Friday, January 2, 2009

Regarding Benjamin Franklin, Quakers, and Pacifism Then and Now

I have just finished reading Benjamin Franklin's autobiography, something I haven't done since before I began worshiping with Friends. I had not before noted how frequently he mentioned Quakers in his discussions of colonial life in Pennsylvania. In the 1740s when Franklin was working with the Philadelphia government to establish an organization of colonists dedicated to defense, he had difficulty with Friends who were, of course, opposed to this course of action as a matter of principle. The following is an excerpt from Franklin's autobiography:

The honorable and learned Mr. Logan, who had always been of that sect, was one who an address to them, declaring his approbation of defensive war, and supporting his opinion by many strong arguments. He put into my hand sixty pounds to be laid out in lottery tickets for the battery, with directions to apply what prizes might be drawn wholly to that service. He told me the following anecdote of his old master, William Penn, respecting defense. He came over from England, when a young man, with that proprietary, and as his secretary. It was war-time, and their ship was chas'd by an armed vessel, suppos'ed to be an enemy. Their captain prepar'd for defense; but told William Penn, and his company of Quakers, that he did not expect their assistance, and they might retire into the cabin, which they did, except James Logan, who chose to stay upon deck, and was quarter'd to a gun. The suppos'd enemy prov'd a friend, so there was no fighting; but when the secretary went down to communicate the intelligence, William Penn rebuk'd him severely for staying upon deck, and undertaking to assist in defending the vessel, contrary to the principles of Friends, especially as it had not been required by the captain. This reproof, being before all the company, piqu'd the secretary, who anser'd, "I being thy servant, why did thee not order me to come down? But thee was willing enough that I should stay and help to fight the ship when thee thought there was danger."

My being many years in the Assembly, the majority of which were constantly Quakers, gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. They were unwilling to offend government, on the one hand, by a direct refusal; and their friends, the body of the Quakers, on the other hand, by a compiance contrary to their principles; hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying, and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable...

Having heard today’s Friends discuss the issue of war and taxes on more than one occasion, I felt sympathy toward colonial Friends’ difficulties. While I would like to idealize these ancient Friends as somehow more radically perfect than today’s model, the truth is that collectively and as individuals they also performed a kind of dance of compromise with principle. On more than one occasion, Franklin’s autobiography describes how he assisted his Quaker associates in this dance. As a member of the Quaker dominated colonial assembly, Franklin describes how he takes some pains to assure that Friends will not be so compromised in their principles that they will feel compelled to stubbornly thwart the efforts of non-Friends.

At other times the Friends are well-aware that their own political responsibilities are stymied by their religious convictions. In such circumstances, Franklin describes how the local Quaker-dominated colonial government saves face with both the king and their coreligionists. For instance, this can include explicitly excusing Friends from military duty while requiring it of others so that Friends will not stand in the way of colonial military action for non-Quakers. It might mean collecting taxes from Friends that will be put toward the war but carefully saying such monies were “for the king’s use” without inquiring into the particulars. In these matters, Franklin claims that many, if not most, Friends were not individually opposed to defense and he gives examples of individuals doing their best to wiggle around the injunction of perfect pacifism. Contrasting the Friends unfavorably to (in Franklin's opinion) the more sensible Moravians who acknowledged the necessity of defensive violence, Franklin decries the Friends’ uncompromising dogmatism that he sees leads them into conflict and hypocrisy. In Franklin’s view, it was imprudence and a lack of forethought that put the Friends in this position.

I guess he has a point but it may not be the right one.

The point was never whether or not we followed our principles perfectly, but that we continue to make the attempt. Although I support no wars, decry all violence (including violence against animals and the body of the earth), I have been violent in thought and deed. I have been frightened and ready to strike out. I am against the death penalty and abhor the use of force against the mentally ill and those accused of crimes. Yet, I have been secretly thankful for the police force’s violent intervention against crime and abuse in my community. I reject violent overthrow of governments and violent action against one’s personal oppressors, and yet I have silently cheered the actions of oppressed peoples who have risen up against their abusers.

Was William Penn also a hypocrite when he failed to require his servant to come into the cabin rather than stand outside with a gun? Probably. But if Penn and other Friends had allowed their imperfection to thwart their attempt at loving obedience to the will of the divine, the principle of pacifism might have died among Friends. If they had become disheartened by their imperfection and had given up the principle, the world would have lost the pacifist example of such imperfect Friends as John Woolman, Lucretia Mott, and Amy Post. They would have lost the leadership of such people made strong enough by their devotion to peace to take on slavery, misogyny, and war. If Friends had compromised on this principle when they realized they could not achieve it, they would have surrendered the great role they had to play in humanity’s struggle for a just and loving world just when the world needed their idealism most.

These thoughts give me courage in the midst of my failures. I am a poor pacifist but my faltering and failures do not excuse me from the calling to peace. That we are human and cannot achieve perfection does not excuse us from its pursuit. And I am painfully, tenderly, bewilderingly human. I thirst. I hunger. I rage, fear, grow weary and lust. These things I cannot change. They are a part of my animal nature, but it is this same animal nature that gives me my curiosity, love, the will to survive and the ability to nurture those in need.

It was not given to me to achieve perfection. It was given to me to try. So I will try. I will try and fail, repent and try again. I will not give up. I will not give up when others mock my idealism and criticize my hypocrisy. I will not give up when the way seems uncertain and I cannot make reason and convenience match the charge that I must love all humanity. I can hear the old arguments. "Pacifism is a pretty idea but it is impractical. What if someone attacks your country, your home, your child? Don’t tell me you won’t fight! If you say this, you are delusional or you are a liar.”

My answer to such arguments can only be this: I do not know. I am not there in those terrible situations. I am here in a place in which I am charged with the task of preventing aggressions, healing hurts, and sustaining the vulnerable. I am here working toward a future in which the occasions in which violence appears to be the best choice become rarer and the non-violent tools we have to address conflict become more common.

So the Friends paid taxes “for the king’s use” but they refused to fight. Penn refused to pick up a weapon to defend himself but said nothing as his servant picked up a weapon to defend him. Yet William Penn and the colonial Friends, even in their hypocricy, were still called to pacifism during the violent years of imperialism, colonization, and rebellion. And I who have yelled, stomped about and thrown things in anger, must still seek after peace and strive for it with my voice, my vote, and my influence. My hypocrisy shames me, but it does not excuse me from standing up and standing in the way of violence. I have to keep trying. I have to keep believing.

Benjamin Franklin may have been right when he described “These embarrassments… suffered form having establish’d and published it as one of their principles that no kind of war was lawful, and which, being published, they could not afterwards, however they might change their minds, easily get rid of…” What he didn’t see was that such beliefs do not merely come to us from rationalism and worldly logic. They grow out of an Almighty Silence rich in love and heavy with responsibility. The principle of perfect peace must be defended by imperfect defenders. Sometimes it seems grossly unfair and improper to expect a thing so grand from creatures so frail, but God did not assign this task to angels. The assignment belongs to us.


Lone Star Ma said...

This is a deeply inspirational post. So much so that I feel it should be published in other places as well as this blog. Thank you for sharing it with us.

Hystery said...

Thank you, Lone Star Ma, for your very generous comment. I was reading Franklin's autobiography as images of children killed and injured in Gaza were being published. I've also been reading comments about this violence with justifications for it including the charge of hypocrisy against those peace-activists calling for an end to the violence.

It just seems to me that the standards we hold before us should never be what we might do in your worst moments but what we can do in your best.

Paul L said...

I'm not sure you got Franklin's point accurately. He was perfectly willing to accept individual slippages from one's stated beliefs and values. What exasperated him was the fact that the Quakers of Philadelphia -- who were by and large prosperous and had a lot of property to protect [e.g. Wm Penn] -- were willing to accept the benefits of the men at the guns on deck but were unwilling to raise a hand or contribute to pay for it, at least in the open.

As Franklin stated in the passage you quoted, he would have preferred that the Quakers would have "offended government by direct refusal" to their complying under disguise.

Thus, while you may be imperfect in keeping with the peace testimony, you at least aren't pretending otherwise. This is what Franklin thought the Philadelphia Quakers were doing, and this is why he was so unhappy with them.

The dilemma, then as now, is how to refuse the benefits of the thing we say we abhor. Even if Penn had told Logan to come below, weren't there others on deck who were going to defend him? Should Penn should have, instead of retreating to the cabin to leave the fighting to others, gotten on a boat and placed himself between the supposed enemy and his ship, offering himself (and his wealth) as a hostage?

In the present day, the dilemma for those of us who profess to oppose military force is to somehow find ways to refuse the benefits that the armed forces bring to us. For example, gasoline is cheap because the US maintains a large military presence to protect oil production and transportation from the Middle East. Even if we wish the US didn't do this, how do we practically refuse the benefit of this protection?

Hystery said...

Paul, I do get that Franklin's problem was with the powerful Friends of Philadelphia who were willing to accept their neighbors' and governments' protections but were not willing to openly contribute to support that effort. His issue is not necessarily with the inner workings of an individual's imperfection but with the Friends as a powerbroker group who very likely repeatedly ticked him off especially within the historical context of very real, very local violence.

I do not dismiss Franklin's annoyance that he had to deal with people who really weren't pacifists but had to pretend to be for the sake of prestige among other very wealthy and powerful Friends. Nor do I dismiss his critique of their willingness to give money for "the king's use" (wink, wink) or the more complex conversation that his observations can and should engender.

Franklin's point and your 21st century comments are a worthy starting point for what truly is a critical issue with which I continue to struggle. However, that point is one best addressed to an audience already committed to pacifism and already engaged in the difficulties in confronting systemic, cultural, organizational, and individual hypocrisy and duplicity. It is not as helpful when dealing with people who are completely aghast that anyone could possibly be a pacifist in the first place. I wrote the blog to explore my feelings about working with the latter group.

The response I typically get to saying that I am a pacifist is the same I get for saying that I am a vegan. First I get disbelief and curiosity which is then quickly followed by outright hostility and/or mockery.

With people who confront me about this stand, there is a complete lack of nuance in their approach. All of your points about Friends' continued problems and Franklin's judicious observations would then be twisted to mean that one should not attempt pacifism since it cannot be accomplished.

As I mentioned in the blog, people say, "But what if your child were in danger?" Or "Would you shoot someone if there was a gun to your head?" These are similar to responses I get from folks responding to my veganism. "If you were stranded and the only thing you could eat was human flesh, would you do it?" (This was my favorite challenge since up to that point, I had hoped that all people had a general aversion to cannibalism if not to beef.)

So that is why, I suppose, my blog appears simplistic. I do not know any other committed pacifists (although I suppose the Friends in the three meetings I attend must be but then they never discuss such things with me.) Of course I welcome a more complex discussion with those who have had the privilege of a deeper and more complex view of the topic.

Daniel Wilcox said...

Hello Hystery,

First I want say thanks for the spirit and tone and nuanced thoughts of your blog post, especially--
"The point was never whether or not we followed our principles perfectly, but that we continue to make the attempt," and
"That we are human and cannot achieve perfection does not excuse us from its pursuit."

War in the world would be greatly reduced if all spiritually-minded people of all faiths sought to live with the peacemaking principle and Jesus' words, "Love your enemies." Then when war does come, there would at least be much less of the 'gung-ho' attitude that shames so many religions during war time. We woould first look to our own failings before killing. Consider the book Preachers Present Arms which documents how Christian churches avidly supported WW1, one pastor even saying Jesus himself would kill Germans! And a third of Quakers fought in that war. Tragic.

I remember during the Vietnam War
when even a Hindu priest told me I should go to war. Not Gandhi for sure.

As for Ben Franklin...Glad you got to read his biography. I am a retired American literature teacher and am glad when ever individuals dip into some of our classics.

Keep in mind that I don't think Ben had almost any mystical sense of God. Remember in the bio where he talks of falling asleep during his visit to the Friends worship meeting:-)

As for Friends and the peace testimony, I do think some of them at least tried to maintain an honest testimony; they resigned from the Pennsylvania legislature rather than support war against the Indians.

If we moderns did even a fourth of what the Friends of Penn's generation did against war, our world would be very different.

In the Light,

Daniel Wilcox

Rich in Brooklyn said...

This was a matter of discussion among Friends themselves at the time. John Woolman, for one, was opposed to many of these compromises and believed Friends should take a more consistent pacifist stance. He worried about the "temptations" that came with political power and also about the difficulty of trying to assert a pacifist stance in time of war, when one's life did not exhibit faithfulness at other times and places.
"On the 17th there was a meeting of the military officers at Mount Holly, who agreed on draft; orders were sent to the men so chosen to meet their respective captains at set times and places, those in our township to meet at Mount Holly, amongst whom were a considerable number of our Society. My mind being affected herewith, I had fresh opportunity to see and consider the advantage of living in the real substance of religion, where practice doth harmonize with principle. Amongst the officers are men of understanding, who have some regard to sincerity where they see it; and when such in the execution of their office have men to deal with whom they believe to be upright-hearted, it is a painful task to put them to trouble on account of scruples of conscience, and they will be likely to avoid it as much as easily may be. But where men profess to be so meek and heavenly-minded, and to have their trust so firmly settled in God that they cannot join in wars, and yet by their spirit and conduct in common life manifest a contrary disposition, their difficulties are great at such a time." (See John Woolman's Journal Chapter V (1757,1758))

Karl said...

I read the first comment by Lone Star Ma, and your response. You might both like to know that I noticed a new "Quaker Blogs" link featured on my Sarasota Meeting House's web page. That link took me to an FCC (I think)Quaker blog site called "QuakerQuaker", and your blog was among the top featured blogs, so I actually arrived at this blog from my local Meeting House.

Hystery said...

Daniel, thank you for visiting my blog. I think I've read Franklin's autobiography two (maybe three) times. It happens to be the first book of a very old volume (1909) of Harvard classics that belonged to an ancestor so whenever I begin to feel ambitious, I start reading Franklin and hope to move all the way to the end of the series. So far, I've only just read Franklin and Woolman in the first volume! Perhaps now that I am no longer in college, I can be more disciplined.

Rich and Daniel, I do appreciate your addition to the historical discussion (one of my favorite kinds of discussions!).

I did find this in Franklin regarding the Dunkers that I think speaks to me regarding balancing power and principle, discipline and revelation:

"I was acquainted with one of its founders, Michael Welfare, soon after it appear'd. He complain'd to me that they were grievously calumniated by the zealots of other persuasions, and charg'd with abominable prnciples and practices, to which they were utter strangers. I told him this had always been the case with new sects, and that, to put a stop to such abuse, I imagin'd it might be well to publish the articles of their belief, and the rules of their discipline. He said that it had been propos'd among them, but not agreed to, for this reason: 'When we were first drawn together as a society,' says he,it had pleased God to enlighten our minds so far as to see that some doctrines, which we once esteemed truths, were errors; and that others, which we had esteemed errors, were real truths. From time to time He has been pleased to afford us farther light, and our principles have been improving, and our errors diminishing. Now we are not sure that we are arrived at the end of the progression, and at the perfection of spiritual or theological knowledge; and we fear that, if we should once print our confession of faith, we should feel ourselves as if bound and confin'd by it, and perhaps be unwilling to receive farther improvement, and our successors still more so, as conceiving what we their elders and founders had done, to be something sacred, never to be departed from.'"

Franklin thought this a modesty unparalleled in religious history and declared that others were journeying in a fog. He writes,"...those at some distance before him on the road he sees wrapped up in the fog, as well as those behind him, and also the people in the fields on each side, but near him all appears clear, tho' in truth he is as much in the fog as any of them. To avoid this kind of embarassment, the Quakers have of late years been gradually declining the public service in the Assembly and in the magistracy, choosing rather to quit their power than their principle."

Mitch said...

Yes, this is a deep and nuanced meditation, and I think the theme of persisting through the imperfections, including hypocrisy, is very compelling. You would have found compatriots in the Nineteenth Century, when abolitionists (I think it was), talked about ethics as a kind of North Star. You'll never reach that star, but it will guide you the right way.

Lone Star Ma said...

I like that - the North Star.

Cool new look to the blog!

Hystery said...

I like the idea of the North Star too and it is particularly appropriate around where I live since this was once the center of the abolitionist movement. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman both lived locally. They were, of course, both good friends of Friends!

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