The Quakers and the American Revolution

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Synopsis: This paper illustrates and defines the plight of the Quakers and their impact on the American Revolution. Through documented research, this paper will also examine the history and existence of the Quakers during this revolutionary period.
The Quakers and the American Revolution

Like other civil wars, the American Revolution asked ordinary people to chose between two extraordinary positions. The Revolution forced competition among colonists' allegiances: to England and the King, to colonial homes and families, and even to religious convictions. To support the war was to refute the King, to oppose the war was to deny one's homeland. For Pennsylvania Quakers (members of the Society of Friends), decisions about whether to support or oppose the war were further complicated by the inherent conflict between two deeply held beliefs: their pacifist principles and their desire to protect and support the colony founded by William Penn (Carroll, 1970).

Before the American Revolution even occurred, the middle-staters of Pennsylvania--the Quakers--were already in search of a place where they could be different and be, at least, quasi-independent. By its very nature, the Quakers provided an environment where people who would otherwise have been misfits and malcontents could flourish and achieve a modicum of what would then certainly have been termed “respectability” (The American Revolution, 1990).

Unlike the many Loyalists who eventually fled the civil war, most Pennsylvania Quakers remained in the colonies only to find themselves subjected to the wartime passions of both sides. Quakers in Pennsylvania and elsewhere joined most colonists in opposing the British taxation policies of the 1760s and 1770s. The Stamp Act of 1765 and the Townshend Duties of 1767 occasioned protests, including strict boycotts of British goods. As the poet Hannah Griffitts wrote, Quakers would "Stand firmly resolved & bid [English Minister George] Grenville to see/That rather than Freedom, we'll part with our Tea" (Meikel, 1979). Quakers on both sides of the Atlantic heralded the repeal of the Stamp Act and most of the Townshend duties. After these initial forays into protest politics, however, Quakers became uneasy with the Patriots' increasingly radical and sometimes violent responses to British actions.

The radical “Boston Tea Party” followed the Tea Act of 1773 and quickly led to the formation of the First Continental Congress. This went too far according to the Quakers. The Quakers saw that the patriots' interest in reconciliation with the British was waning and their fears of imminent warfare proved too quickly well founded by the outbreak of fighting at Lexington and Concord (Meikel, 1979).

First articulated during the English Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century, the Quaker Peace Testimony committed members of the Society of Friends to nonviolence. Believing that violence was a product of the kind of "lusts of men . . . out of which lusts the Lord hath redeemed us," Quaker founder George Fox declared in 1684 that "the Spirit of Christ will never move us to fight and war against any man." The Peace Testimony previously had caused Friends political trouble in Pennsylvania, especially during the Seven Year War when other Pennsylvanians were calling for an armed response to Indian provocations on the colony frontier. Quakers in the Pennsylvania Assembly had resigned rather than accede to those demands. The Revolution thus not only raised anew concerns about Quakers' potentially contradictory commitments to Pennsylvania and pacifism, but also intensified them (Meikel, 1979).

For Quakers, finding a middle road would prove a frustrating task. At first they tried simply to advocate conciliatory measures. At home they published statements condemning all (English and American) breaches of law and the English constitution. In England they tried to broker reconciliation with the king. Ultimately, though, their efforts were to no avail. With the Revolution underway, in September of 1776 the largest organization of Quakers in America---the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting---formally directed its members to observe strict neutrality. This meant that Quakers should not vote or take oaths of loyalty to support either side, should not engage in combat or pay for a substitute (a not uncommon practice in that era), and should not pay taxes to support the war effort.

The responses of Quakers to these requirements varied. Probably the majority, torn by conflicting loyalties, sympathized with both sides. Many remained tacit Loyalists, supporting without materially aiding the King's army. Other Quakers renounced neutrality and actively sided with the Patriots. In Pennsylvania almost 1,000 Quakers were disowned during the course of the war, the large majority of them for taking up arms. One group even formed their own separate denomination, the Free Quakers or Fighting Quakers, whose leader Timothy Matlack served on political committees alongside such radicals as ex-Quaker Thomas Paine (Staughton, 1966).

Largely because of this variety of positions, the perception among both Patriots and Loyalists was that Quakers could not be fully trusted. In the Delaware Valley, where for most of 1776 and 1777 first the British and then the Americans held sway, Quakers were punished by each side for their supposed allegiance to the other. While the Americans occupied Philadelphia, for example, Patriot mobs ransacked many Quakers' homes. Then in September of 1777 the Patriots arrested twelve Quakers and exiled them to Winchester, Virginia, because of the potential threat they posed to the American position (Goodman, 1967). The harsh repercussions of perceived political loyalties made any position of moderation hard to maintain, and highly suspect.

During the Revolution, Americans advocated a variety of different political views. While it is important to recognize the distinctions between the Patriot and Loyalist positions, it is also important to note that there were many people who sympathized with aspects of each position. While some families were torn apart, others found that their bonds of affection and mutual obligation were severely tried, but not broken, by conflicting political convictions. The popular understanding by Americans, including legal and political historians, concerning the American Revolution, undervalues the extent to which the pioneering of the Quakers, followed up by a century's experience of the middle colonies, was indispensable to make that commitment possible.

The generations of Quakers from 1682 to 1756 represent a longer stretch of time, in the face of unprecedented surprises and challenges, than most dynasties and most party regimes, in most orderly societies, have stayed in control. The unique commitments listed above, each of which was implemented with at least some degree of success, contrast powerfully with what was going on, and most of those "testimonies" did not die completely when non-Quakers took over the Assembly. As Tolles writes, “[T]hey had created in the American wilderness a commonwealth in which civil and religious liberty, social and political equality, domestic and external peace had reigned to a degree and for a length of time unexampled in the history of the western world" (Meikel, 1979).

Thus, it is clear that the Quakers throughout history have fought for humans to treat other humans with dignity and respect, and to treat everyone equally, without violence. In short, the Quakers held fast to their beliefs and, for the most part, remained neutral throughout the American Revolution.

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