Was the American Revolution a Just War?

Thanks again to my colleague Dr. John Fea  for a thought provoking article (his weekly post at Patheos) about the American Revolution. John reminds us that the terminology “Just War” was not one the founders, or even pastors of the era, thought about. John points out some differences between the arguments of the era, and the historical Just War position. He also points out some arguments from John Wesley critiquing the Revolution. Here is a taste of Wesley’s criticism, and John’s challenge to Christians today.

Wesley ticked off a litany of colonial sins: they refused to pay their taxes, they had destroyed property (“Ship-loads of tea”), and most importantly, they held African slaves even as they cried for their own freedom from English tyranny. For Wesley, the cry of “no taxation without representation” was absurd: “I reply, they are now taxed by themselves, in the very same sense that nine-tenths of us are. We have not only no vote in parliament, but none in electing the members.” Lack of representation in Parliament did not mean that the colonists were exempted from “subjection to the government and laws.” Wesley, needless to say, did not think the American Revolutionary War was justified.

Christians today who want to argue that the Revolutionary War was “just” must offer concrete evidence to suggest that this war was indeed a “last resort.” They must also make a compelling case that the colonists’ grievances against the Crown merited military resistance. Here are few questions that one might ask in this regard:

Do high taxes justify a military rebellion against the government, even if such rebellion is in direct violation of passages such as Romans 13 that command Christians to pay their taxes?

Was the English government as “tyrannical” as the colonies claimed? And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict? After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world.

Did the revolutionaries have a moral case to make for their own freedom when many had denied freedom to slaves in their midst? Or, as historian Mark Noll has argued, perhaps it was only the enslaved African Americans who could legitimately “justify taking up arms to defend themselves.”

These are tough questions. But they are definitely questions worth thinking about.

I agree that they are worth thinking about, especially for those who look to the founders as a shining light of Christian faith. For those of us who come from more pacifist traditions, it is another reminder of what happens when the role of government is elevated and we put earthly empires before the Kingdom.


On a related note, John commented on whether many of the founders were Deists in last week’s post. (Hint, he thinks that while they likely weren’t Deists, they weren’t really Christians either.)

7 comments on “Was the American Revolution a Just War?

  1. Actually, you might want to re-examine the slavery part of that. Heather and I made a recent trip to Philadelphia this past summer for our anniversary and found out some fascinating things about that city, it’s founders, the revolution, and slavery.

    To make a long story short, the founders had no intention of maintaining slavery. In fact, Philadelphia in the 1700’s was an “integrated” city, thanks in part to the influence of the Quakers. Also, some original drafts of the Declaration of Independence by Jefferson actually had clauses to free the slaves but was kept out primarily because, by keeping slavery out of the declaration, they could bring the southern states on board. Quakers in Germantown in fact before the revolution were EXTREMELY outspoken against slavery and questioned the whole “If we’re fighting for our freedom, how can we justify holding slaves?”, a question that shaped the formation of society in the city… there are black doctors and other famous black men and women buried in the Christ Church cemetery along with Ben Franklin and there is plenty of historical documentation concerning how black people were honored for their role in saving the city from a Yellow Fever epidemic.

    • Rob, I hear you. (Of course, the line about slavery was not mine, but is part of the quote.) Still, you are not debating the fact that southerners were included in the Revolution, and still wanted to keep their slaves. Sure, some of the founders wanted to end slavery, but the decision was that including slave-holders and strengthening the Revolution was more important than ending slavery. This is backward, of course, and inconsistent with Christianity, and my perception of Just War Theory. How can we call it justified if they weren’t even seeking justice for the most oppressed citizens? Instead they sacrificed the greater good to achieve a different aim, whose “goodness” was debated at the time, and still might be by some. I appreciate that many were outspoken, and that many in the north had no intention of keeping it, but I doubt that we can say that all of the founders agreed to this, and certainly cannot say that all of the first “Americans” agreed.

      I’m glad to have that truth about some/many of the founders included in the discussion, but I’m not sure that changes any of the argument. Feel free to add more, I’m listening. 🙂

      • Is it the old “ends justifies the means” conversation then? 😉

        Yeah, I see the moral dilemma there… the alternative, though, was continuing under a tyranny that continued the same slavery mindset…it was British aristocratic mindsets of the plantation owners in the south (very feudal, if you think about it) that kinda helped slavery take root. One could say that it was a choice of the lesser of two evils: continuing slavery and oppression under a distant autocratic rule or engaging in violence and the taking of life. Not a decision that I think anyone took lightly, considering some of the documentation out there on the various back-and-forth of the people involved (again, including the voices of Quakers and Christian leadership).

        Was there a Third Way to try and resolve this? Perhaps…but we have the advantage of the 20/20 of hindsight to look back and think about enacting peaceful protest, non-violent resistant actions (see the following blog series for some creative views of that http://thepangeablog.com/category/nonviolence-101-series/). In fact, one could say that some of those actions were taken before things like the Boston Tea Party (Franklin did go to England to try and reason with the British).

        So, in the heat of things, decisions were made, perhaps good, perhaps bad. Was it a just war? The questions asked by Fea are legitimate…but should we judge from the distance as we are? We have the writings of the men to go by, but do they necessarily document the moral and ethical struggles that they engaged in that may have been too painful and private to write down?

        Here is where the gospel of grace kicks in… while we can debate as much as we want as to whether or not it was a just war, what is done is done… Now we give grace to those who have gone before, trusting that they asked some of these same questions… Now we try and redeem it where we are… that instead of trying to re-enact the past, we take what has been done and move forward, living the Kingdom out where we are. We are now in a nation that has in it’s founding documents concepts that allow us this freedom to question our government, a freedom that was at the core of the Revolution. We can redeem that freedom by continuing the practice of questioning the actions of our government, seeking Kingdom justice in the process. By doing so, while we may not be able to justify the actions of the past, we can at least redeem them and take the fractured and cracked ideas of the past and re-make and re-image them to be more in keeping with God’s plan… and pray that those who come after us will give us the same grace and be able to redeem those choices and decisions we make today…

      • I’m not at all into “the ends justify the means”. I think this is a dangerous slide.

        On the issue of the founders intents, and how much they wrestled with these issues, you are correct. We cannot possibly know for sure. That is not to say we shouldn’t consider it though. John is a professor of history here at Messiah, and specializes in early American history. I trust his expertise there. Also, while we cannot know with total confidence, the discussion must be had, especially since many within the “Tea Party” movement claim to be able to tell us exactly what the founders wanted and what they would think today. Someone who has spent years of their life studying the founders and their writings and era is much more trustworthy to me, and a welcome voice. Sure, John didn’t give full details of all of the founders thoughts, but he has a limited column space. Perhaps he can respond at some point himself to your thoughts. Don’t know how much he reads my blog. I sure read his enough. 😉

  2. On Rob’s first point. Yes, there were many opponents of slavery in 18th century Philadelphia. There were also free blacks. But there were also slaves. For example, when excavations of The Presidents House at 6th and Market were underway, the archaeologists found evidence of slave quarters. The House, which is now open to the public, tells this story.

    An argument could be made, of course, that if the founders were serious about ending slavery they would have done something about it in 1776 or 1789. Instead, the decision to let slavery linger resulted in a Civil War that led to the bloodshed of hundreds of thousands of lives.

    The colonies broke away from England, a nation that was the most liberty-driven country in the world. England provided them with rights unlike any other nation. Granted, England was taxing the colonies, but the taxes were designed to pay for their defense and the administration of the colonies. The taxes were no different than some of the taxes being paid by people in England, many of them without a direct representation in Parliament. Such a break from England meant that the colonists would keep 2 million slaves in bondage. They valued even more liberty and freedom for themselves (which could be seen as a sign of their own self-interest)over basic liberties and freedom for the slaves. To put it differently, the founders’ clearly believed that their highest moral priority was to remain united in their revolution against England. Their highest moral priority was not freeing the slaves. One form of justice–nationalism and the threat of taxes–trumped another form of justice–emancipation. Which cause was more just? Knowing what I know about just how free the colonists already were, I think the emancipation would have been more just.

    Rob is right to suggest that the founders struggled with this decision. And many of them did end slavery in their states. Some even decided to free their slaves. But the historical reality is that nothing was done about the institution until the 1860s.

    I also like Rob’s final paragraph.

    • Thanks, John, for the reply.

      • Ditto! Good to hear back from the originator.

        Concerning the comparison of the two kinds of justices, I wonder if emancipation to the level achieve post-Lincoln would have been possible under colonial rule, especially considering that the institution of slavery actually was not a racist item to begin with but was the practice of indentured servitude. I wish I had the websites at my fingers, but there are Virginia court cases that show that the racially driven institution of slavery did not happen until later and that, originally, under indentured servitude, regardless of ethnicity, any “slave” was able to earn their freedom.

        So, considering that and the economic forces that created indentured servitude in the first place, would colonial America been any better off?

        It’s possible (and here, Dr. Fea, I bow to correction from the expert) that the emancipation achieved in the “free and independent states” could not have happened without first achieving that freedom and independence. But, as mentioned above, the hindsight of history can reveal a lot more than the men (and women) of the day could see.

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