Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 24 October 1837, part 2

Then Thomas S. Bell moved to amend the proposed section by inserting the following:

This was that compromise that would have freed conscientious objectors from militia service or militia exemption fines — except when such things would be most directly and immediately related to war and bloodshed, that is, except when their consciences would be most likely to be repulsed. Here’s how Bell defended this strange proposal:

Mr. Bell of Chester said that it was with reluctance he rose to renew the consideration of this important, though vexed question. But representing as he did a large class of persons who were deeply interested in its fate, he deemed it to be his duty seriously to discuss the subject, and to ask for it a fair, candid, and impartial examination. It was now fairly before the committee. So prominently had it presented itself to the attention of this body that the consideration of it had been anticipated. It had been incidentally discussed — when other questions were more immediately under consideration. Every gentleman had then felt sooner or later he should have to meet it, discuss it, and decide upon it. It was a question of vast magnitude, as it affected rights immeasurable, except by that standard which is implanted in the breast of man by the Creator: rights, not merely civil and political, but resulting from that allegiance which is due from humanity to God. Regarding it in this point of view, he would ask whether it ought not to be approached solemnly, and whether we should not cast away all prejudices, and eschew all passions and everything calculated to mislead the understanding? Whether we were not to look at the question, no matter what had been said on the subject, fairly and honestly, and in the hope of at least coming to a righteous judgment?

Such prejudices, he was aware he would have to encounter. Such prejudices — if he was correct in applying them, — but perhaps it was too harsh a one; and if so, he begged pardon of the committee. However, to use the word in its mildest sense, he would say that prejudices were held by some of the members of this committee, resulting either from education, or their habits and morals, and which made it difficult for them to appreciate the sentiments of those who were conscientiously scrupulous against bearing arms at any time.

What, he would enquire, was the question? It was simply this: Whether those forming a part and parcel of the people of Pennsylvania who entertain religious scruples against bearing arms should be placed on an equality with our fellow citizens, who do not? We had heard something here relative to privileged classes, and it had been intimated that the memorialists asked for privileges and to be placed above the mass of their fellow citizens. This is not the fact. The Friends sought only to be put on the same terms as other persons of the community. Why did he say so? Because by the fundamental law of Pennsylvania, as it exists, the religious scruples of all men were respected, except in reference to the defense of the State. If gentlemen would refer to the Bill of Rights, they would find that such was the fact. He considered that those who had memorialized us had made nothing more than a reasonable request. They wished to be protected equally with the rest of their fellow citizens. Nor was this peculiar scruple relative to bearing arms confined to one class of religionists. It had been asserted in the course of the discussion that the large and respectable Society of Friends were the only body that was demanding the right which they claimed. This was not the fact, for a large society called Mennonists also asked it. The amendment now on the table embraced all classes of men, all sects, all religious denominations. It extended protection to the whole community. Besides those two societies which he had named as claiming this right, there were many others. There was a large number of people in Lancaster and other places who entertained conscientious scruples against bearing arms. A class existed, calling themselves German and United Brethren, which would rather surrender all their worldly wealth than give up their notions in respect to bearing arms. He did not in the least object to the wide scope of the amendment. He much preferred it in its present shape than if it were less general in its character.

What did we ask? He said we, because he felt the honor of standing on this floor as the advocate of the memorialists; not that he entertained the scruples which they did. What, then, he repeated, did we ask? Liberty — religious liberty — liberty of conscience. Nothing more than this. — Freedom of conscience — to pursue the dictates of our hearts, with a religious intent — to worship God in our own way. We asked to be placed on the same foundation as we are in regard to liberty of speech — to the right of acquiring property and to the right of pursuing our own happiness — all which rights are secured to us by the Constitution of Pennsylvania. He would repeat that the memorialists asked nothing more. The right of conscience was of more importance than any other which he had mentioned, because the latter sprung from the institutions of society, whilst the former originated from the connection which exists between the Deity and man.

And shall this protection, asked for in this enlightened age, be refused on the ground that the feeling which originated the request is not entertained by the whole community? A meritorious, well-deserving, and highly respectable portion of the people had asked for it, and why should we not grant them it? It had been said that this was a right subordinate to the right of self-defense, — an indefeasible right as it had been called by the gentleman from the city of Philadelphia. It is implanted in the very nature of man, and accordingly we were struggling for this right from the first dawn of religious liberty. Yes, whenever and wherever a ray of light had succeeded the gloom which had overshadowed the world — men had yielded up their lives in thousands as martyrs in the cause of religious liberty. History was full of examples of the obstinate firmness with which men had fought for this natural right. Look to France — to the Waldenses and the Huguenot, who turned every house into a fortress, and every site into a battle field. In Ireland, the best blood had been poured out like water in the sacred cause. It had every where crimsoned the green fields of the Emerald Isle. In England, the martyr had yielded up his life at the stake rather than surrender his religious belief. In Scotland, the Presbyterians waged an obstinate and exterminating war in defense of their creed and to free themselves of the fetters which their English neighbors sought to bind upon them. Men there fled from their homes, deserted the cottages of their affections, and abandoned the protection of an organized government, because that protection was accompanied by the assertion of a right to control the conscience of the subject. All this was overwhelming proof that religious liberty was felt to be dearer than life, and would only be surrendered with it. But among the great illustrations of this truth might be instanced the facts attending the first settlement of Northern America. Under the most discouraging circumstances, thousands who had partaken of the advantages of civilization left the land of their fathers, and abandoning the luxuries of polished life, withdrew from the baleful shade of an oppressive government to seek a howling wilderness and such safety as they might find at the hand of the rude savage, rather than endure the desecration of a right which they insisted on as sacred. Among the glories of the early history of the liberties of this country was that here freedom of conscience was first proclaimed as among the fundamental principles of its governments. In the reign of Charles of England, Roger Williams, actuated by a liberality of feeling in advance of the age, and which sheds lustre on his memory, established religious liberty as one of the prominent characteristics of the government he founded.

This was so early as , Charles , and from that time to the present this feature of our polity, had been every where cherished and fostered in this country. The same principle was promulgated by William Penn, shortly before he left England for America. In the imperishable instrument in which he delineated the “frame” of the government he was about to establish, he taught as a grand truth which admitted of no contradiction, “That all men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God, according to the dictates of their own consciences; that no man can, of right, be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent; that no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience; and that no preference shall ever be given, by law, to any religious establishments or modes of worship.” The absence of all right to “control or interfere with the rights of conscience,” under any circumstances, is here as strenuously and emphatically denied as is the position, not disputed anywhere within the broad borders of Pennsylvania, that “no man can, of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his consent.” This great principle, thus proclaimed by Penn and insisted upon by his friends and followers, had been fully carried out and never violated, except so far as it may be impaired by that clause in the existing Constitution of Pennsylvania under consideration, and keeping this in view he might assert, without fear of contradiction, that no authority can or ought to be tolerated by which men may be deprived of the right to follow the dictates of their own consciences.

The memorialists asked for no privilege — no franchise — as had been alleged. They demanded but a bare right, the possession of which their great leader — the founder of this Commonwealth — had guaranteed to them. If they were here importuning for the grant of an exclusive privilege, for something not possessed by other citizens, he would be the last man to stand here as their advocate; but they desired nothing more than the introduction of a clause to some extent prohibiting the enactment of laws interfering with the religious scruples they entertained, and this was nothing more than was already secured to their fellows. This was asserted as a principle in the Constitution of , and repeated in the existing Bill of Rights. It was, perhaps, sufficient merely to call attention to the fact that from the first settlement of Pennsylvania down to the present moment, it had been observed as a rule not to be controverted that no law should be made having the slightest tendency to interfere with or control freedom of conscience, except in the particular instance of which, as seemed to him, the memorialists so justly complained.

The principle, he therefore contended, was at the foundation of our institutions, that there was no power in our government to interfere with the rights of conscience. If this principle was correct, and none here would deny it, what was the question for this Convention to decide? Simply this: do any portion of our fellow citizens entertain conscientious scruples against performing military duty, or is it merely an affectation of a scruple on their part to avoid the burden and hazard of bearing arms? When we looked to this question, we would find that it was one merely of veracity. Were their professions sincere? Have those who have given us, for so many years, proof upon proof of their sincerity, and who have suffered themselves, for the sake of their religious scruples, to be reviled and oppressed, been all this time practicing deceit? If their scruple was an honest one, they had a right to maintain it, and we were obliged to secure them in the right by the aid of the law.

Sir, said Mr. B. in asking for the insertion of this protective provision in the Constitution, it is not necessary that I should refer to the character of the largest society which claims exemption from military service. If they were here for an exclusive favor, it might be necessary to speak of their moral and social worth, and of the great benefits which they had conferred upon Pennsylvania, and the important part they had acted in the establishment of our free institutions. It might, too, be necessary to follow them into the friendly and benevolent circle of their domestic retirement. But it was a right and not a privilege which they asked, and he, therefore, forbore. Had we any evidence, he asked, except our own assertions, that they are insincere in the scruples which they profess to entertain? In the Constitution, as it now stood, there was at least a practical recognition of the principle for which he contended, and though it did not go so far as was demanded, yet it furnished a proof that respect had been paid to the fact that a portion of our fellow citizens entertained an honest scruple in regard to bearing arms.

It remained to inquire, what was the extent of this scruple. Did it go beyond mere personal service? If it did, it was entitled to our respectful consideration. If gentlemen would turn to the memorial, they would find that their scruples extended to the payment of an equivalent for service, and they put it on the natural ground that, being averse to war, they were opposed to the means by which a state of war might be created and maintained. They asked to be relieved not only from the duty of bearing arms, but from the equally odious necessity of paying an equivalent for it. Was it for us to say that this scruple was affected? Should we set up a standard for other men’s consciences, and pronounce that this or that scruple of conscience is unreasonable? The members of this religious, worthy, and respectable society say that they entertain scruples of conscience equally strong against paying an equivalent as against bearing arms. Now, the principle which he had before indicated was strong enough to protect every scruple which might be professed. It extended to one case as well as to the other. If the scruple was sincere we were bound to recognize it and protect them in it; and we had no right to pronounce that it is unreasonable. He might perhaps ask, but he did not do it, that any society or individual should be exempt under the rights of conscience, in time of danger and of war, from personal service or the payment of an equivalent. They had a right to come in and demand this, but that question was surrounded with so many difficulties that they waived it altogether, and only asked to be exempted in time of profound peace. But, when the exigencies of war should require it, they remain like other citizens, subject to the demand of the government upon them for personal service or its equivalent. If the question was between convenience and inconvenience, who would hesitate in his decision? If the question be between right on the one side and mere inconvenience on the other, would the argument resulting from inconvenience defeat the prayer of the petitioners, and deprive them of a right which from the origin of our Constitution had been held sacred?

As to the frauds which were anticipated by some gentlemen, no man would, in time of peace, resort to fraud for the purpose of procuring an exemption, and in time of war it would not avail. Then, all classes would be on the same footing, and be compelled to render personal service or an equivalent. All they asked was freedom from the burden and vexation of this duty in time of peace when their exemption could be productive of no ill effects. What though one half or three-fourths of the people should, in time of peace, affect a scruple in order to avoid militia training. Would the country lose any thing by it? What advantage would be derived from the continuance of the militia trainings, even though every citizen attended them? In time of war when their services were wanted, there would be no room for fraud or the allegation of any scruples, — for no one will be exempted, except upon the payment of an equivalent. This feature was not a novel one in our Constitution. This was not the only State in the Union which had set an example of freeing from the burden of militia service, the tender consciences of their citizens. The Constitution of Vermont, provides that “Quakers and Shakers, the Judges of the Supreme Judicial Court, and the ministers of the Gospel,” may be exempted from militia duty. The Constitution of New Hampshire, says: “No person who is conscientiously scrupulous about the lawfulness of bearing arms, shall be compelled thereto, provided he will pay an equivalent.”

We find, therefore, that other States recognize the existence of these scruples and protect them. Should we then, whose State was founded by this very sect which demands the exemption, and who see everywhere around them the evidences of their patriotism and worth, should we be behind others in maintaining the sacred principle of freedom of conscience, which by this society was laid at the foundation of our institutions? Should the proposition which he had offered succeed, any defect which might arise in its operation might be remedied by the Legislature. If fraudulent evasions were practiced under it, the law would provide means for their detection and punishment. Mere inconvenience ought not to be urged as an obstacle to the adoption of the proposition.

George W. Woodward then complained that “now we are asked to go further and to exonerate those professing conscientious scruples, from all military taxation.” Taxation? I thought it was a fine, not a tax. This distinction became a battle over framing the debate. Are Quakers petitioning to be freed from a provision that unfairly fines their conscientious scruples, or are they petitioning to be given the privilege of a tax break? Woodward said:

He called it taxation, because it was a mode of compelling men to contribute to public burdens.

Sir, said Mr. W. I have always been taught that peace is the time to prepare for war, but how can you prepare for war without money, which is its sinew? We are called on to exempt a body of people from the payment of the taxes in a time of peace, which are necessary not only to prepare for war but to prevent it.

These military fines or taxes, as he called them, went into the Treasury for the use of the Government, and he was opposed to exempting any class of citizens from their payment. It seemed to him we should be doing great injustice to our citizens at large, and violence to our best interests, should we yield to any class or portion of the people, however respectable, entire exemption both from military service and its pecuniary equivalent. During the progress of the debate, we had heard a great deal of the freedom of conscience. He concurred in all that gentleman had said of the freedom of conscience and the sacredness of conscience, and he was unwilling in any manner to interfere with the full enjoyment of his rights of conscience to which every human being was entitled, but it struck him that the rights of conscience were well enough secured by the Constitution as it stands, and that this demand for further provision in behalf of conscience, which the Friends are now pressing on us as a matter of right — for the gentleman from Chester demands it in their name as a matter of right — is quite unnecessary and a novelty in Pennsylvania. I can understand how a man may have conscientious scruples against bearing arms for the purpose of taking away the lives of his fellow men, and there is much reason for being asked to excuse that peaceful sect from such a duty; but, when Government asks an annual contribution either in services or money for the purpose of preventing all necessity for violence and force, I can not, sir, understand how it is a case for tender consciences, nor why both money and services should be forbid by conscience. It is a new case — to me a novelty.

There’s that old canard: Armies, arms, military training, and military spending aren’t for war — on the contrary, they’re all to prevent war! Therefore pacifists ought to be the first to support military measures. War is peace! Freedom is slavery! Ignorance is strength!

Woodward continued:

Gentlemen have referred to Penn’s Charter, wherein, as in our bill of rights, the freedom of conscience is abundantly guarantied. Every man is permitted to adopt whatever religion and creed he pleases, and to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of his conscience, and no man is permitted to molest or make him afraid; but nowhere in Penn’s Charter, in our Constitution or laws, do you find the principle recognized which is now sought to be introduced. Exemption from taxation is the last thing he would ever have expected the Quakers to ask for. Their history informs me, sir, that they have always regarded it as a religious duty to contribute to the support of the Government under which they lived, and that conscience, instead of interposing to shield them from the demands of Government, has bound them to a strict and faithful discharge of all the obligations of good citizens. In Proud’s History of Pennsylvania, gentlemen will find the following account of the ideas which this sect used to entertain, if they do not still, of their duties to Government.

Their great care and strictness, in rendering to Cæsar, according to their manner of expression, that is to the Government, its dues; in the punctual payment of taxes, customs, and discouraging all illicit and clandestine trade; and in being at a word in their dealings: — Insomuch, that, in their particular advices to their brethren they say: — “As the blessed truth we profess, teaches us to do justly to all men, in all things; even so more especially, in a faithful subjection to the Government, in all godliness and honesty; continuing to render to the King what is his due, in taxes and customs, payable to him according to law.” — “For our ancient testimony has ever been, and still is against defrauding the King of any of the above mentioned particulars, and against buying goods reasonably suspected to be run” — “or doing any other thing whatsoever to the injury of the King’s revenue, or of the common good, or to the hurt of the fair trader; so, if any person or persons, under our name or profession, shall be known to be guilty of these, or any other such crimes or offences, we do earnestly advise the respective monthly meetings (hereafter explained) to which such offenders belong, that they severely reprimand, and testify against such offender, and their unwarrantable, clandestine and unlawful actions” — “we being under great obligations of gratitude, as well as duty, to manifest, that we are as truly conscientious to render to Cæsar, the things that are Cæsar’s, as to support any other branch of our Christian testimony.” And so great was the importance of this affair with them, that an annual enquiry was regularly made through all parts of the British dominions, where they had members of society, whether the purport of these advices were duly put in practice, or not, and to enforce the same.

I have always supposed that these people were to be looked to for good examples of citizenship as well as for all the other virtues, and never before did I hear that conscience had taken alarm at the ordinary and reasonable demands of the kind and paternal Government we enjoy. Why, sir, where is this principle of exemption, if once adopted, to stop? The Legislature of this State may think it necessary in times of profound peace to buy arms and munitions of war — to organize and drill the militia — to encourage volunteer corps and to make large preparations against the hour of need and peril. All this will require money, and who shall contribute it? Since these preparations point to war, the Friends cannot conscientiously contribute and they must be exempted, you say. But another and another class of community come forward with the same plea of conscience, and, on the same principle, they too must be exempted from all participation in these arrangements — this peace establishment — and finally it is discovered that the State cannot be armed and put into an attitude of defense at all. What then is to become of her? Why, sir, war would be inevitable. Our feeble condition would attract assaults and that greatest of human calamities would be certainly brought on us by the tender consciences of the Commonwealth, which refused to keep up an ability of defense. True humanity might dictate the preparations I have supposed or more, and they would have the effect to deter hostility, prevent bloodshed, and preserve peace. The gentleman from the city of Philadelphia, (Mr. Scott) has shown conclusively how extensively the fact of an organized military force had operated with the enemy during the last war and how salutary such impressions may prove in future. But you lose the benefit of such impressions on the mind of an enemy when you deny to the government the means of making the requisite preparations, and if you excuse those who are conscientiously scrupulous, not the Quakers only, but the Menonists, the Dunkers and perhaps every man of any religious creed, may claim the benefit of the exemption, so that your government will become defenseless and powerless.

Without a formal renunciation of its authority, and without open resistance to its demands, it will be left at the mercy of any foe who may choose to attack it from without, or of any enemy within its bosom who may desire to rend and overthrow it. Now, sir, I have shown from Proud’s History what the opinions of the Society of Friends are in respect to public contributions; and I find, in the Constitution of , the principle adopted and recognized under which they seem always to have acted. The 8th section of that Constitution is in these words: “Every member of society has a right to be protected in the enjoyment of life, liberty, and property; and therefore is bound to contribute his proportion towards the expense of that protection, and yield his personal service when necessary, or an equivalent thereto; but no part of a man’s property can be justly taken from him, or applied to public uses, without his own consent or that of his legal representatives; nor can any man, who is conscientiously scrupulous of bearing arms, be compelled thereto; nor are the people bound by any laws but such as they have, in like manner, assented to for their common good.”

Mr. Chairman, this is wholesome doctrine, and these are the principles of Pennsylvania. They pervade all our institutions; and I had hoped they were cherished by all our people. I would respect conscientious scruples against bearing arms where they are sincerely entertained, and would not ask any man, in peace or war, to take up arms against his conscience; but then he should pay a pecuniary equivalent such as the government might assess. This is all that has ever been demanded; and this seems most reasonable and just. I have looked in vain in our own plans of government and Constitutions, and in the Constitutions of other States, for any such extraordinary immunity as is now asked for a part of our fellow citizens.

But we are told we must not undertake to judge of men’s consciences; and it is more than intimated that to argue against this “demand” of conscience is to trespass on holy ground. I agree that conscience is a sacred right; but when I am asked to vote for exempting a large class of our most opulent citizens from the contribution to public burdens which other citizens have to make, on the ground that conscience forbids them to contribute, may I not inquire if it is a case for conscience? If an enlightened conscience ought, or can, interpose a plea in bar in such a case? It seems to me to fall peculiarly within the scope of our duties; and I should feel that our constituents had reason to complain if we yielded to this mild “demand” without investigating it closely and severely.

I know the proposition is often stated in this form: “It is wrong to take human life. And it is the same thing to pay another for taking it as to take it ourselves;” and in this way it is supposed the argument is just as strong against paying pecuniary equivalents for military service as it is against performing the service. Now two things are forgotten by this argument: First, that the pecuniary equivalent is for the general purposes of the government; and, secondly, that all military service, as well as pecuniary equivalents, are designed to assist to preserve peace, and not to promote war. Peace is the state our country desires. War is a calamity, and government must be trusted with the means of averting it. If government finds military preparations to be the most effectual means, where is there room for conscientious scruples against cooperating with government?

That pious statement came less than a decade before the launch of the Mexican-American War.

Woodward continued:

There is another view of this matter to be taken. The people who have sent in their petitions here asking for this exemption are among our most opulent citizens, and have a large amount of property to be protected by the government. Can they conscientiously ask for protection when they refuse to furnish means? Protection and allegiance are reciprocal duties; and it seems to me that the law of allegiance binds every citizen to a discharge of all his obligations to the government which gives him protection, until he is ready to transfer himself to another asylum. Surely, while a body of men ask and enjoy protection from the government for their persons and property, it would be unwise to give them the power, by an affirmation of conscientious scruples, to absolve themselves from their reciprocal duties to the government.

I have an objection to the amendment, founded on its generality. Nobody but the Society of Friends is asking for this exemption; and if it is to be granted, let it be to them specially and alone. The amendment goes to exempt everybody who may profess conscientious scruples. Let us not outrun the expectations of the public by offering universal exemption from taxation; but if we are to have a select and privileged class among us, let us name and specify them in our Constitution, so it may be known who are intended to be benefitted. In the first establishment of a privileged order of men, we ought to be more exact and specific than the amendment is; and if gentlemen insist on pressing it, I hope they will make it so.