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).