The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 19 Jan 2006

Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers

Benjamin Franklin was not impressed with the Quakers. His Autobiography, which is not by any means a long book, contains at least five stories of Quaker hypocrisy. I remembered only two, and found the others when I was looking for these.

In one story, the firefighting company was considering contributing money to the drive to buy guns for the defense of Philadelphia against the English. A majority of board members was required, but twenty-two of the thirty board members were Quakers, who would presumably oppose such an outlay. But when the meeting time came, twenty-one of the Quakers were mysteriously absent from the meeting! Franklin and his friends agreed to wait a while to see if any more would arrive, but instead, a waiter came to report to him that eight of the Quakers were awaiting in a nearby tavern, willing to come vote in favor of the guns if necessary, but that they would prefer to remain absent if it wouldn't affect the vote, "as their voting for such a measure might embroil them with their elders and friends."

Franklin follows this story with a long discourse on the subterfuges used by Quakers to pretend that they were not violating their pacifist principles:

My being many years in the Assembly. . . gave me frequent opportunities of seeing the embarrassment given them by their principle against war, whenever application was made to them, by order of the crown, to grant aids for military purposes. . . . The common mode at last was, to grant money under the phrase of its being "for the king's use," and never to inquire how it was applied.

And a similar story, about a request to the Pennsylvania Assembly for money to buy gunpowder:

. . . they could not grant money to buy powder, because that was an ingredient of war; but they voted an aid to New England of three thousand pounds, to he put into the hands of the governor, and appropriated it for the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat, or other grain. Some of the council, desirous of giving the House still further embarrassment, advis'd the governor not to accept provision, as not being the thing he had demanded; but he reply'd, "I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder," which he accordingly bought, and they never objected to it.

And Franklin repeats an anecdote about William Penn himself:

The honorable and learned Mr. Logan, who had always been of that sect . . . told me the following anecdote of his old master, William Penn, respecting defense. It was war-time, and their ship was chas'd by an armed vessel, suppos'd 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 [Logan] 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 [Mr. Logan], who answer'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."

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