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The Peace Tax Seven

History of war tax resistance

"If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood".

   {Henry David Thoreau, "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience", 1849}

War tax resistance and the birth of democracy

War tax resistance has a long and noble tradition. In 1202 King John of England raised taxes to pay for a new war against France. As King, John was entitled to raise money from his feudal subjects; but, he stretched these rights to the limit and offended many barons who disagreed with the war. The barons were furious at the waste of money especially when John was defeated by the French. They complained about the way the king was running the country. Fearing trouble the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested they send a list of demands to the King. John had no intention of obeying others’ rules and was furious. The Army of God and the Church under the Barons marched on London whose supporters opened the gates. The King fled to Windsor Castle. King John did not want war with the barons and so finally, by the Thames at Runnymede, met them and agreed a list of promises and on 15th June 1215 the Magna Carta was born – one of the most important documents in world history. Democracy was born in England.

Income Tax

The relationship between income tax and war is a close one. Income tax was first introduced in Britain in 1798 to pay for the purchase of fighting men and weapons for the Napoleonic wars. Introduced by William Pitt the tax was temporary and technically has to be renewed every year. It was applied as 10% of income and remained right up to the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. A year after Waterloo, Income Tax was repealed but the Conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel reintroduced Income tax in the 1842 Budget speech and it's been with us ever since.

One of the earliest known instances of war tax refusal in America took place in 1637 when the relatively peaceable Algonquin Indians opposed taxation by the Dutch to help improve a local Dutch fort.

The Quakers

QUAKERS have been and still are at the forefront of war tax resistance.

In 1709 the Quakers Assembly refused a request of £4000 for an expedition into Canada, replying "it was contrary to their religious principles to hire men to kill one another" and during the American Revolution most Quakers were opposed to taxes designated specifically for military purposes. Property was seized and auctioned, and many Quakers were jailed for their war tax resistance. During the Mexican war of 1846 many Quakers again, refused to pay war taxes.

Henry David Thoreau

The most famous instance of war tax resistance was that of the writer Henry David Thoreau. As well as being a philosopher and something of a mystic Henry Thoreau was also very involved in the burning issues of the day and opposed the imperialist and unjust nature of the Mexican War of the 1840's. He refused to pay the Massachusetts poll tax levied for the war, resulting in a night in jail. Someone paid the tax for him - ending his protest abruptly - so he put his opposition in writing and created a document first published in May of 1849 called "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience":

"Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience, then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward. It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."

In his Autobiography Martin Luther king said of Thoreau's work: "As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest". In the 1950's, the United States Information Service included as a standard book in all their libraries around the world a textbook of American literature which included Thoreau's 'Civil Disobedience,' but a certain Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin succeeded in having the book removed from the shelves.

"Civil Disobedience" is like a venerated architectural landmark: it is preserved and admired, and sometimes visited, but for most of us there are not many occasions when we like to think it can actually be used. Still, although it's seldom mentioned without references to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, "Civil Disobedience" has more history than many suspect.

In the 1940's it was read by the Danish resistance in their struggle against the forces of Nazism, in the 1950's it was cherished by people who opposed McCarthyism, in the 1960's it was influential in the struggle against South African apartheid, and in the 1970's and 1980's discovered by a new generation of anti-war activists.

One of America's most respected writers, Susan Sontag, acknowledged the influence of this small pamphlet when in a keynote address during the height of the Iraq War in New York in April 2003 she wrote:

"Thoreau's going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it directly inspired the formation of a movement of protesters in far away Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located. The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community".

Perhaps the most famous instance of Thoreau's influence in Britain today is witnessed in the life of veteran war tax resister Roger Franklin who writes:

"Thoreau's argument I find all too appropriate to our situation today and when a state acts in a way that that a citizen considers to be totally immoral then that citizen should withdraw support from the state. Support can most clearly be withdrawn at the point where the state demands taxes".
      - Resurgence September 1996.


In 1914, after 20,000 British soldiers died in the first two weeks of the war, compulsory call-up for British men looked increasingly likely. Even in the chauvinist atmosphere of the First World War conscription for the battlefield was resisted until by January 1916 the flood of volunteers was reduced to a trickle, despite social pressure on 'laggards' and 'pansies' by attempts to shame them.

Pacifist members of the No-Conscription Fellowship, set up in 1915, successfully campaigned to secure 'the conscience clause' in the 1916 Conscription Act: the right to claim exemption from military service. Over 16,000 men made that claim. They were required to attend a tribunal to have the sincerity of their claims assessed. Often people who actually sat on the panels, businessmen, landowners, retired military officers and civil servants were intensely patriotic and prejudiced against anyone whom they thought was not.

The Military Service Act 1916 was a turning point in British military policy by providing for exemption on conscientious grounds.

British conscription ended in 1919, but twenty years later was resumed when war broke out with Germany again. A total of 60,000 conscientious objectors were sent to prison including the young composer Michael Tippett who served a three months sentence. Many worked in relatively menial capacities on farms, in hospitals or in social services and some as in the First World War, did relief work abroad with the Friends Ambulance Unit, and, like some non-combatants, on occasions ended up in a battle-zone alongside the military but there were no instances of war tax resistance in Britain.

Financial conscription

Since the end of World War Two the ability of a state to wage war has depended less on abundant reserves of conscripts and soldiers and more on technologically complex and expensive weapons systems. The conscription of financial resources has replaced the conscription of human beings. With the astronomical costs of military preparedness all taxpaying citizens have become participants - financial conscripts - in our governments' military action - legal and illegal, right and wrong - whether we like it or not.

The Vietnam War

During the Indochina War, war tax resistance gained its greatest strength ever in the history of the United States. War tax resistance achieved nationwide and international publicity when the singer Joan Baez announced in 1964 her refusal to pay 60 percent of her 1963 income taxes because of the war in Vietnam. By 1967 about 500 people had signed a pledge to do likewise.

As the increasing horrors of the Vietnam war were brought home to the American public a dramatic shift occurred in the war tax resistance campaign and a few hundred resisters inspired and motivated thousands of other citizens to resist.

A committee led by A.J. Muste obtained the signatures of over 300 notables and celebrities including Joan Baez, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dorothy Day, founder of The Catholic Worker, linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, Hungarian Nobel Prize winner for medicine Albert Szent-Gyorgyi and Gloria Steinem, biographer of Marilyn: Norma Jean. They all helped pay for an ad in The Washington Post proclaiming their intention not to pay all or part of their 1965 income taxes time. By 1970 the number of war-tax resisters soared to more than 20,000.

When the beleaguered government in Washington imposed a 10 percent surcharge on phone bills to pay for the escalating costs of its failing war, Gore Vidal, Gloria Steinem, Kirkpatrick Sale and 528 colleagues formed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest and by the early 1970s the number of phone-tax resisters had swelled to an estimated 500,000 citizens.


After the election of Ronald Reagan as US President in 1980 and his call to rearm the U.S., supported by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, military spending increased dramatically. So too did the numbers of war tax refusers who found inspiration in the success of the campaign during the Vietnam years. On both sides of the Atlantic governments had to admit that the number of war tax resisters grew hugely in the 1980's.

The US Secretary of State Alexander Haig said at this time "Let them march all they want as long as they continue to pay their taxes" - unwittingly acknowledging the potency of war tax resistance as a most potent form of civil disobedience.

More and more British taxpayers too became concerned at the huge build up of nuclear weapons on British soil - especially the American Cruise Missile Nuclear Convoys that went out by cover of night on British roads with their deadly loads.

Some war tax resisters including Roger Franklin and Quaker Arthur Windsor were sent to prison for refusing to pay the 10% of their taxes towards Britain's possession of weapons of mass destruction; and in 1990 Nigel Wild, a baker attempted to pay his taxes in bread to ensure that they were not used to fund preparations for war. He was imprisoned for 21 days.

Roger Franklin, a grandfather from Gloucestershire, has been made bankrupt and also sent to prison twice for refusing to pay his taxes to fund the British government's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Inspired by Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" he has for many years refused to pay his taxes towards the military and asked that it be spent on peace keeping initiatives instead. He writes of his imprisonments "I thought that perhaps the judges were in contempt of conscience".

A national stir was created in America 1981 when Roman Catholic Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle urged citizens to refuse to pay 50 percent of their income taxes to protest against the spending of peoples' taxes on nuclear weapons. Letters of endorsement of his stand were made by other religious leaders in Seattle and elsewhere around the country.

In Britain too the retired librarian, Quaker and war tax resister Arthur Windsor created a national stir when he was sentenced to jail for 28 days in HM Prison Gloucester in 1986.

Arthur's case became the subject of a BBC documentary Heart of the Matter as well as making national headline television and radio news. Arthur Windsor's case was also mentioned in dispatches by Denis Canavan MP in his reading in the House of Commons for a Bill on the rights of people like Arthur to have their taxes spent on life affirming initiatives instead of on weapons of death.

War tax resistance in America today

In 1993 Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in an attempt to accommodate individual conscience in instances where a person's religious beliefs may be adversely affected by the government. In the late 1990s three court cases were filed by Quaker war tax resisters using the First Amendment guarantee to the free exercise of religion in an attempt to have penalties against war tax resisters removed and permit them to pay only for non-military programs. These cases were dismissed in lower courts, appealed, then dismissed again in the Second and Third Circuit Courts. In 2000 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear any of the appeals.

For more information on war tax resistance in America log onto: War Resisters League

Anti-war Tax Day Protests and War Tax Resistance by Ruth Benn http://www.commondreams.org/newswire/2010/04/13/anti-war-tax-day-protests-and-war-tax-resistance.htm

An Act of Conscience made a huge impact after it premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. The film follows war tax resisters Randy Kehler and Betsy Corner of Colrain, Massachusetts in their struggle which led to them risk losing their home.

Narrated by actor Martin Sheen {Apocalypse Now and acting President of the United States} this feature-length documentary chronicles the couple's five-year struggle to nonviolently resist the seizure of their home, in which they are joined by hundreds of supporters from across the country, including noted author and activist priest Fr. Daniel Berrigan and folk singer Pete Seeger. Historian Howard Zinn author of A People's History of the United States wrote of An Act of Conscience:

"In telling the story of two courageous people who were willing to sacrifice their home to declare their opposition to war and militarism, this engaging documentary reminds us of the long and honorable tradition of civil disobedience in this country. Act of Conscience should serve as an inspiration to young people today in suggesting how one can live one's life in defiance of the violence around us."

The film is available at: http://www.turningtide.com/aoc.htm

War tax resistance in Britain today

On 25th March 2003 nineteen M.P's signed the Early Day Motion {EDM 943} stating that:

"This house recognises that Parliament has traditionally acknowledged and protected the right of conscientious objection to military service; and appreciates the increased distress felt at this time of heightened insecurity by those who would wish to register their conscientious objection to being forced to contribute through their taxes to military activity; and thus requests the Government consider providing a mechanism for those who have a conscientious objection to war to have the military part of their taxes spent on peace building initiatives."

In Autumn 2000 the Human Rights Act came into force in Britain, incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into British law. Because the Convention recognises freedom to manifest conscientious objection there will be new opportunities to encourage a change in the law to recognise the right of conscientious objection to paying tax for illegal, unjust and immoral military purposes.

The recent aggressive pre-emptive strikes in Iraq by the "coalition of the willing", has given some tax-resisters new justification for non-cooperation. With Washington and Whitehall operating in open defiance of the United Nations Charter, the Nuremberg Principles, the Geneva Conventions and the U.S. Constitution, some resisters argue that paying taxes could render them complicit in the commission of war crimes.


In April 2004 seven war tax resisters, known as THE PEACE TAX SEVEN, in Britain engaged Phil Shiner of PUBLIC INTEREST LAWYERS to act on their behalf in seeking a Judicial Review of the current laws which make conscientious objectors complicit in killing if they do their civic duty and pay their taxes or make criminals of them if they follow their conscience and refuse to fund war. The seven are BRENDA BOUGHTON a retired teacher, ROBIN BROOKES a toymaker, SIAN CWPER a Buddhist, SIMON HEYWOOD a university lecturer, JOE JENKINS an author, ROY PROKTER an accountant, and Dr. BIRGIT VOELLM a psychiatrist; and the story of war tax resistance continues.