July 4, 2014


Was the American Revolution a Just War? (Eric Patterson, July 4, 2013, Washington Post)

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. 

[originally posted: 7/06/2013]

Posted by at July 4, 2014 12:45 AM

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