Why Quaker War Tax Resistance Dimished After Civil War

When I was doing research for American Quaker War Tax Resistance, I deliberately chose to limit the timespan I was researching to the pre- period because I didn’t want to deal with the fuss of trying to track down the copyright of obscure works published after that time.

But what I discovered was that evidence of Quaker war tax resistance petered out almost entirely during the twenty years after the end of the American Civil War.

The tradition of war tax resistance, which had been so strong at one point that Quakers risked being disowned by their meetings if they were caught paying war taxes and refused to sincerely repent, died out so thoroughly that when Quaker conscientious objectors rediscovered war tax resistance in the latter half of the 20th Century, many seemed to think that it was a new innovation to the Quaker Peace Testimony.

It remains a mystery why the tradition died out. Here’s another data point, though, from the Reading Eagle (excerpt):

A Friend [H.M. Wallis] in Reading, Berkshire, Eng., writes to the Public Ledger, Philadelphia, to explain the attitude of the members of his sect in England, as follows:

“The real feeling of the Society of Friends in England may be gauged from the fact, which is not disputed, that no Friend, so far as is known, has declined to pay his war taxes, so called. Even the Friends who during the South African war permitted the authorities to distrain upon their goods rather than pay the (then) war tax, and the still larger number who refused for years to pay education rates, have seen their ways to pay the much larger war taxes of today without demur.”

The Vote

From the issue of The Vote:

Mrs. [Emma] Sproson said she had only been a week out of Stafford County Prison, where she had served seven days in the third division for refusing to pay her dog-license. Since then, three other summonses had also been served for the same reason — one upon her husband for “aiding and abetting.” This was very serious indeed. If the decision went against Mr. Sproson it would establish the principle that a wife could not keep even a cat without the consent of her husband. Whatever happened the speaker was determined not to let either the police or the Government get the better of her. There were times when militancy was absolutely necessary. Tax resistance was a splendid form of protest when the person who resisted had no goods that could be distrained upon. There was nothing for it but to put that person into prison. This placed the Government in a very awkward position. Public sympathy was always with the person who refused to pay taxes as a matter of principle, and the Government, in sending that person to prison, was regarded as an aggressor. There were those who considered that suffragists were prepared to go too far in their determination to obtain that for which they were fighting. But true reformers were willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of a principle; it was the false reformer who considered that there were limits to sacrifice.

Mrs. [Margaret] Nevinson said when they were at school they were taught that freedom had been won for England by such men as Hampden, who had resisted the payment of ship-money. There was, however, no freedom for women.…

From elsewhere in the same issue:

Tax Resistance in Wolverhampton

“Love me, love my dog,” is an adage which we are not sure a wife is entitled to use. When the authorities — the Wolverhampton police — first enquired into the ownership of my dog, my husband repudiated all claim; consequently, in default of taking out a license, I was committed to prison and served seven days in the third division. On my release I made known my intention of continuing to refuse to take out a license. The police are trying to assert their authority, and on Friday last served me with three summonses — one for keeping a dog without a license, a second for keeping a ferocious dog, and a third for keeping a ferocious dog without proper control; and a fourth was served on Mr. Sproson “for aiding, abetting and procuring one Emma Sproson to keep a dog without a license.”

The first charge is the same as the one for which I have already served seven days, thereby causing the authorities to assert that I was the responsible individual; the second and third are the grossest possible libel on poor “Gip,” and are brought forward as a means of hampering my protest.

The fourth is one which we as suffragists need to enquire into with the most careful consideration. The police see that nothing can be got from me except such suffering as they shall impose on my person. The public support I have received has evidently only had the effect of making the police determined to stop me somehow. So the musty old law of coverture has been brought into action. Under this law they say the husband can be coerced against his will into responsibility for the action of his wife. He has distrainable goods, and these can be seized until he cannot resist the power of the law any longer. Whether the authorities know quite well where they stand remains to be seen.

Their position may be made more clear to my readers than it is to themselves by the following questions which were put to me by Mr. Sproson:— If I took out a license without any regard to your opinions, what would you do? I replied that I should get another dog. If I killed your dog, what then? I replied that I should get another dog. If I told you you must discontinue keeping a dog or leave my roof, what should you do? I replied — I should leave your roof, and I should cease to regard you as a husband and consider you a tyrant.

So the wise men of Wolverhampton have to decide whether a husband has the right to turn his wife from his house or to act as though she is a responsible human being who ought to have the same human rights as himself. Many of my critics will say — it is pushing a protest to extremes to appear to think more of a dog than of a husband, home and children. But I reply it is a principle that is at stake. I once learnt a lesson which struck root right down into my nature, as Ibsen puts it, and this is that the worship of one fragment of the golden calf is as much idolatry as the worship of the whole calf. There are many reformers — too many, perhaps — and what differentiates the true reformer from the false is the true sacrifices — all if need be not caring for consequences — the false always have their limit.

Emma Sproson.