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Conscription, Charity, and Citizenship in the Early Republic: The Shaker Campaign for Alternative Service

  • Jennifer Dorsey


The War of 1812 ignited a fierce debate in New York about the rights, duties, and responsibilities of citizens in wartime. Two counties in the Upper Hudson River Valley (Rensselaer and Columbia) openly revolted against Governor Daniel D. Tompkins's draft of local militiamen. In September 1812, opponents of the war met in a countywide assembly where they declared the federal draft of the New York militia an “assumption of power, unwarranted by the constitution, [and] dangerous to the rights and privileges of the good people of this state.” The assembly further resolved to defy the governor's detachment order, and as a result, less than a third of the 860 militiamen drafted from Columbia and Rensselaer Counties appeared at the designated rendezvous points. Within weeks, the governor convened the first of three courts-martial to prosecute militiamen “who failed, neglected or refused to obey the orders of the commander in Chief of the said State.” As late as 1818, the New York State legislature insisted upon making a “salutary example” of men who “disregard the voice of duty and the requisitions of law.”



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15 “County Convention,” Lansingburgh Gazette, September 8, 1812, Bound and Unbound Newspaper Collection, volume 3379, New York State Library/Manuscripts and Special Collections. Hereafter, NYSL/MSC. “Letter by G. Steddiford to Col. Reynolds, asking for reports on delinquents” in War of 1812 Military documents, 1813–1818, call number 16367, NYSL/MSC.

16 James Smith, “Shakerism Detected: Their Erroneous and Treasonous Proceedings, and False Publications Contained in Different Newspapers, Exposed to Public View by the Depositions of Ten Different Persons Living in Various Parts of the States of Kentucky and Ohio,” in Writings of Shaker Apostates and Anti-Shakers, 1782–1850, ed. Christian Goodwillie (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2013), 1: 236. James Smith, “Remarkable Occurrences, Lately Discovered Among the People Called Shakers: Of a Treasonous and Barbarous Nature, or Shakerism Developed” in Writings of Shaker Apostates, 196.

17 The militia tax requirements are explained in “An Act to Organize the Militia of this State” and “An Act to Amend the Act, entitled ‘An Act to Organize the Militia of this State’,” both of which were reprinted in “The Militia Act of 1817 of the State of New-York” (Albany, N.Y.: Websters & Skinners, 1817) 12, 23. The risk of arrest was real. In 1815 a sergeant detained several Shaker men for delinquency and seized horses and wagons in lieu of militia fines from the Watervliet Shakers. In 1823, the Shakers moved 27 men from Watervliet to Hancock, Massachusetts to protect them from arrest for failure to pay the militia tax. See Edward Deming Andrews and Faith Andrews, Work and Worship among the Shakers: Their Craftsmanship and Economic Order (New York: Dover, 1982), 163–164.

18 Upton, James M. offers a straightforward summary of the Shaker campaign against the militia tax in “The Shakers as Pacifists in the Period between 1812 and the Civil War,” Filson Club History Quarterly 47, no. 3 (July 1973): 267283. On the Shaker understanding of their mission in America as “central to the landscape of the new American republic” see Crosthwaite, Jane F., “‘The mighty hand of overruling providence’: The Shaker Claim to America,” American Communal Societies Quarterly 6, no. 2 (April 2012): 9394.

19 Observations on the Natural and Constitutional Rights of Conscience, In Relation to Military Requisitions on the People Called Shakers” (Albany: E. & E. Hosford, 1816), 17, 8, 19–20. Hereafter Observations.

20 Observations, 9. Memorial of the Society of People of New-Lebanon, in the County of Columbia, and Watervliet, in the County of Albany Commonly called Shakers (Albany: Churchill & Abbey, 1816), 2, 5, 15. Hereafter, Memorial.

21 Observations, 12. On the Shaker mission in the Upper Hudson River Valley see Marcus Réginald Létourneau, “Holy Mount: Identity, Place, Religion, and Narrative at New Lebanon Shaker Village, 1759–1861” (Ph.D. diss., Queen's University at Kingston, 2009), 83–93.

22 A Declaration of The Society of People, (commonly called Shakers,) shewing their reasons for refusing to aid or abet the cause of war and bloodshed, by bearing arms, paying fines, hiring substitutes, or rendering any equivalent for military services (Albany: E & E Hosford, 1815). Transcribed, annotated, and introduced by Stephen J. Stein and reprinted in Shaker Museum Mount Lebanon Journal (Winter 2012/2013): 30–42, 38fn23. Hereafter, Declaration.

23 Analysis of Shaker charity here is based in the “Articles Received of the Church & Families for the Poor Office,” 1806–1834, ASC1155, The Edward Deming Andrews Memorial Shaker Collection, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library, Wilmington, Del. Hereafter “Articles.” Apostate Thomas Brown described the sophisticated system by which the Society “collected all that is to be spared for charitable purposes” in An Account of the People Called Shakers: Their Faith, Doctrines, and Practice (Troy, N.Y.: Parker and Bliss, 1812), 24. Each “family” (an economic and social unit) gathered food and supplies that were stored in the Poor Office and then distributed by the Deacon “to those whom he judges to be proper objects of charity.” Brown also noted that the Deacon “never sends the poor and needy empty away.” He recounted that when he lived among the Shakers in 1795, the Society sent 27 wagonloads of provisions to the victims of the yellow fever in New York City (261, 343).

24 In a study of historical geography, Letourneau concludes that “nearly 34 percent of the total population of the Church family at Lebanon before 1806” traced their origins to one of eight communities in the Yankee Zone. “Holy Mount,” 87–88.

25 One presumes this writing was Rathbun's diatribe, A Letter, from Daniel Rathbun, of Richmond, in the County of Berkshire to James Whittacor, Chief Elder of the Church, Called Shakers (Springfield, Mass., 1785). Articles,” Widow Prilty & Sally Whelar (March 5, 1807) and Wife of Chatman (September 17, 1808).

26 “Articles,” Robason (June 2, 1808); John Hewlett (February 16, 1808); “traveling man” (May 12, 1808); John Stebens (March 18, 1807); John Mumford (December 2, 1807); Rachel Arktana (April 4, 1808); “A man and his family” (April 4, 1808), and Kankapot and one other young Indian (May 26, 1807).

27 Heale, M.J., “Patterns of Benevolence: Associated Philanthropy in the Cities of New York,” New York History 57, no. 1 (Winter 1976), 54. Martha Branscombe, The courts and the poor laws in New York State, 1784–1929 (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1943) 59. For a general overview of the subject see Seth Rockman, Welfare Reform in the Early Republic: A Brief History with Documents (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2003).

28 Hannon, Joan Underhill, “Poor Relief Policy in Antebellum New York State: The Rise and Decline of the Poorhouse,” Explorations in Economic History 22, no. 3 (July 1985), 238. David G. Hackett, The Rude Hand of Innovation: Religion and Social Order in Albany, New York (New York: Oxford University, 1991), 86. Quoted from the 1824 “Yates Report” cited in Branscombe, The Courts and the Poor Laws, 28.

29 Hocknell cited in Brown, An Account of the People Called, 46. Ebenezer Osgood (July 16, 1826) and Mary Osgood (October 30, 1826), “Shirley, Massachusetts Testimonies,” call number 203300, box 34, folder 5, NYSL/MSC.

30 Memorial, 4; Declaration, 38; Observations, 12.

31 Observations, 12; Declaration, 38.

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Church History
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  • EISSN: 1755-2613
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