Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 11 July 1837

Along with the debate over whether (and if so how) conscientious objection to militia service was to be honored, was a parallel debate over whether the peacetime militia trainings had become ridiculous and ought to be abandoned entirely.

Frequent mentions are made of a “Colonel Pluck.” It was the practice, apparently, for regions to elect their own militia officers. Philadelphia elected a local buffoon, “Colonel Pluck,” according to one account:

…to make [the militia] odious and more unpopular, with a view of abolishing the law and its penalties.… Colonel Pluck made his first parade fantastically dressed and mounted on an old crippled horse, supported by guards to keep the poor animal on his feet, followed by the fantastic Corntoppers, who paraded through the streets with a comic band to the Purple and Blue, and went through burlesque field movements and company drill, to the greatest joy, shouting, and laughing of the militia-men and lookers-on.

An caricature of Colonel Pluck

I’ve tried to disentangle this part of the debate and present mostly the arguments for and against the practice of demanding militia exemption fines from conscientious objectors (and the related issue of whether any exemption for conscientious objectors should be allowed).

On , Thomas P. Cope, a Quaker and a delegate to the convention, opened the debate:

Mr. Cope, of Philadelphia, presented a memorial from the Society of Friends, asking the Convention to insert in the Constitution, a provision exempting them from the payment of fines imposed for the non-performance of militia duty.

On presenting this memorial, Mr. Cope said — I have not occupied much time in making speeches in the Convention, being rather desirous to improve by the wisdom of others, than to be heard myself, but the Convention will excuse me for submitting a few explanatory remarks on the present occasion.

I am not disposed to invited a discussion on the mooted question — whether war is allowable to the Christian — but this I can say in all sincerity, that the religious society, of which I am a member, do most conscientiously believe, that war is inconsistent with the spirit of the gospel. — They cannot, therefore, bear arms.

The society of Friends originated in Great Britain, a short time antecedent to the Commonwealth, during period of great civil, political, and religious excitement, in which they suffered much for their principle, in property, in liberty, and in life. To escape from these scenes of tumult, and to enjoy those conscientious privileges which were denied to them in the country of their birth, William Penn, and his associates, fled to the wilds of America. They were preceded by the Pilgrim fathers, who landed from the Mayflower, on the rock of Plymouth, and who, escaping from persecution, nevertheless, preserved the government in their hands down to the Revolution. Our forefathers, like theirs, also fled from persecution; but, they invited the persecuted of all nations to seek protection under their mild sway, and to participate with them equally in the blessings of civil, political, and religious liberty. They arrived, and, in process of time, becoming the most numerous, they assumed the Government, and the reins fell from the hands of Friends.

But here permit me to remark, that, while in Massachusetts, peopled by the descendants of the Pilgrim fathers, it now is, and for half a century has been, sufficient for a Quaker to produce a certificate of membership, to exempt him from military service, and from all penalties for a non-compliance — in Pennsylvania, founded by the society on the most liberal principles, designed to secure to all the enjoyment of the rights of conscience, in the land of Penn, the Quaker has been deprived of his conscientious privileges. For many years the society suffered but little on account of their principles; but, the Revolutionary war at length broke out, and then commenced his sufferings. From that period to the present time, the members have had taken from them, property to the amount of between three and four hundred thousand dollars, and that from members of the Philadelphia yearly meeting alone; and, there are at least seven other yearly meetings on this continent. What has been the amount of these exactions on them, I am not prepared to say, nor is it material here that I should. Can any one tell what portion of this large sum has reached the public treasury? Not a tithe — perhaps not the tithing of a tithe.

But it is alleged, that if the Quakers will not fight, they should pay an equivalent. Now, will any casuist here or elsewhere, tell me the difference between my shooting a man myself, and hiring another to shoot him! It is because Friends cannot perceive this difference, that they seek relief at your hands.

But do not the members of the society render an equivalent? In the first place, they contribute equally with others to the public burdens. — They pay their full share in support of the common poor, and the public schools: they join others in works of charity and public utility. They have not spared their money, nor their personal services, in the erecting of your hospitals, your libraries, the asylum for the deaf and dumb, for the blind, the orphans’ asylum, widows’ asylum, house of refuge, and other works of Christian benevolence. Well then, besides these, they educate and support their own poor exclusively. Tell me, which of you has known a Quaker to knock at your door for charity? It would not be allowed — this society would not permit it. To say nothing of their houses for worship and appendages scattered over town and country, and which may be valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars. I may mention the two institutions, lately established in the city by the legacies of two individuals, for the relief of suffering humanity, costing upwards of three hundred thousand dollars. These institutions are not intended for the use of members of the society, but for persons of all other denominations — not that members have been excluded by the liberal donors, but because they are otherwise provided for.

I may next mention the asylum for the insane, established on a farm of seventy acres near Frankford, which, with the buildings, cost seventy thousand dollars. This asylum is open to persons of all societies, and I ought, perhaps, in justice to the physicians and others who have the immediate supervision of it, to say that no similar institution, within my knowledge, either in this or any other country, has been more successful in the cure of that dreadful malady, as the records of the asylum will fully prove.

Next is Westown school and farm of six hundred acres, situated about twenty miles from the city. The land was purchased low, and, with the buildings, cost between seventy and eighty thousand dollars. About two hundred children of both sexes receive here a good English education, and such as choose may acquire a knowledge of the learned languages. Then we have Haverford school, on a farm of about two hundred acres, eight miles from Philadelphia, in which between seventy and eighty boys receive an education believed to be equal to that taught in any of the best colleges in America. This school was chartered by the Legislature of Pennsylvania with a capital of one hundred thousand dollars.

We now arrive at the city itself — there the society have about twenty schools, two or three of which are exclusively appropriated to the children of their own members — all the rest are open to persons of every denomination. In these schools, from one hundred and twenty to one hundred and thirty children are taught gratis, and the charge for others is kept purposely so low as to enable citizens in moderate circumstances to educate their children without the appearance of receiving charity.

Now, I have not made this enumeration with ostentatious views, but simply for the purpose of saying that while the society contribute equally with others in the common expenses, and while the Legislature of the State has appropriated large sums, and very properly so, to the endowment and support of colleges and other useful institutions from which the society receives no benefit, the public has not, in any shape or form, contributed one cent towards any of the institutions mentioned by me, nor a cent to the support or education of a single member of the Society of Friends — nor indeed have they ever asked it.

Have I not, then, made out my case? Have not the Quakers paid an ample equivalent for not mustering two or three times a year, to march through the streets for the amusement of our children? But it is not merely the pecuniary exactions of which the society has reason to complain; it is the insulting — may I not say the brutal manner in which these fines are sometimes collected. I have, myself, known the blankets to be stripped from the beds of children in a cold winter’s night, while they were left to suffer with no other covering than a linen sheet; and this not once or twice, but oft repeated on the same family, and that, too, when woolen clothing was exceedingly dear and difficult to be procured.

I have little knowledge of the kind of persons employed to collect militia fines in the counties — in Philadelphia we have had some experience in these matters. An individual was there employed for many years who rendered himself sufficiently notorious by his savage conduct. I will not wound the feelings of this House by a recital of many of his deeds: their recapitulation would employ hours. On or two instances, by way of sample, the Convention will excuse me for mentioning.

On one occasion, this man called at the house of a mechanic on whom he had a small demand for a militia fine. The occupant of the house was from home. Perceiving an infant slumbering in a cradle, this hero threw it on the floor and marched off triumphantly with the cradle and bedding. On another occasion he called for a fine on a lad who had been born blind. While this lad was standing at his father’s door, reasoning with the tax gatherer on the absurdity of the demand, he received, from the latter, repeated blows on the head from a bludgeon administered with so much severity as to endanger his life. Now, be it known, that although this lad, from his imperfect vision, could neither read nor write, he possessed a cultivated mind, was amiable and interesting, had been delicately brought up, and was the son of one of our most respectable citizens. I will merely add that I have no pleasure in these painful recitals, and will pursue the subject no further, as this miserable man was at length overtaken by the laws of his country, and now is, or lately was, a convict in the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania.

Why, then, continue a system which produces no advantage to the public, but which is so offensive and oppressing to an unoffending people?