Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 20 October 1837, part 3

The debate continued. John Fuller “would make one or two remarks on the question of conferring exclusive privileges upon any class, or of making any distinction in the imposition of public burdens or taxes”:

With respect to exempting the members of the Society of Friends from bearing arms, it would, he thought, have a very injurious tendency. It might encourage other sects to start up and claim the same privilege. It was an oppressive burden upon all. It was found oppressive, no doubt, during the revolutionary war to bear arms. Men in poor circumstances were not able to support their families without attending to their daily labor, nor able to provide a substitute. This was often the case with many; but he could see no reason why opulent men should be exempted from bearing arms or providing a substitute. There could be no propriety in it. If they were scrupulous as to bearing arms, they must be equally so as to paying for those who do the service. It was just as wrong to pay one for killing a man as to kill him one’s self. There was also just as much reason for exempting these men from all contributions to the support of the government and the defense of the country, from which they enjoyed equal benefits with others, as for exempting them from this particular burden. How could they claim exemption from the payment of their share towards the general tax? If they were sincere in their professions, and he could not doubt it, — though so unreasonable were they that he could scarcely believe it, notwithstanding the number of men of probity whom he knew to be among them, — it was still a matter of predominant importance that the national defense should be provided for, and no set of men, however sincere, could set up a claim to be exempt from rendering their aid in the defense of the country.

Joseph R. Chandler took up the debate next, and said in part:

In regard to the exemption of the Friends from military duty, if any class of citizens were entitled to such a privilege, they were. A military government was not one of their choice. If it had been made so, it was by those who had come into the State, since they acquired it, not by arms, but fair purchase from the original lords of the soil. They may truly say to those who call upon them to bear arms, — we need no defense; we wish none; we made none of these laws; and you that come since our fathers came, have no right to coerce us to obey them, whatever you may do among yourselves.

Then Benjamin Martin “rose, he said, to correct a statement made by the gentleman from Fayette, (Mr. Fuller,) whom he understood to say that the Friends asked to be exempt from the payment of taxes” and then he played the chickenhawk card on the bloviating Mr. Cummin:

If the gentleman had paid a little closer attention to the language of the memorial of the Friends, he would have known that there was never an instance in which they asked to be exempted from the payment of their full share towards the expenses of the government. They never asked the government to go to any greater extent than to exonerate them from the payment of militia fines. They required exemption from personal service in the militia, and from the payment of an equivalent for that service. They never asked us to go to any greater extent. As to the gentleman from Juniata, who had carried us through half of the history of Jewish wars, to prove that war was acceptable to the Almighty; he was himself exempt from the service in the militia into which he seemed to be so anxious to press others. Notwithstanding the gentleman’s earnest defense of war, he had not, he believed, fought any battles, and probably never would. But he would pass that over; he had risen only to bring to the view of the committee the real question, and what was asked by the Friends. He hoped gentlemen would not branch out upon what was not asked.

John Fuller responded:

The gentleman from the country thinks that I have fallen into an error in intimating that more was claimed by the society of Friends, than exemption from paying an equivalent for personal service. But I inferred this from their principles, which, if carried out in sincerity, would lead to that absurdity. It follows, as a matter of course, that on the same principles on which they claim exemption for the militia fines, they may claim a like exemption from the payment of any general tax which goes into the public treasury, for the common defense. Why might they not as well resist the payment of a tax which goes to the support of the army or navy of the United States? If they have any conscientious scruples at all upon the subject, they must be carried out, or they are good for nothing. What difference is there, in principle, between killing a fellow man in war, and paying another man to kill him? And, again, do not the Friends pay one man to kill another, when they pay their share of the general tax towards the support of the government, and the means of national defense?

Charles Brown tried to bring things back to earth:

[He] said that the amendment he had proposed was not so objectionable as many gentlemen supposed. The proposition was a plain and simple one. The clause proposed to be stricken out was introduced in the beginning, to relieve a worthy class of citizens who were conscientiously scrupulous about bearing arms, but what was the relief it proposed? Why it proposed that those who were conscientiously scrupulous about bearing arms should pay an equivalent in money for such personal service. It was found, however, that this was as objectionable as the other. If they were conscientious in relation to the bearing of arms, they were equally so in relation to the payment of money for personal services. It was, therefore, no relief at all. If it was intended to afford this class of citizens relief, afford that relief which was proper and expedient but not hold out to them this provision as a measure of relief, when it was no relief. The clause was objectionable on this ground, but he was opposed to it on other grounds. He was opposed to it because it created distinctions in the different classes in this Commonwealth, and distinctions which were calculated to create in the minds of the people, dissatisfaction with their form of Government.

William Darlington continued the debate:

[He] said that this subject had been treated as if it was a matter peculiarly asked for by the society of friends, as an exclusive benefit to themselves and themselves alone. This was the light in which it appeared to have been received and treated by the gentleman from Fayette, (Mr. Fuller,) and the gentleman from Juniata, (Mr. Cummin.) Now by the memorial first presented to this Convention, it would be seen that they placed the prayer upon the broad basis of human rights: they asked nothing peculiar for themselves, but for every individual in the community who had conscientious scruples about bearing arms for the purpose of destroying his fellow man. This was what they asked, and nothing more. The second memorial which was presented by the gentleman from the city of Philadelphia, (Mr. Cope,) and which was brought to this place by a delegation from the society of friends, he held in his hand, and it contained the following language: “we therefore hope you will make such provision for the religious scruples of tender consciences as shall be evident, it is merely a concession to christian principle, and not limited to any classes or persons.”

Now, if both of these memorials are examined it will be found that nothing exclusive was asked for by the society of friends. That society, it is true, is the only one which has asked this at the hands of the Convention; but, if it is adopted, it will extend to other individuals and classes of the community, equally respectable with that society. It will apply to a highly respectable denomination, who were known by the name of Menonists. They too hold it as a part of their creed, that it is improper to bear arms; and it may be that there are other societies who hold these peculiar tenets and principles. There are many individuals too who do not belong to any society, but who hold to the same principles. With regard to the argument of the gentleman from Juniata, (Mr. Cummin,) he had only to say that it would be more likely to produce an impression unfavorable to religion in the minds of sceptics than otherwise. He had been brought up and taught in the doctrines of the christian religion, and he always understood it to be the tenets of the christian church to produce peace on earth, and good will among men. He had no desire to go into a scriptural argument to prove this, as he knew himself to be incompetent to do the subject that justice which ought to be done to it. It was sufficient for his purpose to know that this was the belief of the society of friends, and of other religious denominations and individuals. It was known that these persons were conscientious, and if it was known to be a part of their creed, let us enquire whether we should not respect it. Let us look for a moment into the Constitution of , which was adopted at a time when perhaps there was more of the military spirit infused into the minds of men, than at any other time since the foundation of this Government. The framers of that instrument were many of them fresh from the fields of the revolution, and all Europe was convulsed with the exploits of armies. Notwithstanding, however, that the people of that day were infected with a military spirit, we see them adopting the principle in the Constitution, that government has no power nor right to control the consciences of men. Now, if that people at that time regarded the right of conscience by a constitutional provision, how much more ought we now to regard it? Shall we now in times of peace, when almost the whole world are engaged in peaceful occupations, say that we will not respect the rights of conscience? Shall we say that because the minority differs from the majority, that they cannot be permitted to enjoy the freedom of conscience? Shall we be told that the minority, and the conscientious minority, are less entitled to the regard of the majority than when the present Constitution was adopted. If the right of conscience was then worth protection, it is equally so now. If you look into the legislation of all countries, you will find conscientious scruples regarded. You will find in England and America religious scruples tolerated, and provisions made to meet the case. In the courts of justice, where the lives and the property of our citizens depend upon the evidence there given, conscientious scruples, in relation to taking oaths are regarded, they are exempted from the obligation of the oath, and are permitted to give testimony in the manner most congenial to their own consciences. Our laws all go more or less to respect the rights of conscience, and why introduce provisions here at this day denying of a respectable class of citizens the free exercise of the right of conscience.

The debating continued .