A Defense of Tax Resistance Buried in a Review of Books about Robert Peel

The Eclectic Review for carried a review of two books about Robert Peel that digressed into a defense of conscientious tax resistance. Some excerpts:

On the subject of Church Rates, Sir Robert’s ethics are particularly profound. “When,” says he, “the honourable member for Leeds, (Mr. Baines,) says, that he hopes there will be an end to all imprisonment for the non-payment of church rates, I am afraid I cannot concur in that hope; for, if a demand be made in pursuance of the law of the land, and there is a refusal to pay that demand, it will be impossible to determine whether that refusal arises from conscientious feeling or from contumacy… whilst the law remains the same, authorizing the imposition, I see no alternative but to obey the law; and, if parties refuse that obedience, they must take the consequence, otherwise there will be a dissolution of the bonds of society.” — Case of John Thorogood, .

Here, a footnote:

The Editor of the “Opinions of Sir Robert Peel” states, in a foot note upon this passage, that John Thorogood, of Bungay, Essex, was imprisoned for a very considerable period, for non-payment of church rates. We fear, that Sir Robert too much resembles his chronicler in his ignorance of all that relates to dissenters. Our editor here is singularly prolific of blunders. Mr. Thorogood never lived at Bungay. Bungay never was in Essex, and the prisoner never was confined for non-payment of church rates, but for contempt of court…

The review continues:

Unquestionably, the best method of testing the accuracy of a general principle, is to apply it to an extreme case. We will suppose then, the law which Sir Robert is for enforcing, to be, that every man should be impaled and burnt, who does not recant the protestant faith, and profess his adherence, either to puseyism or popery, at his option. To such a case the principle of Sir Robert manifestly applies; and, we can imagine him saying, with his bland smile and urbane air, over his box on the table of the House of Commons, “if this demand be made in pursuance of the law of the land, and there is a refusal to comply with that demand, it will be impossible to determine whether that refusal arises from conscientious feeling or from contumacy. Whilst the law remains, I see no alternative but to obey it, and, if parties refuse that obedience, they must take the consequence, otherwise there would be a dissolution of the bonds of society.”

…[E]xpediency is the grinding law of his political system… We refer to the rule as laid down in the matter of church rates, with reference to the duty of subjects to obey the existing laws of their country. We should not deem it necessary to recur to this subject, but for the very erroneous opinions which, as we conceive, prevail most extensively amongst the professed advocates of religious freedom. It is very generally maintained, both in and out of parliament, that the established religion of this country should be maintained by the pecuniary support of all, whether belonging to or dissenting from its religious tenets, on the ground that the law of the land enforces such support; and that the authority of such law should be paramount amongst all christian communities. We think that it becomes the christian world at large to give their most serious attention to this principle. It has long been the fashion to regard abstract principles of right or wrong as altogether inadmissible to the courts, both of civil and ecclesiastical jurisprudence. The lofty, we might almost say, unequalled genius of Mr. Burke, has stamped a current and nominal value on this fiction, which it by no means deserves. The vulgar have come to regard it as a sort of text of political scripture; or rather, perhaps, with that selfish awe with which those contemplate a piece of bank paper, who have been deluded by the declaration of an eminent statesman, that a one pound note and a shilling are to all intents and purposes equivalent to a guinea. Mr. Burke indeed tells us, that abstract principles of right applied to the concerns of civil society, are like rays of light penetrating into a dense medium, which become refracted from their own original direction; and, under the shadow of Mr. Burke’s genius, many no doubt have taken up with the philosophy of existing laws, and deemed all national innovation as little less than profane. But in this matter it become the servants of Christ to recollect, that they are placed under two systems of law, to each of which they owe a suitable and proportionate obedience. A certain denomination of professing christians is established among us, supported by the patronage of government, and the authority of law. Under this system, doctrines are formally propounded which we regard as hostile to the dictates of the religion of Christ. The problem we have to solve is simply this: are we to obey the government, existing pro tempore, or that authority which existed under supreme sanction, before our little policy was even predicted; and which will exist in undiminished force when our very history shall have been transmuted into tradition. Are we, in a word, to obey the eternal truth of God, or to conform to the shifting expedients of men. In this dilemma, we have at least the precedent of the inspired apostles. If the dictum of Sir R. Peel is deserving of even a transient thought, the inspired apostles were wrong; they were guilty of a seditious violation of the law, and set the example of impious insubordination to all their successors in the christian faith. We may say, without irreverence, that the position of the inspired apostles was precisely similar to that of conscientious dissenters of the present day. The pagan forms of hostility to the christian religion stood in their way, backed by the power of imperial Rome; and before us stands a system of spurious christianity, with its baptismal regeneration, its apostolical succession, its confirmation and absolution, its creeds and formularies, scarcely less opposed to the revealed will of God. The question is now what it was then — Will you support by your contribution, your subscription, or any other form of adhesion, what you regard as directly opposed to the revealed will of God? Sir Robert Peel says, at all hazards obey the law of the land; we say, “whether it is right to obey God or men, judge ye.”

The question respecting the duties of dissenters, in reference to the pecuniary support of the established church, is of so very simple a kind, that any difference of opinion with regard to it, especially in the minds of Christian men, becomes a matter of mere astonishment. Such men admit it to be their highest duty to propagate the pure truth of the gospel, and not only to refuse their support, but to offer their utmost resistance to all systems of opinion which are inconsistent with that truth. Such persons hold as the most sacred aud fundamental doctrine of their faith, that mankind can only be saved by repentance towards God, and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ; whereas the Anglican church teaches, that unconscious infants are regenerated by baptism, that in that rite they are made “members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the kingdom of heaven.”

Several other such examples of Anglicans-are-ridiculous-crypto-papists whereas we-are-following-the-one-true-faith follow.

It is unnecessary to enumerate farther what we consider to he the vital errors held by the established church of this country. We have cited some which appear to us to attack the very vitals of the Christian religion. Can it be a question with one who is well instructed in the truth of the gospel, jealous for its integrity, and solicitous for its extension, whether he should contribute to the propagation of such dangerous errors as have just been indicated? Would not this be to scatter poisons with one hand, and to proffer antidotes with the other? And if the claims of God are paramount to the authority of man, and the duty of allegiance to him far more binding than the conventional proprieties of human politics, we cannot imagine any man who holds those principles which we have here assumed, supporting by any means, direct or indirect, the pernicious doctrines to which they stand opposed. To plead in excuse that we are bound to obey existing laws, is at once and deliberately to postpone the authority of God to that of man, and would necessarily involve the co-operation of those who hold it in a legal effort to extirpate Christianity itself from the world. On the other hand, those who protest against these principles, but still contribute to their propagation, because that course is prescribed by law, and excuse themselves under the plea that while they feel bound to obey the law as it exists, they are doing their best to secure its repeal, incur a practical absurdity of a kind, if possible, still more flagrant. They allow the legislature to fix them in this dilemma: “You cannot pretend that your conscience forbids you thus to support the hierarchy because, in defiance of such scruples, you do so every day; while, on the other hand, your objection, if only of a political or economical nature, we must treat as we should a peculiar antipathy to assessed taxes, or an irresistible passion for smuggling.” It appears to us most evident that the only ground on which dissenters can consistently oppose ecclesiastical imposts is the ground of conscience, and that the only way of making such an objection intelligible to others is religiously and unswervingly to act upon it.