“You’re Not My Master; I’m Not Your Slave”: Voluntaryism and the Story of Absolutist Objectors

By Carl Watner

The Voluntaryist Statement of Purpose concludes by advocating the withdrawal of the cooperation and tacit consent on which State power ultimately depends. This conclusion, in turn, rests on the voluntaryist insight: the understanding that all government is necessarily grounded upon general popular acceptance. In short, the majority of the people themselves, for whatever reasons, acquiesce to the demands of their government. All governments depend upon the cooperation and compliance of those over whom they rule. Governments require the sanction of their victims.

What if instead of complying with the law government agents are trying to enforce, a person asks, “What is the punishment for refusing to comply, for refusing to do what you say?” [1] What if the citizen says, “No!”? How does a free man react to those who might imprison him for failing to follow government rules? What does he say? How does he act toward his would be enslavers?

In his essay on how he became a voluntaryist, Peter Ragnar observed that he became a voluntaryist the day that he fully realized that no one could force him to do anything he chose not to do. To illustrate his point, he recited the confrontation between Alexander the Great and an old Indian sage, as Alexander’s army was about to cross the Ganges River. “Alexander questioned the sage about what to expect after he crossed the river.” When he was told that his army would be defeated, Alexander threatened to decapitate the sage for his insolence. The sage was unmoved, replying Alexander could watch his head fall. Then he, the sage, would be dead.” [2] This spirit of voluntaryist resistance has been repeated many times. William Grampp in Volume I of his book on the history of economics tells the story of an ancient Stoic “who was captured and told to renounce his beliefs. He refused and was tortured. Still unable to make him recant, his captors told him he would be put to death. He answered that they could do whatever they wanted with his body, but whatever they did, they could not injure his philosophy, which was in his mind. Their authority, in its physical and moral aspect, did not extend [that far].” [3]

What these anecdotes describe is the idea that while “physical freedom can be curtailed by force,” one’s voluntary acquiescence can never be coerced. One might be killed, but one can never be forced against one’s will. [4] This lesson is repeated over and over again as one reviews the histories of conscientious objectors to conscription and war. Peter Brock, in his book LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE, cites many such instances. Jonathan Whipple (1794-1875) was an 18 year old carpenter and member of the Rogerene religious sect from Mystic, Connecticut. During the War of 1812, he refused to perform any military duties or pay any fines. As he related in his diary, “Of course they could imprison me, or do what they would. But they could not make me do what I thought wrong, and wicked.”

Tilghman Vestal was a Quaker conscientious objector during the Civil War. Some time after November 1863, he was court-martialed by the Confederate army “and sentenced to be punished until he would bear arms.” He was repeatedly beaten, abused, knocked down, and then stabbed numerous times with a bayonet for his refusal to obey orders to fight. Tilghman remained calm throughout his ordeal, and told his tormentors “that he was a Christian and could not fight.” Once when arguing whether his position was sustained by the Scriptures, an army chaplain told Vestal that he “wouldn’t give a cent for a religion that [wa]s opposed to his country.” Vestal replied that “I wouldn’t give a cent for a country that is opposed to my religion.” Tilghman was sent to brigade headquarters , and “every effort was made to induce him to go and perform the duties of a solider, but he was firm and as inflexible as the everlasting hills. He was told that if he persisted in his course he would be subjected to severe punishment, and would finally be shot for disobedience to orders. He replied that they had the power to kill him, but neither the Federal nor the Confederate army possessed the power to force him to abandon his principles or prove false to his religion.” [5]

Another Civil War objector was William Hackett, a North Carolina farmer who was conscripted into the Confederate army in June 1863. “He was then 36 years old. He refused to bear arms and refused to purchase exemption, although he could have afforded to do so.” The officer to whom he reported told him that if he did not comply with orders he would be shot. “I told him I would not take gun nor march in the drill, so he said, ‘Which will you choose, to be shot in the evening or in the morning?’ I told him I should choose neither, … . He said he had full power, without permission, to kill me if I did not comply. I told him that I did not deny that he had, so far as the power of man extended, but that there was a power above man’s, and he could not remove a hair of my head without my Heavenly Father’s notice.” The next day, June 24, 1863, Hackett was ordered to fall in line with his company to drill. He refused. As he relates, “They tried to make me, and I sat down on the ground. They reminded me of the orders to shoot me, but I told them my God said to fear them not that kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; … .” A firing squad was then formed and ordered to “Load; Present Arms; Aim.” The guns were pointed at Hackett, who then raised his arms and prayed, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” Not a shot was fired. The men of the firing squad lowered their rifles “without orders, and some of the men were heard to say that they ‘could not shoot such a man.’ The order was then given, ‘Ground arms’.” [6]

One of the best-known stories of conscientious objectors during World War I involves two Hutterite brothers, Joseph and Michael Hofer, of South Dakota. They were court-martialed for refusing to put on military uniforms and obey orders. Sent to a prison on Alcatraz Island in California, they “were stripped to their underwear and thrown into the dungeon where there were no sanitary facilities and sea water oozed across the bare floor on which they had to sleep. Given only a little water each day, they were manacled standing with their hands high above their heads so that their feet barely touched the floor. Beside them on the floor were soldier uniforms and they were promised relief if they would put them on and agree to obey. They persisted; and the authorities could not continue their brutality. When the Hutterites emerged from the hole their arms were hideously swollen and they were scurvy-ridden and insect-torn. Then they were transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where they again refused to wear the army uniform and to work; they were confined in solitary. In two days, Joseph Hofer was taken to [the] hospital and died of pneumonia; Michael followed Joseph a few days later. Joseph’s body was returned to the Hutterite community dressed in the military uniform which [he] had resisted to the point of death.” [7]

During World War II, there were a number of conscientious objectors who took what they described as an absolutist position against war and conscription. The consistent absolutists refused to cooperate in any way, shape, or form with the American government or its representatives. Corbett Bishop (1906-1961) was one of the most famous non-cooperators. His story is related in the book CONSCRIPTION OF CONSCIENCE by Sibley and Jacob in their chapter “Certain Absolutists.“ Bishop registered as a religious objector under the Selective Service Act and “was inducted into the Patapsco, Maryland Friends Civilian Public Service camp on March 19, 1942.” When he realized that he would not be allowed a furlough to wind down his business affairs, and when he saw that he would be forced to work without pay, he began to fast in protest. This was on June 26, 1942. “Day after day the fast dragged on, Bishop continuing to work on the camp kitchen crew for three weeks, despite increasing physical weakness. At length he was admitted to the infirmary [and] listed as ‘Sick in Quarters.’ Five weeks of fasting had now elapsed.” [8] On August 3rd, Selective Service ordered him to report for work on the camp project, but due to his condition his crew leader listed him as unfit for work. He was persuaded to end his hunger strike on August 7th, after forty-four days of continuous fasting. The camp director took him to a Baltimore hospital where he recovered his strength.

At the end of August 1942, he was transferred to the CPS camp at West Campton, New Hampshire. There he “began the practice of attacking at mealtimes the ‘slavery’ of Civilian Public Service.” He objected to the futile work done in the camps, and he “quoted from religious leaders like E. Stanley Jones: ‘Let anyone be saturated with the thought of the Sermon on the Mount and he will not only not try to argue a man into slavery, but he will not rest until every man is free, including himself’.” [9] By June 1943, he had reached the conclusion that the American Friends Service Committee was conspiring with the US government to enslave him and others. At this point, the Friends Service Committee wanted nothing more to do with Bishop, and turned him back over to Selective Service, which assigned him to a government camp at Mancos, Colorado on July 7, 1943. Later he was transferred to another government camp at Germfask, Michigan, where “he took furlough days which he had accumulated.” He resolved not to return to camp voluntarily.

When he was arrested on September 9, 1944, “he announced that his spirit was free and that if the arresting officers desired his body, they would have to take it without any [as]sistance on his part. Transferred to the Milan, Michigan, federal prison to await trial, he refused to eat, stand up, or dress himself. The slightest degree of ‘servility’ or seeming acquiescence in his captivity would, he maintained, compromise his case.” He was being force fed by the end of October, by having a tube pushed up through his nose. On December 6 he was brought before federal Judge Fred M. Raymond in Grand Rapids, MI. Bishop admitted that he had refused to return to camp, “but pleaded that the whole system of alternative service was unconstitutional” and violated his moral rights as a free man. [10]

He was told to appear in court on January 17, 1945, but he ignored this order. A new court date was set for January 25th. Again he refused. He was finally arrested by three FBI agents, when they appeared at his rooming house in Philadelphia, PA on February 20, 1945. He refused to cooperate with them. Encountering his passive resistance, they dragged him from the house and drove him to the Federal Court House, where “they had to carry his limp form into the building, deposit it in the elevator, and carry it into the room of the United States Commissioner.” There was no response when Bishop’s name was called. Finally he responded “I am here — in body only. … I am not going to cooperate in any way, shape or form. I was carried in here. If you hold me, you’ll have to carry me out. War is wrong. I don’t want any part of it.” [11]

Bishop was taken to Moyamensing prison where he continued his passive resistance and his refusal to feed himself. Again, prison officials resorted to forced feeding. On February 26, 1945, he was carried back into the Philadelphia court room of Federal Judge George A Welsh. “When the judge asked whether he opposed his removal to Michigan for trial, he opened his eyes and replied: ‘What you do with me is your own responsibility’. On March 15 he was returned to Grand Rapids, still maintaining his passive resistance and still being forcibly fed. He was sentenced to four years in prison and fined one thousand dollars. Returned to prison as a sentenced offender, he continued his strike and complete non-cooperation.” He was still being tube fed and was becoming weaker. Finally federal officials granted him a parole with the condition that he work on the Morris Mitchell co-operative farm in Macedonia, GA. “Actually, however, Bishop had signed no papers, made no promises, and regarded himself as absolutely free. Upon release he brought to an end his passive resistance, which had lasted for the almost incredible period of 144 days. During that time he had done nothing to assist prison officials, even to the extent of walking or rising from his cot,” eating, or using the prison toilet facilities. [12]

In September 1945, FBI agents found him in Berea, OH where they arrested him, once again, for violating his parole. He was not supposed to leave Georgia without government permission. When asked whether he was ready to come along with them “he gave what was by now the expected reply – that he would not cooperate in any way with the government’s restraint of his body. Hearing this, the agents picked up his suddenly limp body” and drove him to the Milan, Michigan prison. There the old story repeated itself. He resumed his fasting and non-cooperation; he was force fed and again lost weight and was weakened. Finally, the Department of Justice decided that there was no point to his continued incarceration. The publicity his case was generating was negative and the war was over. He was again paroled on March 12, 1946, and again, there were no conditions, and Bishop signed no papers. [13]

“Bishop had fasted 426 days since entering prison. [He] followed, to its logical conclusion, the proposition that man should not, in any way, cooperate with the State in the waging of war, and that persons who by reason of religious training and belief are opposed thereto should not be imprisoned.” [14] The most important idea in his philosophy was the distinction between the soul and the body. “Corbett Bishop as a person was found entirely in the soul. The government could gain complete control over the body that was known as Corbett Bishop, but couldn’t control his soul, which was the real Corbett. As soon as the government began to coerce him, he responded with non-cooperation, leaving responsibility for the ‘body’ in the hands of the government.” [15] He wouldn’t do anything: eat, walk, or go to the bathroom. Bishop realized that governments can “terrorize individuals into submitting to tyranny by grabbing the body as hostage, and thus destroying the spirit. His body was taken by the American despots to conquer his spirit. They might have his body as hostage, but as long as they have it, he repudiate[d] the body, and w[ould] have nothing to do with it. Thus his spirit remain[ed] free.” [16]

Other conscientious objectors have recognized this, too. Henri Perrin was a French Roman Catholic priest imprisoned by the Germans during World War II. In his autobiography he noted that the Nazis “could keep me locked up; they could take me to a concentration camp tomorrow, they could torture me and make me cry out with pain, but they could never touch the sanctuary where my soul watched, where I alone was master. They might deceive me, abuse me, weaken me; they might get words out of me which they could take as an admission; they could kill me. But they could never force my will, for it could never belong to them; it was between myself and God, and no one else could ever touch it.” [17]

So what does all this mean for voluntaryists, who object not only to State wars but to the very institution of the State itself? It inclines them toward thinking that total, absolute non-cooperation with one’s oppressors is the most potent method ever devised to counter the State. The State is not my master; I am not its slave. It does not own my body or my soul, and while I sometimes cannot prevent it from kidnapping my body, I can always counter its attempts to control my soul. As Peter Ragnar put it: “physical freedom can be curtailed by force, but coercion can never buy willing acquiescence. … You can chop people’s fingers off so they can’t write. Then you will have to cut out their tongues so they can’t speak. But ultimately you will have to cauterize their brains so they cannot think.” Or as William Glasser wrote in his book, CHOICE THEORY, “In practice, if we are willing to suffer the alternative – almost always severe punishment or death – no one can make us do anything we don’t want to do.” [18]

“Only those who know for sure what [is] essential and what [is] ephemeral in themselves and in life” can resist in this fashion. [19] Other objectors have noted that “My will power is stronger than the bayonet, and my ideas will not be shot out of my head.” [20] Another recognized that “The power of fearlessness is astonishing. They could threaten me with anything at all and not get me, because I wasn’t afraid. This was immensely liberating to me. I could be the person I was without fearing them. They had no power over me.” [21] Or as the horse might say, if he could speak: you can take me to water, but you can’t make me drink.

[1] This approach, of asking those who claim authority, “what is the punishment for violating this rule, so that I may decide whether to follow it or not,” was suggested by Dave Scotese, voluntaryist webmaster.
[2] Peter Ragnar, “So, What Is It About ‘No’ That You Don’t Understand … ?” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole No. 125, 2nd Quarter 2005, pp. 7.
[3] William Grampp, ECONOMIC LIBERALISM, (Vol. 1: “The Beginnings”), New York: Random House, 1965, pp. 11 and 26, cited in Carl Watner, “The Voluntaryist Spirit,” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole No. 124, 1st Quarter 2005, p. 7.
[4] Peter Ragnar, op. cit.
[5] Peter Brock, LIBERTY OF CONSCIENCE: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE EXPERIENCES OF CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS IN AMERICA THROUGH THE CIVIL WAR, New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. For Whipple, mentioned in the previous paragraph, see pp. 78, 91; for Tilghman (this paragraph) see pp. 160-163.
[6] Geoffrey Bould, CONSCIENCE BE MY GUIDE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF PRISON WRITINGS, London: Zed Books, Ltd., 1991, pp. 59-60.
[8] Mulford Q. Sibley and Philip E. Jacob, CONSCRIPTION OF CONSCIENCE: THE AMERICAN STATE AND THE CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTOR, 1940-1947, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1952, p. 402.
[9] ibid., pp. 402-403.
[10] ibid., p. 405.
[11] ibid., p. 406.
[12] ibid., pp. 407-408.
[13] ibid., p. 409.
[14] ibid.
[15] Letter from Brad Lyttle to Carl Watner, June 20, 1986.
[17] Bould, op. cit., pp. 127-128.
[18] William Glasser, CHOICE THEORY: A NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF PERSONAL FREEDOM, New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 1998, p. 332.
[19] Bruno Bettelheim, THE INFORMED HEART, New York: The Free Press, 1960, p. 281.
[20] Moroi, op. cit., p. 120.
[21] Bould, op. cit., p. 234.