French Envoy to U.S. Rebels Unimpressed by Quaker War Tax Scruples

Gérard de Reyneval worked as a diplomatic intermediary between the Continental Congress and the French government, which was delighting in the colonial rebellion within its European rival.

In one of the intelligence reports he sent back to France in , he painted an unflattering picture of Quaker war tax resistance:

The following details in regard to the Quakers, which I have the honor to transmit to you, are of a mixed character.

At the beginning of the troubles, when the colonies rebelled against the (English) project of deriving a revenue from America, the Quakers had the most influence in the government of Pennsylvania. With one exception, all agreed to defend by force of arms the exemption from every tax. Previous to this they had voted for the war against the Indians, and when the question of independence came up, the Quakers opposed it with all their might. Steps were then taken to excite the English and German population of the remoter sections of the colony, and Pennsylvania fell in with the sentiments of the other colonies. Upon this the Quakers made an outcry against war taxes, which placed them in such contradiction with themselves as to increase their discredit.

, proofs were obtained of the services rendered to them by the Quakers; some of these were caught acting as spies, and, as it has been thus far the mistaken policy of the fraternity to support all individuals belonging to it, the odium and blame of this have reacted against the whole body. This devotedness did not preserve them from the exactions of the English, who disposed of whatever suited them, even of the furniture inside their houses. The Quakers furnished General Howe with money to redeem themselves, notwithstanding which their houses and gardens in Philadelphia were destroyed; a prominent man among them, who had given a considerable sum to Lord Howe, publicly reproached him, and declared that he would follow him wherever he went to recover the value of his dwelling.

These barbarous proceedings, which have made more Whigs in America than there are Tories now, have not had the same effects on the Quakers. You will remember, Monseigneur, a document full of a kind of arrogance which they had circulated in the State of Pennsylvania, where they no longer are representatives. The only result was the indignation and contempt of the Whigs: but real or affected sentiment has no shame, and they rather borrowed glory from this on the ground of persecution. The feeling, however, did not last, and when the news came of the evacuation of New York (taken by the British), it was believed that, through secret intelligence, they were aware of it, and, afterward, that they would try to make up with the actual Government. The President of Congress notified me that they would confer with me. They sounded him before hand, and several deputations waited upon him, who confined themselves to recommending private matters. They went further with me. I will relate, Monseigneur, how this embassy was prepared and carried out.

Only the Quakers possessed any merchandise; they had bought it at low prices of the English, at , and re-sold it very dear. This furnished me with opportunities to have relations with many of them, and the desire to judge for myself of the actual state of such a celebrated sect led me into conversations with them, which turned only on general matters relating to their sect and principles. One day, one of them bluntly said to me: “You have a good deal of trouble in finding furniture. Come into our houses and select what you like; you will then address yourself to Congress, and Congress will take from us to give to you at any price you please.” I felt the full force of this rejoinder. I asked him why he did not pay voluntarily. “Our religion forbids us,” he replied. “I fear then,” said I in return, “that, as people accuse you, you have an easy conscience when called upon to pay money and to concern yourselves for things not to your taste; and that a religion which has no other public influence in society than to produce avarice and an inordinate love of ease and indolence must strike enlightened people as a mask for hypocrisy.” I manifested a desire to have this doubt cleared up. This led to a discussion, which ended by the Quaker telling me that he would bring me a person who knew more than himself, able to solve my doubts, and with whom I could explain myself in French. The name of this person is Benezet, son of a French refugee, who has turned Quaker, and who is a man of intelligence and learning. He prepared me for the mission by sending me one of the brethren, who praised highly the merit and virtues of this sort of patriarch.

Finally he came, and we had several conversations on the history, principles, and career of his sect. It was only at our last interview, , that he at last declared, yielding to my arguments, that, agreeing with most of the fraternity, he thought that the Quakers ought to submit to the actual government and pay taxes, without questioning the use to which these might be put; but that they had weak brethren among them, whose scruples they were obliged to respect. I made him sensible of the dangers of this mistaken policy, one which involved a loss of public esteem universally, and warranted the distrust and rigorous measures of the government. I remarked to him that since they had been able to secure the confidence of the English administration, the principles of which differed so much from their own, it would be easy to come to terms with a government tolerant in principles and which would not persecute them when once combined with it. Sieur Benezet seemed to have resolved to expound these truths; he ended by begging me to favor the fraternity, and especially to exercise my good offices in behalf of some Mennonites affiliated with them, who had been imprisoned and fined for not taking up arms. I replied that it was not in my mission to arrest the energies of the American government, and that when the Quakers had performed their duties they would no longer be in fear of persecution.

The President of Congress expressed his best thanks to me for the way in which I had conducted this affair, and begged me to treat the ulterior demands of the Quakers in the same fashion.

Anthony Benezet was one of the signers of the “epistle of tender love and caution” that can be considered the founding document of American war tax resistance.