Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention, 2 February 1838

In , the convention met to consider a section on the rights of conscience and freedom of religion.

John Cummin thought this would be a good opportunity to make one more rhetorical gesture against Quaker conscientious objection:

Mr. Cummin of Juniata moved to amend, by striking out all after the word “conscience,” in the sixth and seventh lines, viz: the words “and that no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishment or mode of worship.”

Mr. C. said that he had moved to strike out these words because they were inconsistent with, if not in direct contradiction of, the language of the second section of the sixth article of the constitution. He was sorry the subject was not in abler hands. He, however, would argue it in the best manner he was able. In the section to which he had just referred, it was there laid down that “The freemen of this commonwealth shall be armed, organized, and disciplined for its defence, when and in such manner as may be directed by law. Those who conscientiously scruple to bear arms, shall not be compelled to do so, but shall pay an equivalent for personal service.”

Now, what, he asked, were we to understand by “freemen”? The freemen of the commonwealth. And there was a clause also in the same section with regard to conscientious scruples — that a man should not be compelled to do military duty if he entertained any, but should pay an equivalent instead. The words which he had moved to strike out were, in his opinion, at variance with the language of the section which he had just read. It might be said, perhaps, that these conscientious scruples belong to every citizen of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. But this he denied. What other religious society besides the Quakers had sought or prayed to be exempted from military duty, and refused to pay an equivalent, as they said in their memorials. He would contend then that there was a contradiction between the language of the two sections which ought to be reconciled. This convention, under a full sense of what was due to its own character and dignity, would not overlook and leave uncorrected this contradiction. He cared not what might be the mode of worship adopted by any set of men, they could not, in his judgment, be exempted for any reason whatsoever from the payment of an equivalent for the non-performance of military duty. But, strictly speaking, no man could really be excused — could give an equivalent for his services. What could be an equivalent for a man’s services in battle — as, for instance, in the defence of Baltimore when bombarded by the British? What, he asked, would have been an equivalent for the services of the man who shot Gen. Ross, when in full march on Baltimore, and which would probably have been in flames in a few hours afterward? Nothing.

He knew that it was contended by many that all men may refuse to do military duty by the payment of a tax. This position he utterly controverted and most positively denied. He contended that the Society of Friends claimed the right, as a religious body, separate and apart from other denominations, to be exempted from either doing duty or paying an equivalent therefor. When this question was up before, the delegate from Bedford, (Mr. Russell) offered an amendment to the effect that all persons should be exempted from military duty who chose to exempt themselves. It, however, was voted down. The convention said that they should not have this privilege who asked to be exempted on the score of religion, and of its being irreligious to bear arms. Did not the constitution state that no preference shall be given to any religious sect?

All this he subscribed to — he fully admitted. No man on this floor could show that his right of conscience had been infringed, or he persecuted for exercising it. Nobody objected to any man exercising his right of conscience. It was a glorious right, and he highly valued it. But yet he had been charged with being opposed to it. He entirely denied the truth of the charge. He would say that he esteemed the exercise of the right of conscience in any set of men, but he could not respect them if they did not obey the laws of their country — if they did not act as patriots, and if they even refused to pay an equivalent for the non-performance of a duty which it became all men, professing to be patriots, to discharge. The Society of Friends admitted that they had paid $300,000, by the sale of property levied upon and sold in order to pay for a non-compliance with the requisitions of the law. Now, he regarded this as nothing less than a rebellion against both divine and human laws. They own their allegiance to the Prince of Peace, and he thought the more of them on account of it. But he could not support any section which went to give them a preference over all other religious sects. He could not give his vote for creating any odious distinctions in society which, he maintained, would be the case unless the amendment he had offered should prevail. They were distinctions which no man ever dreamt of in Pennsylvania. It was his decided opinion that if the other religious classes of the community were to be actuated by the same principles, feelings, and notions as the Quakers, it would not be long before a dissolution of the government would take place. For how could it be supported? How protected?

There was no government on the face of the earth better entitled to the respect and allegiance of the people than the government of this state, and the general government of the United States. The people ought all to be on an equality of footing. But this had not been the case, as he could show, with respect to the Quakers, if he were to go into a statement of facts as connected with the early history of this country. He could show how these people had been opposed to their own government, and thrown every obstacle in its way. He could show that they had not been patriots, but on the contrary, enemies of their country, prior to the French Canadian War and during the revolution of . At both periods these people had shown great enmity to their own government. They not only stood out against the demands of the governor for men and money, but they did all they possibly could to induce others to follow their evil and unpatriotic example during the last war.

He did not wish to repeat what he had before said. He desired the clause which he had indicated stricken out, in order that there might be no contradiction in the language of the constitution. He did not believe that there was a scholar in that hall who was able to reconcile the conflicting, as he conceived it to be, language of the two sections.

He maintained that those delegates elected to this convention, and who advocated this exclusive privilege in regard to the Quakers, would seem to have been elected for the purpose of defeating those measures that were calculated to add to the dignity and to advance the glory of Pennsylvania and of the Union at large. He would say most unequivocally that if the Society of Friends would not give their aid and assistance to the state when deemed necessary, they had no right to have any representatives on the floor of this convention. Mr. C. proceeded to notice some of the taunts, as he regarded them, which had been thrown out against foreigners by certain delegates…

“…when he was reminded by the Chair… that he was digressing from the subject before the convention.”

A Mr. Ingersoll moved to adjourn, but the motion lost. Cummin then continued, but the convention’s stenographer seems to have been getting fed up with him too, as the minutes of the convention at this point say of him only that:

Mr. Cummin then resumed his remarks, by reiterating his sentiments in regard to its being the duty of the Society of Friends to contribute their aid and support to the government under which they live, as well as any other class of citizens.

“Several motions were made that the convention adjourn,” but these also lost, but then Mr. Fuller moved for a vote to approve the section to which Cummin was objecting, and that motion passed. The vote on the section was 94 to 1, with Cummin the only dissenter.