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The Quality of Mercy:
A History of American Antiwar Movements

By Kevin Filan

The American Revolution

U.S. Revolution   |  The Civil War   |  World War I   |  World War II   |  Vietnam

The American Revolution was… well, revolutionary. Not everyone in the Colonies was ready to go to war with Great Britain, or to renounce their allegience to the King. Some saw the Revolutionaries as rabble-rousers who wanted mob rule and anarchy. Others shared their distaste for "taxation without representation" and for excessess committed by the British Army, but hoped to redress their grievances peacefully, without seceding from the British Empire. By some accounts, as many as 35% of the colonists were "Loyalists," more sympathetic to the Crown than to the ragtag gang of "Patriots" who wanted a free and independent America. For every Thomas Paine there was a James Chalmers, who criticized him for his "indecent attack… against the English constitution; which with all its imperfections, is, and ever will be the pride and envy of mankind."

Even before the war began these pro-British sentiments were controversial. After Concord and Lexington, and the "Shot Heard Round the World," the Loyalists were seen not as voices of reason and moderation but as traitors. Those who refused to swear allegience to the Patriot cause were subjected to increasing harassment. Loyalists were regularly tarred and feathered, their houses burned and their farms pillaged. Over 100,000 were driven from their homes and found refuge in Canada. Others remained where they were born, defending themselves against both the British and their neighbors. In Philadelphia two Loyalists were hanged; in New Jersey two were sentenced to death but ultimately pardoned by the governor.

The pro-British and pro-Patriot colonists were joined by another large group, which supported neither side in the Revolution. Chief among these nonresistant Christians were the Quakers, Mennonites, German Baptists, Moravians, and Schwenkfelders. Most of these pacifist Christians were quite content with their lot as British subjects. As three Mennonite bishops in Pennsylvania wrote in 1773, "Through God's mercy we enjoy unlimited freedom in both civil and religious matters." Ironically, once the fight for liberty started, their religious freedoms were increasingly curtailed.

The first issue that peace-promoting Christians faced was militia duty. After Lexington and Concord, patriot committees called all able-bodied men to join a voluntary association "to learn the art of war." The associators noticed that the nonresistant Christians did not join in the drills. They demanded laws requiring everybody to serve. Pennsylvania passed a law levying a special war tax on all non-associators. Later it said nonresistant Christians could hire substitutes or pay a fine. Most nonresistant Christians refused to do either, because they found "no freedom in giving, or doing, or assisting in anything by which men's lives are destroyed or hurt." Therefore, Patriot officials confiscated their property to pay the tax and fines.

The nonresistant Christians also found it difficult to decide how they should interpret Christ's command to "give unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar." Was George III Caesar… or should they throw their allegience behind the new Patriot leadership of the Colonies? Ultimately many decided that God would decide who was to lead: accordingly, they held to a position of strict neutrality. This proved unsatisfactory to many Patriots, particularly after the passage of "Test Acts" which authorized confiscation of goods belonging to those who did not pass the "test" of a loyalty oath. Christians who refused to join the militias were jailed and their farms looted. Some chose to give aid to any wounded or hungry soldier in need, regardless of what uniform they wore. This was seen by many Patriots as disloyalty; Mennonites and Quakers were regularly harassed and flogged for giving injured Redcoats the same food and medical assistance which they provided to hungry Patriots. It didn't help that many of the Mennonites came from Germany, and were seen as "foreigners" by the Colonists whose roots came from England. (The situation was exacerbated further by the large number of German-speaking Hessian soldiers serving as mercenaries in the British Army).

As the war dragged on, neutrality became less of an option. Some of the "Loyalists" who wanted only peace found themselves fighting for the British; others found themselves drafted into Patriot militias. Even many Christian pacificists succumbed to the pressure, and chose to fight despite the ostracism and "shunning" of their church. Some Quakers and Mennonites who had resisted paying "war taxes" which would be used to finance combat reconsidered; others chose jail and confiscation of their estates over compromising their beliefs. Denominations split between strict pacifists, those who allowed for payment of war taxes and non-combat service, and those who allowed their members to participate in battle. The fault lines which had arisen in the new American society appeared even among those who tried desperately to rise above them.

After the Colonial victory, those who had called for peace were even more isolated than ever. The British offered only token payments to those who had been driven from their homes, while the Americans still saw them as traitors. Many wound up in Canada; others escaped to the British colonies of the Bahamas and Jamaica. In seeking to remain neutral, and in calling for peace, they found themselves identified with the enemy - a situation which was to recur for pacifists throughout American history.

 

 


Mike Doughty



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