Conscientious objection to compulsory military service in the United States has a tradition stretching back to the earliest days of colonial settlement. Whenever the colonies or the United States government instituted some form of compulsory service, a small number of citizens resisted that service for religious or ethical reasons. Historically, most conscientious objectors (COs) rejected military service based on their religious beliefs. Most prominent were the Historic Peace Churches – Brethren, Mennonite, and Society of Friends (Quakers). During the colonial era, the militia system was the most visible type of military service that conscientious objectors had to deal with. Though some colonial governments protected the rights of objectors (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island had the most extensive provisions), some COs experienced harassment, fines, or property confiscation. At the end of the colonial era, the American Revolution saw objectors resisting conscription into the militia. States possessing a large number of COs often had provisions to deal with them. Other states allowed men to pay a commutation fee or hire a substitute. However, as there was no national draft, there was no national policy for dealing with conscientious objectors. Furthermore, some groups, particularly the Quakers, did not support the idea of hiring a substitute and received somewhat harsh treatment as a result.
The first national draft in United States history came during the Civil War. Both the North and the South used compulsory service to bolster their armies with ramifications in both societies. Conscription came to the Confederacy first. Men in the South could hire a substitute, but there was no commutation fee. As a result, the price of a substitute skyrocketed. In the North, objectors could hire a substitute or pay a commutation fee. Beyond substitutes and commutation fees, both governments implemented limited exemptions for conscientious objectors, but it was by no means all-encompassing.
It was not until the twentieth century’s wars that conscientious objection came into much sharper focus because of the lack of substitute hiring and commutation fees. The first major war, World War I, had profound consequences for those who objected to military service.