The Quaker Wars?

Over on Quo­ra, a ques­tion that is more fas­ci­nat­ing than it might at first appear: What wars in his­to­ry were fought in the name of Quak­erism (Soci­ety of Friends)?:

This ques­tion is nei­ther sar­cas­tic nor rhetoric. As many peo­ple insist that vio­lence and atroc­i­ties are an inher­ent part of reli­gions, that reli­gions would cause wars, I real­ly want to know  if that is the truth. Per­son­al­ly I believe reli­gions can be peace­ful, such as in the cas­es of the Quak­ers and the Baha’i, but I might  be wrong. 

The obvi­ous answer should be “none.” Quak­ers are well-known as paci­fists (fun fact: fake can­non used to deceive the ene­my into think­ing an army is more for­ti­fied than it actu­al­ly is are called “Quak­er guns.”) Indi­vid­ual Quak­ers have rarely been quite as unit­ed around the peace tes­ti­mo­ny as our rep­u­ta­tion would sug­gest, but as a group it’s true we’ve nev­er called for a war. I can’t think of any mil­i­tary skir­mish or bat­tle waged to ral­ly­ing cries of “Remem­ber the Quakers!”

Quaker guns at Manassas Junction, 1862. Via Wikimedia.
Quak­er guns at Man­as­sas Junc­tion, 1862. Via Wiki­me­dia.

And yet: all of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion has been shaped by war. Our polit­i­cal bound­aries, our reli­gions, our demo­graph­ic make-up – even the lan­guages we speak are all rem­nants of long-ago bat­tles. One of the most influ­en­tial Quak­er thinkers, the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry min­is­ter John Wool­man, con­stant­ly remind­ed his brethren to con­sid­er those lux­u­ries that are the fruit of war and slav­ery. When we broad­en the scope like this, we’ve been involved in quite a few wars.

  • We like to remem­ber how William Penn found­ing the colony of Penn­syl­va­nia as a reli­gious refuge. But the king of Eng­land held Euro­pean title to the mid-Atlantic seaboard because of small wars with the Dutch and Swedes (and lat­er held onto it only after a much larg­er war with the French New World settlements).
  • The king’s grant of “Penn’s Woods” was the set­tle­ment of a very large war debt owed to Penn’s father, a wealthy admi­ral. The senior William Penn was some­thing of a scoundrel, play­ing off both sides in every-shifting royalist/Roundhead see­saw of pow­er. His longest-lasting accom­plish­ment was tak­ing Jamaica for the British (Bob Mar­ley sang in Eng­lish instead of Span­ish because of Sir William).
  • By most accounts, William Penn Jr. was fair and also bought the land from local Lenape nations. Most­ly for­got­ten is that the Lenape and Susque­han­nock pop­u­la­tion had been dev­as­tat­ed in a recent region­al war against the Iro­quois over beaver ter­ri­to­ries. The Iro­quois were skill­ful­ly play­ing glob­al pol­i­tics, keep­ing the Eng­lish and French colo­nial empires in enough strate­gic ten­sion that they could pro­tect their land. They want­ed anoth­er British colony on their south­ern flank. The Lenape land reim­burse­ment was secondary.

The thou­sands of acres Penn deed­ed to his fel­low Quak­ers were thus the fruits of three sets of wars: colo­nial wars over the Delaware Val­ley; debt-fueled Eng­lish civ­il wars; and Native Amer­i­can wars fought over access to com­mer­cial resources. Much of orig­i­nal Quak­er wealth in suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions is indebt­ed to this huge land trans­fer in the 1680s, either direct­ly (we still hold some valu­able real estate) or indi­rect­ly (the real estate’s sale could be fun­neled into promis­ing businesses).

Not all of the fruits of war were sec­ond­hand and coin­ci­den­tal to Friends them­selves. Many wealthy Friends in the mid-Atlantic colonies had slaves who did much of the back­break­ing work of clear­ing fields and build­ing hous­es. That quaint old brick meet­ing­house set back on a flower-covered field? It was prob­a­bly built at least in part by enslaved hands.

And today, it’s impos­si­ble to step free of war. Most of our hous­es are set on land once owned by oth­ers. Our com­put­ers and cell phones have com­po­nents mined in war zones. Our lights and cars are pow­ered by fos­sil fuel extrac­tion. And even with solar pan­els and elec­tric cars, the infra­struc­ture of the dai­ly liv­ing of most Amer­i­cans is still based on extrac­tion and con­trol of resources.

This is not to say we can’t con­tin­ue to work for a world free of war. But it seems impor­tant to be clear-eyed and acknowl­edge the debts we have.

The secret decoder ring for Red and Blue states

Some­thing that fas­ci­nates me is the sur­pris­ing glimpses of Quak­er influ­ence in the wider world. Back in the Spring I drew out the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a Quak­er con­nec­tion in Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s so-called “evo­lu­tion” on LGBTQ matters.

This week the New York Times Opin­ion­a­tor blog argues a Quak­er con­nec­tion in the geog­ra­phy of “Red” and “Blue” states – those lean­ing Repub­li­can and Demo­c­ra­t­ic in gen­er­al elec­tions. The sec­ond half of Steven Pinker’s “Why Are States So Red and Blue?” leans on David Hack­ett Fischer’s awe­some 1989 book Albion’s Seed. Sub­ti­tled “Four British Folk­ways in Amer­i­ca” it’s a kind of secret decoder ring for Amer­i­can cul­ture and politics.

Fis­ch­er argued that there were four very dif­fer­ent set­tle­ments in the Eng­lish colonies in the Amer­i­c­as and that each put a defin­i­tive and last­ing stamp on the pop­u­la­tions that fol­lowed. I think he’s a bit over-deterministic but it’s still great fun and the the­sis does explain a lot. For exam­ple, the Scot-Irish lived in law­less region along the English-Scottish bor­der, where peo­ple had to defend them­selves; when they crossed the ocean they quick­ly went inland and their cul­tur­al descen­dants like law and order, guns and a judg­men­tal God. Quak­ers from the British mid­lands were anoth­er one of the four groups, coöper­a­tive and peace-loving, the nat­ur­al pre­cur­sors to Blue states.

Now step back a bit and you real­ize this is incred­i­bly over-simplistic. Many Friends in the Delaware Val­ley and beyond have his­tor­i­cal­ly been Repub­li­can, and many con­tin­ue as such (though they keep qui­et among politically-liberal East Coast Friends). And the cur­rent Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­dent per­son­al­ly approves U.S. assas­si­na­tion lists.

You will be for­giv­en if you’ve clicked to Pinker’s blog post and can’t find Quak­ers. For some bizarre rea­son, he’s stripped reli­gion from Fischer’s argu­ment. Why? Polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness? Sim­plic­i­ty of argu­ment. Friends are summed up with the phrase “the North was large­ly set­tled by Eng­lish farm­ers.” Strange.

But despite these caveats, Fis­ch­er is fas­ci­nat­ing and Pinker’s extrap­o­la­tion to today’s polit­i­cal map is well worth a read, even if our con­tri­bu­tion to the dis­tri­b­u­tion of the Amer­i­can map goes un-cited.

“The president is pleased that the director of central intelligence acknowledged what needed to be acknowledged. The president has moved on…”

Oh good for him.

But wait. The Pres­i­dent also defends CIA direc­tor Tenet who gave him bad infor­ma­tion. So Tenet cov­ered Bush’s bot­tom and now Bush is cov­er­ing Tenet’s so now we can move on. How convenient.

In a TV stu­dio a few blocks away Don­ald Rums­feld has the balls to con­tin­ue defend­ing the inclu­sion of the obvi­ous forgery in the State of the Union address. On a polit­i­cal talk show, he said the Niger ura­ni­um claim was “tech­ni­cal­ly cor­rect” since the Pres­i­dent just said British Intel­li­gence thought it was true. Of course, the Brits have said they said it because Amer­i­can intel­li­gence had told them it was true. Again, how con­ve­nient. I almost expect some­one to say the inclu­sion of the forgery was okay because the Pres­i­dent had his fin­gers crossed behind his back as he read that part of the speech.

I think we could go too far in the who-said-what depart­ment with this speech. It was one speech, grant­ed the most impor­tant of the year, but still the big issue is that Bush repeat­ed­ly fed the Amer­i­can peo­ple dubi­ous claims about Iraq’s pro­grams to build weapons of mass destruc­tion. When­ev­er a reporter asked a hard ques­tion about these claims, the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion essen­tial­ly told us there was more intel­li­gence that they couldn’t share and that we should all trust them. Well it’s turned out the Admin­is­tra­tion was wrong. This is a colos­sal fail­ure and this is the big scan­dal of the Bush Admin­is­tra­tion and the biggest source of shame for the Amer­i­can and British peoples.