History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The American Revolution

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 how the Quaker practice of war tax resistance evolved, particularly in America, during the period of time surrounding and including the American Revolution.

The American Revolution and Aftermath ()

When Quakers resisted tithes, militia exemption taxes, explicit war taxes, and things of that nature, the government would usually respond by seizing the resister’s property and selling it at auction in order to recover the tax. (In the earliest years of the Society of Friends, many such resisters were imprisoned, but this practice later became uncommon.)

Quaker meetings developed a protocol that good Quakers were supposed to follow when such property seizures took place. They were not supposed to cooperate in any way, but neither were they supposed to resist. They were not supposed to suggest which property the tax collector might seize, and they certainly were not supposed to leave the amount of the tax lying out on the table in plain view (some Quakers evidently tried this way of getting out of resisting). Instead, when the collector came and said he was going to seize property for unpaid taxes, the Quaker was supposed to step aside and say something along the lines of “do as you think you must,” perhaps explaining the reason for his refusal to pay, but not otherwise interfering.

If the collector seized property worth more than the amount of tax, and was able to auction it off for more than the amount owed, the collector (if honest) might try to return the surplus to the resister. A Quaker was not supposed to accept such money, it having been tainted by the process. (However, if the collector seized too many items, and only auctioned off some of them, the Quaker could accept the return of the additional items themselves.)

This part of the protocol made Quakers especially vulnerable to particularly unscrupulous tax collectors. Such a collector could seize the most valuable thing he could get his hands on, sell it, apply some of the proceeds to the tax, and then pocket the rest. Many other collectors were also accused of selling property at cut-rate prices to themselves, to their friends, or in exchange for kick-backs.

The result of all of this meant that tax resisting Quakers were often setting themselves up for considerable financial losses. These “sufferings” were part of the glory of being a Quaker, and, as such, were well worth the price to some Friends, but to others they were just an unwelcome financial hardship. Meetings had to be diligent to keep wavering Friends from trying to sneak out from under the requirements to refuse to pay certain taxes, to refuse the return of surplus money, and to not cooperate with the tax collector as a way of trying to ameliorate the burden of the seizure process.

If a Friend failed in any of these ways, someone at their meeting might “produce a testification” against them. The meeting would then investigate the charges and would send out a delegation to talk to the wayward Quaker and try to bring them back into compliance. This often would include the Quaker standing up at a future meeting to read an acknowledgment of their error and promise never to do it again. If the Quaker refused to get with the program, the meeting could “disown” them — basically kick them out of the meeting.

Simply not reporting any “sufferings” to the meeting for failure to pay war tax might be enough to start this process. (“We notice thou hastn’t had any property seized this year for failure to pay the bounty tax, Friend Johnson. Care to tell us how thou hast been so lucky?”)

American Quakers during the American Revolution were, in many places, pillaged ruthlessly by the authorities by this process of property seizure. Several things contributed to this:

  1. The Society of Friends was not united. Dissident Quakers promoted paying taxes to the rebel government, and some “Free Quakers” even abandoned the peace testimony entirely to enlist in the rebel army. This made it even harder for resisting Quakers to appeal to Quaker beliefs and practices as an explanation for their stand.
  2. Quakers had wavered in their war tax resistance stand in the recent past, for instance when the Quaker-led Pennsylvania Assembly voted to tax the colony to pay for fortifications during the French & Indian War. This was deployed as a precedent to argue that Quakers only have scruples against war tax paying at convenient times or depending on their sympathy with the particular war or government.
  3. The Quaker peace testimony was often publicly expressed with an eye to being reassuring to the authorities. So often it would include phrasing like this:

    [T]he setting up and putting down kings and governments is God’s peculiar prerogative; for causes best known to himself: And that it is not our business to have any hand or contrivance therein; nor to be busy bodies above our station, much less to plot and contrive the ruin, or overturn of any of them, but to pray for the king, and safety of our nation, and good of all men, that we may live a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty, under the government which God is pleased to set over us.

    For this reason, some Quakers felt that to adhere to this testimony they could not cooperate in any way with the rebel government, as to do so would be to contribute “to plot and contrive” against the king (others disagreed, feeling that the rebel government had become the one “which God is pleased to set over us”). Such absolutist resisters were easy targets for patriotic anger.
  4. Both armies were authorized to take any property they needed during the course of their campaigns. They were usually supposed to pay for what they took, but Quakers, being under an obligation not to supply goods to belligerents, could not accept money in such cases. This made their farms and stores particularly tempting targets for thrifty officers.
  5. Quakers who would neither serve in the military, pay war taxes, nor take oaths of allegiance to the rebel government (Quakers generally would not take oaths of any kind) were suspected of using their conscientious scruples as a cover for loyalist sympathies.
  6. Speaking of oaths, Quakers could be fined for refusing to take an oath of allegiance to the new American government. They were forbidden by Quaker discipline from paying such fines. So this became another opportunity for plunder and to me it looks like this was used deliberately as a revenue-raiser or as a way of punishing Quakers for their lack of enthusiasm for the rebel cause.

An additional complication for Quakers at this time was the fuzziness over what counted as a “war tax.” For example, one of the ways the Continental Congress funded its military campaign was to issue its own paper currency and make the acceptance of this currency as legal tender mandatory. This was certainly easier than trying to raise the money through an explicit tax, but it amounted to just as much of an imposition: as the Congress issued more and more currency to finance the war, the value of the currency plummeted, taking resources away from people who were forced to use it.

Some Quakers refused to handle the continentals, and some were imprisoned and others were threatened with execution. In other cases, such refusers were declared outlaws and boycotts were enforced against them — in one example “it was publicly proclaimed that there was no protection for him [John Cowgill], that all persons were forewarned at their peril to have no dealings with him. Even the miller was threatened with the destruction of his mill if he ground for his family, and the school-master forbid receiving his children at school.”

The official stand of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was neutral on the currency question, and asked Friends to come to their own decisions and not to chastise one-another about it. The Virginia Yearly Meeting, on the other hand, formally forbade Friends from using continentals. The official Philadelphia Yearly Meeting position on war taxes, as put forth in , was much as it had long been: “It is the judgment of this meeting that a tax levied for the purchasing of drums, colors, or for other warlike uses, cannot be paid consistently with our Christian testimony.”

Timothy Davis published a tract in laying out the case for why American Quakers should pay most of the taxes being demanded by the rebel congressional government. He was disowned by his Monthly Meeting, both for the content of the tract and for publishing it without the Meeting’s approval. He left and took a few other Quakers with him to found a rival Meeting. This conflict was still dividing the Society a decade later, when the Revolution was over and American Quakers had pretty much all adjusted to the new government God was pleased to have set over them.

The tract was well argued. Those Quakers who were trying to strengthen and broaden the practice of war tax resistance beyond what the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was willing to advocate tried to come up with an authoritative and thoroughly scripturally-backed response. Benjamin Mason, Anthony Benezet, Moses Brown, and Samuel Allinson all pursued efforts in this direction. I’ve seen some drafts of their work and their correspondence, and Allinson’s draft, at least, seems to have been widely-distributed in manuscript form, but as far as I know, no official version ended up being published.

Benezet believed that because the stronger position they were advocating would demand more from Quakers than before, and would subject them to more persecution than before, it would make the Society of Friends stronger and less-corrupted by worldly riches:

[It] will not be like a passing storm but an abiding trial, which, as it will come heavier upon those who are most loaded & encumbered with the clay of this world, will have I trust a blessed effect to every one who will willingly receive it to keep us low & humble.

Part of what may have restrained them from publishing was caution about introducing new doctrinal innovations at a time when the Society of Friends was already beginning to show signs of fracturing on party lines. Part also may be that the Meetings that would have to authorize the publication of such a pamphlet were probably hoping to quiet such debate rather than stir up a new hornet’s nest. But there was also the emerging trouble of an ultra-radical war tax resistance position that was beginning to develop. Moses Brown wrote to Anthony Benezet about this concern, saying:

[S]ome Friends refuse all taxes, even those for civil uses as well as those clear for war and others that are mixed, and thereby dropping our testimony of supporting civil government by readily contributing thereto, [and] it has been a fear whether this variety of conduct won’t mar rather than promote the work… I understand some Friends have fallen in with or been overpowered by the common argument that civil government is upheld by the sword, and therefore they decline paying to its support, which appears to me a great weakness…

Around this time, you start to see meetings supplementing their discipline about not paying explicit war taxes (“for drums, colors, and military attire”) with advice that Friends not criticize one another over their positions on whether or not to pay “mixed” taxes. Apparently the arguments in Meetings had become troublesome and did not seem to be near a resolution.

The way Quaker Meetings recorded “sufferings” went something like this: When a Quaker was subjected to persecution of some sort for taking a conscientious stand required by Quaker discipline, that Quaker would report this to his or her Monthly Meeting. That Meeting would periodically forward on a list of such reports to its Quarterly Meeting, which in turn would compile these into a report that it would submit to the Yearly Meeting.

At each stage, a Meeting might decide that some particular report wasn’t worth recording for some reason. During this period, for instance, some Monthly Meetings were recording the sufferings of Quakers who were persecuted for resisting mixed taxes, as well as for explicit war taxes. Some Quarterly Meetings dropped these reports from their submissions to the Yearly Meetings. This could lead to debate in the Meetings, which would bring the issue of war tax resistance back on to the front burner. The Rhode Island Yearly Meeting, for instance, decided to begin accepting such reports in . The Salem Yearly Meeting debated the issue and eventually followed suit.

The war tax question didn’t end with the end of the fighting. The war still needed to be paid for, and the continental currency that funded it needed to be redeemed, and the government used a variety of taxes to do this. Among these were a new set of import duties instituted in to pay war debts. A few Quakers took note of this and decided they could not pay. For example, Joshua Evans stopped using imported goods. Isaac Martin, who ran a drug store, stopped stocking and selling imported products.

The new government was also working on a unified militia law, which, though it enabled Quakers to be exempt from service, required any such conscientious objectors to pay a fine in lieu of service. A representative of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting addressed Congress, telling them that Quakers would feel obligated to refuse to pay such a fine and to suffer the consequences. Many Quakers did refuse to pay and were fined (and, as usual, the tax collectors took far more from them in property than the amount of the fines). In one area, a law was passed exempting members of the volunteer fire department from militia service without necessity of paying a fine, and this led many Quakers to sign up.

Meanwhile, what was happening in England? Quakers there were much more restrained than their American counterparts on the war tax question. When they reprinted John Woolman’s Journal in , they omitted the parts where he talked about his war tax resistance. There were some exceptions to this relative conservatism. John Payne, for example, boarded up a third of the windows of his home to avoid a property tax, put his coach up on blocks to avoid a vehicle tax, and rode miles out of his way to avoid toll gates, all to avoid paying for the war to suppress the American rebellion. He also wrote a tract chastising the Society of Friends for investing in government bonds, on the same grounds. In the years before his death he gave away his property to members of his family so that he would not be liable for any estate tax.

The War of 1812 was largely funded, on the American side, by debt spending, and so explicit war taxes did not become such an acute issue, though the issue of “mixed” taxes again became a heated topic. The military would again requisition supplies from Quakers, which Quakers felt obligated to refuse to voluntarily give them or to accept money for. And Quakers were frequently fined (and then plundered for their refusal to pay) when they would not join the militia.

Influential Quaker Elias Hicks reported in (before the Hicksite/Orthodox split) that he had addressed his Meeting’s “meeting for discipline” to ask “whether while we were actively paying taxes to civil government, for the purpose of promoting war or warlike purposes in any degree, we were not balking our testimony in that respect and pulling down with one hand what we are pretending to build with the other.” He compared this to abolitionist Quakers who nonetheless supported slavery by buying slave-produced goods.

In , several young Quaker men were imprisoned in Baltimore for their refusal to pay militia exemption fines. The state court would not interfere, as they were imprisoned under a federal regulation at the pleasure of the military, and the judge recommended that they instead apply to President Madison for help. They did, and the president said that he wouldn’t do anything about it, as the law was clear on the point. But as the Quaker delegation was leaving the president’s makeshift office (the White House had been put to the torch by the British the year before), the president’s wife, Dolley Madison, called them aside and asked to speak with them. She had been raised a Quaker. When she heard what had happened, and what the president’s response had been, she told them “I am determined that the President shall never close his eyes in sleep until these children are liberated from confinement.” It took the delegation two days to return to Baltimore, and when they got there they learned that the Quaker conscientious objectors had been released on the President’s orders.

I end this period, somewhat artificially, at . This doesn’t represent a firm boundary in the evolution of the practice of war tax resistance in the Society of Friends, but it does mark a significant milestone in the Society itself. By that year, the society had fractured into irreconcilable Orthodox and Hicksite factions that would each form their own structures of Meetings and would evolve separately in parallel for decades.

This was caused in part by a passion for strengthened religious purity among American protestant Christians that peaked in . This striving probably both contributed to a strengthening of war tax resistance (among other traditional Quaker practices) and distracted from it by making other issues more central.