Was the American Revolution a Just War?

John Trumbull’s ‘Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill’. Was the American Revolution a just war? As we celebrate our … Continued

John Trumbull’s ‘Death of General Warren at Bunker Hill’.

Was the American Revolution a just war? As we celebrate our independence, it is worth evaluating the justification for the conflict that gave birth to these United States.

Classical just war theory is a Christian paradigm that over the past two millennia has become the basis for the [secular] laws of armed conflict. Christian thinkers, most notably Ambrose and Augustine in the third century, followed later by Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, and others argued that political authorities have a moral obligation to, in Augustine’s formulation: right past wrongs, punish offending nations or states, or to restore what was seized unjustly. In other words, those entrusted with “the sword” had a duty, rooted in New Testament passages such as Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, to promote order and justice.

Just War thinking denies that “all is fair in love in war.” Rather, from a Christian perspective, political order is a moral good, an approximation of God’s order, and thus politics have ethical content. Thus, a war in self-defense of the community or to prevent further bloodshed is clearly just because it is the practical, political expression of Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor.

To be clear, law enforcement officials—whether police or soldiers—do not necessarily have “dirty hands” when they employ violence to protect society. Rather, when acting with restraint, they are acting virtuously because they are protecting their neighbors.

Just war thinkers developed criteria for dealing with whether or not the decision to go to war was just (jus ad bellum) as well as whether the means employed were ethical (jus in bello). The foundational principles are that legitimate authorities may employ violence on behalf of a just cause with right intent. Over time, a secondary set of practical considerations were added to extend these three, most notably the notions of likelihood of success, proportionality of ends, and last resort.

Back to the Revolution. Did it meet the essential criteria? One way to get at this is to consider the experience arguments of colonists at the time. On July 6, 1775 a year before the Declaration of Independence the Second Continental Congress issued what has become known as the
Declaration on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms (“the Declaration”).
Penned primarily by Pennsylvania’s John Dickinson with assistance from Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration was written just weeks after the British attacks at Lexington and Concord. It lays out a rationale for self-defense that is completely aligned with just war thinking. Indeed, the colonists beseech London to not provoke “the calamities civil war;” there is no talk of independence.

The Declaration chronicles the context: by 1775 the colonists had seen a steady erosion of their liberties, to the point that a citizen might have British troops (or mercenaries) quartered in his home against his will; he might be shipped off to England or Canada for an alleged crime without facing a trial by jury of his peers; and his business was slowly strangled by nearly a decade’s worth of spiraling taxes (“acts”). The colonies were under naval blockade and Boston was effectively under martial law; both Massachusetts and Virginia had seen skirmishes and the British seemed to be stoking barbaric Indian raids on the frontier.

The Declaration begins with a question about legitimate authority: does God grant to government “unbounded authority never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive” or is it “instituted to promote the welfare of mankind”? This really is the critical question, because it underscores the Christian worldview of most colonists: justice is a cardinal virtue within a divinely-ordained moral order of right and wrong.

The Declaration goes on to argue for a just cause (“in defence of the freedom that is our birthright .for the protection of our property against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms”) and for the colonists’ right intent (“We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great Britain and establishing independent states. We fight not for glory or for conquest”).

Seizure of property, martial law, a blockade, and now bloodshed: the colonists were convinced that self-defense was a proportionate, last resort alternative to “submission to tyranny” and “voluntary slavery.” They also warned, “Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable” (likelihood of success).

In short, this Declaration—written primarily by Quaker-inspired John Dickinson—clearly accords with the Christian just war tradition. It provides us with not only a window for considering the events that followed, particularly in 1776, but also as a principled approach to dealing with today’s tough policy issues where “love my neighbor” meets policy regarding the responsibilities of government and the use of force.

Eric Patterson, Ph.D. is Dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and Senior Research Fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs. His most recent book is Ending Wars Well (Yale University Press, 2012).

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  • WmarkW

    Of course it was.
    Unless taxation without representation isn’t tyranny.

  • Iam You

    Great article, really interesting to learn the historical context behind the Declaration of Independence. Its makes sense that most wealthy landowners who were legally still British citizens must have taken much caution before defecting from the British Monarchy.

    The part which always confuses me about US history was after the war for independence in 1783. The US established itself as its own republic after defeating the British (with the help of the French, Spanish, Dutch, etc) but just a couple decades later in 1814, the British army returns and burns the White House and a lot of Washington DC to the ground.

    What was the US reaction to all of this and why do I not remember learning about this in school? Either way, interesting article.

  • An-Toan

    It is one thing to believe that ethical principles are relevant when considering whether to engage in violence or to kill life in self defense. To believe that specific applications of such principles directly derive from the will a god is quite another. The latter is self-serving rationalization and an aspect of dukkha.

  • An-Toan

    Excerpt: “Thus, a war in self-defense of the community or to prevent further bloodshed is clearly just because it is the practical, political expression of Christ’s injunction to love one’s neighbor.”

    I, for one, do not believe that the Jesus has anything to do with war!

  • larryclyons

    Last resort? My ancestors were burned out of their homes twice by the American revolutionaries. Their crime, simply being loyal subjects of the crown.

    Some ethical and moral justification of terrorism.

  • Bretzky

    You are confusing jus in bello with jus ad bellum. A war can be justified from the standpoint of engaging in it but still be unjust from the standpoint of the means used to prosecute it. The author is only here talking about the former.