Trials of Governing: Pacifism

MEN WHO SET too much store by their dogmas and who will not allow themselves to be guided by the give-and-take between ideas and experience are likely to suffer defeat in one way, if not another. The Quakers had set out with at least one more very clear dogma: pacifism. In 1650, George Fox had gone to jail in England rather than take up arms for the Commonwealth against Charles Stuart. He recorded in his Journal for 1664 the classic Quaker position which was to be the most important and most continuous of all their beliefs:

We are peaceable, and seek the peace, good and welfare of all, as in our lives and peaceable carriages is manifested…. We are heirs of the gospel of peace, which is the power of God…. For Christ said, ‘His kingdom was not of this world, if it were his servants would fight.’ Therefore he bid Peter, ‘put up his sword; for,’ said he, ‘he that taketh the sword shall perish by the sword.’ Here is the faith and patience of the saints, to bear and suffer all things, knowing vengeance is the Lord’s, and he will repay it to them that hurt his people and wrong the innocent; therefore cannot we avenge but suffer for his name’s sake…. The doctrine of Christ, who never sinned, is to ‘love one another,’ and those who are in this doctrine hurt no man, in which we are, in Christ, who is our life.

But reciting this doctrine in England, where a Quaker might have to go to jail for it, was different from insisting on it in America, where it might cost the lives of non-Quakers. The Quakers who governed Pennsylvania until the middle of the 18th century held powers of life and death over the community, especially over the backwoods settlers who were menaced by the hostile French and scalp-hungry Indians. The central geographic position of the Quaker colony, the special importance of the Indian groups (the so-called Six Nations, and the Delawares) with whom they had to deal, and the critical necessity for American control of the rivers on the western border—all these magnified the Quaker decisions of peace or war for Pennsylvania into decisions for the British Empire and world politics.

The Quakers discovered that they were less free (for example, to be pacifists) as rulers of a province than when they had been a persecuted minority. “I wish thee could find more to say for our lying so naked and defenceless,” James Logan from Philadelphia begged William Penn in England (September 2, 1703), “I always used the best argument I could, and when I pleaded that we were a peaceable people, had wholly renounced war, and the spirit of it; that we were willing to commit ourselves to the protection of God alone…. When I pleaded this, I really spoke my sentiments; but this will not answer in English government, nor the methods of this reign. Their answer is, that should we lose our lives only, it would be little to the crown, seeing ’tis our doing, but others are involved with us, and should the enemy make themselves master of the country it would too sensibly touch England in the rest of her colonies.”

For many years Pennsylvania Quakers evaded this issue: they were careful that their “Deputy-Governor” (the person holding the executive powers in America on behalf of the Proprietors) be a non-Quaker and therefore a person whose scruples would not conflict with the ordinary business of government. Of over a dozen Deputy-Governors between the founding of the colony and the Quaker abdication in 1756, only one (Thomas Lloyd) was a Quaker. Thus, for a while in Pennsylvania, the Quakers were able to run the government and still keep their own consciences unsoiled.

Sooner or later, however, the Pennsylvania Quakers would have to choose between clear alternatives—both equally unwelcome. Theoretically, but only theoretically, there was a third possibility: if they could have cut themselves off both from England and from the increasing non-Quaker population, they might have been able to conduct their “holy experiment” in all its purity. But this was an unreal possibility. By the mid-18th century the only alternatives were compromise or withdrawal from government.

It would be difficult to find a more tangled story in all American history than that of how the Quakers, in 1756, finally made their choice. A host of conflicting factions and interests were involved. The issue of pacifism was inevitably bound up with the question of taxes, and nothing arouses moral fervor more effectively than finding reasons not to pay taxes. The political conflicts in Pennsylvania were also involved with the struggle against the Proprietors, with the antagonism of the Irish and German settlers toward the English, with the question of currency reform, and with the fight of Presbyterians and Anglicans against Quakers.

Yet, from the Quaker point of view, one could hardly find a story which had a simpler theme. The essential issue was pacifism. If the Quakers had sought to create an environment in which to try their pacifism, they could hardly have done better than invent the circumstances of provincial Pennsylvania. In Europe in the 17th and early 18th century, before the days of a universal manpower draft, the Quaker principle against war could not be severely tested. In all the countries of Western Europe they were a small minority; there could only be a few causes célèbres, like the harrying of George Fox during the commonwealth. Not until the Quakers held power in an American province did their problem affect a whole community. Here the question of peace or war faced them directly and repeatedly: in Britain’s battle for empire in which they were both a garrison and a valuable stake, and as an aspect of self-defense from the bloody attacks of natives.

Whatever other evils of European life the Quaker immigrants to Pennsylvania had managed to escape, war was surely not one of them. A bare list of the imperial conflicts in America which put colonials on the battle-line might have appalled men with much less distaste for war than the Friends. The half-understood purposes of a government three thousand miles across the ocean involved the Quakers again and again. The colony had been born for less than a decade when, in April 1689, they received word of the English declaration of war against the French, which was the beginning of King William’s War. To the English request that the Quakers arm for defense and set up a militia, one of the members of their Governor’s Council replied that he saw no danger “but from the Bears & Wolves.” As a matter of conscience the Quakers then refused to take action. Within another dozen years, England was again fighting France, now together with Spain, in the War of the Spanish Succession, known in America as Queen Anne’s War. Although this war was duly “proclaimed” in Pennsylvania, the Quaker Assembly repeatedly refused to enact military laws, with the familiar explanation, “were it not that the raising money to hire men to fight or kill one another, is matter of Conscience to us and against our Religious Principles, we should not be wanting, according to our small abilities, to Contribute to those designs.” Queen Anne’s War came to an end in 1713 and for a happy interlude of twenty-five years the policies of empire did not thrust war upon the colonies. But this was only an interlude. The period of gravest trial, still to come, would bring the wars of empire to the front and back doors of the colony.

The dress rehearsal for the decisive trial of Quakerism began in 1739, with the outbreak of war with Spain, in the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear, which became the War of the Austrian Succession, called in the colonies King George’s War. While the earlier “involvement” of the province in the struggles of the mother country may have seemed merely technical, the consequences of membership in the British Empire were now more immediate and more serious. France and Spain, both with vast interests in America, were at war with England, and hence with Pennsylvania, whether or not the Quakers wished it so. Colonial wars were becoming an integral part of European politics. In fact, Spanish privateers were to be found on the Delaware River. What would the Quakers in control of the Pennsylvania Assembly do about it?

There followed the familiar struggle between a non-Quaker Governor who was trying to harmonize the policy of the colony with that of the Empire, and the die-hard Quakers whose prime concern was to keep inviolate their pacifist principle. For a while in 1741, the Quakers succeeded in paralyzing the government, withholding the Governor’s salary, and preventing any legislation. They were aided in their policies by many of the German settlers whom they had alarmed with rumors. The Governor’s plan for a militia, they said, would bind settlers to royal governors in a slavery as brutal as “they were formerly under to their princes in Germany … the expense would impoverish them, and … if any other than Quakers should be chosen upon the assembly they would be dragged down from their farms and obliged to build forts as a tribute for their being admitted to settle in the province.” This whispering campaign produced fears of riot and violence within the colony.

Not until 1745 did Governor Thomas finally secure an appropriation for the purposes of the war: a grant of £4,000 for “Bread, Beef, Pork, Flour, Wheat or other Grain” for the garrison at Louisbourg, which was now in the hands of the English. The “other Grain” was apparently intended to be gunpowder. The Quakers had earlier actually aided the defense of the colony but then too only by subterfuge or by appropriations made for unspecified purposes. In 1693 their money was given ostensibly “to feed the hungry and clothe the naked” Indians; in 1701, money was appropriated for a fort, but only “as far as their religious principles would permit”; in 1709, they provided money for an expedition against Nova Scotia, for “although they could not bear arms, their duty was to support the Queen’s government by money”; in 1740 the money raised was “for the use of the King, for such purposes as he should direct”—and so it had gone. For the later difficulties some have blamed the tactless Governor, but these may better be explained by the fact that the Quakers “measured their merit by the extent of suffering for conscience sake.”

Perhaps the most significant result of the struggle in 1745 was the emergence of a strong compromise party under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin. With a broad popular base, equally opposed to the self-interest of the Proprietors and to the fanaticism of Quaker extremists, Franklin’s party would eventually displace the rigid rule of the Quaker minority. In 1747, during the continuing controversy over defense, Franklin published Plain Truth, one of his shrewdest political pamphlets. Neither pro- nor anti-Quaker, the pamphlet gave a full, fair and even prophetic picture of the colony and its need for defense. Pennsylvania’s fortunate geographic situation at the center of the colonies had explained their repose: “and tho’ our Nation is engag’d in a bloody War, with two great and powerful Kingdoms, yet, defended, in a great Degree, from the French on the one Hand, by the Northern Provinces, and from the Spaniards on the other by the Southern, at no small Expence to each, our People have, till lately, slept securely in their Habitations.” Pennsylvania, the only British colony which had made no provision for defense, had relied on the length and difficulty of its bay and river to protect it naturally from any enemy.

Franklin argued that this feeling of security was not justified in 1747, even if it had been before, for the colony had become rich enough to repay the effort of plunder. There had been two decades of peace, but “it is a long Peace indeed, as well as a long Lane, that has no Ending,” and now the colony must expect the French to show increasing ingenuity and success in stirring up the Indians. “How soon may the Mischief spread to our Frontier Counties? And what may we expect to be the Consequence, but deserting of Plantations, Ruin, Bloodshed, and Confusion!” The seaboard would suffer more of what it had tasted in the preceding summer, when privateers invaded Delaware Bay and plundered plantations near Newcastle. Preparedness was the only answer:

The Enemy, no doubt, have been told, that the People of Pennsylvania are Quakers, and against all Defence, from a Principle of Conscience; this, tho’ true of a Part, and that a small Part only of the Inhabitants, is commonly said of the Whole; and what may make it look probable to Strangers, is, that in Fact, nothing is done by any Part of the People towards their Defence. But to refuse Defending one’s self, or one’s Country, is so unusual a Thing among Mankind, that possibly they may not believe it, till by Experience they find, they can come higher and higher up our River, seize our Vessels, land and plunder our Plantations and Villages, and retire with their Booty unmolested. Will not this confirm the Report, and give them the greatest Encouragement to strike one bold Stroke for the City, and for the whole Plunder of the River?

It was the plain duty of government to protect the people; no private religious scruple could relieve a legislator of that duty. Franklin urged the Quaker legislators “that if on account of their religious Scruples, they themselves could do no Act for our Defence, yet they might retire; relinquish their Power for a Season, quit the Helm to freer Hands during the present Tempest.” The public funds raised from all the people had been spent by the Quakers to secure the enjoyment of their own religion, to oppose anti-Quaker petitions, and to put themselves in a favorable light at the English court. How could they justify their refusal to use these funds for the benefit and defense of all?

The solution, Franklin concluded, was simply for the Quakers to withdraw and allow others to rule and defend the colony. If the Quakers were beyond their rights in sacrificing the whole community for their private religious principles, non-Quakers would be stupid to fail to defend the colony simply because they might save the Quakers along with themselves. Franklin drew up a plan of association to raise money voluntarily for defense, and it was not long before a militia of 10,000 men was organized.

But King George’s War was only a rehearsal. The real trial of the Quaker pacifist spirit did not come until large-scale massacres by Indians spread terror along the western border of the colony. That was in the latter part of 1755, when the defeat of the British General Braddock enabled the French to use Fort Duquesne as a base for marauding parties. In addition, the French incited the Delawares to thwart the Proprietary purchase of western Pennsylvania from the Six Nations by sudden and bloody attacks. The first reaction of the Quakers of eastern Pennsylvania was incredulity: surely their old friends the Delawares could not be committing massacres. Showing their usual reluctance to believe ill of their fellowmen, the Quakers insisted that the Indians’ grievances must have stemmed from recent unfair treatment by the English themselves.

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