her to pass without molestation. Their remonstrance, however, proved unavailing, and the deputation were given to understand what they might expect if they persisted in their determination. Notwithstanding this threat, Hill boldly taking the helm, which the captain was afraid to do, proceeded with a fair wind and a brisk breeze down the river, steering as near to the opposite side as he safely could. On nearing the fort, a gun was fired to bring the vessel to. No notice was taken of this warning, the ship continuing her course under full sail, when all the guns at the fort were discharged, until she got out of their reach, having escaped without damage, except the main-sail, which was shot through.

Here, another footnote: “The firing of the guns were distinctly heard in Philadelphia, so that the feelings of the Friend’s wife on the occasion may be better conceived than expressed.”

The officer at the fort, not willing to miss his prize, immediately had his boat manned and went in pursuit. The ship’s sails were now slackened, and the boat was allowed to come alongside, and having fastened a rope to the ship, the officer and his men came on board. Whilst engaged in a warm controversy with the owner and his friends, some one on board (no doubt advisedly) quietly loosed the boat and let her drift astern. The ship was now under full sail, and when the officer at length discovered that he was in danger of a voyage to the West Indies, and that all his hopes of retreat were cut off, his courage failed, and he suffered himself to be led as a prisoner into the cabin. Richard Hill now determined to land his captive on the Jersey side of the Delaware, and deliver him up to Lord Cornbury, the governor of that province, who claimed in his own right the exclusive jurisdiction of the river.…

For more on Cornbury, see .

…Cornbury, a proud and haughty man, on hearing the case, was quite indignant at this encroachment on his prerogative, and he threatened the officer in no measured terms of rebuke, who now became seriously alarmed at his situation, and sued for pardon, making many professions of sorrow for the offence he had committed. At length, having promised never to attempt the like again, he was suffered to depart. The Friend and his companions now returned back to Philadelphia, and the ship proceeded on her voyage. The illegal tax, in consequence of this patriotic but peaceful resistance, was thenceforward abandoned.

Hard to tell your pirates from your emperors without a scorecard.

This case is perhaps only tangentially related to Quaker war tax resistance. It seems that the major dispute was over the fact that the tax was being extorted without legal authorization by a governor who was widely disrespected, with the potential subsequent military spending and the armed fort only being an ancillary reason for dissatisfaction.

But when William Penn, who was back in England at the time, heard about this, he shot off a letter of rebuke to Evans, which also chastised him for trying to draft Quakers into the military or to fine those who refused:

…[T]he sufferings our Friends lie under, as well as are exposed to, in the Lower Counties, on account of not bearing arms [is] a thing which touches my conscience as well as honor. “He must be a silly shoemaker that has not a last for his own foot.” That my Friends should not be secure and easy under me, in those points that regard our very characteristics; but that fines, or a forced disowning of their own principles they must stoop to; for one Brewster says in his letter to one Child (come to my hand), that Oliver Matthews was plundered of no less than six pounds for fifteen shillings, which very fine is a violation of our constitution and customs too, since my interest was there; all which I desire may be rectified forthwith…