History of Quaker War Tax Resistance: The U.S. Civil War Period

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 United States Civil War.


The U.S. Civil War period ()

Once the United States was an established fact, it took a little while for the individual state governments to solidify their constitutions, and for the federal system to evolve into something stable. In the early years of there were some interesting debates in state legislatures when they were discussing laws (or sometimes new state constitutions) and trying to delineate the boundaries of legal conscientious objection to military service. Frequently such bodies were aware that Quakers would not serve in the military or provide substitutes, and that it was a waste of time to try to force them to, but many felt that if the citizenry in general was going to be burdened with involuntary military service that it would be unfair to let Quakers off the hook entirely, so they tended to impose a tax or fine on conscientious objection (which Quakers generally would not voluntarily pay, but which the state could recoup through distraint).

Quakers occasionally appealed to their legislatures to exempt them from such fines, without much success, but these appeals bring out another interesting facet in the debate. The peacefulness, charity, and self-reliance of Quakers was brought forward in their defense as to why they should not also be burdened with military defense. Here is Maine legislator Samuel Reddington making this point in :

They pay their taxes for other purposes, but they cannot discharge a military assessment. They do not wish their property or lives to be defended at the cannon’s mouth. They never give offence to others, and history can furnish no example of their wars. In reality however they pay more than an equivalent for military services. They support their own poor, and this alone is more than an equivalent. No poor Quaker was ever known to apply to the town for relief. In addition to this, they pay their proportion for the support of the poor of the towns in which they live. They also support their own schools, and they never asked or received any public lands of the Legislature.

North Carolina’s version of the law expressly allocated the militia exemption fines to the “literary fund” — hoping that such an obviously innocuous destiny for the money would make the Quakers give in. No such luck. The North Carolina Yearly Meeting declared: “[I]t is inconsistent with our principles for our members to pay any tax or fine on account of their refusal to muster or serve in the militia, although such tax or fine may be applied to the most laudable and humane purposes.”

Much of the documentation I have collected from concerns this debate over how far states could or would go to humor Quaker conscientious objection. At the same time, the militias were becoming more slack and more ridiculous in their peacetime practice, and the tax collectors were becoming more corrupt and brazen in their plunder. Quaker war tax resistance was also growing lax in some areas, with Quakers resorting to various subterfuges to have their militia exemption fines paid on their behalf without risking being denounced by their meeting by paying it directly.

A writer going by the name Pacificus complained about this in a letter to The Friend (Orthodox) in 1835:

The secret payment of this fine in lieu of military service or training, or the connivance at its payment by others, is a direct encouragement of the onerous militia system. If Friends were faithful to maintain their testimony against war in all respects, even keeping in subjection a warlike spirit in relation to this very oppression, and no one through mistaken kindness being induced to pay the fine for them, in a very little time the system would be exploded. Were nothing to be gained but the incarceration of peaceable citizens in prison for conscience sake — no reward but the accusations of a troubled spirit — no honor but the plaudits of militia officers and the averted looks of the considerate of all classes, it would require stout hands and unfeeling hearts long to support the system. Yes! let it be impressed upon the weak and complying among us that they are supporting this oppressive system — that it is to them, mainly, that the militia system, as far as regards Friends, is prolonged — that they are binding their fellow professors with this chain, and that if entire faithfulness was maintained on the part of all our members in refusing to pay these fines or allowing others to do it, the spoiling of our goods and the imprisonment of our members for this precious cause — the cause of peace on earth — would soon be a narrative of times that are past.

In , Pennsylvania changed its law so that a small (50¢) militia exemption fine would be quietly added to the ordinary state tax of anyone who was not enrolled in the militia. This caught some Quakers off guard, and the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting was quick to send out warnings to Friends to carefully inspect their tax bills and see if there was an extra charge on it, and if so, not to pay it. This again brought up the difficult topic of “mixed taxes” and whether this militia tax had somehow become uncontroversial because of the new way it was being applied. The smallness of the fine, and the muddled way in which it was assessed, made it easy for Quakers to casually overlook it and neglect their testimony.

When the Civil War came, the sympathies of most U.S. Quakers were very much with the North and with the abolitionist cause, and many Quakers bent over backwards to make excuses for paying the new and newly-elevated taxes the U.S. government was using to raise funds to fight the Confederacy.

Joshua Maule has left us a series of poignant and pleading essays from this period. When the government levied an 8½% war surtax atop its regular general tax, though the tax was explicitly for war, it was not a new tax but a new increase of an old tax. Many, perhaps most Quakers who had paid the former mixed tax also paid the new surtax, reasoning that it was really just another part of the mix and was therefore unexceptional. Maule and some others felt that because it had been explicitly added as a war tax, they could not pay it, and they withheld this 8½%. Maule found that the people in leadership roles in his meeting were paying the tax and discouraging those who felt they could not, and he wrote:

I have no doubt the sin was less with many who, without proper consideration and ignorant of the precepts and commands of Truth, went into the field of battle, than with those whose eyes had been enlightened to see the peaceable nature of the Redeemer’s kingdom and were professing to uphold it, and who yet voluntarily paid the wages of the warrior in a war that imbrued the nation in blood.

Nathan Hall, on the other hand, set forth a good set of arguments for why paying the new surtax should not be objectionable if paying the rest of the tax was not:

[W]hether we pay less or more of that tax, a certain proportion of it goes for military or war purposes. And it avails nothing to say: “We did not pay it for that purpose, and if wicked and bad men so apply it, it is their lookout, not ours.” We can say that of all the tax as well as a part.…

To illustrate it more fully I will suppose a case which I believe is strictly parallel, thus: We both have a testimony against the use of ardent spirits, but are, being very thirsty, placed in a situation where we can get no water except some that has a small portion of whiskey in it. Being under the necessity of taking something, you may, by inquiry and calculation, find what proportion of the objectionable article is contained in it, and leave just that much in your bowl — while my understanding will be that in partaking I partake of both good and bad, and in refusing refuse both.

Maule had a hard time convincing Friends that other taxes that funded the general fund and that had been increased because of war expenses were okay for Quakers to pay, but the surtax, only because it was explicitly called a war tax by the powers that be, was not.

In some places, many Friends slipped even further, and paid militia exemption taxes, although this was still, in most Meetings, an offense against the Discipline.

This backsliding was by no means universal, and there were Friends who suffered on both sides for their unwillingness to either fight or to pay a fine. In a few cases in the Confederacy, Quakers were drafted into the military, and, being unwilling to either serve or to pay a tiny exemption tax, were cruelly tortured.

In the North seemed that it would surpass the South in cruelty when a draft law was enacted that would enable draftees to get out of service by providing a substitute or by paying a $300 commutation fine (which was explicitly declared to be for procuring a substitute, and which Quakers could not pay in any case) but that did not allow for distraining and selling property in order to pay unpaid fines. Draftees who failed to enlist, to provide a substitute, or to pay were to be treated as deserters and were subject to be shot.

This was too much “suffering” for the stomach of some friends. Nathaniel Richardson wrote an op-ed for the Hicksite Friends Intelligencer in which he advanced the idea that since currency is a creation of government, the government should be able to ask for it back at any time without Christians having any reason to complain, under the “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” principle. This led to spirited dissent in the pages of that magazine from defenders of the ancient Quaker testimony against paying militia exemption taxes or for substitutes to serve in their places, but showed that war tax resistance was losing its footing and had become a debatable part of Quaker doctrine.

In , a modified version of the dreaded Union law was passed, which designated the $300 militia exemption tax to go toward the care of sick & wounded soldiers rather than to the procuring of a substitute, and which would enable conscientious objectors to be drafted into non-combatant roles like hospital service. The (Orthodox) New York Yearly Meeting decided that it would be okay by them if Quakers in their Meeting took advantage of these options, and a Friends Review (Orthodox) editorial agreed (editorials in the Friends Intelligencer and in The Friend disagreed).

While Friends were splitting hairs about some of these particular explicit war taxes over which they had once had fairly universal agreement, resistance against mixed taxes and war-funding seignorage had ground to a halt. A Friends Review editorial remarked casually that “the universal practice of Friends tacitly acknowledges” that Quakers may and ought to pay “national taxes levied in large degree for the support of war, and… the purchase and use of the national currency — popularly known as ‘greenbacks’ — which was issued mainly ‘for the payment of the army and navy.’”

After the war, there was a “bounty tax” which was meant to fund the bonuses that had been paid to recruits by the Union army. This was a clear war tax of the sort that Quakers normally could not pay, but, for instance in Ohio, this tax was collected at the same time as other state and local taxes. A taxpayer was told the total amount of taxes owed, but the taxpayer would have to do some research to determine how much of that amount represented the “bounty tax.” Many Quakers apparently did not do this research, and taking cover under the theory that the total tax amount represented an unobjectionable “mixed” tax, paid the whole thing. This led to a division in the orthodox Ohio meeting.

When I read the material from this and from the previous periods, the impression I get is that while in the period between the French & Indian war and the Civil War much of the American Quaker writing about war tax resistance is about efforts to broaden and radicalize war tax resistance, most of the writing from the Civil War period is about defending traditional Quaker war tax resistance practices from weakening or from being disregarded or ignored.

The practice was clearly in decline. By the time of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in , only a single monthly meeting reported any “sufferings” for refusal to pay a military tax.

But interestingly, around the end of the U.S. civil war, a non-sectarian (though still largely Christian) peace movement began to flourish in the United States, and it began to take seriously the questions Quakers had long grappled with concerning their peace testimony, including war tax resistance. Some of the groups in this movement took up the cause of Zerah C. Whipple, a “Rogerene” Quaker (not exactly part of the Society of Friends, but a closely-related off-shoot, similar enough that Whipple was often described as a Quaker) and secretary of the Connecticut Peace Society, who had been imprisoned for failure to pay a militia tax. His case became a cause célèbre amongst the various peace societies in the American peace movement.

This cross-pollenation between the Quaker and non-Quaker peace movements would become important in reseeding war tax resistance in the Society of Friends after the Great Forgetting period when Quaker war tax resistance almost vanishes from the record.