New England Non-Resistance Society Debates Tax Refusal

I’m always on the lookout for historical evidence of organized conscientious tax resistance. Conscientious tax resistance seems to have been mostly an activity of the occasional individual visionary, at least as far as I’ve been able to find, until organized war tax resistance groups started up in the middle of the last century.

This with a few exceptions: the traditional peace churches (Quakers and such) which had traditions of war tax refusal going back to at least , tax resistance in the women’s suffrage movement (mostly in Britain, but some spilled over to America as well), and tax resistance by British nonconformists around who were unwilling to pay taxes for sectarian education.

, when doing a little research on Charles Lane — who was one of two New England transcendentalists (Bronson Alcott was the other) to get arrested for conscientious tax resistance before Thoreau’s famous night in jail — I stumbled on tantalizing evidence of a campaign that seems to have died in infancy.

William Lloyd Garrison founded the New England Non-Resistance Society in to promote Christian pacifism. The name “non-resistance” sounds very passive, but it wasn’t meant that way — it was meant to reflect Jesus’s teaching, “Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Garrison and the other Society members thought that this advice should command their own lives, as well as the policy of their country.

They hoped to effect this transformation in society “through the foolishness of preaching — striving to commend ourselves unto every man’s conscience, in the sight of God.” They planned to engage in an educational and propaganda campaign to encourage “a radical change in the views, feelings, and practices of society, respecting the sinfulness of war and the treatment of enemies.”

At their second annual meeting, in , someone put this provocative item up for discussion:

That in payment of taxes and fines to the existing governments of this or any other country, non-resistants do not thereby sanction, and are not responsible for, the acts of government.

This was Garrison’s own position. He had earlier reacted to the cases of two conscientious objectors who refused to serve in the American military and refused also to pay the fines the government assessed to punish them by writing that there was “no reason why a military fine may not be paid, as well as any other exacted by a government based on physical force” because “If, in paying a military fine, you countenance the militia system; then, in paying ordinary taxes to government, you sanction its rightful authority, and are responsible for its acts.” This, to him, was a reductio ad absurdum on the war tax resistance position.

In , however, Garrison put forward a very different debating point at the Society’s annual meeting:

Resolved that the voluntary payment of militia fines, by non-resistants, is incompatible with the principles which they profess.

The next day, Garrison’s version was replaced by an more strongly-worded one:

Resolved, whereas governments of violence, all with their murderous machinery, are upheld and sustained by military force and direct and indirect payment of taxes; therefore, Resolved that it is a violation of non-resistance principles voluntarily to pay military fines, mixed taxes, or to purchase taxed goods.

But these resolutions were shelved, and apparently the Society didn’t take them up again. The author of the study from which I have pulled this information (Carl Watner: A Voluntary Political Government — Charles Lane) writes:

The interesting thing about Alcott and the other abolitionists comprising the Non-Resistance Society is that he was the only one of them to act out his principles on the matter of general taxation. Outside of Thoreau and Lane we have no knowledge of any other protests against taxation on principle. The general Garrisonian outlook (despite Garrison’s sponsorship of the Resolution) was that tax-paying was not a voluntary act and that consequently one was not responsible for supporting or sanctioning government when one pays a tax or a fine. Wendell Phillips declared that when governments make tax-paying voluntary, he, for one, would refuse to pay his taxes. Until that time, however, tax-paying was not a voluntary act and therefore the taxpayer was not responsible in conscience for what was done with his money.

The other side of this debate insists that the government can’t take away your responsibility and your ability to choose, but merely tries to influence your choice by manipulating the consequences. As Mary McCarthy said to Hannah Arendt: “If somebody points a gun at you and says, ‘Kill your friend or I will kill you,’ he is tempting you, that is all.”

It was interesting to see this debate playing out , as it’s more-or-less the same debate I was engaging in , and doesn’t look much closer to being resolved today.

Thanks to Taran Jordan at Strike the Root for plugging The Picket Line recently.