Government is Necessarily Violent So Shouldn’t Pacifists Resist All Taxes?

FSK’s Guide to Reality thinks I’ve become “overly obsessed with Quaker justifications for war tax resistance” lately.

Guilty as charged. In my defense, I’m assembling a book on the subject as a companion-volume to We Won’t Pay.

I apologize to folks for whom this has all been like a dull late-summer day in History class. I’ll try to mix it up with other stuff from time-to-time. And I’m getting to the end of my material — we’re already up to the middle of the Civil War, and I don’t get much further than that war in my research.

FSK’s got another point, though: “If you use Quakers as your model for tax resistance, you’re thinking in the wrong terms. All taxation is theft, and not just taxes that is used for war. A policeman who confiscates my property is committing an act of war as much as a soldier.”

I agree with this understanding of the nature of taxation and the state, but I would disagree that this means the Quaker variety of war tax resistance isn’t worth study. Indeed, one of the things I’m finding is that critics of Quaker war tax resistance often used this very argument — that all government rests ultimately on violence, and so there is no way to distinguish war taxes from other taxes. And Quaker war tax resisters had to come up with rhetorical strategies to meet this argument. Some responded by further distancing themselves from government — not voting, refusing to file lawsuits, that sort of thing. Most, though, took the sophist approach and tried to draw a line between “civil government,” which good Quakers could (indeed, must) support, and “military government,” which they had to avoid supporting.

Here’s “Philalethes” complaining, in , that Quakers in Philadelphia were inevitably compromising their religious principles by taking positions in the legislature — that to take part in the government (the “court”), you implicitly approve of the military that props the government up (the “camp”):

I have often told our church doctors they have no more to do in Cæsar’s court than in his camp; the last they decline in conceit. But doesn’t the court maintain the camp? Doesn’t the camp defend the court? Then where’s the difference?

Later, James Logan, who disapproved of Quaker pacifism and Quaker war tax resistance, used the same argument to try to encourage war-squeamish Quakers to quit the Assembly so that it could make war requisitions. (Quaker Assembly members did eventually resign their seats so that the legislature could prepare for war without their assistance, which marked the end of the political control of Pennsylvania by the Society of Friends.)

On another occasion, Moses Brown complained to Anthony Benezet that “I understand some Friends have fallen in with or been overpowered by the common argument that civil government is upheld by the sword, and therefore they decline paying to its support…”

Samuel Cox, who opposed the Quakers, tried to show that the arguments for Quaker war tax resistance were really arguments for anarchism — “Friends say, we cannot pay militia fines; nor do any thing to uphold the military power. Ah! truly: — and why do you ever become adjuncts and allies and officers of such a civic dynasty? or vote for the ministers of such a power? What are you doing at the polls, but upholding that very power? What moral right have you there? to vote or be voted for? And yet all of you (generally) exercise the right of suffrage. And you virtually appeal to the sword, whenever you sue a man, and invoke the armed interference of the law to coerce him to his duty!”

Later, a non-Quaker peace movement journal took up the same argument: “we may well doubt whether we can consistently recognize civil government, as Quakers themselves do, by voting, and paying general taxes. The right to use at will the force necessary for the execution of its laws, lies at the bottom of all government as indispensable to its existence and effective power; and this right we as truly recognize by voting, or by paying ordinary taxes, as we should by the payment of military fines. Do not nine-tenths of our taxes confessedly go to pay war-expenses? Is not our national debt all for this end? Everybody knows it is; but shall peace men refuse on this ground to pay their taxes?”

These same sorts of arguments come up today. “Peace tax fund” advocates and statist war tax resisters try to draw a line between good taxes and bad taxes, and good government violence and bad government violence. The Christians among them are still burdened by Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.

And those of us who think we’ve got a better idea can become more persuasive if we learn from the experiences of those who have made these arguments before us.

Ethan Foster, in The Conscript Quakers: Being a Narrative of the Distress and Relief of Four Young Men from the Draft for the War in (), wrote of Quaker efforts to lobby the Lincoln administration for better treatment of conscientious objectors.

Soon after we entered the War Office, the Secretary of State (William H. Seward) came in and took a seat. He remained silent until our conference with Secretary Stanton was concluded; when Charles Perry (who had an impression that Seward, when Governor of New York, had recommended the passage of a law to exempt from military service those who were conscientiously opposed to war) turned to him expecting a word of sympathy and encouragement, and remarked that he would perceive why we were there; upon which he suddenly and with much vehemence of manner asked, “Why don’t the Quakers fight?” Charles replied, “Because they believe it wrong, and cannot do it with a clear conscience.” He reprimanded us severely because we refused to fight. After a little pause I said, “Well, if this world were all, perhaps we might take your advice;” to which he responded, “The way to get along well in the next world is to do your duty in this.” I replied, “That is what we are trying to do; and now, I want to ask you one question, and I want you to answer it; whose prerogative is it to decide what my duty is, yours or mine?” He did not answer the question, but became more angry and excited; asked, “Why, then, don’t you pay the commutation?” We told him we could see no difference between the responsibility of doing an act ourselves and that of hiring another to do it for us. On this he sprang from his seat and strided around in a circle of some eight or ten feet across, exclaiming, “Then I’ll pay it for you” and thrusting his hand into his coat pocket, added, “I’ll give you my check!

And further on…

General Canby listened considerately to our plea, but said he thought we might pay the commutation without any sacrifice of principle; that it was put into the law purposely to meet such cases. We replied that we could see no difference between taking up arms ourselves and hiring others to do it in our places; that by the law this commutation was to be used to hire a substitute.

One notable example of a Quaker conscientious objector in the North is Cyrus G. Pringle, whose story is told in The Record of a Quaker Conscience ():

At Burlington, Vt., on , I was drafted. Pleasant are my recollections of . Much of that rainy day I spent in my chamber, as yet unaware of my fate; in writing and reading and in reflecting to compose my mind for any event. The day and the exercise, by the blessing of the Father, brought me precious reconciliation to the will of Providence.

With ardent zeal for our Faith and the cause of our peaceable principles; and almost disgusted at the luke-warmness and unfaithfulness of very many who profess these; and considering how heavily slight crosses bore upon their shoulders, I felt to say, “Here am I, Father, for thy service. As thou will.” May I trust it was He who called me and sent me forth with the consolation: “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Deeply have I felt many times since that I am nothing without the companionship of the Spirit.

I was to report on . Then, loyal to our country, William Lindley Dean and I appeared before the Provost Marshal with a statement of our cases. We were ordered for a hearing on . On the afternoon of W.L.D. was rejected upon examination of the Surgeon, but my case not coming up, he remained with me, — much to my strength and comfort. Sweet was his converse and long to be remembered, as we lay together that warm summer night on the straw of the barracks. By his encouragement much was my mind strengthened; my desires for a pure life, and my resolutions for good. In him and those of whom he spoke I saw the abstract beauty of Quakerism. On came Joshua M. Dean to support me and plead my case before the Board of Enrollment. On , I came before the Board. Respectfully those men listened to the exposition of our principles; and, on our representing that we looked for some relief from the President, the marshal released me for twenty days. Meanwhile appeared Lindley M. Macomber and was likewise, by the kindness of the marshal, though they had received instructions from the Provost Marshal General to show such claims no partiality, released to appear on .

All these days we were urged by our acquaintances to pay our commutation money; by some through well-meant kindness and sympathy; by others through interest in the war; and by others still through a belief they entertained it was our duty. But we confess a higher duty than that to country; and, asking no military protection of our Government and grateful for none, deny any obligation to support so unlawful a system, as we hold a war to be even when waged in opposition to an evil and oppressive power and ostensibly in defence of liberty, virtue, and free institutions; and, though touched by the kind interest of friends, we could not relieve their distress by a means we held even more sinful than that of serving ourselves, as by supplying money to hire a substitute we would not only be responsible for the result, but be the agents in bringing others into evil.

Pringle was tortured and threatened with execution, but refused to give in. Eventually, President Lincoln interceded on his behalf, and he was released.

Pringle wrote to Governor Holbrook about his case:

We, the undersigned members of the Society of Friends, beg leave to represent to thee, that we were lately drafted in the 3rd Dist. of Vermont, have been forced into the army and reached the camp near this town yesterday.

That in the language of the elders of our New York Yearly Meeting, “We love our country and acknowledge with gratitude to our Heavenly Father the many blessings we have been favored with under the government; and can feel no sympathy with any who seek its overthrow.”

But that, true to well-known principles of our Society, we cannot violate our religious convictions either by complying with military requisitions or by the equivalents of this compliance, the furnishing of a substitute or payment of commutation money. That, therefore, we are brought into suffering and exposed to insult and contempt from those who have us in charge, as well as to the penalties of insubordination, though liberty of conscience is granted us by the Constitution of Vermont as well as that of the United States.

Therefore, we beg of you as Governor of our State any assistance you may be able to render, should it be no more than the influence of your position interceding in our behalf.