Trials of Governing: The Oath

THE MORTAL TEST of Quakers in America was not at the whipping-post or on the gallows. To such ordeals European life had accustomed them, and they endured their suffering with courageous dignity in the New World. As the Quakers suffered they simply strengthened their own faith and the admiration of their spectators. By the middle of the 18th century, there were more Quakers in the Western Hemisphere than in all Britain. More significantly, in America they possessed a community of their own, or at least one in which they held the powers of government. European life had not trained the Quakers to sit in the seats of power; this was to be the novel test provided by America—a test which, in many important ways, they were to fail.

The reasons for their failure teach a great deal about the limitations of their doctrine and about the special requirements of American community life. Before the founding of Pennsylvania, the “tragic collision” with the New England Puritans helped keep Quakerism alive. In the early creative period of Quakerism their leaders were moved by a gospel-sense, by a belief that they had good news for all mankind: they had discovered the World-Church and were trying to show the presence of God in all humanity.

But as the idea of being a “peculiar people” began to dominate them, they became more interested in asserting and perfecting their truth than in diffusing it throughout the world. The very ways which earlier Quakers had used to show contempt for rank and custom gradually became themselves customs as rigid as those they were meant to displace. The Quaker’s refusal to remove his hat became as arrogant and purposeless as the non-Quaker’s insistence on hat-honor. The drab costume of the Quaker, meant at first to express indifference to outward garments, became a uniform to which the Quaker attached more importance than his neighbors did to their gayer garments. Silence became a “form” of worship, and even the spontaneity of Quaker sermons became compulsory. The same paradox existed in nearly every distinguishing feature of Quaker life, from their use of “thee” and “thou” to their ways of marriage and burial.

While the dogmas of Quakerism grew more fixed and uncompromising, those of Puritanism tended more and more toward compromise. Puritanism—proverbially rigid and dogmatic—expanded and adapted; while Quakerism—traditionally formless, spontaneous, and universal—built a wall around itself. This is the story of one of the greatest lost opportunities in all American history.

In the late 17th century, Quakerism had many qualities which would have suited it to become the dominant American religion. In the Old World it was notorious for its contempt of forms and hierarchies, for its fluidity, and for its antipathy to dogma. But its promise was not to be fulfilled. Its very formlessness, its mysticism, its insistence on personal rectitude and purity were to be its undoing as a community-building religion in America. And because the uncompromising spirit of William Brend, Mary Dyer and their fellow martyrs continued to dominate them, the Society of Friends was doomed to become a minor, however pure, enclave in American civilization.

Some Quaker historians have suggested that it was the “failure” of Quakerism as a religion that accounted for its ultimate ineffectiveness in American life. They have implied that the Society of Friends allowed the letter to kill the spirit of their religion; that because they became untrue to their own teachings they betrayed their cause and failed in their mission to the world. It is certainly clear, as Frederick B. Tolles has shown, that the center of American Quaker life tended to shift “from Meeting-house to Counting-house” and that numerous Friends left the Society for the more respectable and less demanding ranks of the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. But this is only part of the story. It is more useful to note how the Quakers weakened themselves and their cause not by being false to their teachings, but by being too true to them. The teachings which for George Fox, John Woolman, and other great Quaker prophets expressed a vital spirit were now congealed into absolutes. By the early 18th century, American Quakers were no longer Searchers for the Truth but. were its self-righteous Heralds. They were enforcers rather than devotees of the Gospel.

For some years after the founding of the colony in 1682 an informed observer might well have imagined that Quakerism would remain an expanding and creative force in American life. While William Penn was a man of courage and of principle, he was by no means an unworldly or inflexible man and he was anything but doctrinaire in government. The prosperity of the colony in 1739, according to Andrew Hamilton, an eminent Pennsylvania lawyer of the day, was less due to material circumstances than to “the constitution of Mr. Penn.”

In the wise preface to his “Frame of Government for Pennsylvania,” dated April 25, 1682, Penn actually apologized for specifying any particular form of institutions. Men, he said, were always inclined to arrogate too much knowledge to themselves, especially when they prescribed a specific political form as the cure-all for social ills. There were three reasons why such efforts were misguided:

First, That the age is too nice and difficult for it; there being nothing the wits of men are more busy and divided upon. It is true, they seem to agree to the end, to wit, happiness; but, in the means, they differ, as to divine, so to this human felicity; and the cause is much the same, not always want of light and knowledge, but want of using them rightly…. Secondly, I do not find a model in the world, that time, place, and some singular emergencies have not necessarily altered; nor is it easy to frame a civil government, that shall serve all places alike. Thirdly, I know what is said by the several admirers of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy … when men discourse on the subject. But I chuse to solve the controversy with this small distinction, and it belongs to all three: Any government is free to the people under it (whatever be the frame) where the laws rule, and the people are a party to those laws, and more than this is tyranny, oligarchy, or confusion.

But, lastly, when all is said, there is hardly one frame of government in the world so ill designed by its first founders, that, in good hands, would not do well enough; and story tells us, the best, in ill ones, can do nothing that is great or good; witness the Jewish and Roman states. Governments, like clocks, go from the motion men give them; and as governments are made and moved by men, so by them they are ruined too. Wherefore governments rather depend upon men, than men upon governments. Let men be good, and the government cannot be bad; if it be ill, they will cure it. But, if men be bad, let the government be never so good, they will endeavour to warp and spoil it to their turn.

The first half-century of Pennsylvania history was strikingly prosperous. “From a wilderness,” Richard Townsend observed in 1727, “the Lord, by his good hand of providence, hath made it a fruitful field.” Still, during these years there was a great deal of party strife, which had very early led William Penn himself to plead with the colonists that “for the love of God, me, and the poor country” they “be not so Governmentish.” But the two principal parties—the democratic and extremist “country party” led by David Lloyd and the conservative party of city merchants led by James Logan—were Quaker. While there were bitter disputes as to which Quaker group should dominate, it was the Quakers who held the reins of government securely.

Almost from the beginning the Quakers realized that their religious doctrines, if construed strictly, would put difficulties in the way of their running a government. It was one thing to live by Quaker principles, quite another to rule by them. Even in the earliest years, they were able to govern only by compromising one principle after another. Not only were they often driven to use fictions and evasions in defending the colony against external enemies, but in the domestic government of the colony also they had to come to terms with the non-Quaker ethic.

The matter of oaths provides an excellent example of how the smallest scruple, if dogmatically held, can produce a creeping paralysis that soon ramifies into all institutions. From the earliest English days of the sect, Quakers had stood against the taking of oaths. In 1656, George Fox had been made to answer to an English court for his “seditious” paper against oath-taking, in which he expressed the classic Quaker position. “Take heed of giving people oaths to swear,” Fox warned, “for Christ our Lord and Master saith, ‘Swear not at all; but let your communication be yea, yea, and nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.”’ It was the “light in every man” which gave him the truth and made him testify to it; oaths and swearing were but “idle words” for which men would answer on the Day of Judgment. The only Biblical justification for swearing was in the Old Testament, and those commandments were directed only to the Jews. But what was the word of Jeremiah to count against that of Jesus and James, who had expressly forbidden all swearing? Once committed to this position, the Quakers adhered to it with a scrupulous orthodoxy that amazes our age of figurative interpretation.

To the scriptural and theological arguments the Quakers added others which hardened their orthodoxy into obstinacy. There was the commonsense objection that no oath could turn a liar into a man of truth. “He that makes no conscience of that law that forbids lying,” asked Penn, “will he make any conscience of forswearing?” From the notion that oaths were futile, Quakers came to believe that oaths were actually vicious. Somewhat petulantly, they objected that requiring a man to be sworn to provide legal insurance of his truthfulness, somehow implied that he was a liar when not under oath.

By the “Great Law” of 1682 the Quakers in Pennsylvania provided that men give testimony by “solemnly promising to speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” They established severe penalties for falsehood to replace those for perjury. In 1685 the provincial council refused to administer an oath to the King’s Collector of Customs, despite the fact that he brought with him instructions to be sworn. In England a law of 1689 permitted Quakers to make a simple affirmation “in the presence of Almighty God” where others were required to swear; but at the same time the law prohibited Quakers from giving evidence in criminal cases, from serving as jurors or from holding any public office. Nevertheless in Pennsylvania Quakers were actually allowed to go on serving in their Assembly. They ran the government without oaths until 1693, when Penn was deprived of his proprietorship; then they discovered the meaning of the fact that they were not independent of English law.

As the non-Quaker population of Pennsylvania, including many Irish and Germans, increased, they added their objections to those of the English. Could rulers be trusted who refused to swear allegiance to the Crown? Could one believe witnesses or jurors who found subtle reasons for not taking the harmless traditional oaths? Quaker refusal to administer oaths became as controversial as their refusal to take them. The Quaker majority in the Pennsylvania Assembly for some time successfully fought off attempts to disqualify them from office because of their refusal to take or administer oaths; but their efforts at formalizing an “affirmation” as a substitute for the oath were frustrated in England.

In 1703, a number of Quaker members of the governor’s council in Pennsylvania were disturbed to learn of a certain order of the English Lords of Trade and Plantations: Quakers might qualify for office by a legally prescribed affirmation in place of an oath, but all other persons required by the laws of England to take an oath or willing to do so, must have it administered to them—“otherwise all their proceedings are declared to be null and void.” In Pennsylvania this rule created the unwelcome alternatives of chaos or the expulsion of Quakers from office. In some counties, like Chester and Bucks, it became difficult to find enough persons fit to serve as justices who were willing to administer an oath. “Our Friends can no more be concerned in administering an oath than they can take one,” members of the council observed, “and in all actions where the case pinches either party, if they can, from any corner of the government, bring in an evidence that demands an oath, the cause must either drop, or a fit number of persons must be there, always to administer it, though only, perhaps, on account of such an evidence.” Technicality was piled on technicality. The non-Quakers (knowing that only two members of the provincial council lacked scruples against swearing) insisted that, in order for the government of the colony to proceed, a quorum of at least five members of the council would have to take the oath. Richard Halliwell, one of the non-Quaker party, “insultingly made his boast that they had now laid the government on its back, and left it sprawling, unable to move hand or foot.”

To add to the confusion, the oath became an issue within the Quaker community itself. In 1704, David Lloyd, Quaker leader of the antiproprietary party, publicly complained against William Penn that he had not succeeded in securing relief for Quakers from the administering of oaths and that as a result Quakers had been compelled to give up their offices.

Some Quaker office-holders began to compromise, either administering the oath themselves or allowing others to administer it under their authority. Some resigned. Meanwhile, the most influential Quaker voices from across the Atlantic counseled intransigence and purity of principle. Penn himself urged that Quakers in office neither resign nor compromise their opposition to oaths. “I desire you,” he wrote from England, “to pluck up that English and Christian courage to not suffer yourselves to be thus treated and put upon. Let those factious fellows do their worst … I will bear you out.” For many years the oath issue kept the political pot boiling. Penn argued that the charter had granted the Quaker community freedom from oaths; the Attorney-General in London argued that since the law of England required juries to be sworn in capital cases, no colonial charter could change so fundamental a requirement. Others argued that there was ample precedent for affirmations instead of oaths. And so it went, with the Quaker Assembly passing laws on the subject which were sometimes vetoed by the Governor and which, even when approved by him, were repeatedly repealed by the Crown. This was far from an academic question. Since Quakers could not give evidence in court, until some satisfactory provision was made for Quaker scruples there was no security even against murder in a predominantly Quaker community.

Not until 1718 did a law apparently meeting Quaker demands escape repeal by the Crown. This law allowed the affirmation in place of the oath for witnesses and office-holders and established the same penalties for false affirmations as for perjury. But Quaker purists were still not satisfied, for the legal form of affirmation still included the phrase “in the name of Almighty God.” James Logan and some others showed a more compromising spirit, “However unfit were that affirmation for Friends in England, yet here, where such a rotten or insensible generation shelter themselves under the name, there is a necessity for a greater security.” The six words referring to the Deity had become controversial within the Quaker community; the Yearly Meeting of 1710 had purposely avoided a decision and urged Friends on both sides to show charity. This controversy, which seemed to many but a verbal quibble, was finally settled by the Law of 1725 which omitted from the form of affirmation any reference to God and which secured the approval of the King.

That enactment of 1725 has remained substantially the basis of Pennsylvania law on the subject until the present day. Anyone required to swear an oath could, at his option, take an affirmation instead, but no official could refuse to administer an oath to a person who so preferred. The effect of this rule was to force the most stiff-necked Friends out of judicial and some other offices. The Quaker Yearly Meetings stuck to their principles; some even advised their members not to vote for Quakers for offices in which they might be tempted to violate their principle against administering oaths. A few kept their offices and disobeyed the rules, but generally Quakers refused to accept magistracies. Even in solidly Quaker communities, therefore, some offices were perforce not filled by men of that religion. And here the matter stood. The best compromise the Quaker rulers of Pennsylvania could manage was one which permitted anybody but a strict Quaker to be a judge. To the Society of Friends even this somehow seemed a victory of principle.

But this is not the end of the story. The full moral of the Quaker experience can be understood only in the light of the price they paid for preserving their scruple against oaths. Never has there been a better example of the futility of trying to govern by absolutes, and of the price in self-deception paid by those who try to do so. Even from their beginning as a sect in England, the Quakers had a strong tradition against the taking of human life for any reason whatever, whether in war or in peace. This naturally inclined them against capital punishment, and Pennsylvania’s basic Great Law of 1682, shaped and passed under Penn’s personal influence, had made a spectacular departure from English criminal law on this very point. Instead of the numerous capital crimes in the England of that day, only treason and murder were punishable by death in Pennsylvania. So the law remained for over thirty years. But English opponents of the Quakers used this, like everything else distinctive about them, to label them as dangerous anarchists. The matter was dramatized in 1715 when Jonathan Hayes, a well-known citizen, was murdered in Chester County. This happened at the height of the oath controversy, when Deputy-Governor Charles Gookin had held that the English requirements applied in Pennsylvania. Because of the predominance of Quakers in that part of the country, if Hayes’s murderers were to be brought to trial at all, judges, probably witnesses, and some jurors would have to be Quakers; but since Quakers refused to take the required oaths, no trial was possible and the prisoners suspected of the crime were released on bail for three years. Meanwhile, Deputy-Governor William Keith came to office, and the case was revived amid familiar charges that the Quakers’ exemption from oaths encouraged crime. Hayes’s murderers were executed before their appeal could be heard in England, and when the news reached London that British subjects were being executed in Pennsylvania on the verdict of unsworn juries, there was an angry outcry. Here was more ammunition for the anti-Quaker party.

It was just at this time, moreover, that the recurrent threat to exclude Quakers from office altogether by insisting on the oath came to a head. The prospect frightened the Quaker Assembly. They were therefore ready to listen to the Governor’s suggestion that, if they gave in on the question of capital punishment, they might secure a compromise on the matter of the oath. All that was required was to adopt the criminal laws of England, which would automatically make many more crimes punishable by death. The Pennsylvania Quakers were persuaded. And so the Act of 1718 which allowed persons to take office without an oath also assimilated the capital laws of Quaker Pennsylvania and those of England. While the evidence for such a bargain is circumstantial, it is overwhelming. As Quaker historians somewhat ambiguously boast, the Act of 1718 was drawn by a Quaker lawyer, was passed by a Quaker Assembly, and was not protested by the Quaker Meetings.

Thus, to remain “pure” in the matter of oaths, the Quakers bargained the lives of all those men and women who might be convicted of any one of a dozen miscellaneous crimes. The episode was not merely a testimony against absolutes as guides to political behavior. It showed how zealous men might sacrifice the welfare and even the lives of their fellowmen to the overweening purity of their own consciences.

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