Quaker Dilemma Over Civil War
William C. Kashatus
September 22, 2012
One hundred fifty years ago Saturday, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, stating his intention to free all slaves in the Confederate states that did not return to Union control by the first of the new year. None returned, and the order took effect on Jan. 1, 1863.
The Emancipation Proclamation made abolition a central aim of the war. It also presented the Religious Society of Friends with a fundamental conflict: how to further a longtime commitment to human equality without violating their historic Peace Testimony.
Lincoln, who had Quaker ancestry, sympathized with the dilemma, calling it a “trial of principle and faith,” and worked with Friends to find a mutually agreeable solution.
Contrary to popular belief, not every Quaker was an abolitionist. In fact, after Philadelphia Yearly Meeting made slaveholding a cause for disownment in 1776, most Friends distanced themselves from the antislavery cause. Instead, individual Quakers were responsible for making abolitionism a moral crusade in the larger antebellum society.
Some Friends appealed to the conscience of slaveholders, and refused to purchase goods procured by slave labor. Others established antislavery organizations like the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, which raised funds and elevated public awareness through the publication of newspapers and pamphlets. Still others lobbied the federal government to adopt antislavery legislation.
Nor did Quakers always agree on the best approach to abolitionism. Some advocated gradual emancipation followed by the relocation of former slaves to Africa. Others demanded immediate emancipation and the complete integration of former slaves into white mainstream society. Still others held positions running the gamut between these two extremes.
The most controversial approach, however, was involvement on the Underground Railroad, a clandestine – and illegal – network of abolitionists who channeled runaway slaves from the border states to freedom in Canada. These Quakers believed that God’s law superseded civil law, and rejected the federal Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 requiring every U.S. citizen to aid in the recapture of runaway slaves or face a fine and/or imprisonment.
Predictably, Quakers formed a significant part of the abolitionist minority that elected Lincoln to the presidency in 1860. Three years later, when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Quakers struggled mightily with the combative means to achieve such a highly desirable objective.
If human equality was a highly valued moral principle, pacifism was a fundamental article of the Quaker faith. The Society of Friends opposed war ever since its founding in the mid-17th century. Any violation of the Peace Testimony, whether through involvement in the military or simply paying taxes in wartime, was cause for disownment in the 18th and early 19th centuries.
But Quaker meetings became more willing to labor with those members who deviated from the Peace Testimony during the Civil War because of the desirable goal of emancipation.
Some historians estimate that more than 1,000 young Quaker men enlisted in the Union Army. Others were drafted. After Congress passed the first Conscription Act in 1863, Lincoln, as promised, pardoned those young Friends who appealed for a religious exemption.
A second draft act, passed at the urging of Friends in 1864 and supported by Lincoln, exempted religious objectors from military service, providing they did medical work, assisted with recently freed slaves, or paid $300 to be used for the welfare of the freedmen. Still, many Quaker meetings did not approve of alternative service or paying an exemption for military duty, insisting that the commitment to the Peace Testimony be absolute.
Quakers wrestled to find an acceptable approach. Many directed their attention to nursing and aiding recently freed slaves who congregated behind Union lines. Working with Freedmen’s Aid Associations, Quakers were among the most active groups in freedmen’s relief. Friends raised money for their food and shelter, collected clothing, and sent generous contributions to give the former slaves a start in free society. Some Friends from Baltimore and Philadelphia traveled South to establish schools for the religious and educational instruction of the freedmen and their children.
By promoting the cause of emancipation in these ways, Quakers sought to resolve the peculiar trial presented by the war. Together with their ongoing appeal for military exemption, these efforts allowed Quakers to exercise a subtle, if not profound, influence on the manner in which the president prosecuted the Civil War.