A man asked me: “Why does a fellow like you—with an education, and who has been all over the country—end up in this out-of-the-way place, working for very little on a farm?”
I explained that people who had good jobs in factories had a withholding tax for war taken from their pay, and that people who worked on farms had no tax taken from their pay. I told him that I refused to pay taxes.
He was a returned soldier, and said that he did not like war either, but what could a fellow do about it? I replied that we each did what we really wanted to.
―Ammon Hennacy, The Book of Ammon
Ammon Hennacy refused to pay war taxes at his first opportunity. When the U.S. government expanded the reach of its income tax during World War Ⅱ, Hennacy immediately refused to pay a penny of it. When the government began to force employers to withhold the tax from their employees’ paychecks, Hennacy switched to pay-by-the-day agricultural jobs in order to evade withholding.
To make sure his protest would be noticed, each year he picketed the tax office. Once, a frustrated tax official seized his protest signs for back taxes and later claimed to have auctioned them off for $5.
Hennacy was a distinguished war resister even before he began refusing to pay taxes. During World War Ⅰ he was imprisoned for distributing anti-conscription leaflets. When the prison authorities started skimming off money meant to buy food for the inmates, substituting cheaply-bought rotten food to make up the difference, Hennacy smuggled reports of this mistreatment out of the prison, and organized a strike of the prisoners. The authorities retaliated by putting him in solitary confinement for nine months.
While trapped in “the hole,” Hennacy had little to do but read the Bible. He came to interpret Christianity as a radically anarchist/pacifist creed—founded by a rebel Jesus, focused on the Sermon on the Mount, and designed to liberate us from earthly Cæsars and from the cycle of returning evil for evil. He spent the rest of his life refining and living out this Christian Anarchist ideal.
He aligned himself with the Catholic Worker movement, attracted by its ethos of voluntary poverty and service to the poor (attracted also, truth be told, by a bit of a crush on Dorothy Day). He wrote regularly for the Catholic Worker newspaper: describing his life and activities, commenting on the issues of the day, giving his impressions of the activists and workers he met in his travels, and explaining his evolving “one-man revolution” philosophy.
His autobiography, which draws on these Catholic Worker essays—and so feels more like a narrative than a recollection—was first released in 1954 as The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist. That book ends with him joining the Catholic church. Later editions, released as The Book of Ammon through 1970, take him to the point of leaving Catholicism behind and returning to his own more-idiosyncratic Christian anarchism.
I have just released both versions of his autobiography as free eBooks, which you can download by clicking on the book cover images below (view the README file to learn how to load the books into your eBook reader of choice). The Book of Ammon includes most of the material in the earlier Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist, but there are a few sections that got left on the cutting-room floor between editions—including some about his war tax resistance—and so both of these books are being made available here.
The books are are raw: patched-together, barely-edited, and roughly-organized chapters that draw on letters, previously-published articles, well-rehearsed stories, and one heavily-footnoted research report, all with a variety of styles and tones. There’s nothing polished about the books. They repeat themselves at times. Grammar can be iffy. Some sentences seem as unsettlingly stitched together as a nightmare creature from a rogue taxidermist’s gallery. The Book of Ammon has no chapter nine, its epilogue is shoehorned in between chapters 21 and 22, and the author’s ostensible “Final Word” sits prematurely between his foreword and his epigraph. It’s all something of a fabulous mess.
That said, I can think of few other books that have forced such a real change in the way I live my life. I am a better person now than I was before I read The Book of Ammon. And so I recommend it to you.
Reading it isn’t a bit like reading Mother Jones or Reason or watching a Michael Moore documentary or reading 99% of the political blogs out there. It’s no exposé of the evils They are perpetrating. Instead, it’s the story of one person who is trying to turn his back on those evils and start walking the other way. The challenge Ammon Hennacy makes is not to “the system” or “the government” or to any particular politicians or evildoers, but to those of us who haven’t fully turned our backs on evil yet.
―David M. Gross