Just War, Rebellion, and the American Revolution: John Keown and Modern Critiques on Whether the War of Independence was Just.
Part 30: Just Rebellion Principle 7, Last Resort
By Leonard O. Goenaga
Regarding the last resort principle, Keown asks the following in relation to the America Revolution: “Was armed insurrection a last resort of settling the colonial grievances? Had all peaceful alternatives been exhausted?”1 Tooley abridges Keown’s response where he writes:
Regarding whether war was a justified last resort, he surmised the colonists could have been more patient with economic pressure, while admitting that the ongoing boycott of British goods was disrupted by events at Lexington and Concord. Even that British military excursion Keown defended as a legitimate action by a “sovereign power” to “neutralize” arms potentially aimed against it. Keown pronounced the American insurrection “precipitate,” especially when Canada, Australia, and New Zealand achieved independence peacefully, and India gained it through civil disobedience.2
Jefferson describes in various places within the Declaration the Colonists’ attempts to seek other means. These included attempts intentioned to seek other solutions, including petitions to their British brethren and repeated petitions for redress up until the train of abuses could bring tried solutions no further.3 For over a decade Colonists made numerous appeals to both Parliament and the King. Examples in this paper included: (1) The Virginia Resolves (1765), (2) The Declaration of Rights of the Stamp Act Congress (1765), (3) and the Olive Branch Petition (1775). Numerous additional attempts were made by individual colonial legislators and governments as well. Upon the failure of their grievances to be redressed, Colonists practiced a plethora of various acts of civil protest and disobedience. Examples in this paper included: (1) the local protests organized after the Stamp Act Congress and led by merchants and landowners (1765), (2) the civil protests against the Townshend Acts (1767), (3) the civil disobedience of the Boston Tea Party (1773), (4) the united colonial boycotts of British goods coordinated by the First Continental Congress (1774), and (5) the preemptive emptying and safe-keeping of armories and arms against British Army disarmament in places such as Portsmouth and Salem (1774-1775).
Throughout his paper, Keown cites the civil disobedience leading to the independence of places like Canada and India, and wonders why the Colonists didn’t emulate their examples further. In reality, the Colonists practiced civil disobedience for near a decade. Examples of such civil resistance included: (1) demonstrations (Boston Tea Party), (2) petitions (various aforementioned petitions), (3) boycotts (organized around the First and Second Continental Congress), (4) occupations (drawbridge incident during the Salem Confrontation and the Tea Parties), and (5) the creation of parallel institutions of government (First and Second ContinentalCongresses). These methods emulated the tactics of civil disobedience utilized by Mohandas Gandhi during Indian independence movements, and Martin Luther King Kr. during the Civil Rights movements. It was not until the British Army began to disarm the colonial armories and spill blood in attempts at Concord and Lexington that the first military battles began.
Perhaps the British Empire learned from their experience with the American Colonists to receive in great seriousness the petitions and grievances of other colonies. Perhaps this factors greatly into the attainment of liberty by Canada and India. Perhaps the British had learned their lesson. Regardless, these post bellum episodes do not factor whatsoever into whether the Colonists met the last resort criteria ad bellum. The evidence stands that they attempted a decades worth of civil disobedience until the British army sought to rob them of their natural right of self-defense and safety. It is the testimony of history that tyranny seeks the disarmament of the people, as evident among the tyrannical tactics of 20th century tyrannies.4 Regardless of how unlikely the British were to follow in the likes of Stalin and others, the Colonists were not blessed with omniscience or fortune telling. As Tooley concludes:
[H]ow much longer should the Americans have persisted? Should they have waited until all their legislatures were dispersed, their leaders imprisoned, their arms seized, their cities occupied, and their courts usurped by British military judges? How could they possibly have met Just War teaching’s calls for legitimate authority and probability of success at that late hour?5
Evidently, the Colonists reasonably attempted a plethora of methods to secure the redress of their grievances without violent conflict. In turn, Britain responded with attempts to solidify control and further exacerbate Colonial injuries. Their descent into propagating tyranny was done up unto the point of spilling colonial blood at Concord and Lexington. For these reasons, it isconcluded that the American Revolution adhered to the last resort ad bellum principle in declaring independence from the British Empire.
1 John Keown, “America’s War for Independence – Just or Unjust?” 302.
2 Mark Tooley, “Was the American Revolution Just?”
3 The Declaration on seeking other solutions: “Prudence, indeed, would dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience has shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.” On repeated petitions for redress: “In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” On repeated petitions to British brethren: “Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here.” On the point in which they could suffer no longer: “But when a long train of abuses and usurptions, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. . . . The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurptions, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.”
4 Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and Stalinist Russia are all examples of tyrannical governments disarming the public in various degrees. See RJ Rummel, Death by Government (New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1994) 111-122, and Courtois, Werth, Panne, J-L, et al., The Black Book of Communism–Crimes, Terror, Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
5 Mark Tooley, “America’s Just Revolution”
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