Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht

Sunday, October 30, 2016

President James Buchanan, Chief Justice Roger Taney, Copperheads—and the Quakers

The Quakers—in the North and South—sat out the American Civil War (as best they could). They had deeply held religious scruples against killing, notwithstanding that they also believed slavery wrong. It was no easy position to hold during war-time, and many Quakers—particularly in the South—suffered for holding fast to their religiously-rooted moral position. See Fernando G. Cartland, Southern Heroes: The Friends in War Time (Cambridge, Riverside Press 1895) (available on the Internet Archive), <>.

Now there is a prudential question here. Is it good policy for a government to conscript people who oppose war-making, particularly where those people’s objections are religiously rooted? I want to leave that practical question aside.

Instead, I want to focus on the widely shared moral intuition that the Quakers’ opposition to service in northern and southern armies was admirable. Or, to be more exact, why their opposition to the war was seen as admirable. It strikes me that there are two possibilities. First, the Quaker position is seen as admirable specifically because it was religiously rooted. Or, second, it is seen in a positive light because, broadly speaking, principled pacifism is admirable, even if not religiously-rooted.

If our moral intuitions accord with the second view, if we credit the Quakers’ behaviour without regard to their religious inspiration, then why do our standard histories judge President James Buchanan and Chief Justice Taney so harshly?** Buchanan and Taney preferred the United States go to pieces rather than maintaining it by war. They were unwilling to order or to support a war, and the deaths, which would undoubtedly follow. Yet very few today see Buchanan and Taney as heroes or as acting on moral principles akin to those of the Quakers. Why?

Perhaps, just perhaps, our society only sees pacifism as admirable if it is specifically motivated by religious scruples? Or are these two divergent moral intuitions rooted in a prudential judgment: we can only have reasonable confidence that pacifism is sincere if rooted in religious garb? In other words, secular pacifism might sometimes be real, but we suspect that it is more often than not used strategically, as opposed to sincerely. Or perhaps a third possibility: many hold divergent moral intuitions because they have not thought it all through sufficiently? Which is it? Or is there another possibility?


Seth Barrett Tillman, President James Buchanan, Chief Justice Roger Taney, Copperheads—and the Quakers,’ New Reform Club (Oct. 30, 2016, 7:44 AM), <>;

**S Calabresi & C Yoo (describing Buchanan as the worst president in American history), <>.

Twitter: ( @SethBTillman ) 

Seth Barrett Tillman, Law of the Clinton Candidacy (Again), The New Reform Club (Oct. 30, 2016, 3:59 AM). [Here


Jonathan Rowe said...

This doesn't really answer your question. But wells do get poisoned. Taney will forever be tarnished with Dred Scott.

Michael S. Kochin said...

Buchanan chose resistance to secession, after he was dragged into it by Stanton, his AG.

Unknown said...

This is a great question. After all, "Honest" Abe Lincoln was willing to get 3/4 of a million of his fellow countrymen killed in order to preserve the Union. Only those of us who have killed and seen men die really know the true cost of war. (I said war, not freedom, because the last war the United States fought for freedom was the Revolution The War of 1812 was brought on largely by US politicians and policies and the Civil War was Lincoln's effort to keep a Union together that at least a third of the country didn't want to maintain.)

Anonymous said...

1: A Quaker who refuses to himself fight is a far different thing than a Quaker who refuses to let anyone else fight.

2; A Quaker who refuses to fight regardless of the issue is a far different person from someone who simply refuses to fight when he's politically opposed to that particular fight.

I think Buchanan and Taney both come off as "B" to both quesitons.

TBlakely said...

On the surface Pacifism sounds noble but in reality pacifists in the main rely on others to do the heavy lifting and then preen on how morally superior they are. Pacifism always loses against barbarism and barbarism is either lurking in the background or kicking your door in. said...

I come from a non-Quaker religious minority that is also pacifist and refused to serve during the Civil War (see

Your observation that perhaps "we can only have reasonable confidence that pacifism is sincere if rooted in religious garb" is certainly believed (literally!) by the Old Order descendants.

When I turned 18 and registered for Selective Service the Church made a point of reminding me that Draft boards could only reasonably extend exemptions to people genuinely motivated by conscience. And they could most easily discern that genuine motivation if I upheld the practices of the Church in *all* areas, including wearing the funny clothes recommended by the Church...

R Tod Kelly said...

Good questions. I would humbly suggest that you might be looking in the wrong place for answers, however -- or at least, you're looking for answers with incorrect questions. I suspect you will find that Americans largely enjoy having both a small group of at-all-costs pacifists *and* leaders who will not flinch from taking us into war when we deem it necessary. Each group in different ways preserve our most ideal national identity. At different times, depending upon the circumstances, our collective narrative wants us to be able to point at each as proof that we are a Good nation.

You will note that this dichotomy does not work in reverse. A small religious group going against the grain by demanding we take up arms for Godly reasons would not be popular here. Nor would a leader who refused to defend this country because he or she thought war and violence always wrong.

IOW, it's not one or the other we want. It's both.

Fûz said...

"A small religious group going against the grain by demanding we take up arms for Godly reasons would not be popular here."
Please explain, then, the authors of the Battle Hymn of The Republic.

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