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Apr 7, 2017

Final Comments on Wendell Phillips and Non-Voting

Smith concludes his discussion of the no-voting theory of Wendell Phillips by explaining Phillips’s attitude toward taxes and the limits of democracy.

If abolitionists should not vote because voting entails supporting a radically unjust, proslavery government, then it would seem to follow that abolitionists should also refuse to pay taxes, because taxes will be used to support the same wicked government. It is while considering this argument in Can Abolitionists Vote or Take Office Under the United States Constitution? (1845) that Wendell Phillips made some interesting points about how limited-government abolitionists viewed political theory, specifically, the responsibility of individuals for the actions of their governments. 

Phillips maintained that there is no inconsistency between refusing to vote and paying taxes. Essential to his argument is the distinction between actions that are voluntary and actions that are coerced. We are not compelled to vote, but we are compelled to pay taxes.

Then, as for taxes. It is only our voluntary acts for which we are responsible. And when did government ever trust tax-paying to the voluntary good will of its subjects? When it does so, I, for one, will refuse to pay.

When we elect political candidates to office, “we create the government anew.” This means, in effect, that we vote as sovereigns, whereas we pay taxes as subjects. Although our taxes may be used for evil purposes by a government, we pay taxes because we are forced to do so, not because we desire or intend to further those evil purposes. In such cases, “I may often be the occasion of evil when I am not responsible for it.”

In other words, actions that are morally innocent in themselves may have evil consequences because others may react to our actions in ways that we do not approve and cannot control. We are not morally responsible for those evil consequences, though as a matter of expediency we may wish to take the likely outcomes into account when deciding whether to take an action in the first place.

My innocent acts may, through others’ malice, result in evil. In that case, it will be for my best judgment to determine whether to continue or cease them. They are not thereby rendered essentially sinful….Many innocent acts occasion evil, and in such case all I am bound to ask myself before doing such innocent act, is, “Shall I occasion, on the whole, more harm or good.” There are many cases where doing a duty even, we shall occasion evil and sin in others.

Phillips gave an interesting hypothetical to illustrate his point. Suppose I have a duty to save a slaveholder from drowning, but I know that he has a provision in his will that would emancipate his slaves. Thus if I save the life of the slaveholder I will have delayed, possibly for many years, freedom for the slaves; indeed, I may have destroyed any chance for their freedom, if the slaveholder should later change his will. But these evil outcomes would not be my fault, according to Phillips. These would be incidental evils for which I am not responsible.

Phillips applied this reasoning to the payment of taxes.

Then of taxes on imports. Buying and selling, and carrying from country to country, is good and innocent. But government, if I trade here, will take occasion to squeeze money out of me. Very well. I shall deliberate whether I will cease trading, and deprive them of the opportunity, or go on and use my wealth to reform them. ‘Tis a question of expediency, not of right, which my judgment, not my conscience, must settle. An act of mine, innocent in itself, and done from right motives, no after act of another’s can make a sin. To import, is rightful. After-taxation, against my consent, cannot make it wrong. Neither am I obliged to smuggle, in order to avoid it. I include in these remarks, all taxes, whether on property, or imports, or railroads.

Phillips gave another example. Suppose I decide to live, own property, and conduct business in Philadelphia, even though “I know government will, without my consent, thereby enrich itself” and use my taxes to commit unjust acts. Other things being equal, I would never consent to allow my money to be used in this fashion, but taxes are not voluntary so I have no choice in the matter. Living in Philadelphia is a morally innocent act. If, while living there, the government forces money from me and uses that money to commit unjust acts, then this evil is incidental to my decision to reside in Philadelphia; it is not an evil for which I am morally responsible. It is the government, not I, who should be blamed. Of course, I may decide not to live in Philadelphia because I wish to avoid even the incidental evil, but this would be a practical decision on my part, not a moral one. I am not morally responsible for the actions of other people.

Perhaps it will be said that this reasoning also applies to voting, that appointing an agent to act in one’s behalf is innocent in itself and that any evil actions that result from voting are merely incidental. This is not so, argued Phillips.

Voting under our Constitution is appointing a man to swear to protect, and actually to protect slavery. Now, appointing agents generally is the right of every man, and innocent in itself, but appointing an agent to commit a murder is sin. I trade, and government taxes me; do I authorize it? No. I vote, and the marshal whom my agent appoints, returns a slave to South Carolina. Do I authorize it? Yes. I knew it would be his sworn duty, when I voted; and I assented to it, by voting under the Constitution which makes it his duty. If I trade, it is said, I may foresee that government will be helped by the taxes I pay, therefore I ought not to trade. But I do not trade for the purpose of paying taxes! And if I am to be charged with all the foreseen results of my actions, then Garrison is responsible for the Boston mob!

The reason why I am responsible for the pro-slavery act of a United States officer, for whom I have voted, is this: I must be supposed to have intended that which my agent is bound by his contract with me (that is, his oath of office) to do.

Phillips’s discussion of voting and taxes is based on a distinction he drew in response to another objection—the difference between submission and support. One may submit to an unjust government as a matter of prudence, but one should never support it. To pay taxes is to submit to a government against one’s will. To vote is to support and sanction a government voluntarily.

Phillips obviously did not believe that voting per se is immoral. His objections pertain to voting under a proslavery Constitution. But his theory of voting has broader implications. Consider what Phillips said in response to some other objections to his no-voting doctrine. Governments cannot claim any special moral rights or duties over those possessed by individuals. “Government is only an association of individuals,” he declared. Vices cannot be transformed into virtues by “the magic wand of government.” The “same rules of morality” that govern the conduct of individuals should also govern the conduct of governments. A government is merely a combination of men, and “a combination of men cannot change the moral character of an act, which is in itself sinful.” The “law of morals is binding the same on communities, corporations, &c. as on individuals.” Government “is precisely like any other voluntary association of individuals—a temperance or anti-slavery society, a bank or railroad corporation. I join it, or not, as duty dictates.” Thus although Phillips believed in democracy, he also believed that a majority is severely restricted in what it may enjoin through voting. A majority has no right to demand that a minority observe its decrees beyond what an individual may rightfully demand of other individuals.

These sentiments are thoroughly libertarian, but their implications are more radical than Phillips realized, as we see in his support of temperance laws. The defense of compulsory prohibition is found among many leading abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison and Gerrit Smith, and it sticks out like a sore thumb in what are otherwise individualistic political theories. An inconsistency this glaring and frequent calls for an explanation, but that explanation must await a future essay.

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