“My Yea Is Yea, My Nay Is Nay”: Voluntaryism, Integrity and the Question of the Oath

By Carl Watner

In his recent column, “The Solitary Leaker,” about Edward Snowden, David Brooks pointed out that Snowden betrayed all “honesty and integrity, … . He made explicit and implicit oaths to respect the secrecy of the information with which he was entrusted. He betrayed his oaths.” [1] Others have pointed out that perhaps Snowden solicited his top-secret job with the express purpose of exposing NSA secrets. Whether this was so, or whether Snowden took the job, and then discovered the perfidious extent of government surveillance, we will assume he broke whatever oaths he had sworn.

The taking of oaths is an immemorial tradition in the western world, generally connected to the relationship between the individual citizen and his government. Two people might take marriage vows, but one partner cannot imprison the other partner if the marriage promise is broken. A man does not swear an oath to Ford Motor Company when he accepts employment (though he may sign a confidentiality agreement), but when he deals with the State, he must generally swear to the truth of the facts under discussion. Most oaths are subject to the penalty of perjury, by which the government reserves the right to prosecute a person who willfully lies. Thus, it is easy to conclude that oaths are a way of forcing the truth from the recalcitrant citizen; a way of exercising government control over the citizen. Though oaths were intended to bring about truthful testimony, they were also designed to root out dissidents. Under the English Act of 1609, justices of the peace were authorized to administer a combined oath of allegiance and supremacy to any English man or woman whom they suspected of being disloyal to the king. Refusal to take the oath subjected the recusant to the punishment of praemunire, which meant being put out of the king’s protection, forfeiture of one’s property to the crown, and imprisonment for life or at royal pleasure. [2]

Both Baptists and Quakers suffered at the hands of the crown. In August 1664, George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, was imprisoned for refusing to take the oath of allegiance and supremacy. When questioned by the judge of the Lancaster Assizes, he explained, “my yea or nay was more binding to me than an oath was to many others.” Fox stood upon Christ’s admonition “Swear not at all” (5 Matthews 33-37), and referred to the Epistle of James (Chapter 5, Verse 12) which taught all believers to abjure oaths and “let [their] yea be yea; and [their] nay, nay.” A few years before in 1662, Francis Bampfield, a Baptist minister, was ejected from his church and imprisoned for nearly 9 years. He was later imprisoned again for his persistent refusal to swear the oath of allegiance and he eventually died in Newgate prison in 1683. In 1675, William Penn and twelve other Quakers published A TREATISE ON OATHS CONTAINING SEVERAL WEIGHTY REASONS WHY PEOPLE CALLED QUAKERS REFUSE TO SWEAR. They pointed out that an oath will not deter a liar from lying, and the truthful person needs no inducement or threat to tell the truth. “God has taught us to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, as plainly and readily without an oath as with an oath. … We regard the taking of an oath as contrary to the teaching of Christ, and as setting up a double standard of truthfulness, whereas truthfulness and sincerity should be practiced in all the dealings of life.” [3]

The whole concept of treason is directly related to the oath of allegiance and obedience to the laws of state. In her study of TREASON IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, Margaret Boveri pointed out that the military loyalty oath had deep implications for members of the German army during World War I. Even before the flight of the Kaiser at the end of the war, some members of the General Staff were questioning what their oaths really meant. Were they bound by oath till the day the Kaiser died, or were they released from their promises of loyalty when he abdicated the throne? By the time the Weimar Republic morphed into the Third Reich, “the habit of unquestioning loyalty to the state was so deeply ingrained [in the psyche of the German citizens] that nothing seemed able to shake it. … Which particular government happened to be in power was of secondary importance.” [4]

However, after Hitler came to power in 1934, he had all members of the German military take an oath which stated: “I swear by God this holy oath, that I shall give my unconditional obedience to the Fuhrer of the German people and Reich, Adolf Hitler, and that I shall be prepared to sacrifice my life as a brave soldier in keeping this oath.” [5] Civilian employees of the German state were also required to swear allegiance. In 1993, “Luitgard Wundheiler remembered how her father, a judge in Marburg, Germany weighed the matter [of taking the oath].”

In 1936, her father had just received the letter sent to all German civil servants asking him to join the Nazi Party by signing a loyalty oath. He discussed it with his wife and then called the fourteen-year-old Wundheiler into his study. He gave her the letter to read and asked her if she thought he should sign. To her, his choice was clear: he should not sign it because to do so would be a lie and he never lied. Fifty-seven years later, Wundheiler still remembered the judicial clarity with which her father presented exactly what was as stake:
Before you say yes or no so clearly and so spontaneously, I also want you to know what the possible consequences are. I don’t know what the consequences will be definitely, but there will be some consequences. Under the best of circumstances, I will lose my job. Under the worst of circumstances, you will never see me again in your whole life because they will do away with me. There are a number of possibilities in between. Maybe they will put me in a concentration camp and sometime later release me, but there will be some consequences, and I want you to know that.
As it happened, her father, who was stubbornly honest and passionately committed to justice, refused to join the Nazi Party. He was summarily dismissed from the judiciary but managed to land a job as a court messenger. For the remaining years of the Nazi rule, he and his family existed barely above the poverty level. [6]

Hitler was very astute in having the oath predicated upon his person rather than upon the German nation or constitution. As World War II progressed, some German army officers became bitterly anti-Nazi, but they would not violate their obligation to obey Hitler’s orders, even if they thought them criminal or contrary to the international laws of war. Boveri relates the case of one German general in Italy who received orders which he considered wrong. “He made dispositions which were contrary, and then, with his hand still resting on the telephone, pulled his pistol from its holster and put a bullet through his brain.” [7] “The most curious example of oath interpretation by a professional soldier is the case of Paul Borchardt, a General Staff officer of considerable distinction, … . In 1938 he was dismissed from the General Staff and forced to leave the Army and he eventually left Germany because he was half Jewish. When charged by American Intelligence with spying, in 1942, he professed to be an anti-Nazi. However, he remained a German patriot who did his duty when Germany was at war, and eventually received a prison sentence of twenty years when he refused to violate his oath and give the names of his prior military contacts in Germany.” [8] Near the end of World War II, those inside the German resistance movement decided to attempt to assassinate Hitler, rather than arrest him and put him on trial, because hundreds of thousands of Germans had sworn fealty to him. [9]

So what do these brief historical comments portend for voluntaryists? What lessons are to be learned?

First, stay as far away from government as you can, so you are not involved in situations where you need to take an oath or swear allegiance. Second, refuse to swear, affirm, or answer questions posed by government agents. The burden in any criminal case is on the prosecution to prove that you are guilty. You are not required to prove your innocence.

Third, in my article “Am I an American Citizen and What Might It Mean?” I pointed out that people are born stateless and have citizenship imposed upon them by simply being born within the geographic area controlled by a particular government. Voluntaryists want nothing to do with any government, whether it be the one that controls the land where they are born, or otherwise. In that article, I asked whether a voluntaryist could sign an application for a U.S. passport that reads, I “declare under penalty of perjury that I am a citizen of the United States.” Not only is the voluntaryist not a citizen, but the voluntaryist objects, much like the Baptists and Quakers of old, to signing any government document, much less one that carries a penalty of perjury.

One subscriber took me to task because he argued that the declaration on the passport application was not morally binding because it was made under duress. Is this a valid argument or reason for signing a government document with which you do not agree? I think not. You cannot make a mental reservation when you take an oath or make an affirmation under penalty of perjury. One’s integrity is compromised if one makes an outward sign of submission, and then maintains an inner resolution of defiance. If integrity is a matter of being whole, of being the same on the inside as on the outside, then one cannot claim duress as a reason for being dishonest. One simply says, “No, I will not do this,” and then takes the consequences, whether it be going to jail, or fleeing and hiding from government agents, or being executed for being a voluntaryist. [10] As I explained in the conclusion to “Voluntaryism and Extreme Necessity,” a man only dies once so he must be careful and respectful of how he lives. How a man lives always trumps how long he lives. Or, as Gandhi wrote, “If one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”


[1] NEW YORK TIMES, June 11, 2013, p. A 21.

[2] Constance Braithwaithe, CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTION TO COMPULSIONS UNDER THE LAW, York, England: William Sessions Limited, 1995, pp. 19-20.

[3] from various Quaker tracts as quoted in ibid., pp. 14-17.

[4] Margaret Boveri, TREASON IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1963 (first published 1961), p. 32.

[5] ibid., p. 299. Also see entry for “Hitler Oath” in wikipedia.

[6] Eva Fogelman, COURGE AND CONSCIENCE, New York: Doubleday Books, 1994, pp. 23-24. Also see Milton Mayer, THEY THOUGHT THEY WERE FREE (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1955), pp. 176-181, for information about a German who was required to take the oath of fidelity and who opposed it in conscience. This excerpt is reprinted as “The Day the World Was Lost,“ in THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole Number 31, April 1988.

[7] Boveri, op. cit., p. 301.

[8] ibid., p. 34. Also see “Paul Borchardt, the Abwehr and the W.J. Harding King Letters,” at http://www.fjexpeditions.com/frameset/borchardt.htm.

[9] ibid., p. 80.

[10] See David Romtvedt, “Loyalties,” THE VOLUNTARYIST, Whole Number 62, June 1993.

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