Did American Quakers Refuse to Ride Trains Because of a War Tax?
A letter to the editor written on to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle by a R.W.
Burtis contains an interesting aside that, assuming it’s accurate, is news to
The letter concerns the role of religion in the presidential election. The
Democrat, Al Smith, was a Catholic, and this was a political liability that
would contribute to him losing the election. But the letter-writer asked why
Herbert Hoover’s religion was not a subject for debate. After all, Hoover
was a Quaker:
We should be much safer as a nation if Governor Smith were made President than
if Mr. Hoover were, as Mr. Hoover’s religion forbids its members to take part
in war. If the enemy were to attack us while Mr. Hoover was President he would
be powerless to help us. George Fox, the founder of the Quaker sect, forbade
his followers to engage in war or to support any government waging war. If Mr.
Hoover followed the teachings of his religion he would be barred from acting
as head of the army and navy. The Quaker religion enjoins and commands
pacifism on its communicants. All war, even defensive, it holds wrong.
This exaggerates a bit, at least when it comes to Hoover, who did not seem to
be a pacifist (though his presidential term is rather lacking in
invasions, imperialist land-grabs, and fevered armaments production, by
But here’s what caught my eye: in the course of describing the long and
consistent history of Quaker pacifism, Burtis writes:
During the late World War they evaded the draft as conscientious objectors,
and thousands of them, prompted by religious scruples, refused to ride on
railway trains because there was a war tax. Their determination to neither
fight nor pay was one of the problems with which the Government had to deal.
I’ve hunted around a bit and have not yet found anything to corroborate this
An Associated Press dispatch from
read in part:
Rebellious [French] farmers, organized into a “Peasant Front,” pledged
themselves to resist tax collection. Although only a small percentage of
farmers were members, Premier [Pierre] Laval considered it such a dangerous
idea that he raised it to a national problem by bringing it before the
This led me to hunt up a bit more about the “Peasant Front.” It seems to have
been a right-wing, semi-fascist league of agriculturalists.
The campaign of refusal to pay taxes to a Government that is allegedly little
concerned with peasant interests has created some difficulty for
Henri] Dorgeres himself, since it is a criminal offence to urge people not
to pay taxes.
M. Dorgeres served
27 days in prison for organising resistance to a foreclosure sale, and
he was sentenced to eight months’
imprisonment and a fine, but he has appealed against the sentence.
Nevertheless, he continues his campaign openly and defiantly.
This foreclosure sale involved Valentin Salvaudon who refused to pay a new
social security tax for his farm workers at a time when the price of wheat was
coming dropping to less than the cost of production.
According to Robert O. Paxton, in his book on the Dorgères movement and other
manifestations of French fascism, the Peasant Front combined its tax strike
with a consumer strike that was meant to hit the urban bourgeoisie as much as
It was thus more an educational enterprise than massive civil disobedience,
though it teetered on the brink of illegality. The French tax collectors
understood it as the tax strike Dorgères had been threatening for some time.
The petition [which gave the government an ultimatum], accompanied by a draft
text of the “command for action” [which would initiate the tax/consumer
strike], was widely circulated. It appeared in most of the local agrarian
press, and there are traces in many departmental archives. It was said to have
been signed by 100,000 people in ten days, including 70,000 in the Finistère
alone. In the Seine-Inférieure, 15,000 people were reported to have signed in
the first few days. The Peasant Front implemented its “command for action” in
slightly modified form (the tax strike became a “moratorium,” and the boycott
of public officials was omitted) on The peasants’ purchasing and taxpaying strike was, however, a
fizzle, and the CAP quietly went to sleep after its one bold initiative.
According to Paxton, in many areas the campaign was well-organized and had a
lot of early enthusiasm, but no staying power. Farmers signed the petitions,
but then for the most part failed to follow-through by withholding taxes. Some
areas, though, showed more moxie:
Generally, enforcement of the tax moratorium depended on a supportive local
mayor. Officials in the Seine-Inférieure reported that 90% of the villagers of
Pierre Suplice’s commune of Bourg-Dun… did not pay their taxes in 1935.
The giant Office Central des Associations Agricoles du
Finistère et des Côtes-du-Nord at Landerneau (Finistère) was reported
to have been sent 92,209 unpaid tax forms, weighing a total of ninety-eight
kilos. … Dorgères whipped 5000–6000 people into excitement at Quimper
(Finistère) on to block the
sale of Joseph Divanac’h’s cattle for unpaid taxes.…
But if the “command for action” had any measurable impact on the national
level, we have not been able to find any evidence for it.
The Gazette of announces that the Queen has been pleased to direct letters
patent to be passed under the Great Seal, constituting and appointing the
Right Hon. Thomas Frankland
Lewis, the Hon. Robert
Henry Clive, and William Cripps,
Esq., her Majesty’s
Commissioners “for inquiring into the present state of the laws, as
administered in South Wales, which regulate the turnpike roads; and also into
the circumstances which have led to the recent acts of violence and outrage in
certain, districts of that country.” The Queen has also been pleased to
appoint George Kettilby Richards,
Esq., to be Secretary to the