Quakers Wrestle with War-time Seigniorage During U.S. Revolution

was all about the pre-revolutionary tax resistance against Great Britain practiced by rebellion-minded American colonists in an organized swadeshi-like campaign against the use of taxed imports.

When the American Revolution became a hot war this raised tax resistance issues of a different sort: from the pacifist Christian sects, particularly the Quakers, who were a major presence in the colonies, and who had to resist considerable pressure to support the patriot cause.

Not only were war taxes demanded in areas held by the revolutionary army, but the rebel Congress’s fiat currency was wildly inflationary and itself represented a war tax. As one Quaker group put it:

A concern having often arisen in this committee and [being] livingly reviewed at this time, that Friends might exert themselves in laboring to have their brethren convinced of the pernicious consequences of continuing to circulate the Continental currency, so called, it being calculated to promote measures repugnant to the peaceable principles we profess to be led by, and having [as we believe] greatly increased our sufferings, and brought dimness over many, by continuing in the use thereof; it is therefore agreed to mention it to the Quarterly Meeting for consideration.

Ezra Michener adds, using language that reminds me very much of that used by modern critics of American fiat money:

Friends had strong reasons for objecting to the use of this Continental money.

The creation by law of a circulating medium of fictitious value, for the purpose of a gradual depreciation, cannot be reconciled with truth and justice, however necessity may seem to require it. To say to the people you shall pass this paper for a certain nominal value to-day, but only at a less value tomorrow, and still less the day following, till it becomes entirely valueless, is a repudiation of a contract, — a refusal to pay a debt by the Government. As a substitute for taxation, its operation is extremely unequal, and therefore to the same degree unjust. Viewed in this light, it was strictly a requisition for carrying on the war, which Friends could not consistently pay.

Some Quakers refused to use the Continentals, which was an extremely dangerous form of tax resistance. It was seen by the rebel authorities as a variety of treason, and could be punished by death. (One Quaker was nearly hanged for refusing to accept Continentals in return for supplies the rebel army had forcibly requisitioned, when in fact his principles would not have allowed him to accept remuneration of any kind under the circumstances.)

Job Scott wrote of what he believed to be his duty under the circumstances:

Much close exercise of mind I had for a considerable length of time, on account of some particular scruples, which from time to time revived with weight, and so pressingly accompanied me, that I could not get rid of them. It being , and preparations for war between Great Britain and America; and the rulers of America having made a paper currency professedly for the special purpose of promoting or maintaining the war; and it being expected that Friends would be tried by requisitions for taxes, principally for the support of war; I was greatly exercised in spirit, both on the account of taking and passing that money, and in regard to the payment of such taxes; neither of which felt easy to my mind.

I believed a time would come, when Christians would not so far contribute to the encouragement and support of war and fightings as voluntarily to pay taxes that were mainly, or even in considerable proportion, for defraying the expenses thereof; and it was also impressed upon my mind, that if I took and passed the money that I knew was made on purpose to uphold war, I should not bear a testimony against war that for me, as an individual, would be a faithful one. I knew the people’s minds were in a rage against such as, from any motive whatever, said or acted any thing tending to discountenance the war: I was sensible that refusing to pay the taxes, or to take the currency, would immediately be construed as a pointed opposition to the present war in particular; as even our refusing to bear arms was, notwithstanding our long and well-known testimony against it; and I had abundant reason to expect great censure and some suffering in consequence of my faithfulness, if I should stand faithful in these things; though I knew that my scruples were unconnected with any party considerations, and uninfluenced by any motives but such as respect the propriety of a truly Christian conduct, in regard to war at large.

I had no desire to promote the opposition to Great Britain; neither had I any desire on the other hand to promote the measures or success of Great Britain. I believed it my business not to meddle with any thing from such views; but to let the potsherds of the earth alone in their smiting one against another; I wished to be clear in the sight of God, and to do all that he might require of me, towards the more full introduction and coming of his peaceable kingdom and government on earth. I found many well-concerned brethren, who seemed to have little or nothing of these scruples; and some others who were like-minded with me herein.

Under all these considerations the times looked somewhat gloomy; and at seasons great discouragement came over my mind. But after some strugglings, and a length of close exercise, attended with much inward looking to the Lord for direction and support, I was enabled to cast my care upon him, and to risk myself and my all in his service, come whatever might come, or suffer whatever I might suffer, in consequence thereof. I was well aware of many arguments and objections against attending to such scruples; and some seemingly very plausible ones from several passages of scripture, especially respecting taxes; but I believed I saw them all to arise from a want of clear understanding respecting the true meaning of those passages; and I knew I had no worldly interest, ease, or honour, to promote, by an honest attention to what I believed were the reproofs and convictions of divine instruction. I well knew, not only by reading, but experimentally, that “He that doubteth is damned (condemned) if he eat;” and that which is contrary to faith and conviction is sin: therefore I chose rather to suffer in this world, than incur the displeasure of him from whom come all my consolation and blessings.

Things turned out just fine:

Having for declined taking the paper currency, agreeably to the secret persuasion which I had of my duty therein, as before mentioned, I have now the satisfaction of comparing the different rewards of obedience and disobedience. For though, from the very first circulation of this money, I felt uneasy in taking it; yet fears and reasonings of one kind or another prevailed on me to take it for a season; and then it became harder to refuse it than it would probably have been at first; but growing more uneasy and distressed about it, at length I refused it altogether, since which I have felt great peace and satisfaction of mind therein; which has, in a very confirming manner, been increasing from time to time, the longer I have refused it: and although I get almost no money of any kind, little other being in circulation, yet I had much rather live and depend on divine Providence for a daily supply, than to increase in the mammon of this world’s goods, by any ways or means inconsistent with the holy will of my heavenly Father: and the prayer of my soul to him is, that I and all his children may be preserved faithful to him in all his requirings; and out of that love of things here below, which alienates from the true love of and communion with him.

In general, he found tax resistance to be less daunting than he had anticipated it to be:

About , an old acquaintance of mine, being now collector of rates, came and demanded one of me. I asked him what it was for. He said, to sink the paper money. I told him, as that money was made expressly for the purpose of carrying on war, I had refused to take it; and, for the same reason, could, not pay a tax to sink it, believing it my duty to bear testimony against war and fighting. I informed him, that for divers years past, even divers years before the war began, and when I had no expectation of ever being tried in this way, it had been a settled belief with me, that it was not right to pay such taxes; at least not right for me, nor, in my apprehension, right in itself; though many sincere brethren may not at present see its repugnancy to the pure and peaceable spirit of the gospel. I let him know I did not wish to put him to any trouble, but would be glad to pay it if I could consistently with my persuasion. He appeared moderate, thoughtful, and rather tender; and, after a time of free and pretty full conversation upon the subject, went away in a pleasant disposition of mind, I being truly glad to see him so. Divers such demands were made of me in those troublesome times for divers years: I ever found it best to be very calm and candid; and to open, as I was from time to time enabled, the genuine grounds of my refusal; and that, if possible, so as to reach the understandings of those who made the demand.

The tough nut to crack, as it often seemed to be for Quakers, was taxes “in the mixture” — that is, taxes that were paid into a general fund that the government used for a variety of activities, including war. Quakers typically felt that they couldn’t pay war taxes, but also felt that they were required to pay ordinary taxes without complaint. At what point does a tax cross the line from being a benign “mixed” tax to being a war-tax? How little does the government have to disguise the use of a tax that’s meant to support war before a Quaker must stop being concerned about the morality of paying it?

Job Scott again:

At our Yearly Meeting this year, , the subject of Friends paying taxes for war, came under solid consideration. Friends were unanimous, that the testimony of truth, and of our Society, was clearly against our paying such taxes as were wholly for war; and many solid Friends manifested a lively testimony against the payment of those in the mixture; which testimony appeared evidently to me to be on substantial grounds, arising and spreading in the authority of truth.…

Joseph Walton relates the case of Eli Yarnall, who was drafted to be a tax collector (something that seems to have been done to Quakers out of spite from time to time by a revolutionary administration that interpreted their pacifism as Toryism):

In , when he was about twenty-six years of age, and while the various exercises which were preparing him for the work of the ministry were heavy upon him, he received notice of an appointment from the commissioners of Chester County as collector of the taxes in the district he resided in. Besides the taxes at that time assessed — most of which must go to the support of war — there were to be collected fines for not taking the test oath or affirmation. Of course Eli Yarnall could not conscientiously do aught under the commission, which had, no doubt, been conferred upon him with an evil intent.

On considering the subject, it seemed to him best, in refusing to act, to furnish the commissioners with his reasons for so doing, and he accordingly addressed a letter to them. In this letter he says: “Ye may read, that it was said of old, by way of comparison, ‘The fig-tree said unto them, Should I forsake my sweetness and my good fruit, and go to be promoted over the trees?’ In like manner, I say unto you, shall I forsake that spirit of calmness, tenderness, and humility that breathes peace on earth and good-will toward all men, with which I am, through mercy, measurably favored, and accept of that power offered by you, and exercise the same by tyrannizing over the consciences of my brethren, violently distressing and spoiling their goods? Nay, surely, I dare not do it, let my sufferings in consequence thereof be never so great. I make no doubt but ye have been informed, that we cannot, consistently with our religious principles, have any hand in setting up or pulling down governments. Part of this, that is called a tax, is a fine for not taking a test of fidelity to one government and abjuration of the other, which would immediately make us parties.”

The letter is throughout well written, and sets forth the blessed, peaceable nature of the Christian religion, and the contradiction manifested by its professed believers in their oppressing tender consciences and spoiling the goods of their brethren, whose only fault lay in their endeavors to be faithful to what they deemed the commands of their God. Soon after, Eli Yarnall was called on to exhibit Christian patience in suffering. For his refusal to collect these taxes, he was fined by the commissioners, and on , a valuable horse was taken from him to satisfy that fine. This was but the beginning of this kind of trial, for he had afterward to witness various parts of his property seized, because he could not muster as a militia man, and because he was as much opposed in conscience to paying another to fight for him as to fighting himself.

James Mott went so far as to stop corresponding by mail when Congress added a war tax to the price of postage:

Must our correspondence by mail be at end, in consequence of the extra postage? or shall we pay it, and thereby contribute a mite to the support of measures calculated to destroy men’s lives and property? Perhaps I may be alone in refusing to pay postage on letters. Only a few cents — what can this do, it may be said, towards enabling government to prosecute the war? Very little, I own: but the great sum required is made up of littles; and if all those littles are withheld, the effusion of human blood may be at an end. To have much or little company in doing what we believe to be wrong, in itself is of no avail. I have endeavoured carefully to weigh and examine the consistency of paying taxes and imposts that are expressly for carrying on war (which the present increased ones, doubtless are) not only with our principles and belief as a society, but with the precepts and example of him who is or ought to be our guide and judge; and I cannot, consistently with my idea of either, believe it best for me to pay the present demand of additional postage, little as it is, and alone as I may stand.

After the patriots won independence, Congress tried to pay off its war debts by increasing import duties, and so the old revolutionary tactic of eschewing imports became a tool of the careful pacifist tax resister. Joshua Evans related:

, I understood a law was made for raising money to defray the expenses of war, by means of a duty laid on imported articles of almost every kind. This duty, I believed, was instead of taxing the inhabitants, as had been done some time before. I had felt myself restrained, , from paying such taxes; the proceeds whereof were applied, in great measure, to defray expenses relating to war: and, as herein before-mentioned, my refusal was from a tender conscientious care to keep clear in my testimony against all warlike proceedings. When the matter was brought under my weighty consideration, I could see no material difference between paying the expenses relating to war, in taxes, or in duties.

Although for several years past, I had made very little use of goods imported from foreign countries, because of the corruption attending the trade in these things; yet, on hearing of this duty, and considering the cause of its being laid on imported goods, my mind was much exercised. I saw clearly that the blessed Truth stood opposed to all wars and blood-shedding; teaching us to do unto all as we would have them do unto us. Though I had much refrained from using imported goods, in general; yet, as I was frequently engaged in travelling in the service of Truth, I saw great difficulty, as I thought, in refraining from the use of salt; as people generally used it in almost every kind of food.

On this subject my mind was again led into deep exercise; but as I endeavoured to apply, as at the footstool of my heavenly Father, for counsel and preservation upon the right foundation, I was made sensible, that it would be better for me to live on bread and water, than to balk my testimony. I likewise believed he would not lead me forward, though in an uncommon path, without giving me strength to maintain my ground, as I humbly put my trust in him. I therefore thought it right for me to make a full stand against the use of all things upon which duties of that kind were laid. Since which, I have to acknowledge, my way has been made much easier than I looked for.…