The Federal Bureau of Investigation has recently released 423 pages from the files it kept on radical historian Howard Zinn.
The following account of a pacifist crisis of conscience over military commutation fines during the American Civil War comes from the Autobiography of Adin Ballou.
A Case of Conscription
At this point I must put on record one special exploit of the high-pretending warpower of the United States government which we were counseled to summon to our aid in seeking the overthrow of slavery. In , under a law authorizing the conscription of soldiers for replenishing the depleted ranks of the army, one of the loyal members of our Community, John Lowell Heywood, was drawn for the required service. As he could not conscientiously respond in person to the demand made upon him nor employ a substitute to fill his place, it was deemed advisable, after considerable hesitancy and discussion, that the prescribed commutation equivalent of three hundred dollars should be paid by him and such of his friends as might be moved to assist him in the crisis, rather than that he should be made to suffer the penal infliction provided for those who, under such circumstances, refused to join the forces then in the field. This was accordingly done. I have since feared that we acted wrongfully in the matter, feeling that it would have been more consistent with our principles and a more effective testimony against the wicked exactions of the government to have allowed the law to have taken its proper course and dealt with our unresisting brother to the full extent of its despotic and inexorable requirements. I do not recommend a repetition of our course in future cases of a similar sort, although in the unprecedented pressure of events I advised the payment of the money. It was done, however, under public protest formally presented to the military anthorities at the time, a copy of which, prepared by myself and approved by the Community, I take the liberty to submit to my readers and to coming generations as follows:
To the governmental authorities of the United States and their constituents, the undersigned, John Lowell Heywood of Hopedale, in the town of Milford, in the eighth congressional district of Massachusetts, respectfully maketh solemn declaration, remonstrance, and protest, to wit:
That he has been enrolled, drafted, and notified to appear as a soldier of the United States, pursuant to an Act of Congress approved March 3, 1863, commonly called the Conscription Law.
That he holds in utter abhorrence the rebellion which the said law was designed to aid in suppressing and would devotedly fight unto death against it if he could conscientiously resort to deadly weapons in any case whatsoever.
But that he has been for nearly nine years a member in good and regular standing of a Christian Community whose religious confession of faith and practice pledges its members “never to kill, injure, or harm any human being, even their worst enemy.”
That in accordance with his highest convictions of duty and his sacred pledge as a member of said Community, he has scrupulously and uniformly abstained from participating in the state and national governments under which he has lived — not only foregoing the franchises, preferments, emoluments, and advantages of a constituent co-governing citizen, but also the privilege of righting his wrongs by commencing suits at law, and of calling on government for protection against threatened violence — in order thereby to avoid making himself morally responsible for their constitutional dernier resorts to war, capital punishment, and other kindred acts, and also to commend to mankind by a consistent example those divine principles which prepare the way for a higher order of society and government on earth.
That, nevertheless, it is one of the cardinal Christian principles to respect existing human government, however imperfect, as a natural outgrowth and necessity of society for the time being, subordinate to the providential overrulings of the supreme divine government, and therefore to be an orderly, submissive, peaceable, tribute-paying subject thereof; to be no detriment or hindrance to any good thereby subserved; to countenance no rebellion, sedition, riot, or other disorderly demonstration against its anthorities; to oppose its greatest abuses and wrongs only by truthful testimony and firm, moral remonstrance; and in the last resort, when obliged for conscience’ sake to non-comply with its requirements, to submit meekly to whatever penalties it may impose.
That with such principles, scruples, and views of duty, he can not conscientiously comply with the demands of this Conscription Law, either by serving as a soldier or by procuring a substitute. Nor can he pay the three hundred dollars of commutation money which the law declaratively appropriates to the hiring of a substitute, except under explicit remonstrance and protest that the same is virtually taken from him by compulsion lor a purpose and use to which he could never voluntarily contribute it, and for which he holds himself in no wise morally responsible.
And he hereby earnestly protests, not only for himself but also in behalf of his Christian associates and all other orderly, peaceable, tax-paying, non-juring subjects of the government of whatever denomination or class, that their conscientious scruples against war and human life-taking, ought, in justice and honor, to be respected by the legislators and administrators of a professedly republican government; and that, aside from general taxation for the support thereof, no person of harmless and exemplary life who is conscientiously opposed to war and deadly force between human beings, and especially no person who for conscience sake foregoes the franchises, preferments, privileges, and advantages of a constituent citizen, ought ever to be conscripted as a soldier, either in person or property.
Now, therefore, I, the said John Lowell Heywood, do pay the three hundred dollars commutation money to the government of the United States, under military constraint in respectful submission to the powers that be, but solemnly protesting against the exaction as an infraction of my natural and indefeasable rights as a conscientious, peaceable subject. And for the final vindication of my canse, motives, and intentions, I appeal to the moral sense of all just men, and above all to the inerrable judgment of the Supreme Father and Ruler of the universe.
Subscribed with my hand at Hopedale, Milford, Mass., this .
John Lowell Heywood.
That excerpt comes from Ballou’s Autobiography ( edition, pages 449–452). Ballou also includes the letter in his History of the Hopedale Community, prefacing it with the following ( edition, pages 317–8):
Case of Conscription
In the summer of one of our faithful and worthy members, J. Lowell Heywood, was drafted into the military service of the United (?) States under the Conscription Act of in the same year. This was a sore trial and a cause of much anxiety to himself and family, and scarcely less so to all the rest of us. That he could not enter the army and serve as a soldier there, was a foregone conclusion. The only question was whether he should pay the prescribed $300.00 commutation money, as the law allowed him to do, or submit to such military penalties as might be pronounced against him, however severe they might be. Public opinion among us was divided upon that question. A strong feeling prevailed that absolute consistency required that he should suffer a heroic personal martyrdom, and thus bear the most effective testimony to his religious principles; but it was also thought that the commutation money might be paid by himself and friends in good conscience and without blame, if it were done under protest, thus saving him from indefinite incarceration in fortress or prison, or from possible death, should military infatuation or madness, as might be the case, carry the matter to such an extreme. My personal sympathies for his family in their distress overruled my sterner convictions, and I gave my adhesion to the latter view, drawing up a paper in remonstrance for presentation at martial headquarters, which, at the time, I persuaded myself met the moral demands of the case. This course was finally approved by a majority of our members and carried into effect. As a further token of our position at that great crisis of our national history, and of our adherence to our standard of faith under perplexing circumstances, the document is herewith submitted:
…and suffixing it with the following (pages 320–1):
Upon more deliberate and dispassionate examination of this whole matter, I had serious misgivings as to the rightfulness of the course that was pursued. The Protest, though inherently just and good, was too weak to meet the moral exigency of the case and produce salutary results. The spirit of conscienceless domination which tramples on such sacred scruples and rights as the document enumerates, seems to require a more stringent moral resistance in order to be made to feel its culpability and be brought to repentance — in order to be regenerated. It is sheer extortion and persecution; an outrage unwarranted, save in the ethics of brutal despotism, to conscript a man of such principles, character, and life as our victimized associate. And when committed, it should be met with unflinching moral heroism and personal martyrdom, even unto death, if need be, in order to arouse public attention to the enormity of the offence and induce a radical and most necessary reform in the practical administration, not alone of military affairs but of the concerns of states and nations. At least this is my present persuasion.