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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Religious Liberty in Old Pennsylvania

             During his Philadelphia years Benjamin Franklin was actively involved in a number of town and colony governing offices. At the time, Quakers made up a majority of most governing boards, which made for some interesting politics when questions of public defense arose.
            Several pages of the Autobiography are devoted to discussing this. Franklin recalls when the Fire Company conducted a lottery to raise funds that might be used to create a defensive battery at the harbor. Twenty two of the governing board of 30 were Quakers, but Franklin soon learned that most, particularly the younger ones, were willing to tacitly support defensive measures if it could be done without openly going against their church leadership.
            When the time came to vote on the distribution of the lottery funds, the eight non-Quakers showed up, as did one Quaker leader, who adamantly insisted his people would not support the battery. At the time the meeting was scheduled to begin, those nine were the only ones in attendance; then Franklin was called to a nearby tavern by a waiter who worked there. Eight of the Quaker board members were waiting and said they would come to the meeting and vote for the battery, but only if their votes were absolutely needed.
            Knowing he had the 16 votes needed, Franklin returned to the meeting and told the lone Quaker representative that the others would wait an hour to allow the 21 missing Quakers to show up. To the surprise of the lone Quaker present, none of them did, and the motion to approve the battery was carried 8-1.
            In the Pennsylvania Assembly, where Franklin also served, similar difficulties arose when defense appropriations were necessary. “They were unwilling to offend government on the one hand by a direct refusal, and their Friends, the Body of Quakers, on the other, by a compliance contrary to their principles,” Franklin writes. “Hence a variety of evasions to avoid complying and modes of disguising the compliance when it became unavoidable.”
            A common technique for appropriating defense expenditures was to pass a resolution allowing money “for the King’s use.” That was fine as long as the funds requested were for the Crown, but it didn’t always work. At one point, for instance, the Assembly was asked to approve an appropriation requested by another colony’s governor for gunpowder to defend a garrison.
            After much wrangling, Pennsylvania voted an appropriation of three thousand pounds to be used for “the purchasing of bread, flour, wheat or other grain.” Urged to reject the appropriation on the grounds that it wasn’t what he had asked for, the Governor replied, “I shall take the money, for I understand very well their meaning; other grain is gunpowder.”
            Ever the practical politician, Franklin realized that this approach could have been used in the fire company situation. As he later told a friend, he could have got a resolution approved that the money be used to buy a fire engine and had himself and his friend appointed as the committee to make the purchase. They then could have bought a cannon for the battery because what, after all, is a cannon if not a fire-engine of sorts?
            The moral here is that controversies between government and religion can be worked out by reasonable people of good will as long each side is sensitive to the other’s concern and not too starchy about asserting its own. If they could figure that out 250 years ago, you’d think they could do it now; but progress is not always a straight line.