Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Patriots fighting for liberty instituted a hippie tax

That's what came to mind when I read the following story this morning:  1775 document:  Colonists asked pacifists to pay.  It turns out that the Patriot leaders in one Pennsylvania county asked contientious objectors to pay a fee instead of serving in the colonial militas that where then gearing up to fight the British.  The objectors were provided an exemption from service based on their "religious scruples," but were expected to pay in order to provide for the defense of the broader community.

An interesting piece of history -- and one that doesn't really have anything to do with hippies.  But it does have to do with the perennial question in a society such as ours:  at what point do sincerely held religious beliefs exempt individuals from obeying the rules set up by the broader society?  In the 1775 document, that question arose over military service, but in the modern context, it arises over a host of cultural issues, e.g., sexuality & the family, conscience rights for health care providers, religious expression in the public square, etc.  As our society grows increasingly religiously pluralistic while remaining, for the foreseeable future at least, predominently influenced by the Judeo-Christian tradition, controversies involving this perennial question will become more common, not less.

The 1775 documents represents a classic American approach to the intersection of religious conscience and public affairs.  The right of the objectors not to serve in the militia was recognized and respected, while at the same time the objectors' participation in the community was affirmed as well.  By encouraging the objectors to pay a fee instead of serving in the military, the 1775 document provides both for the needs of the Patriot cause and for the religious duties of the objectors.  In so doing, it reflects the traditional American concept of according a wide berth for religious expression, while insisting that religious believers' liberty be truly that -- liberty, not license disconnected from duty to the community.

6 comments:

Daniel said...

According to Mennonite lore (I think historical), a pacifist in Pennsylvania who was unwilling to serve in the military was expected to hire someone to serve in his place.

Tom Van Dyke said...

An excellent summation for pluralism in the final graf, Mark.

I remember poking through the debates on the Second Amendment, and the concerns of conscientious objectors were considered there, too, re the "militia" part. Memory's a little foggy on the details, tho.

Jason Pappas said...

I have some concern with regard to “wartime ethics.” During the Revolution normal rules were suspended. The press was censored, theatrical performances prohibited, speech restricted, etc. Other extreme measures were allowed that would normally be prohibited during peacetime. No one back then would expect wartime ethics to be identical to peacetime ethics. How we fought and what we fought for were two different things.

While wartime ethics was a concern they allowed many measures that would be prohibited during peace. This may seem strange today as we are constantly told that we have to exhibit our ideals even during war. Looking back at the war, Patrick Henry called Washington a dictator. That wasn’t meant as a criticism as, following the Roman model, a commander was expected to assume broad powers. Also following the Roman Republican model, when the war ended he relinquished all power and went back to his farm, civil liberties were restored and life went on.

Thus, I’m a bit hesitant to conclude what wartime measures mean about our peacetime values--even in 1775 as the war was just starting.

Mark in Spokane said...

Daniel, that's an interesting tid-bit of information.

Tom, thanks for the kind words -- that last paragraph sums up why I found the story informative for our own time.

Jason, I think your concerns make the 1775 letter more instructive, not less. The point of the 1775 letter was to ensure the liberty of the objectors while providing for the defense of the community of which the objectors were a part. It is not a document that evidences a temporary eclipse of rights due to military exigency, rather it attempts to preserve the rights of religious minorities who objected to military service.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jason, I meself draw great distinctions between talk and action. I think it goes back to Plato, "the city in speech," and then reality.

To my mind, the American project---indeed the revolution itself, per 1775 here---has been the best reconciliation of the tension between the city in speech and the city in action in the history of man.

The more I think about it, the more I'm willing to defend that assertion. We were looking out for our Anabaptist pacifists even before the Declaration.

The more I sort through our history, the more I become an American exceptionalist, not less.

I would be willing to die for a pacifist, in the American fashion. And to his credit, I bet he'd be willing to die for me, according to his principles.

The Quaker medic who'd crawl across the battlefield to salvage my life after I was wounded, even if he were hit by a fatal bullet himself. Would crawl up the stairways of the burning Twin Towers for me.

We Americans are such a strange bunch, each according to his conscience. God bless us, every one.

Jason Pappas said...

Yes, I agree, that even in war, when the full traditions of our civil order are not retained, we still retain a greater degree of civility and humanity than most.

The "you don't have to fight but still have to pay" is an interesting place to draw the line--not without controversy. We still draw the same line today.

It's during peace that we've moved the line ... and increased the "civic responsibilities" by orders of magnitude.