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About this Item

Title: Exemption from Military Service

Creator: Walt Whitman [listed as W.W]

Date: March 15, 1863

Whitman Archive ID: per.00196

Source: New-York Times 15 March 1863: 3. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the journalism, see our statement of editorial policy.

Editorial note: Whitman's name does not appear in the byline for this piece. However, it is signed "W. W" and was first attributed to Whitman by Charles I. Glicksberg ("A Whitman Letter," New York Times, May 1, 1931, 26). Scholars have continued to support Glicksberg's attribution. The Whitman Archive editors agree that the style and content of the piece are consistent with other known Whitman writings of this period.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, Ashley Lawson, Janel Cayer, Sarah Walker, and Kevin McMullen

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Exemption from Military Service.1

To the Editor of the New-York Times:

Several articles have appeared in your paper in reference to the application of the Conscription law to the religious society commonly called Quakers. In to-day's issue, I find one which claims, that it would in effect cause persecution, or, at least, what would be called persecution, by the enemies of the Government. It seems to me that there is another phase of the question that has not as yet been placed in a clear light. The performance of military duty is one of the burdens necessarily placed upon the citizens of a country, in order that all may live in peace, and in the enjoyment of property and liberty. Now, abstractly, none ought to be exempt from such a burden. But, where truly conscientious scruples exist, it is impossible to enforce it. In such a case as this, where any citizen cannot conscientiously perform a duty—which must necessarily be undertaken by some—is it not plainly just that a larger share of the other burdens of Government should be laid upon him, as a compensation for such exemption from military duty?

I would offer, as an illustration of my meaning, that, in times of peace, a slightly greater ratio of taxation might be imposed upon those who registered their conscientious scruples against military service, as a compensation for exemption from that service in times of war. To enforce the Conscription law might be persecution; to remove all liability, without some corresponding disadvantage, would be, not to place Quakers on an equality with other religious sects, but rather above them, and be offering a premium for the profession of their tenets.

The compensating disadvantage, mentioned above, might not be acceptable to the Quakers; but, at any rate, it seems to me that their petitions to be exempt from military duty would be deserving of far more consideration if they would first, in some authoritative way, take upon themselves, for the support of the Government, some additional burden that would not contravene their religious principles. Such a course would make it manifest that they were not seeking to evade any responsibility (of which, indeed, there is no reason to suspect the great body of that religious community,) and would command the respect and attention of all loyal men.

W. W


1. The title of this piece may refer to a letter by Clarkson T. Collins published in the March 11, 1863 New York Times. Collins argues that exempting the Quakers from a draft "will help the enemies of our common country more than any other act that this Government can possibly devise," because Quakers would submit peacefully to capture and torture without fighting back. The passage of the first Federal draft law (the Enrollment Act) had occurred on March 3, 1863, sparking reaction from conscientious objectors. Prior to this Act, the states had enacted drafts individually. Both the Confederate and United States governments eventually made some provisions for conscientious objectors. [back]


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