Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 21 October 1837

John Cummin again:

Mr. Cummin… said it was the belief of the Society of Friends, that all wars are anti-Christian. Then he had said in his comment on this belief, that in this view all who voted for wars are infidels, because there could be no third party. There could only be Christians and infidels. It was wrong to charge him with applying the word infidel to any. These memorialists used the language themselves, and he must stand acquitted of the charge. The charter of William Penn, contradicted what these petitioners advanced and expressed what he (Mr. C.) had said. The State of Pennsylvania was established on warlike principles. The grant was made to William Penn, on account of warlike exploits achieved by himself and his family. [Here Mr. C. read the first section of the grant.]

This was a grant from Charles of England that read, in part: “…we, favoring the petition and good purpose of the said William Penn, and having regard to the memory and merits of his late father in diverse services, and particularly to his conduct, courage, and discretion under our dearest brother James, Duke of York, in that signal battle and victory fought and obtained against the Dutch fleet, commanded by the Heer Van Opdam, in the year …” Cummin continues:

The Society of Friends had pleaded under the grant of William Penn, and they were unable to show from a single sentence in that grant that he intended that any portion of the people should be exempted from paying their just dues to the government. Pennsylvania being a military State, they who were the descendants from its founder ought not to be contending for any such principles as these petitioners asked. Mr. C. then read a further extract, being the 16th section of the grant, in order to refute the idea that there was intended to be any exception granted to any class from paying an equivalent for personal service.

Section ⅩⅥ reads:

Back to Mr. Cummin:

It was considered enough if the society who had conscientious scruples got rid of the personal service. There was not a word in the law to support them in their claim to be released from the payment of this equivalent.

What will the petitioners say to this clause? Can they get over it with all their sanctity of pretensions to be elevated above the other citizens of America and Europe? Their pretensions are unfounded, and it is a shame for them to ask for that which is denied to all our other citizens. Common sense should teach them otherwise than to ask such privileges. By the 16th section of this charter, power is given to “William Penn, his heirs, and assigns, by themselves or their captains, or officers, to levy, muster and train all sorts of men, of what condition, or wheresoever born in the Province of Pennsylvania, for the time being, and to make war, and pursue the enemies and robbers aforesaid, as well by sea as by land; yea, even without the limits of the said Province, and by God’s assistance, to vanquish and take them, and being taken, to put them to death by the laws of war, or to save them at their pleasure; and to do all and every other act and thing which to the charge and office of a Captain General of an army belongs or has accustomed to belong, as fully and freely as any Captain General of an army has ever had the same.” It will be seen therefore by this paper that William Penn never took such a ground as is now taken by these petitioners; and as he had said before, he would say now, that until their men can show that an attempt has been made to prevent them from worshipping God according to the dictates of their own consciences, they have no right to complain, and certainly we have never made any such attempt as that to interfere with their conscientious belief. The power is granted in this charter to William Penn to act as Captain General, and to train all men — pursue the enemies of the State, — vanquish and take them, and put them to death by the laws of war. Is this not a contradiction of these petitioners to all intents and purposes? He should like to know how gentlemen would get out of this. It was just, right, and proper that all men should be subjected to the laws, and that all should pay their proportion toward the maintenance of the government and the defense of the Commonwealth. We had the highest authority for this, yea, even authority from on high. The scriptures said “Let every soul be subject to the higher powers,” and “they that resist shall receive damnation.” These men, then, ought to submit to the powers of the government and the laws of their country, if they wish to be the followers of the Prince of Peace. Their resistance is rebellion against the laws of the land, which is worse than witchcraft. The language of the Scripture was strong and emphatic, and in direct contradiction of the prayer of these petitioners. The language of the charter, too, was in contradiction of their prayer. William Penn never gave them the grant which they here contend for. — It was not to be found in any of the engagements of the Government of England with him, nor was it to be found in any engagements of his with the people of Pennsylvania. War was lawful and justifiable, and he had clearly proven on a former occasion that the followers of the Prince of Peace fought the battles of their country. It was clear, therefore, that all persons should be held to defend their country, and upon their failing to do so, let them pay an equivalent.

Ephraim Banks “regretted very much that there had been an attack made on any class of persons, because of their conscientious scruples in relation to bearing arms.” Furthermore:

He regretted also that any class of persons should ask to be relieved from doing service to their country in time of need. He regretted it because of the opportunity it gave for abusing the privilege. He knew that conscience made cowards of us all. He knew some would avail themselves of the plea of conscience for the purpose of relieving them from the performance of military service in defense of their country…

That “conscience makes cowards of us all” quote is an odd one to deploy by critics of conscientious objection. Ebenezer W. Sturdevant will also use it later on in the debate. It comes from Hamlet’s soliloquy when he complains that fear of possible consequences in the afterlife keeps a verklempt fellow like himself from slitting his wrists. It’s also often inserted into (or falsely remembered as being from) Richard , although the wicked Richard’s actual quote is either this bit of Nietzschean realpolitik:

For Conscience is a word that Cowards use,
Devised at first to keep the strong in awe,
Our strong arms be our Conscience; Swords our Law.

Or this last bit as his final battle nears:

O coward Conscience? how dost thou afflict me?

Richard was one of Shakespeare’s great villains, and the play is a magnificent story of someone trying to evade the voice of conscience in order to relentlessly and mercilessly pursue power and military glory. By evading his conscience, he splits himself, until right at the end, right after that “O coward Conscience” bit, as his conscience is catching up to him, he argues with himself about himself, Gollum-like:

Cold fearful drops stand on my trembling flesh.
What? do I fear my Self? There’s none else by,
Richard loves Richard, that is, I am I.
Is there a Murderer here? No; Yes, I am:
Then fly; What from my Self? Great reason: why?
Lest I Revenge. What? my Self upon my Self?
Alack, I love my Self. Wherefore? For any good
That I my Self, have done unto my Self?
O no. Alas, I rather hate my Self,
For hateful Deeds committed by my Self.
I am a Villain: yet I Lie, I am not.
Fool, of thy Self speak well: Fool, do not flatter.
My Conscience hath a thousand several Tongues,
And every Tongue brings in a several Tale,
And every Tale condemns me for a Villain;
Perjury, in the highest Degree,
Murder, stern murder, in the direst degree,
All several sins, all used in each degree,
Throng all to the Bar, crying all, Guilty, Guilty.
I shall despair, there is no Creature loves me;
And if I die, no soul shall pity me.
Nay, wherefore should they? Since that I my Self,
Find in my Self, no pity to my Self.

John J. M’Cahen said “that after listening to the argument of the gentleman from Mifflin, (Mr. Banks,) he was at a loss to know how to vote upon the amendment”:

From the turn which this discussion had taken, it appeared to him that the better course would be for the Convention to resolve itself into a court of conscience, and enquire how far conscience was to be respected and what was to be regarded as conscientious scruples. It is impossible for us to tell what is the wish of all our fellow citizens on this subject.… Conscience is a matter that lies in every man’s bosom, and it is for him to determine how far his conscience will allow him to go. A man may be conscientious, scrupulous about paying taxes, or about obeying the law of the Commonwealth, but it does not follow that his conscience is entitled to respect. Every man is bound to respect the laws. Every man’s property is protected, and every man is bound to contribute his share for the common defense of the country. The government protects every man in his rights, and allows him to employ his industry in such manner as to be of most advantage to himself, and why should any man ask to be relieved from defending that government?

…In all matters relating to the public defense, and to the general concerns of our government, all men should be participants. Every man was bound to defend his home and his fireside, and every man who claimed the enjoyment of political rights ought to defend them. He believed that the respectable Society, who petitioned to be relieved from military duty, did not ask to be relieved from the enjoyment of any political rights. They did not find these rights burdensome, nor opposed to the scruples of their consciences. Even on election days, when there were many causes of excitement, they still participated in those scenes; and although he esteemed the Society of Friends as highly as any other class of men, yet, on election days, they were as forward as any in the assertion of their rights. They knew what those rights were and were determined to maintain them. If they could be found exercising their rights on election ground, they ought also to be required to defend their country when assailed by a foreign foe.

Emanuel C. Reigart commented on the latest proposed amendment, which would be worded: “Those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms shall not be compelled to do so, nor pay an equivalent therefor, except in times of exigency or war.” This was an attempt at a compromise — let the Quakers be exempt from militia service or paying an equivalent, unless there’s a real war on, in which case it will be necessary for everyone to put their scruples aside to meet with the emergency.

This compromise had the fatal flaw of being ridiculous. What kind of conscientious objection is it that makes you scrupulous of supporting the militia when it isn’t engaged in war, but then allows you to drop your scruples right at the moment when supporting the militia means bloodshed? Later in the debate, critics of the Quakers will (unfairly) seize on this as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Quaker position. Reigart:

To the Bill of Rights the people look with great jealousy; and any alteration in it at this time would be viewed as though this body had legislated for a particular class of the people. Whilst I entertain a proper respect for conscientious scruples, I will not vote for raising up a privileged class in this Commonwealth; though I do not suppose that such is the design of the friends of this measure. If it is so, we had better know it at once. Among my constituents there are Menonists, Ominists and Dunkers; and I have myself sprung from the Menonists; yet not a word have you heard from them. They have always paid their fines. They scruple indeed to bear arms, but they are not chary of their purse.

I do not understand that we are asked by the Society of Friends to create a privileged order; but we are called on to refer the entire matter to the Legislature, and to say that the Society of Friends shall neither bear arms nor pay an equivalent therefor, except in times of exigency or war. This is leaving too much to the Legislature, and I cannot go so far. This report is in strong directory language; it is an invitation, nay, it is a command held out to the Legislature, which says, you must not impose any fines nor enact any laws to bear on those who have conscientious scruples, unless the enemy is at your door or fighting in the town. Such will be held to be the meaning of this sentence if ever it should come before the legislative body. I am unwilling that any doubt should remain; I wish the whole matter to be left clear and intelligible. It is undoubtedly the right of every citizen to receive protection at the hands of his country for his person and property; but this protection must be reciprocal. I receive protection from my country, and I am bound to protect her in return.

But here it is said, perhaps justly, that conscience interferes and says you must not bear arms, you must not take the life of a fellow-creature; it is not in accordance with the principles of Christianity to do so. It may be so: nay, I go farther, and say that I believe it is not in strict accordance with the doctrines of Christianity, yet such is the infirmity of our natures that we do not practice its peaceful precepts. But while I say this, I say to those who hold these conscientious scruples, you must pay an equivalent for personal services. It is not right that I should bear arms, and that you should refuse either to bear arms, or pay an equivalent. It would be holding out an invitation to all to come and say they had conscientious scruples against bearing arms. I do not believe that the friends of the petitioners intended the measure to bear such a construction; but a strong inference might be drawn, on which the Legislature might dispense with the matter altogether except in cases of actual invasion or war. I therefore hope that the amendment of the gentleman from the county of Philadelphia will be agreed to; and that the friends of the measure will pledge themselves here, that when they come to the ninth article, no attempt shall be made to put any thing of this kind into it.

James M. Porter said

…[t]he effect of that report would be simply this; that although you might enroll, officer, and make ready your militia for the defense of the country, yet where a man entertained conscientious scruples as to bearing arms, he should not be compelled to pay a fine as an equivalent in time of peace, when it would be supposed the mustering of men, reluctantly compelled to attend the trainings, could not result in any public good.

But as to conscientious scruples, he confessed that this was a most difficult question. No law could be enacted of which a bad man might not avail himself, and here lay the difficulty and delicacy of the subject. No man more sincerely respected conscientious scruples than he did, and where a man sincerely entertained such scruples, the principles of our Government said that they should be respected. He knew that many men would avail themselves of the exemption who were not entitled to it, and here the great difficulty lay. But it was not possible for a man who did not entertain these scruples, properly to feel and appreciate the motives of the man who did entertain them. For himself, he had no such conscientious scruples. He never had; but the sect, said Mr. P., to which I and my forefathers, and you and your forefathers belonged, had held these conscientious feelings, and they became exiles from the land of their birth in order that they might enjoy the rights of conscience unmolested. I therefore cannot but feel and respect these scruples in others, although I may differ from them; and whilst I cannot accord in sentiment with them, I will at least give them credit for honesty and sincerity in their faith. I do not think it becomes any member of this body, whatever his own feelings may be, to find fault with the consciences of others. As to the effect which such a provision might have upon the interests of the country, that is a fair subject for discussion; but whether their scruples are right or wrong is to me a matter of no consequence. If they are sincere in what they believe, they are entitled to respect. How far protection should be extended to them, it is for this body to determine; but that you are bound to extend protection to them, so far as can be done without injury to the body politic, I am free to allow. — These, sir, are the principles which have governed me; and I declare myself willing to adopt any measure which can safely be adopted to protect them in the enjoyment of these rights of conscience.

Benjamin Martin “said he did not suppose that he could add any thing to what had already been said, calculated to have a beneficial effect on the minds of this committee. But…”:

…he would offer a few remarks with a view to bring the committee back to a right understanding of that which the Society of Friends had asked, and that of which they had complained so that the committee might not, as had heretofore been the case, run into mistaken ideas as to the real nature of the question before them.

The Society of Friends, in the memorial presented here, complained of mistaken views which had been adopted in reference to themselves by the Convention which framed the existing Constitution. This mistake, which had crept into the second section of the sixth article of the present Constitution, was a mistake of a very serious character, yet doubtless originated in the most pure and good intentions. The section provided that the Society of Friends should not be compelled to bear arms, but that they should be compelled to pay an equivalent for personal services. — Now the Society of Friends complained, in the petition, that that which was no doubt intended to be a relief and to prevent oppression, had actually become oppressive in its operations. Such was precisely the fact. The Convention which framed the present Constitution intended to benefit the society by the provision therein inserted; but the practical operation of the provision had been oppressive and had led to all the difficulties and prejudices, fears, and jealousies which have existed. They had not asked to be made a privileged class, to be exempted from the payment of their proportion of the burdens of the Government. It had been stated that if this precedent was established, they would refuse to contribute towards the expenses of the Government. Let us not fall into a mistake in this respect. If the Friends were right in objecting to bear arms, and they chose to abide the consequences, why not let the consequences fall upon them? Why single them out and say that they shall be the objects of plunder and robbery, as they had been under the existing Constitution? He thought that no man who would examine the memorial could doubt that the second section of the sixth article of the Constitution, which provided that they who had conscientious scruples against bearing arms should pay an equivalent for personal service, instead of being, as it was designed to be, a remedy, had proved deeply injurious. And whilst an idea went abroad from this Convention that the Society of Friends was to be a privileged class, it had a great tendency to work injury to that class. They made no such request; they simply asked that no provisions might be inserted on the subject.

It might not become him to say much on this subject, particularly at the present time. He had merely risen to urge upon the committee not to misconceive the real object which the Society of Friends had in view, and to insist that, in acting on the question now under discussion, it should be kept distinct from all consequences which might follow in relation to the Bill of Rights.

The convention took off and then continued the debate on .