During the American Revolution, independence-minded colonists began issuing their own paper money as a way of financing their military operations. This caught Quakers in a bind. Their creed instructed them neither to provide direct support for war nor to collaborate with insurrections. But they’d never encountered the seigniorage route of war- or insurrection-funding before, so there wasn’t much in the way of precedents for conscientious Quakers to follow.
So some Quakers had to think this out for themselves and lead the way. One was John Cowgill. Thomas Hale Streets, in his book The Stout Family of Delaware, reproduces some documents about the Cowgill case. First is a declaration of the Committee of Inspection and Observation for Kent County, a group associated with the rebel Continental Congress:
In Committee, Dover
Resolved, That the keeping up the credit of the Continental currency is essential to support the United Colonies in their virtuous opposition to ministerial oppression, and that the refusing to take the said currency, in payment of debts, etc., will tend to depreciate the value of the same.
Resolved, That it appears to this Committee, by the confession of John Cowgill, a residenter of Little Creek Hundred, in this County, that he has refused, and, from conscience, shall refuse, to take said Continental money in discharge of debts, or for other purposes, when tendered to him.
Therefore unanimously Resolved, That it is the opinion of this Committee, that the aforesead John Cowgill is, by such his conduct, an enemy to his country, and ought to be treated as such by every friend of American liberty; and that they ought to have no further dealings with him.
The second document is a brief mention from a Quaker meeting from Duck Creek on in which “an account of the sufferings of John Cowgill for refusing Continental Currency was given, read, approved and sent to the Quarterly Meeting Committee.” The third is a letter from Cowgill’s daughter Mary Corbit recounting, many years later, her memory of what happened:
I hope you will excuse me for not having before now complied with your request to give you an account of the particulars, so far as my memory serves me, of the sufferings our dear father underwent during the Revolutionary War.
I will now endeavor to state the leading facts as they occur to me. Many interesting particulars are lost in the great lapse of time, which might have been preserved had they been taken down years back and handed down, as they ought to have been, entire, as a bright example not only to our children, but to others. The cause of his persecution was, as you know, the faithful testimony which he considered it was his duty to bear against war in all its branches, and his consequent refusal to accept or deal in continental money, which he believed to be a war measure. This became publicly known, it is probable, on his requesting one of his tenants to pay his rent in specie. Soon after this he was arrested and taken before the Assembly at Dover, and charged with traitorous conduct in refusing to deal in continental money, as on its free circulation depended in great measure the successful prosecution of the war, and that for such an offense he was threatened with a heavy fine, which if he submitted to and paid, he should receive protection, or otherwise he would be declared a traitor and left to the mercy of an exasperated people, many of whom were assembled in Dover. On his declining to take part at all to encourage war in any case, he was dismissed, and on his coming out was not molested by the mob, but suffered quietly to walk down the street.
His horse which had been taken was returned him, and he afterward expressed that he never had his mind more favored than at this time with a full confirmation that he was in the strict line of his duty, thus in bearing testimony against war, even at the risk of his life and property.
For some time after this he remained at home undisturbed, except that his cattle, sheep, and grain were occasionally taken off, but no personal violence offered, till going to Meeting on a fifth day, mother and I being in the chaise, and my father on horseback with one of my little brothers behind him, we were met by a man in regimentals who turned and rode on with him about half a mile, where they were met by a party of armed men. When mother and myself came up, my father was surrounded and a prisoner. The child was taken from behind him, and he was ordered to dismount and get into a cart which they had brought to carry him to Dover. By this time a number of Friends had come up on their way to Meeting. The officer commanded the music to play and the party to march forward. We followed on behind as far as the Meeting House, when my father called out and bid us farewell, and they continued on towards Dover. A paper was pinned to his back, on which something was written in large letters, which I have now forgotten.
The calm and composed frame of mind in which he was under all these dangerous circumstances led the Captain to suppose he was insensible of his situation, for ordering the cart to stop just before entering the town he addressed my father in these words: “Mr. Cowgill you are not aware of the danger you are in!” To which my father replied: “I fear not them that can kill the body, and after that have no more power that they can do; but I fear Him who after he has killed the body, has all power.”
After driving through the principal streets in Dover, followed by the mob, they arrived at what was called the “Liberty Pole,” where it was publicly proclaimed that there was no protection for him, 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. After this he was allowed to depart, and many Friends returned with him to his home. When we went to bed at night we did not know what would be the issue before morning, and in this way we lived for several years, but through mercy were favored with protection from a Superior Power.
I will mention a circumstance as related to a friend of ours long after the war, by one of the party that took my father, and which furnishes a striking proof even from the mouths of his enemies, of the power a good man often has over his persecutors amidst the greatest dangers.
The roads at the time were wet and muddy, and my father seeing this person walking near the cart, in the most kind manner observed: “You had better get up and sit with me, as the walking is wet and I am fearful you will take cold.”
The unaffected anxiety with which it was spoken, the time and occasion, all conspired to make a lasting impression on his mind, and as he stated, he never had regretted any act of his life more than being concerned in this affair against one of the best of men, and that no power on earth could ever induce him to do the like again.