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.

Another slice of lost Philadelphia profiled on HiddenCity, this time my grandmother’s…

Another slice of lost Philadelphia profiled on HiddenCity, this time my grandmother's childhood neighborhood.

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Flash of Discovery | Hidden City Philadelphia
The first English speaking Lutheran church in the world, located on Philadelphia's Franklin Square, was part of an entire neighborhood demolished to make way for the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.

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