History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The Pennsylvania Experiment

At the upcoming national gathering of NWTRCC at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, I’m going to be presenting a summary of the history of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Today I’m going to try to coalesce some of the notes I’ve assembled about the second, and possibly most important, period of Quaker war tax resistance — between the establishment of the Quaker colony in Pennsylvania and the relinquishment of political control there by Quakers during the French and Indian War.

The Pennsylvania experiment ()

The advance of war tax resistance among English Quakers had ground to a halt. Quakers in England still would not pay certain explicit war taxes like “trophy money,” nor pay for substitutes to serve in their places in the military, nor buy goods stolen at sea from enemy nations by government-sanctioned pirates, but attempts failed to extend this testimony to other taxes that were clearly designed to pay for war.

For example, Elizabeth Redford tried to convince Quakers to refuse a new tax in on the grounds that it was obviously meant to fund the Seven Years War (the act that enacted the tax was entitled “For granting to his majesty certain rates and duties upon marriages, births, and burials, and upon bachelors and widowers, for the term of five years, for carrying on the war against France with vigour”). Her meeting brought her up on charges of violating the discipline and declared that whatever the purpose of the tax, it was being raised by the crown for expenses of its choosing and Quakers should not inquire further into what those expenses were but should pay the tax without question.

Several years later, during the War of the Spanish Succession, this got thrown back in Quaker faces. William Ray, in a letter to Quaker Samuel Bownas, argued that Quakers should stop resisting tithes because they had stopped resisting war taxes: “though the title of the act of parliament did plainly show that the tax was for carrying on a war against France with vigour” he wrote, “since the war against France began your Friends have given the same active obedience to the laws for payment of taxes as their fellow subjects have done.” Bownas did not deny this, but instead he tried to argue that tithes were different.

Meanwhile, Quaker William Penn was granted a royal charter for a large North American colony, to which many Quakers emigrated and established a colonial government that would be run, to some extent, on Quaker pacifist principles. I say “to some extent” because it was still a royal colony, under the military protection of the crown, and with an explicit colonial mandate to engage in military battles against enemies of the home country. The Quaker Assembly of the colony was also subservient in many ways to the crown-appointed governors and to the British government itself.

Occasionally during wartime, that government would appeal to the Pennsylvania Assembly to raise some funds to help out the war effort — to help defend Pennsylvania against pirates, Frenchmen, hostile Indians, and the like. The Assembly would sometimes respond to such requests with noble-sounding statements of Quaker principle, like this one by Assembly Speaker David Lloyd in : “the raising money to hire men to fight or kill one another is matter of conscience to us and against our religious principles.”

But most commentators on the period, even those who are sympathetic to the Quaker pacifist position, tend to read these statements cynically. The Assembly used these requests for money as opportunities to try to wrest more control from the governor and from London. These statements of conscience seemed often not to be principles so much as gambits in the negotiation process. The Assembly would usually, in the end, grant the requested money, or some amount anyway, but would thinly veil its nature by eliminating any wording about the money being intended for the military and instead would simply decree that it was intended as a gift to the crown from its grateful subjects, “for the Queen’s [or King’s] use.”

This was such a transparent dodge that it became hard for anyone to take seriously the part of the Quaker peace testimony represented in Lloyd’s quote. On one occasion, according to colonial legislator Benjamin Franklin, the Assembly refused to vote war money, but instead granted funds “for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain” knowing that the governor would interpret “other grain” to include gunpowder.

The Assembly were able to get away with this, in a colony full of ostensibly conscientious Quakers, because the orthodox point of view about war tax resistance in the Society held that only explicit war taxes were to be resisted, while generic taxes that only happened to be for war were to be paid willingly. So long as the government kept the name of the tax neutral and didn’t detail how it would be spent, a Quaker could pay it without having to worry about it.

But some Quakers were unable to remain blind to the Assembly’s sleight-of-hand. In , the Rhode Island Quarterly Meeting sent emissaries to some of its rebellious Monthly Meetings who were beginning to refuse to pay state taxes on these grounds. In , William Rakestraw published a pamphlet in which he agreed that “we ought not to ask Cæsar what he does with his dues or tribute, but pay it freely,” but added: “if he tells me it is for no other use but war and destruction, I’ll beg his pardon and say ‘my Master forbids it.’ ” He argued that the latest “for the Queen’s use” grant, in spite of its generic name, should fool nobody: it was meant to fund war, and no Quaker should pay a tax for it. Thomas Story, who visited the colony from England, defended the orthodox position, and had traveled Pennsylvania encouraging Quakers to pay their war taxes.

During the French & Indian War, Pennsylvania was invaded from the west. The westernmost European settlers in Pennsylvania were largely non-Quaker, and were impatient for a military defense — they felt that the Quaker pacifists in Philadelphia were using them as a shield. The Pennsylvania Assembly eventually gave in to their demands. It organized a volunteer militia and appropriated money for fortifications. This time it did not use the “for the King’s use” dodge by giving the money to the crown and letting it allocate the funds to war expenses, but instead the Assembly appointed its own commissioners to spend the money, and so became responsible itself for the war spending. (The legislation itself still tried to put a happy face on things, saying the grant was “for supplying our friendly Indians, holding of treaties, relieving the distressed settlers who have been driven from their lands, and other purposes for the King’s service,” but it was that last clause — “other purposes” — that hid where most of the spending would actually happen: largely building and supplying military forts.)

This compromise pleased few. Back in London there were calls to ban Quakers from colonial government entirely for their refusal to support the military defense of the colonies. London Quakers were urging pacifist Quakers to resign from the Pennsylvania Assembly as a way of forestalling complete disenfranchisement.

At the same time, a set of American Quakers felt that this was the last straw and if Quaker legislators were going to abandon their pacifist principles and enact a war spending bill, it would be up to Quaker taxpayers to refuse and resist. Several of them, including Anthony Benezet, sent a letter to the Assembly announcing that “as the raising sums of money, and putting them into the hands of committees who may apply them to purposes inconsistent with the peaceable testimony we profess and have borne to the world, appears to us in its consequences to be destructive of our religious liberties; we apprehend many among us will be under the necessity of suffering rather than consenting thereto by the payment of a tax for such purposes.”

That petition was not viewed sympathetically by the Assembly. They reminded everyone that nobody had had any problem paying those “for the Queen’s use” taxes in the past, and that this new tax was really not very different, even though the fig leaf had been removed. Meanwhile, the anti-Quakers in London got word of the petition which further inflamed them and gave them ammunition in their fight to get Quakers disenfranchised. The London Yearly Meeting was furious about the petition and it sent two emissaries to the colonies with orders to “explain and enforce our known principles and practice respecting the payment of taxes for the support of civil government.”

The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting held a conference in to try to come up with some guidance for Friends on whether or not to pay the new war taxes. They were unable to reach consensus. A group of them, including Benezet & John Woolman, sent a letter to quarterly and monthly meetings that set out the reasons why they were choosing to resist. The Assembly’s attempt to hide its war tax as a “mixed” tax with beneficial spending in the mix did not impress them. They wrote:

[T]hough some part of the money to be raised by the said Act is said to be for such benevolent purposes as supporting our friendship with our Indian neighbors and relieving the distresses of our fellow subjects who have suffered in the present calamities, for whom our hearts are deeply pained; and we affectionately and with bowels of tenderness sympathize with them therein; and we could most cheerfully contribute to those purposes if they were not so mixed that we cannot in the manner proposed show our hearty concurrence therewith without at the same time assenting to, or allowing ourselves in, practices which we apprehend contrary to the testimony which the Lord has given us to bear for his name and Truth’s sake.

This is one answer to the dilemma many Quakers find themselves in today. The U.S. government is in a constant state of war and threatens the whole world with its vast nuclear arsenal and its drone assassins. But it pays for this out of the same budget and with the same taxes as it pays for everything else it buys — including today’s equivalents of “such benevolent purposes as supporting our friendship with our Indian neighbors and relieving the distresses of our fellow subjects who have suffered in the present calamities” — so what is a good Quaker to do? Benezet, Woolman, and the rest took the position that mixing good spending and bad doesn’t erase the stain from the bad, but stains the good.

The capitulation by the Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly was not a compromise that satisfied either the militant Pennsylvanians, the anti-Quaker antagonists in London, or the prominent pacifists in the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. In , under pressure from all sides, most Quaker legislators resigned from the Assembly, and the experiment in Quaker government in Pennsylvania came to an end.

Meanwhile, what had become of those London Quaker enforcers who had come across the pond to knock some sense into the war tax resisting faction? Something unexpected happened: they met with representatives from both the taxpaying and tax-resisting factions, held a two-day meeting on the subject, and ended up agreeing to disagree. The London representatives, rather than chastizing the resisters, instead recommended that Quakers “endeavor earnestly to have their minds covered with fervent charity towards one another” on the subject without taking a position one way or the other.

That’s not what the London Yearly Meeting had in mind. But the logic of the war tax resisters’ position, and the sincerity with which they presented it, had an infectious tendency. Not long after the emissaries returned home, the London Yearly Meeting had been expected to issue a strong condemnation of the resisters who had signed the letter urging Quakers to consider refusing to pay the war tax. Instead, the topic was dropped from the agenda entirely. Why? Because the more Quakers in England heard about the war tax resistance in Pennsylvania, the more sympathetic they became. The Yearly Meeting authorities decided it was better not to discuss the matter at all rather than risk facing the sort of enthusiasm for war tax resistance that had rocked the Philadelphia meeting.