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Before the American Revolution, nonviolence in this country was virtually synonymous with Quakerism. There were other pacifist sects, of course: John Woolman recorded in his Journal the case of a Mennonite who slept in the woods rather than receive hospitality from a slaveholder. But the Quakers were more numerous, and as the English wing of the radical Reformation more in touch with the thinking of the English majority in the American colonies than German pietists could hope to be. Thus it fell to the Friends to introduce to American history “nonviolence as a way of life.”

Sharing Roger Williams’ objection to compulsion in religion as “forcible and soul rape,” Quakers objected to other forms of force, too. When George Fox was asked to serve in the English army, he and five other Friends declared: “We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons, for any end or pretense whatever; this is our testimony to the whole world.” More than three hundred years later, the Friends Peace Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting published a pamphlet called Public Witness, whose cover sowed an elderly gentleman carrying a sign which read: “Quakers believe that there is in every man and woman the ability to respond to God’s love.” In the 17th as in the 20th century the belief in an “inner light,” in “that of God in every man,” underlay the Quaker refusal to resort to violence.

There was nothing respectable or middle-class about this position then. In 1660 an act of Virginia referred to the Friends as an


“unreasonable and turbulent sort of people, teaching and publishing lies, miracles, false visions, prophecies and doctrines, which have influence upon the communities on men both ecclesiasticall and civil endeavoring and attempting thereby to destroy religion, lawes, communities and all bonds of civil societie, leaving it arbitrarie to everie vaine and vitious person whether men shall be safe, lawe established, offenders punished, and Governours rule, hereby disturbing the publique peace and just interest.”


While this was being said in Virginia, Quakers were mounting a nonviolent invasion of Massachusetts Bay. In July, 1656 Mary Fisher and Ann Austin arrived in Boston. They were deported, but two days after their ship sailed out eight more Friends sailed in.


“These formidable zealots carried the battle to the Puritans, avoiding devious means of spreading their message. They attempted to speak after the sermon in church, made speeches during trials and from jail windows during imprisonments, issued pamphlets and tracts, held illegal public meetings, refused to pay fines, and refused to work in prison even though it meant going without food.”


Again and again Quakers returned to the Bay Colony, despite whippings and executions. “While William Leddra was being considered for the death penalty, Wenlock Christison, who had already been banished on pain of death, calmly walked into the courtroom. And while Christison was being tried, Edward Wharton, who also had been ordered to leave the colony or loose his life, wrote to the authorities from his home that he was still there.”


This early experiment in nonviolence, to use Gandhi’s phrase, was successful.


“The jailer’s fees were often paid by sympathetic citizens and food was brought to the prisoners through the jail window at night. A number of colonists were converted to Quakerism by witnessing the suffering. For example, Edward Wanton, an officer of the guard at the execution of Robinson and Stephensen, was so impressed that he came home saying, ‘Alas, mother! We have been murdering the Lord’s people.’

“When Hered Gardner prayed for her persecutors after her whipping, a woman spectator was so affected that she said, ‘Surely if she had not the support of the Lord she could not do this thing.’

“Governor Endicott was not so easily moved. When Catherine Scott indicated her willingness to die for her faith, the Governor replied, ‘And we shall be as ready to take away your lives, as ye shall be to lay them down.’ But the protest against the treatment of the Quakers continued to grow.

“After William Brend had been so cruelly beaten that he seemed about to die, even Governor Endicott became so alarmed at the attitude of the people that he announced that the jailer would be prosecuted. The later execution of a woman, Mary Dyer, added to the discontent, and even the General Court began to weaken. Virtual abolition of the death penalty followed; there were problems in getting the constables to enforce laws which became ever milder.”


“By 1675,” this account concludes, “Quakers were regularly meeting undisturbed in Boston.”


Shortly thereafter William Penn pioneered a different application of nonviolence in Pennsylvania. There were prudential as well as idealistic motives in Penn’s approach to the Indians. He wrote to the commissioners who went before him to Pennsylvania: “Be tender of offending the Indians, and hearken by honest spies, if you can hear that any body inveigles them not to sell, or to stand off, and raise the value upon you.” On the other hand, the treaty with the Delawares had many elements characteristic of nonviolence, such as the agreement that before either side believed a rumor it would go to the other and inquire. At the treaty the Indians are said to have given Penn a belt of wampum which (like the emblem of the twentieth century Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) showed a white man and a dark man clasping hands. Moreover, it seems not only that nonviolence kept the peace in Pennsylvania for two generations, but also that Quakers were spared by the Indians when, in the mid-18th century, warfare between the colony and the Indians began. The influential English Quaker of the early 19th century, Jonathan Dymond, passed on to his abolitionist readers the tradition that Friends who refused to arm themselves or to retire to garrisons were left unharmed by the Indians.

Pennsylvania’s decision to arm against the Indians prompted another form of nonviolent action: the refusal of several Friends to pay taxes for military purposes. The issue pitted against each other John Woolman and Anthony Benezet, the most influential American Quakers of the eighteenth century, and Benjamin Franklin, who led the non-Quakers of Pennsylvania in insisting on military preparations. Symbolized by the confrontation of these leaders was the conflict between Quaker nonviolence and the dominant philosophy of Locke. Locke was contemptuous of those whose scruples over violence allowed tyranny to exist. Thus in his Second Treatise on Government Locke declared:


“If the innocent honest man must quietly quit all he has for peace’s sake to him who will lay violent hands upon it, I desire it may be considered what a kind of peace there will be in the world which consists only in violence and rapine, and which is to be maintained only for the benefit of robbers and oppressors. Who would not think it an admirable peace betwixt the mighty and the mean, when the lamb, without resistance, yielded his throat to be torn by the imperious wolf?”


Probably at no other time in American history was nonviolence so alien to the mainstream of American social thought as in the Revolutionary generation.

The War for Independence increased the unpopularity of pacifism. Franklin once more spoke for the majority when (according to John Adams’ diary) he proposed as a seal for the United States, “Moses lifting up his wand, and dividing the red sea, and Pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed with the waters [and] this motto, ‘Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God’.” Benezet, again, expressed the feeling of the Quaker minority in a letter of 1779 to the President of the Continental Congress, John Jay. Those who refused military service for the sake of conscience, Benezet affirmed, were “really concerned for the true welfare of America, but willing to sacrifice their all, rather than do that whereby they apprehend they may offend that great and good Being, from whom alone they look for any permanent happiness for themselves or their afflicted country.”



The Lockean Franklin and his Quaker antagonists were united, however, in their concern to abolish slavery. Woolman made long journeys through the South admonishing Quaker slaveholders, and refused to use the products of slave labor. Benezet founded a school for the instruction of free Negroes. In 1790 the aged Franklin set his name at the head of a petition against slavery to the new United States Congress. Southern Congressmen responded by extended reference to the pacifism of Quakers during the Revolution, insisting that the “self-constituted” Society of Friends not be permitted to disturb sectional harmony. “The Northern States adopted us with our slaves, “declared Representative Burke, “and we adopted them with their Quakers.” The clash between the Founding Fathers’ pragmatic acceptance of slavery and the “fanatical” objections of the Quakers was to reappear writ large in the decades after 1830.

Abolitionism, as it developed in the context of religious revivalism, was at first committed to non-violence. Nathaniel Macon, Congressman from North Carolina, wrote to a friend in 1818: “We have abolition, colonization, bible and peace societies. The character and spirit of one may without injustice be considered that of all.” In 1815-1860, as in the years since World War II, peace and civil rights organizations attracted the same people. Samuel May and William Ellery Channing were advocates of peace before they became abolitionists. Anti-slavery stalwarts Henry C. Wright, Edmund Quincy, Maria W. Chapman, Lucretia Mott and Lydia Marie Child joined William Lloyd Garrison in launching the New England Non-Resistance Society. Frederick Douglas denounced “the whole naval system” and capital punishment. Charles Sumner made his political debut by condemning war before a Fourth of July audience on the Boston common, and in 1849, in a speech called “War System of the Commonwealth of Nations,” produced the most comprehensive indictment of war by any American in the nineteenth century. Elihu Burritt, tireless advocate of an individual peace pledge and a general strike against war, spent himself also on plans to prevent Civil War by compensated emancipation. William Jay, Lewis Tappan and Theodore Parker were others prominent in both the peace and anti-slavery movements.

The manifesto of the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 espoused non-violence in almost the same language as the declaration of the New England Non-Resistance Society in 1838: a natural outcome, since Garrison wrote both. Nor was this nineteenth century non-violent movement confined to words. Direct action against railroad segregation began almost coincidentally with railroads themselves, in New England, New York and Pennsylvania. Assisting fugitive slaves was “constructive work” in the best Gandhian sense.

Garrisonian non-violence, like the pacifism of Anthony Benezet, was open to the charge that it salved the conscience of the individual but failed to change the structure of power. Garrison explicitly disavowed the example of the French Revolution: “We advocate no jacobinical doctrines. The spirit of Jacobinism is the spirit of retaliation, violence and murder.” The American Anti-Slavery Society asked not only its members but also the slaves of the South to forego the use of violence. Its declaration said that “(we reject and) entreat the oppressed to reject the use of all carnal weapons for deliverance from bondage; relying solely upon those which are spiritual, and mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds.” As the years passed and the strong-holds remained, as the wars with Mexico of 1846-1848 was followed by the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, many abolitionists began to wonder if non-violence was enough.

One of these was Garrison’s lieutenant, Wendell Phillips. In his first public speech, on the murder of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy in 1837, Phillips had disassociated himself from “what are called Peace principles” and justified Lovejoy’s use of arms to protect his press. After the Fugitive Slave Law he went further: “It seems to me that the man who is not conscientiously a non-resistant, is not only entitled, he is bound, to use every means that he has or can get to resist arrest in the last resort.” Yet Phillips continued to believe in non-violent abolition until the Civil War began. Then he abandoned pacifism completely. “I think,” Phillips told a cheering audience in 1862, “the South is all wrong and the administration (of Abraham Lincoln) is all right.”

A more dramatic conversion to violence was the case of Frederick Douglass. As late as September 1849 Douglass could say: “I am willing at all times to be known as a Garrison abolitionist.” But earlier that same year Douglass had thrown Faneuil Hall into an uproar by declaring that he would welcome the news of a slave insurrection in the South. In 1854, his attitude hardened by the Fugitive Slave Law, Douglass posed the question, “Is it Right and Wise to Kill A Kidnapper?,” and answered, Yes. In 1856 Douglass said of the slave system, “its peaceful annihilation is almost hopeless.” In June 1860 the former slave came full circle, stating:


I have little hope of the freedom of the slave by peaceful means. A long course of peaceful slaveholding has placed the slaveholder beyond the reach of moral and humane considerations. . . . The only penetrable point of a tyrant is the fear of death.


Contrary to common opinion, Henry Thoreau was never a declared pacifist. The Essay on Civil Disobedience takes its stand on the American Revolution and asks: If violent revolution was right for a tax on tea, how much more would it be justified to emancipate the slaves? The essay is, in fact, a subtle and ambiguous synthesis of the previously-disparate Quaker and Lockean traditions. Thoreau like Roger Williams or William Penn affirms the peril of coercion in spiritual matters: he refused to pay a tax for the established church several years before his more celebrated refusal of the Massachusetts poll tax. At the same time Thoreau breaks with Garrison’s disavowal of Jacobinism, and flatly declares that “all men recognize the right of revolution” and that “it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize.” Thoreau’s condemnation of all government can be misleading here. Tom Paine’s Common Sense also began with the conception that “society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil.” This belief did not prevent Paine from advocating a political revolution; and Thoreau himself tells us that, speaking practically, what he wants is not no government, but a better government at once.

In the Essay on Civil Disobedience Thoreau presented individual non-cooperation with the state as “the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.” By 1854, under the hammer of the Fugitive Slave Law, Thoreau was prepared to say: “Show me a free state, and a court truly of justice, and I will fight for them, if need be.” In 1859, speaking on the death of John Brown, Thoreau said: “I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.” Then he went on to support Brown’s violent raid:


“It was his (Brown’s) peculiar doctrine that a man has a perfect right to interfere by force with the slaveholder, in order to rescue the slave. I agree with him. . . . I shall not be forward to think him mistaken in his method who quickest succeeds to liberate the slave. I speak for the slave when I say, that I prefer the philanthropy of Captain Brown to that philanthropy which neither shoots me nor liberates me.”


The collapse of Garrison non-violence is the most striking failure of non-violence in American history to date. One can argue endlessly whether it might have been otherwise. Should Garrison have gone into the South, like Woolman, and tried to reason with slaveholders rather than condemn them? Would it have made a difference if Burritt had developed earlier his concept of mass non-violence, as in a general strike against war? Did Phillips’ conception of individual self-defense together with mass non-violent agitation represent an untried middle road? It is idle to ask. The great and unavoidable fact is that the abolitionist movement, virtually unanimous in adhering to non-violence in the 1830’s was almost equally united in supporting Lincoln when the war came.

Garrison’s unctuous explanations for his own change of position hardly help. “Oh, Mr. President,” Garrison declared at a July 4th picnic in the first year of the war,


“how it delights my heart when I think that the worst thing we propose to do to the South is the very best thing that God or man can do! . . . Yes, we will make it possible for them to be a happy and prosperous people, as they have never been, and never can be, with slavery. We will make it possible for them to have free schools, and free presses, and free institutions, as we do at the North. . . . Let us return them good for evil, be seizing this opportunity to deliver them from their deadliest curse—that is Christian.”





The document is from:

SNCC, The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Papers, 1959-1972 (Sanford, NC: Microfilming Corporation of America, 1982) Reel 67, File 328, Page 0365

The original papers are at the King Library and Archives, The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta, GA