Quaker historian Paul Buckley discusses the history of Quaker war tax resistance since the founding of the Religious Society of Friends.
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- Paul Buckley reviews Friends’ attitudes on war tax in every century since the founding of the Religious Society of Friends. Was there anything he said that was particularly surprising or interesting to you?
- Do you know of any modern war tax resisters? What do they do to avoid supporting war?
Some Friends – a man named Wallace Collett, who was a member of this Meeting, Cincinnati Community Friends… he was a *banker, and what he would do is he would send a letter saying, “I have put aside money in the amount of the taxes owed plus all the penalties and I put it in an account at this bank.” And then he would go to the bank – to people he knew – and he would tell them, “the government’s going to come and ask for that money. It’s there for them.” That gave him an opportunity to not just resist the war taxes – the portion of his income taxes he was estimating went to support the war – but to tell people in the business community and the banking community that he was doing it, why he was doing it, and try and prick their conscience; try and get them to realize that when you pay taxes to support the war, you earn a share of the guilt.
The History of Quaker War Tax Resistance
War taxes have been an issue for Friends almost from the beginning of the Society of Friends. It really becomes something that they need to deal with in a very immediate way in the 18th Century, in particular in Pennsylvania, where Quakers controlled the government and it was a colony of Britain. Britain got engaged in wars, and in those days when you had war, you passed specific taxes to pay for the war.
17th Century: Wrestling With the Question of War Taxes
The society of Friends had pretty much been able to ignore war, to just kind of say, “that was their problem,” but once they were in control of the government of Pennsylvania, it became our problem. How can we say that we as a people are not going to be involved in warfare, but we’re going to pay money so that other people can be involved in warfare. They tried some subterfuges. They would pass a law that says that the citizens of Pennsylvania would be taxed for, I don’t know, their use of beer or, I don’t know – I don’t remember exactly what kinds of taxes they passed – but the tax would be designated “for the use of the King” or the “use of the Queen”. Now, they knew perfectly well what the use was going to be (and that was to support the military) but they could pretend that they were just doing their duty as citizens to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
18th Century: The End of Quaker Participation in Government
It worked for a while, but then in the 1750s there was what what we in the United States call the French and Indian wars, and there was sufficient resistance to this… frankly, lying– that Philadelphia Yearly Meeting (which covered the territory that most of Pennsylvania was in) made a statement that it was inconsistent for Friends to participate in any way, not just in supporting wars, but participate in any ways in government, and that they needed to withdraw so that we could remain a peculiar people: a people who would demonstrate a different way of living than the one that was represented by the wider society, by the wider society that got itself involved in wars that we could not be part of.
19th Century: Saying No Publicly
After the Revolutionary War, the United States government also tended initially to have specific taxes for specific purposes, so when the War of 1812 came along, the United States government passed taxes to support the war. Individual states also passed taxes to support the war, and a lot of Quakers the time just said no, but they didn’t say no by trying to hide from the tax. They would say no publicly.
The Practice of “Distraint”
Under distraint there be a tax, maybe there would be a tax on farm animals, and you’re a farmer. You would know that you were supposed to pay a dollar a head for cows (I’m making this up, obviously). You had 10 cows. You owe $10. You don’t pay it. And you don’t pay it publicly. You know that the local sheriff is going to come to your farm and demand the money, and if you refuse –which, if you’re faithful to Quaker testimony you do refuse– the sheriff has the right under the law to distraint: to seize goods that, in the Sheriff’s opinion, are worth that $10. So they would they would look around your house, and say “Well that table over there. That looks like it’s worth about $10. I’m taking the table.” He carts it off, brings it into town and sells it.
Now the law said that if he sold that table for $15, he’s supposed to give you $5 back. What Quakers said was, “No, you seized that table we’re not going to take the five dollars back, because even in doing that we entangle ourselves in your war taxes. So take a table. We won’t resist you, but we’re done then.”
20th Century: Modern Tax Laws Become More Complicated
As we move forward in time – as we move into the 20th Century, taxes become less distinct. The taxes are raised for general revenue and then apportioned out to cover a multitude of causes and so it wasn’t easy to identify specific taxes and say, “that’s a war tax. I’m not going to pay that.” This really makes things much more difficult. The practice of distraint is also one that was largely abandoned in that manner. And of course many Quakers today don’t resist war taxes or we do it in in some minor ways but… economics has become a lot more complicated. I think if the government were to pass individual taxes, we’d find it a lot easier but we deal in a real world that intentionally makes things complicated, so we compromise. And in exchange we need to bear our share of the guilt.
*Correction: 5/10/16 – Wallace was a prominent businessman in Cincinnati, not a banker.
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