Wednesday, December 17, 2008

American Quaker War Tax Resistance: A Book Review

American Quaker War Tax Resistance from the 17th through the 19th Century: A Documentary History. David Gross (ed). 2008. 500 p. The Picket Line, softcover, $24. (ISBN/EAN13:1438260156 / 9781438260150).

One of the wonderful things, for me, as a new convert to Quakers, is having 350 years of history to catch up on.

In American Quaker War Tax Resistance, David Gross has created, not so much a history of Quaker war tax resistance as a source book for those who seek help discerning their leadings in this area. Gross has brought together over a hundred historical documents, from Friends as weighty as John Woolman and Elias Hicks, to prominent critics of Quakers' practices such as Benjamin Franklin, who found Friends guilty of "A Variety of Evasion" to avoid entering into direct conflict between an outward show of support for the peace testimony and the military requirements of the state.

It is one of the strengths of this book that a full range of opinions and responses are represented. There are, as might be expected, moving stories of opposition to war. However, much as we would like to believe that Friends have always acted with integrity and uprightness, a closer examination of period sources shows, unsurprisingly, that Friends in the past have been as human as Friends in the present. This collection does justice to that truth, but in a way that does not keep it from usefulness to a Friend laboring today to discern what Spirit requires of him or her in faithfulness.

The introductory essay is particularly useful, at least to someone like me who is relatively unfamiliar with the details of how Friends, and how the United States, came gradually to understand the related ideas of civil disobedience, conscientious objection, and our peace testimony. It did, however, lead me to believe that a general reader, who is neither currently led toward war tax resistance themselves nor a historian by trade, might be happier with the editor's earlier book, We Won't Pay. Although We Won't Pay also contains a good deal of historical material, its focus on "tax resistance as an act of individual conscience and revenue refusal as a technique of nonviolent resistance," will probably appeal to those who find an anthology of historical materials, however moving, less useful than a modern reflection on them would be.

However, having paged through the source materials of the later book, I find myself deeply respectful of the care and thoroughness Gross brought to the project. This book may not appeal to everyone, but for the conscientious objector, the modern tax resister, or the serious Quaker historian, this anthology is a wonderful resource.

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