Quaker Resistance to War Tax Stamps

I’ve been hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery of how American Quaker war tax resistance went into a tailspin at some point after the American Civil War. I still don’t have an answer, but here’s another clue, and one that shows that at least as late as some Quakers were still very concerned about not paying war taxes. This comes from the Friends’ Intelligencer for :

A Friend who recently called at the office of the West Grove (Pa.) Independent said to the editor that he tries to avoid sending a check in payment of a bill, as this requires a stamp (war tax), holding the belief that he becomes a party to the iniquity of war by using the stamp.

This stamp tax was one of a number of war taxes instituted to pay for the Spanish-American War. Quakers also got caught by some of these other war taxes, particularly the estate tax, which some embarrassed Meetings found themselves reporting when Friends died and left their estates to the Meeting.

Over the course of several issues in and , the Friends’ Review published excerpts from the journals of David Cooper, parts of which concerned Quaker war tax resistance during and after the American Revolution:

At the Yearly Meeting, in the fall of , under a sense of the judgments now in our land, and the many deviations from the simplicity and purity of our profession, into which we, as a people, had slidden, and thereby as justly perhaps as any other of the inhabitants, provoked the Almighty to inflict this scourge; Friends became deeply exercised that under this humbling dispensation a reformation might take place. For this purpose, a recommendation was sent to Quarterly and Monthly Meetings, to appoint committees; which was done in our Quarter, and they attended Conferences at the several meetings. A select number visited the ministers, elders, and overseers, and some time after the families of Friends generally. In the service I assisted. It was a humbling, laborious season, and the desired effect, it may be sorrowfully said, has too little appeared: too few of us being sufficiently careful to confirm by example what we recommend in words. A sense of this brought diverse things more closely into consideration, whereby they appeared to me different from what they had heretofore, as respecting dress, Congress money, our peaceable testimony, etc. To bear this testimony faithfully, I clearly saw that I could do nothing which manifestly aided or abetted those who were actually engaged in war, which those who pay taxes directly raised for the purpose of supporting soldiery, do in an essential manner. For this reason, I have paid no tax for war during all these commotions, nor received a penny of their money for bedding, clothing, provisions, hay, grain, etc., which they have taken from me, offering money or orders therefor; nor have I sold to their commissioners anything I had. Nor was I free to receive, out of a forfeited estate, a large debt which was due to me, as I considered the selling of those estates, for the most part, cruel and unchristian. I also found a restraint from having anything more to do with continental currency, which had become a vehicle of such public mischief, that few could touch it without suffering thereby, or causing others to suffer. This was a pinching trial. My interest was likely to be greatly affected. I stood wholly alone among my friends, and expected censure from them, for I had been an advocate for a contrary conduct in both cases. I also saw how feeble precept is, unless strengthened by example, and being sometimes engaged to enjoin simplicity, and to recommend others to confine themselves to things necessary and useful, I found it obligatory to set an example in these respects. In the alterations into which I was thus led, I felt the reasoning and struggling of nature harder to overcome, than ever I had in greater matters; therefore, whoever may read this, beware that you account nothing to be a little thing, which the light within you shows you ought to deny yourself of.

In , I had appointed to join Mark Reeve in visiting meetings in the counties of Philadelphia and Bucks; but a few days before the time of starting, my horse, which would readily have brought forty pounds, was taken by a constable for a tax of about four pounds. Thus I seemed prevented, but Mark was earnest to have my company; I therefore purposed to borrow a beast and to meet him on Fifth-day in Philadelphia, where he was to attend Monthly Meeting. A severe storm prevented my obtaining one, and I relinquished the thought of going; but on Fourth-day evening a neighbor’s lad brought my horse home. As he could give no account upon what terms he was returned, I hesitated about receiving him lest I might subject myself to be charged with double dealing. On weighing the matter, however, I felt easy to take him…

[The Rhode Island] Yearly Meeting was sitting…. By a previous rule, such who paid any tax wholly for the support of war, should be dealt with as offenders, but Friends were allowed to pay mixed taxes, a part whereof was for civil purposes and part for war, nor were the sufferings of those who declined to pay these taxes received or recorded. This subject now occasioned much debate, which resulted in a minute directing such sufferings to be recorded as their testimony against war.

The committee on Sufferings, appointed in , had in reported that the statement of sufferings sent from Evesham should in their judgment not be sent forward, but remain with the Quarterly Meeting’s papers, as being so clear and explicit as to answer the direction of the Yearly Meeting. This report was confirmed. In the standing committee reported that statements of sufferings unmixed and wholly for declining the payment of war taxes, ought to remain among the papers of the Monthly Meeting, and go no further. This report was objected to, and a minute was made suspending a final decision upon it, till the sense of the Yearly Meeting could be obtained. In it was moved to appoint a committee to aid the clerk in framing a minute for the Yearly Meeting; the necessity of which in so plain a case caused a little debate. Ten Friends were, however, appointed, in which number I was included, and we met on seventh-day preceding the Quarterly Meeting at Salem at this time, when the object of the appointment appeared very obvious, from the means employed to prevent the matter being sent forward. The effort failed, however, and our statement of the subject being laid before the Quarterly Meeting was approved, and the clerk directed to send it to next Yearly Meeting. Thus it stands at present. This matter appeared rather marvelous to me, when I consider the very small number in this large Quarterly Meeting who suffer on this account, and the great opposition that has constantly been shown, and endeavors even in a Quarterly Meeting capacity, to deny such distraints as being sufferings for our peaceable testimony. Whether, under the very great falling away from this scruple that we have seen of late, any advantage will arise from sending it up at this time, remains to be seen. Could the directions of the Yearly Meeting have been simply complied with, it would have been abundantly my choice, in preference to sending up this question.

These New England Friends were truly exemplary in their conduct and conversation. They declined using West India produce, as coming through the channel of slavery. Joseph Mitchell had other scruples which did not feel to me of equal weight. He avoided going to the houses or partaking with those who imported or retailed such produce; he also avoided wearing silver and the use of silver utensils…. At our Yearly Meeting in , were John Storer, from Old England; Job Scott, from New England; Daniel Haviland, Edward Halleck, and Tideman Hull, from York Government. The question sent from our Quarter, respecting war taxes, was referred to a committee of thirty-six Friends, including three, who, in our Quarterly Meeting, had opposed the sending forward of sufferings on that account. This committee reported their unanimous sense that an account of such sufferings ought to be kept and sent up as other sufferings are. This report was confirmed without one word of opposition. John Storer informed the meeting that he had attended each of the sittings of the committee, and was sensible that Divine good attended their deliberations. Thus the clear, full, united sense of the body is given, owning those sufferings to be for the testimony of truth; which, I trust, occasioned in many minds reverent thankfulness to the Master of our assemblies, and tended to strengthen and encourage to faithfulness in suffering for his cause and truth. For, indeed, that this matter should be so calmly and unitedly resulted, appeared marvelous in the eyes of some of us.

At the end of this last excerpt, the editor of the Friends’ Review added: “This question of taxes appears to have elicited much discussion, which was carried on with warmth, and, on one side at least, with no little sophistry, evidence of which is contained in letters now laying before us. Our Lord’s miracle, providing for the payment of tribute, was much harped upon.”

The Review also printed the text of a letter to Cooper from his nephew, Joseph Whitall:

I read with singular satisfaction the piece which you lent me respecting taxes, as it was very strengthening to my mind, which before was somewhat encompassed with weakness on this account. Whenever the matter came before me, it appeared very plain that it would be an inconsistency for Friends to pay this tax. But what weighed in my mind was this: Whether I as an individual had so known the truth and a stability in it, as to lay myself open to suffering by refusing to pay; believing that unless the building is laid on this foundation the storms will overthrow it. The evening after you first mentioned the subject to me, as I returned home, the matter was brought into more close consideration than I had known it, apprehensive that the time of trial was not afar off. Several discouragements at that time presented; my situation as being entirely dependent on my father and having no property of my own, I must either consent to his paying it or submit to go to prison; as also the thought of what elder Friends, who did not refuse, would judge of me for so doing. In this situation, I was engaged to feel after resignation and quietude of mind, which I was favored in some measure to experience, believing that if I should be so required, I should be strengthened to bear up under it. After I had returned home, and sat awhile in retirement with (I believe I may say) a single desire to be rightly guided in this weighty matter, several Scripture texts were presented to view, and the thing appeared so plain to me, I had then to believe that if I ever consented to the payment of such a tax, I should be condemned by the Light which maketh manifest: and my confidence was greatly strengthened in the holy Arm of Power, which made and sustains all things. But I have since felt much weakness, and had come to no solid conclusion of mind, until I read your little manuscript, which caused my heart to rejoice, under a feeling sense that it is the truth which leads those who walk and abide in it to hold forth this testimony unto the world. And oh, says my soul, that I may yield faithful obedience to its monitions, let what will be the consequence. Soon after I had read the piece, my father came home, when I asked how the present tax was to be appropriated; and being told that none of it relates to war, I was glad notwithstanding that I had felt such a settlement of mind.

Anna Aschenbach, who had been a “simple living” war tax resister for many years (her anti-war activism went back to the second World War), died . She suffered a stroke at the ceremony at which she was being awarded the Dr. Alice Hamilton Peace and Freedom Award from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.


The [Woodstown Meeting] committee on suffering cases reported the amount of fines against eight Friends to be 4 pounds, 9 shillings, and 4 pence, and the amount of property taken from them to make that sum was 31 pounds, 16 shillings, 6 pence. These fines were for non-attendance at muster on training day; in regard to which Friends of that day were concerned to bear a faithful testimony, neither could they consistently pay the fines. A few years later a law was enacted exempting from military duty in time of peace all members of fire engine companies. Many Friends availed themselves of this law and enrolled themselves as members of such associations, by this means avoiding military service and relieving themselves from needless extortions.