American Quaker War Tax Resistance Before the Revolution

I reproduced some excerpts from Stephen B. Weeks’s Southern Quakers and Slavery: A Study in Institutional History () concerning Quaker tax resistance in the years before the American Revolution. Today I’ll add some sections that concern such resistance during the Revolutionary period:

Quakers in the Revolution

The Revolution begins the differentiation of the conduct and fortunes of the Society of Friends in Virginia and North Carolina. Their experience was different in each, and this experience seems to have had a marked influence on future action.

Their peace policy caused American Friends to be regarded by many as hostile to the cause of American independence. Some went to the Society to escape the war, and some left it. Some of the younger generation broke over the peace limit, organized themselves as “Free Quakers,” entered the American Army, and were still maintaining their separate organization as late as . In the gloomy aspect of affairs which greeted them at the beginning of the struggle, Friends were induced to appoint representatives from New England, Virginia and North Carolina to attend the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in to consult on the condition of their affairs, and this course was followed during the most of the war. The war brought much distress and suffering to Friends. In this extremity the noble character of the creed of Friends stands out in bold relief. Many thousand pounds were raised in England to be applied to their aid. During the time of actual hostilities this was applied mostly to Friends in New England and the Carolinas.

It does not appear that Friends during the Revolution often acted inconsistently with their well known peace policy; but this policy was a source of weakness to the American cause and one of strength to Great Britain. Some Friends refused to pay the State levies for war purposes, and, as the Continental currency was issued to carry on war, many refused to receive it. A minute to this effect was passed by the Virginia Yearly Meeting. We are tempted to ask how much of the religious and how much of the economic element was present here? This action was unfortunate. The result was to hasten the decline of the money and to throw the influence of the Society on the side of the British Government. In North Carolina Quakers declined to vote for delegates to attend the convention, but left Friends to take the paper bills or not. In they were in doubt whether they were able “to pay the taxes demanded under the present unsettled state of affairs.” In they refused to pay the tax in provisions. There was no general minute on part of American Friends forbidding their members to receive the Continental currency, but the Virginia Yearly Meeting made such an order. That they were much more bitter and determined in the matter of the tax in Virginia is shown by a letter of Robert Pleasants to Thomas Nicholson in , in which he argues against the payment of the tax, blames the Eastern Quarter of North Carolina for paying, and praises the Western Quarter for refusing to pay. This quarterly meeting also wrote to Bush River Monthly Meeting to warn its members not to meddle in politics, for it was learned that some had voted for delegates to the convention.

But Friends were not spared when these States were invaded. Between the requisitions of the Americans and the thefts and robberies of the British and Tories, there was small chance for them to escape serious damage.

As soon as the war was over Friends accepted the results. But they had never been blindly obedient to despotism. They had steadily resisted it in England; they did the same in America. Believing, as they do, in the common brotherhood of man, they have been of necessity democratic, and have been found in every question on the side which sought to elevate the lower classes. They were, then, logically and historically, on the side of the colonists in the question at issue. They differed from them in regard to the method that should be employed to attain the end.

Their property was sometimes seized for the commissariat, and Friends were sometimes arrested on the charge of being unfriendly to the American cause. In ; certain papers containing a set of questions relating to the American Army, and some other notes that might assist the English, were found on Staten Island, N.J., by General Sullivan and sent to Congress. This body resolved at once to arrest persons who were notoriously inimical to American freedom, and directed that the records and papers of the Meetings for Sufferings in the several States be secured and transmitted to Congress. In , twenty Quakers of Philadelphia were arrested by the Council of Pennsylvania on the charge of having given information to the British, and seventeen of them were hurried down to Winchester, Va., as prisoners of war. The original charges seem to have been utterly baseless, and the proceedings against them were arbitrary and unjust, for they were given no opportunity to defend themselves; they were refused a hearing, and the writ of habeas corpus, issued in their behalf by the Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, was disregarded. Further, they were forced to support themselves while thus involuntarily removed from their regular occupations, and the feelings of the community were poisoned against them. This injustice was all done on the basis of certain papers pretending to come from “Spanktown Yearly Meeting,” which bear unmistakable evidence of being the work of one who was wholly ignorant of the phraseology peculiar to Quakers.

The history of the arrest had preceded the prisoners. “The inhabitants in this part of the country are,” writes the county lieutenant of Frederick, “in general, much exasperated against the whole society of Quakers. The people were taught to suppose these people were Tories, and the leaders of the Quakers, and two more offensive stigmas, in their estimation, could not be fixed upon men; in short, they determined not to permit them to remain in Winchester, for fear of their holding a correspondence with the Friends of the adjoining counties.” He says, further, that this sentiment was manufactured to keep them from holding such communication, and so strong was the feeling that on the day after their arrival, about thirty armed men collected at their lodgings and demanded their immediate removal. The question was settled for the time by the Quakers agreeing not to leave their house. But this feeling of fear and hostility soon subsided, the people became more friendly, and not only allowed them to remain, but administered to their comforts, granted them the freedom of the surrounding section of country, and attended their meetings. They were released in .

After the beginning of the Revolution the first matter in Virginia that related in any way to the Quakers was the first ordinance of Convention of , which exempted “all clergymen and dissenting ministers” from serving in the militia. But no dissenting minister could avail himself of this privilege unless he had been “duly licensed by the general court, or the society to which he belongs.” This law met a part of the complaint of the Quakers; it recognized their religious standing and gave their ministers, and other dissenting ministers, the same legal exemption as had always been granted to the clergymen of the Church of England. This is the first step in the movement which led up to the sixteenth section of the Virginia Bill of Rights.

The act of , seems to have been a sort of continuation of the act of . It required Quakers and Menonists to be enlisted in the militia, but exempted them from attending musters. The act of , went backward. It makes no exception in their favor in regard to enrollment, mustering or drafting. This was probably an oversight, for the new law of , recruiting the Virginia regiments, discharges all Quakers and Menonists taken by draft from personal service, but provides that a number of substitutes, equal to the number thus discharged, be secured and paid for by a general levy on the Society as a whole, and this levy was to be collected by distress. There was the same provision in the laws passed in and . We see in these laws an evident effort to recognize the peculiar views of Friends, but the need of their services is stronger and still keeps them under disabilities.

The law of , relieved Quakers from personal service when drafted, imposing instead a penalty of fourteen pounds, which might be collected by distress. The law of , relieved them from personal service, but the county lieutenant was required to appoint a suitable person “to procure a substitute upon the best terms possible.” This amount was to be collected from the property of the drafted Quaker; if he could not pay, from the Society.

Unfortunately we have very imperfect data for determining what the conduct of Virginia Friends was during this period. But we know that Friends were exhorted to be faithful and firm in their testimony; that a committee was appointed to consult with those who were under trial for their faith, to comfort and encourage them; that, following the lead of Pennsylvania, they refused in to pay the taxes for the support of the war.

North Carolina Quakers seem to have remained pretty faithful to their peace policy during the whole war, and carried it to the extreme of asking if it was lawful for them “to pay taxes demanded under the present unsettled state of affairs.” But it does not appear that they ever went to the extreme of refusing to pay these taxes or to take the State issues of script; although Western Quarterly Meeting — the foreign element — declared in that Friends could not pay the war tax. The refusal of the Virginia Quakers, when in former wars they had paid their taxes without inquiring into their destination, at once caused them to play into the hands of England.

As we have seen in an earlier chapter, John Archdale, the Quaker Governor of the Carolinas, enforced the military law in South Carolina, but exempted Friends from its provisions. Under his administration they were exempted from all military requirements. After the arrival of Sir Nathaniel Johnson in their fortunes were changed. In a military law was passed which required that “all inhabitants” between sixteen and sixty should be armed and drilled. If persons refused they were subject to a fine of 10s. for the first offense and 20s. for each subsequent one. This could be collected by distress. Among the exempts were “ministers of the gospel,” which term was changed to “the clergy” in , and to “all licensed clergymen, belonging to any established church in this state,” in . This law underwent various changes and modifications from time to time, but these were matters of detail, not of principle. There is no recognition of Quakers in the laws passed during the Revolution. The penalty for neglect of military duty under the law of was £500; and Quakers, like others, must stand the draft. So far as I have been able to learn, there was no deference at all paid to the peculiar views of the Quakers. I have not found any mention of the Society whatever in the South Carolina laws.

In the case of Georgia, Quakers report to the North Carolina Yearly Meeting that under the laws of the State, passed in and , they were exempted from military service if properly reported. In they complain that they “have been misrepresented in their conduct respecting the said contest,” and in complain of being “oppressed by the violent behavior of the militia of these parts and been illegally deprived of both Liberty and Property.” An account of the amount thus lost was to be secured and sent to the monthly meeting, and in the same year Quakers write to Georgia from New Garden, N.C., and exhort them to stand fast in their refusals to comply with requisitions and demands for war needs. But notwithstanding all exhortations, quite a number of Quakers in all of these three States enlisted in the American Army, while others carried aims for personal defense; some were disowned for these actions.

The North Carolina Quakers seem to have been more uniformly non-combatants. They had suffered somewhat from military fines in the colonial period. In the Revolution this became heavier. In they paid £1,213:9:2 in military fines, in it amounted to £2,152:5:10, and in to £841:15:7, “good money, silver dollars at eight shillings”; , to £4,134 and upwards; , £741; , £718. In Western Quarterly Meeting reports £2.148 8s. and £675 18s. as the amounts taken from them by the American and British armies respectively. But that these forced drafts on the resources of the Quakers did not impoverish them is evident from the fact that when Rich Square Monthly Meeting decided in to raise £40 in gold and silver, one man, Robert Peelle, agreed to advance the whole amount.