American Quakers Debate War Tax Resistance in 1863

I related a debate that took place in the pages of the Friends’ Intelligencer in . As it turns out, though, I should have kept hunting, as parts of the debate slipped my notice during my first pass through that volume of the journal.

Here, for example, is Nathaniel Richardson’s response to his critics, written in :

Friends and Government Requisitions
No. 3. — A Review.

“Reasoning at every step he treads
 Man yet mistakes his way.” — Cowper

It was believed by the writer hereof to be his duty to cite, for re-examination, certain traditionary views of the Society of Friends — long cherished and embodied in their Discipline. This he endeavored to do in an essay which appeared in the 16th number of the current volume of Friends’ Intelligencer, which was followed a few weeks later by another essay, intended further to elucidate the subject. The views which he has thus presented have been assailed by nearly a dozen different writers, who have, in some instances, even called in question the propriety of such subjects being discussed in a Friends’ periodical. These numerous articles have been carefully read and considered by N.R., who, with desires for the prevalence of truth, has, he trusts, but little of the feelings of an antagonist towards their several authors. And now being more and more confirmed in the correctness of his views, and consequently thinking that he sees in the objections of his commentators, both fallacy and error, he believes it right for him to review and reply to some of their most prominent arguments and conclusions.

He presumes that none of them will ascribe to all that is contained within the lids of our book of discipline, so high a degree of sacredness as must forbid to the members of the Society on whom their rules are to operate, all enquiry and all discussion of their correctness. Such enquiries and such discussion we are accustomed to hear in our public meetings, particularly those for discipline, and the reason is not very apparent why this liberty of speech should be approved, and at the same time, the pen and the press be placed in thraldom, and their use gravely denied for the expression of similar concernments. We, as a people, believe in the peaceful nature of the Christian religion, and there is every reason for believing that those whose minds are imbued with its spirit, whose wills are subjected to its power, will continually, in their daily walk, bear a living testimony that peace is its essential character.

But is there not a manifest and wide difference between this kind of heartfelt testimony, which shines with its own Divine light, and a prescribed rule or form? If there is a difference, then was N.R. correct in making a distinction between them, characterising the first as a principle, and the latter as the manner prescribed for bearing a testimony to it. The first, he regarded as immutable; but the latter, as the deduction of an argument, which argument he held to be open to the scrutiny and judgment of the human understanding.

The correctness of this view has been denied in words, but confirmed in practice, by nearly every one of his opponents; for they use many arguments to show that the rule or form is a fair deduction from the principle. Much has been written to show the impropriety of employing the faculty of reason on the subject, by those who have in the same article indulged largely in reasoning about it.

Several of the commentators have, perhaps inadvertently, substituted other terms and phrases for his, and have thus built up absurdities of their own, which they could easily demolish; for instance, in speaking of the relations of government and property, he has called property the creature of government, which the commentator has treated of as though he has ascribed to government the power of creating the various objects in nature, which, by the influence of government, are liable to become property.

Again N.R. has said that it is government which enables man to possess or hold property. Now for this word “enables,” the commentator substitutes the word “right,” and goes on to show its absurdity; for, as he says, rights are inherent and inalienable, and were before government. Now N.R. would observe that ability and right are not exactly synonyms of each other, that they are sometimes in opposition, as in the sentence “The slave has the right to liberty, but has not the ability to attain it.” These are but samples, the list might be largely extended, but they are enough for the present occasion.

In reference to man’s accountability, it is well to consider what he is accountable for, whether it is the motive which really prompts his action, and the meaning and intention with which it is performed, or is he accountable for what others impute to him as being his motive? Thus, if a man from feelings of Christian benevolence, administers to the wants of a sick or wounded soldier, will he receive condemnation, because some bystander charges him with having done it in approval of the soldier’s military career? And so when our sons are drafted, and are offered the choice of either paying a specific sum of money, or of entering the army ranks, what are the ruling motives which prompt the parent to part with a portion of his property, and thus ransom his son? Is not the motive a combination of all the finer feelings of his nature, and of the Christian virtues of his heart, and whilst attentive to these, and actuated by them, is he to be condemned, because some one — the Government — calls it a “commutation,” says it is paid in lieu of something else? There surely is nothing criminal in the act of parting with so much money; the motive it is that gives to the act its substance and character, or the motive is essentially itself the act.

The subjects involved in this discussion are numerous and of great importance to the welfare of the Society of Friends. The line indicated in these essays, as forming the boundary between those requisitions of Government, with which Friends could yield a ready compliance, and those with which they cannot at all comply, is broadly and distinctly marked by the palpable difference in the natures of the matters demanded, being on the one hand property, and on the other, personal service affecting the convenience.

To do justice to the subject might occupy a volume, but having done all towards developing his views of it, which he thinks can be accomplished by such short essays as are adapted to a periodical of this character, the writer will here take his leave.

Byberry, .

Also in , an anonymous writer responded to Richardson’s latest argument as follows:

Government Requisitions.

In some of the essays on this subject that have appeared in the Intelligencer the writers appear to lament that any thing should have been published tending to lessen the obligation the members of the Society of Friends should feel to uphold the discipline in relation to their testimony against war.

Truth rarely suffers by a free and candid examination, and a mind that is properly balanced will remain undisturbed by the sophistry of false reasoning, and will settle down again in its original conviction.

This we believe will be found to be the result of the arguments pro and con on the subject of government requisitions. And notwithstanding an energetic effort has been made to shake the ground on which our Society has stood on this point, so far as there has been an opportunity for a comparison of views in any official capacity, all branches of the Society of Friends still look upon the voluntary payment of a sum of money to buy an exemption from military service demanded by the government, to be a violation of the Society’s testimony against war. It is contended that this view, coeval with the existence of the Society is the result of an argument. Can there be no convictions of Truth on the mind other than such as may be considered to be fundamental? Cannot the mind of Truth be sought for and obtained as to the mode by which a principle may be upheld to a gainsaying world? Evidently so. “A good man’s ways are ordered of the Lord.” This view, though not received and adopted by the world, is eminently characteristic of the Society of Friends. They profess at least to move under the teachings of the spirit of Truth, not only in giving forth the abstract doctrines of the Society, but in the more important concern of the advancement of practical righteousness. To this end, they have at various periods adopted certain articles of discipline, as to them best wisdom seemed to direct, and not as the result of an argument, but from a feeling sense of its being right in the Divine sight. And in this view it is a remarkable fact that the Society has rarely, if ever, so changed its discipline as that at one period its provisions have conflicted with those of another. It is true that changes have been made, but these, it is believed, have been in accordance with further openings of the same divine light, and with the great objects originally in view and not antagonistic to them, but suited to the changed conditions of Society in the different periods of its existence.

Assuming therefore that the mode and manner of upholding a testimony is not necessarily the “result of an argument,” but may be equally the mind of Truth as the testimony itself, it necessarily follows that the foundation laid by N[athaniel]. R[ichardson]. is not on a stable basis; and when compared with the life-long feeling sense of the Society, must be shorn of its tendency to weaken our position on this important testimony, in this eventful period of the world’s history.

Earlier , the Intelligencer printed the following from “W.M.W.”:

Friends’ and Government Requisitions

I suppose that all are ready to admit, that the true and living disciple of Jesus Christ is not his own, but the servant of another, to whom he has yielded himself to obey in all things; for no man can be my disciple, said the Divine Master, except he take up his daily cross and follow me. These, have no difficulty in discovering the true path, for his sheep know his voice, and follow him, and will not follow the voice of the stranger — he ever goeth before them, and in the time of uncertainty, saith, “this is the way, walk in it.” Such a man, while he is passive to the government, and performs all its requirements which are consistent with his duty to his heavenly Father, holds with [William Ellery] Channing, that, “man’s first duties are not to his country, and his first allegiance not due to its laws.” And while he very properly appeals to the reasoning powers, in order to convince his fellow man of the truth or falsehood of a proposition, he is satisfied that he cannot in this way know his duties to God, for these will ever be revealed in the soul by his divine spirit, which alone can comprehend the deep things that belong to his everlasting kingdom. Hence, if we will but cease from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, our duty in these times of commotion and violence will be clearly manifest; we shall not be in doubt in regard to taking up arms, finding a substitute, or paying an equivalent.

Our fathers had a testimony to bear against war; many of them suffered extremely, on account of their unwillingness to bear arms. The Divine Spirit, the light of Christ, which they as humble devoted children looked to at all times, as their bishop to oversee them, their shepherd to feed them, and their prophet to reveal divine mysteries unto them, led them out of all war and contention, and firmly established them in his peaceable kingdom, which is ever taken by entreaty, and kept by humility and lowliness of mind. This testimony was not to them as it is to the great mass of their descendants, a mere tradition, but a living conviction, that burned within them. Now the all-important inquiry for us to make individually, is this, have we this testimony to bear? do we feel, that the Divine Spirit requires this testimony at our hands? or is it a mere tradition from the fathers, that has simply recommended itself to our judgment, through the intellectual man, and which we are at liberty to hold or cast aside, as shall be most convenient. Are some of us ready to doubt, that the religion of Jesus, requires us to sheathe our swords at a time like this, when all the powers of hell, if I may so speak, are arrayed against truth and right; at a time, too, when the government is contending for man’s right to be free, for the inestimable blessings of civil and religious liberty. The Divine Master led our fathers out of all war, without any regard to the purpose for which it may have been carried on, and the same spirit, will not lead the children into that which it led the fathers out of, for truth never goes backward, but is ever onward and upward. We may rest assured that we are benighted, and overcome by evil when we turn backward. Our testimony is against war as a means, and most assuredly if we feel as the fathers felt, if we appreciate this great testimony as they appreciated it, if the Divine Master lives and speaks in us, as he did in them, if we know in whom we believe and in whom we live, as they knew, and feel the certain evidence of his power and spirit, in us and over us, as they felt, we cannot take up arms to destroy our fellow men, creatures of the same God, and inheritors of the same blessed promises. Feeling and knowing, that the great God has called us to peace, and forbidden us to take up carnal weapons, we cannot obey man, and go forth into the field of carnage and blood, neither can we employ an other, for this we must feel is equivalent to doing it ourselves, and would thereby offend our heavenly Father, whose favor we seek and desire more than all else beside. Nor yet can we do the third requirement, if we are sincere in our objection to the first. Not however because the money will be used to carry on war, for I agree with N[athaniel]. R[ichardson]. that if the money is due the government we have no right to withhold it on the ground, that it may be devoted to a bad purpose; we might on this plea get rid of paying many of our honest debts. When Cesar asks for tribute, we should pay him without asking any questions for conscience sake; but when he requires us to deny our Divine Master, or otherwise pay a ransom, we should boldly answer him, as the apostles Peter and John did the multitude, “whether it be right to hearken unto you rather than unto God, judge ye.” I think that N[athaniel]. R[ichardson]., on a little more reflection, will admit that the three hundred dollars is not due the government from the truly conscientious man. God is sovereign lord of conscience, and government (which is nothing more than a combination of individual men) has no right, in the first place, to compel any man to violate his conscience towards God. The conscientious man refuses to fight, not that he desires to thwart the purposes of government, but because God has called him to peace; ho is already a conscript in the Lamb’s peaceable warfare, hence owes no military service to any man or combination of men, and can owe none, unless man has the right to stand between his fellow-man and his God, and say thus far and no farther shalt thou obey the great King of kings. Now it is evident if he does not owe the service, the equivalent is not due, and that it is an equivalent is plain from the fact, that it is asked of none but those whose services have been required, and it being such, he cannot pay it without violating his conscientious convictions; yet N[athaniel]. R[ichardson]. says, “he would be only violating an argument.” Government asks him to do that which he believes his Maker positively forbids him; now if he voluntarily renders an equivalent, he thereby acknowledges its right to require it at his hands, and therefore balks his testimony to peace. He makes a positive contract with the government, that he will pay three hundred dollars, in lieu of his body in the field; he closes the bargain by paying the money required, receives a receipt clearing him for a specified time; from what? Why from actual service in the field, and has therefore purchased with filthy lucre the heaven-born privilege of serving God, rather than suffer for the testimony of truth. But when and where have the martyrs of any age been willing to pay a bonus for the privilege of serving God? Surely we have forgotten our lathers, who suffered months and years of imprisonment, rather than pay their jail fees, lest they by so doing should acknowledge the justice of their commitment. We should ever bear in mind, that the highest aim of the disciple of Jesus, is to know his Master’s will, and to do it, nor has the Good Shepherd left him without a witness, in the deep recesses of the soul, that he is compelled, in emergencies like the present, to search the letter of the Decalogue or even the record of the doings of Jesus and his apostles. The same merciful Father, that sleepeth not by day, nor slumbereth by night, that revealed himself to the prophets and apostles, still continueth in these last days, to set up his kingdom in the hearts of his obedient children, and those whom he now calls to peace, will not acknowledge by word or action, that the government under which they live, has a right to require them to embrue their hands in their brother’s blood. He that is true to God and his own soul, will not seek for pretexts to violate God’s commandments; the question with him (as a Friend) is not, how shall I act so as to avoid the penalties of the discipline of society, but how shall I keep a conscience void of offence both towards God and towards man?

Fulton .

In the same issue, “I.H.” wrote the following:


In perusing the different essays that have appeared on the subject of military requisitions, this query forcibly arrested my attention, “who shall decide when doctors disagree?” It is evident that we have an umpire to refer all doubtful questions that arise in the mind relative to our duties which is independent and superior to all arguments and theories.

Acquaint thyself with God and be at peace with Him, is the highest law, the grand tribunal to judge in the mind; for it is from Him alone all true wisdom is derived. He sees the motives that govern our actions, the spirit that animates us, and by that alone He judges, let our outward appearance to men be what it may. Nothing is more clear than that we are not all called to perform the same duties nor walk the same path through life, neither have all arrived to the same religious growth. Each of the Father’s devoted children has his way cast up day by day, as He in his wisdom sees meet and their duty is humbly to follow it.

Through the want of duty considering this condition of things, some professing Christians become censorious and uncharitable towards their brethren, because they do not pursue the same line of duty with themselves; judging improperly their motives and faithfulness. As instances of this spirit we can refer to some eminent members, who, advocating freedom to the slave, have felt it right to abstain from the proceeds of their labor; and, applying the same law of duty to others who did not refrain from these products, argued that as the receiver of stolen goods is as bad as the thief, consequently those that participated were as guilty of all the enormities of slavery as the master, and the slave trader.

All sin is an infraction of a Divine law plainly written or impressed on the mind of man by Deity himself. We have reason to believe thousands of faithful Christians have departed to their everlasting rest, at peace with their Maker, who have never been required to attend to this subject of abstinence from slave labor. That truly good man, John Woolman, among other testimonies borne to what he saw to be right, argued that the practice of dying cloth was wrong. His reasonings were conclusive, no doubt to his mind, but how few are called to follow his example.

Also in our testimony against war it is evident that we have different ideas of duty, and that we shall pursue paths diversely from each other; and we have need to act widely and charitably in all respects towards our government and each other. Our nation has endeavored to act as leniently as justice to others would admit, and those that disobey its injunctions by refusing to contribute to its aid, should feel that not through arguments or theories, but through obedience to Divine requiring, they refuse. And if called to suffer the penalty of the law, let it not be with pride like Jehu, “come see my zeal,” but let them suffer with the meekness and patience of a disciple of Christ. We all have need to examine ourselves closely to see what manner of spirit we are of. The spirit of war may exist under a plain garb as well as under military trappings; and if the spirit of envy and revenge against a brother, or the love of power and covetousness rule in the heart, the lusts that war in our members from whence wars and fightings come are there.


The same issue also featured the following letter from “Y.T.”:

Friends and Government Requisitions.

A number of essays on the above subject have appeared in the Intelligencer for some time past. The subject matter of most of them I approve; but there are some points presented in some others that seem to me to require comment. Of this latter class, is that of “N[athaniel]. R[ichardson].,” in the issue of the 12th.

This essay, if I understand it, (and I do not wish to misrepresent “N[athaniel]. R[ichardson].,” or any other writer,) seems to create the impression “that property is the creature of government;” that government is necessary; that it is “the power of government that in any sense ‘enables us to hold property;’ ” and that “by paying to that government ‘a certain sum of money,’ we do not violate the Decalogue, or any of the precepts or examples of Jesus, or the precepts or examples of the Apostles;” and that we have no right to inquire what government intends to do with this money, even though we know that the meaning and intent of this commutation money is to enable the government to provide a substitute for those who prefer paying to going themselves into the army.

Now it seems to mo that the foundation of this position is wrong, and the whole superstructure consequently fallacious. Government in no sense gives us the right “to hold property;” it prescribes how property may be held — how it should be disposed of, &c.; but the right to property is above and beyond law: it is one of those inalienable rights co-existent with that to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness;” for liberty and happiness could not exist without it; and the declaration that those rights are ours, did not give us those rights; they belonged to freemen before declarations and constitutions were written. When the Creator commanded Adam to “subdue and replenish the earth,” he plainly implied the right of property to be in him, for he could not perform those functions without tools and implements. Look at the pioneers in our western domain; when they go out beyond the jurisdiction of laws, they acknowledge the right of property to be inherent in each individual; and they act under this right, and mutually protect each other in it when they make locations.

If I understand the testimony that Friends have hitherto borne against war, it is that we are not to take up arms against our fellow-men in any case, Christ having commanded us to “love our enemies, to do good to those that hate us, to pray for those that despitefully use us and persecute us;” and as we cannot take up arms ourselves without violating this command, we cannot employ another to do so for us, or pay a commutation to a third party, to enable that third party to procure a substitute in our place. To do either, would, in my estimation, alike implicate us.

I was very much pleased and interested by a letter said to have been written by a young man who had been drafted, published some weeks ago in the Intelligencer. That letter presents a right view of the subject, and corresponds with what I conceive to be the testimony of the society of Friends, as heretofore held. And I exceedingly regret to see language used that would insinuate that in paying “a specific sum of money,” in lieu of personal service, “we only violate an argument.” I believe that, by so doing, we as much violate the “precepts and examples of Jesus,” and the principles and testimonies of our society, in the one case as the other. To call this principle “a misnomer,” and the argument founded upon it “a fallacy,” appears to me to lower our testimony, so that there will be little left worth possessing. For to allow our money to be made use of to procure substitutes — for that is its meaning — would permit the taunt to be hurled at us that we were too cowardly to fight ourselves, but allowed others to be hired to fight in our places.

The society of Friends have testimonies against both war and slavery; but there is danger, under present circumstances, of allowing our testimony against war to be modified or lessened, from the fact that this war will certainly be the means of putting down slavery. This war having been begun by slaveholders more firmly to secure themselves in their authority over slaves, we cannot be sorry to see that authority overthrown; yet it is done by a means that we, as Christians, cannot recommend or uphold. The principles laid down by Christ were designed to apply to all circumstances under which his followers could be placed; and we are not to set them aside from motives of human policy. This would be to deny him before men.

“N[athaniel]. R[ichardson].” appears to me to be in error when he says, “there are also numerous claimants to abridge our ownership;” (that is, of property;) “the claims of our families — the claims of charity — and claims for the public good,” &c. These claims, so far from abridging our right to property, are strong arguments in favor of that right — for these claims could not be fully carried out without it.

We should be careful not to bring the testimonies of our society to “the scrutiny and judgment of the human understanding” alone; there is a Divine understanding promised by Christ to his followers, which has been graciously given to all true seekers, by which we should regulate ourselves; and as this is lived up to, we shall be less solicitous to make alterations in our discipline, than to endeavor to live up to its spirit.

The present is a time of deep proving and trial to our society, and it is much to be desired that Friends everywhere may seek for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be enabled to advance and carry out the testimonies given to our forefathers, and not confer with flesh and blood in so doing.