Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 20 October 1837, part 1

On , Thomas P. Cope presented a “Memorial” from the Society of Friends giving their stand on the issue. But the convention did not begin to debate the subject until after a Summer recess. James C. Biddle then opened the debate over the proposed section of the constitution that would read “Those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms, shall not be compelled to do so, but shall pay an equivalent for personal service”:

The section is calculated to oppress the religious scruples of a particular portion of the community, who are pre-eminently entitled, if any class of the people can be so entitled, to protection. It bears hard on the society of Friends, who came out with William Penn, to teach and practice peace, good will and forbearance in all forms, and who had done more to introduce order and regularity throughout the Commonwealth, than any other set of men. Have these people suffered? Have they been oppressed by the operation of this system? It was only necessary to refer to the vivid picture presented to the Convention by his colleague, (Mr. Cope,) previous to the adjournment of the Convention for the late recess. The picture of the cradle torn from under the sleeping infant, by the barbarous hands of the collector of militia fines, was of itself, sufficient to make us determine not to continue this provision in the Constitution. He had not risen to make a speech, but he hoped we should never hereafter call on those who have religious scruples on the subject to bear arms, or to pay the penalty for exemption.

William Smyth disagreed:

The gentleman has adverted to the history of a case submitted to the Convention, by the gentleman from the city of Philadelphia, (Mr. Cope,) previous to our adjournment in . I have listened to that statement; I have also listened to the accounts which have been given of the good deeds of the society of Friends, and of the wealth which they have in their possession. Now is it, or is it not right that that wealth should be defended? If it is right, by whom should it be defended? Is it by him who earns his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, that the property of the society of Friends, is to be defended? They have undoubtedly rights as well as other men, but I apprehend it is not the duty of this Convention to enact laws which shall exempt them entirely from being called upon to defend the soil on which they live. I think it would be wrong to do so. There may be some cases of mal-conduct on the part of officers appointed to collect fines. But this is not the fault of the law; and if any thing is wrong, if any individual is convicted of improper conduct in his office, the law is open to the injured party, and will redress his wrongs. It is right that the law should do so, but I cannot consent to surrender or set aside the fundamental law of the State.

James M. Porter added:

The memorial of the Society of Friends, which I had the honor to present, states, what is no doubt the fact — that this provision was intended by the framers of the Constitution for their benefit, whereas in fact it does not so operate, nor do they desire the exemption conferred upon the terms stated. They cannot conscientiously bear arms, considering it wrong to do so; and so believing, they can no more buy an exemption therefrom by paying an equivalent, than they can do the act itself. To retain that provision, holds out to the world that a privilege is given to them which is denied to other citizens, thus subjecting them to invidious reflections, whilst in fact the provision is perfectly nugatory to such as are really conscientious. No man more sincerely respects the rights of conscience than I do; and when that subject is reached, I may trouble this body with my views upon it. But I think the adoption of this amendment does not affect that question one way or the other, and leaves all classes of our citizens upon a footing of equality: And if the Legislature, under the discretionary power which the remainder of the section gives them, shall dispense with the involuntary militia musters, those who are really conscientious will have gained in practice an important end in being called on to pay fines for not doing that which their consciences will not permit them to do.

Then, John Cummin went on at some length, which I’ll save for the next entry.