Just Rebellion Principles (JRP) And The American Revolution

Just War, Rebellion, and the American Revolution: John Keown and Modern Critiques on Whether the War of Independence was Just.


By Leonard O. Goenaga

Recalling Keown’s final concern in his response to Mark Tooley, he reiterated the central concern of his argument as Tooley needing to show (P1) “the British were tyrannical”, or (P2) “that overthrowing British rule (by initiating what turned into a world war) did not create greater harm.” 1 The second point (P2) may be simply dismissed, given, as Tooley noted, several of Keown arguments for causing a world war are highly questionable and subjective. In addition, at best the second point lies within the realm of jus in bello, and doesn’t factor into determining whether the cause of the Colonists rebelling going to war was just. Since Keown provides jus ad bellum principles in his exploration of the justness of the colonial cause, this paper will proceed to evaluate the Revolution in light of these seven principles, and in light of Keown’s charge of the need to show (P1) “the British were tyrannical.” 2

Having surveyed principles in Scripture related to government and rebellion, as well as contributions and clarifications made by prominent Christian thinkers in Church tradition, and having explored the context of both forerunning English episodes and contemporary Colonial experiences, an attempt may now be made to evaluate the justness of the American Revolution according to ad bellum principles. 3 This paper will proceed to evaluate each of Keown’s employed principles by: (1) supplying the question asked by Keown of the Revolution as related to the ad bellum principle, 4 (2) supplying Tooley’s summarization of Keown’s main point as related to the principle, 5 (3) supplying any relevant text from the Declaration of Independence that speaks to the principle, 6 and (4) supplying a refutation to Keown’s conclusion and a rendering of whether the American Revolution meets the principle in light of the surveyed evidence.


1 John Keown, “America’s War for Independence – Just or Unjust?”

2 At this point, it would serve the purpose of this paper well to note Keown’s treatment traditional of Just War principles as rather sloppy. For starters, Keown complains about Tooley inventing his own principles, while he uses those within the tradition of Aquinas to evaluate the American Revolution. However, he actually uses the principles as established by a Post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church intent on responding to Cold War hostilities and in an age of nuclear weapons. For Keown to utilize such principles and claim them Aquinas’, who himself argued for three, is a bit unfair. In addition, Keown does not adequately attempt to clarify the distinctions of jus ad bellum (justice in cause to war) and just in bello (just means of waging war). It is correct that failing to meet the principles of ad bellum or in bello can render a war unjust, but Keown sloppily treats the two as if they were interchangeable. The traditional approach has upheld the distinctions between the two. As O’Brien writes, “The original just-war doctrine of St. Augustine, St. Thomas, and other Scholastics emphasized the conditions for permissible recourse to war-the jus ad bellum. To this doctrine was added another branch of prescriptions regulating the conduct of war, the jus in bello.” (O’Brien 13). As Holmes writes, “In addition to the justice of a cause (jus ad bellum), the just way theory addresses the problem of just means (just in bello).” (Holmes 4). Although the Just War tradition is rather flexible, given the absence of a set authority, the following eight ad bellum and seven in bello principles are representative of the type of distinctions between the two and in which Keown wrongly treats as interchangeable: Ad Bellum – (1) Just Cause, (2) Competent Authority, (3) Comparative Justice, (4) Right Intent, (5) Last Resort, (6) Probability of Success, (7) Proportionality of Projected Results, and (8) Right Spirit. In Bello – (1) Proportionality in the Use of Force, (2) Discrimination, (3) Avoidance of Evil Means, (4) Good Faith, (5) Probability of Success, (6) Proportionality of Projected Results, and (7) Right Spirit. Even where it appears certain principles overlap (ex: right spirit ad bellum and in bello), they actually retain distinctions between the cause (ad) and waging (in) of war.

3 William V. O’Brien, The Conduct of Just and Limited War, 163: “[R]evolutionary war remains war, with material characteristics essentially identical to international conflict. All war is subject to the conditions of just war doctrine . . .”

4 In this case, the paper will work with the assumed list presented by the Catholic Catechism and the Pastoral Letter The Challenge of Peace.

5 Keown finds Tooley’s summarization of his arguments as accurate and satisfying, stating: “His reply, much of which is taken up with a broadly accurate summary of my paper, makes some interesting points.” Given the agreement of the summation, it will be utilized for clarity and brevity in this paper <http://spectator.org/archives/2010/08/18/americas-unjust-revolution-a-r/print>.

6 See Table 1 for a comparison of Jus Ad Bellum principles present within the Declaration of Independence (1776). The Declaration of Independence speaks nearly to every principle in the traditional ad bellum list. As it declares the reason for declaring independence (and thus, formalizing rebellion and legitimizing armed conflict), it will be used as representative of the claims made by the Colonists.

The Moral Liberal Research Writer, Leonard O. Goenaga
, is a Baptist Associate Pastor (assigned to the Youth) at Glory of God Christian Fellowship, Raleigh, North Carolina; a Mentor (Computer Lab/Technology) at the Wake Forest Boys & Girls Club; a husband (to Katrina); and rugby coach. He holds a B.A. in Political Science (with a specific concentration in Political Theory, Social Contract, and Constitutionalism), a second B.A. in Religious Studies (with a concentration in World Religions and Early Christianity), a Master of Divinity in Christian Ethics, and an A.A. in Entrepreneurship. He has begun Ph.D with a concentration likely centered on an analysis of Locke’s Social Contract, H.L.A. Hart’s Legal System, American Constitutionalism, and Baptist Ecclesiology of Covenant. Visit his website at Leonardooh.com