Quaker John Woolman on War Tax Resistance

I’ve lately set out to share some of the research I’ve done into tax resistance movements and enthusiasts by collecting some of what has been written about them into a “Tax Resistance Reader” that I’ll publish through a print-on-demand vanity press (a publishing option that’s become increasingly attractive and affordable recently).

I’m going to include a mix of contemporary documents and later analyses. So far, I’ve been delighted at how willing writers and rights-holders have been to give permission for me to reprint their works in a collection like this. Pretty much everybody I’ve asked has said “yes.” Nobody’s said “no” yet, but a few people haven’t responded or have proven difficult to track down.

As I assemble the collection, I’ll post some of those documents that are in the public domain here as well.

For instance, here is an excerpt from John Woolman’s journals that I hadn’t seen before (it isn’t included in many editions) — the peculiar spelling and capitalization is from the original:

One evening a Friend came to our Lodgings who was a Justice of the Peace, and in a friendly way introduced the Subject of Refusing to pay taxes to Support wars and perceiving that I was one who Scrupled the payment, Said that he had wanted an Opportunity with some in that Circumstance, whereupon we had some Conversation in a Brotherly way on Some texts of Scripture relating thereto, in the Conclusion of which he said that According to Our way of proceeding it would follow that whenever the Administration of Government was ill, we must Suffer destraint of goods rather than pay actively toward Supporting it. To which I replied Men put in publick Stations are intended for good purposes, Some to make good laws, others to take care that those laws are not broken. Now if these men thus set apart do not answer the design of their Institution, our freely contributing to Support them in that Capacity when we certainly know that they are wrong, is to Strengthen them in a wrong way & tends to make them forget that it is so, But when from a Clear understanding of the case we are Really uneasie with the application of money, and in the Spirit of meekness suffer distress to be made on our goods rather than pay actively, this joyned with an upright Uniform life may tend to put men a thinking about their own publick Conduct.

He said he would propose a Medium. That is, where men in Authority do not act agreeable to the mind of those who Constituted them he thought the people should Rather Remonstrate than refuse a Volentary payment of moneys so demanded, and added, Civil Government is an agreement of free men, by which they Oblige themselves to Abide by Certain Laws as a Standard, and to refuse to Obey in that Case is of the like nature as to refuse to do any particular act which we had Covenanted to do. I replied, that in making Covenants, it was agreeable to Honesty and uprightness to take care that we do not foreclose ourselves from adhering Strictly to true Virtue in all Occurrences relating thereto. But if I should unwarily promise to Obey the orders of a Certain man, or number of men, without any proviso, and he, or they Comand me to assist in doing some great Wickedness, I may then Se my error in making Such promise and an active Obedience in that case would be Ading one evil to another: That though by such promise I should be lyable to punishment for disobedience, yet to Suffer rather than Act to me appears most Virtuous.

The whole of our Conversation was in Calmness & good Will. And here it may be noted that in Pensylvania, where there are many friends under that Scruple, a petition was presented to the Assembly by a large number of friends, asking that no Law might be passed to Enjoyn the payment of money for such Uses, which they as a peacable people could not pay for Conscience Sake.

More excerpts from John Woolman’s journals can be found on The Picket Line at this page. Woolman and some of his fellow-Friends who shared a “Scruple” concerning war taxes sent a letter on the subject to Friends meetings in Pennsylvania. On , I reprinted it here.

Here is how Woolman describes the ensuing controversy:

Copies of this Epistle were sent amongst Friends in the several parts of the Province of Pennsylvania, and as Some in the Society who were easie to pay the Tax Spake… openly against it, and as some of those who were concerned in the Conference… believed themselves rightly exercised in putting forward the Epistle, They in the next Yearly meeting Exprest a willingness to have their conduct in that case Enquired into, But friends in the Yearly Meeting did not… enter into the Consideration of it. When the Tax was gathered many paid it Actively and Others Scrupled the payment, and in Many places [the Collectors & Constables being friends] distress was made on their goods… by their fellow members. This deficulty was Considerable and at the Yearly Meeting at Philad the matter was opened and a Committee of about… forty Friends were appointed Some from each Quarter to consider the case, and report their Judgment on this point whither or no it would be best at this time publickly to Consider it in the Yearly meeting.

At this meeting were our Friends William Reckett, John Hunt, and Christopher Willson from English, Benjamin Ferris from the Province of New York, and Thomas Nicholson from North Carolina, who at the request of the Yearly Meeting all sat with us,—

we met and Seting some hours adjourned until the next morning: It was a time of deep Exercise to many minds, and after some hours spent at our Second meeting the following report was drawn & Sign’d by a fr’d in behalf of y’ Committee

Agreeable to the appointment of the Yearly meeting we have met & had several weighty & deliberate conferrences on the Subject commited to us and as we find there are diversity of Sentiments we are for that & Several other reasons Unanimously of the Judgment that it is not proper to enter into a publick discussion of the matter & we are one in Judgment that it is highly necessary for the yearly meeting to recomend that Friends every where endeavour earnestly to have their minds covered with fervent Charity towards one another which report was entered on the minutes & Copies sent in the Extracts to the Quarterly & monthly Meetings.