Just War, Rebellion, and the American Revolution: John Keown and Modern Critiques on Whether the War of Independence was Just.
Part 24: Just Rebellion Principle 1: Just Cause
By Leonard O. Goenaga
Regarding the just cause principle, Keown asks the following in relation to the America Revolution:
Had the colonists been right that the British were bent on imposing “absolute despotism” and were seeking by force to complete works of “death, desolation and tyranny,” using cruelty “scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages”, they would surely have had a just cause for war. But did the rhetoric reflect the reality? 132
As Tooley has dealt satisfactorily with Keown’s various other arguments regarding Just Cause, this paper shall restrict itself to Keown’s concluding critique on whether alleged British tyranny met the just cause principle. 1
The Declaration of Independence speaks to a just cause in several places by affirming certain unalienable rights, and listing committed abuses thereof. The unalienable rights affirmed throughout the document include the right to liberty, 2 to equality, 3 to rebel, 4 to the common good, 5 to consent, 6 and to the rule of law. 7 Following the initial section affirming those principles common to man and essential to the very purpose of government, the Declaration lists abuses against said principles that then favor a just cause for rebellion. 8 Included among these were abuses against the right to the rule of law, 9 against the right to consent to standing armies and billeting in private property, 10 against the right to trial by jury, 11 against the right to selfgovernance, 12 and against the right to the safety and self-defense of the common good. 13
As evident in the Declaration alone, the issue was not as simple as Keown makes it seem when he questions whether the right to taxation without representation is a just cause. It is not the mere equivalence of revolting over a half penny sales tax increase. The issue of “taxation without representation” merely symbolizes the greater issue of tyrannical rule. Referencing Aquinas, Keown questions whether Colonists “may justly rebel if they are taxed without representation,” and whether this qualifies as tyranny. As the evidence of the survey on tradition established, tyranny is as sure a just cause for rebellion and war as any other reason. 14
The question now remaining is whether the allegation of tyranny on the part of the Colonists was true, which also begs the question what tyranny is to begin with. As will be argued, upon placing the Colonists complaint within the context of earlier surveyed Scripture, tradition, and history, their allegation of tyranny proves true and in adherence to the ad bellum just cause principle.
An overview of Scripture presented a framework in which both principles are established and just war theories are later advanced. Given the apparent paradox between Romans 13 and sedition, the Church sought to interact with the question as it related to a Just War ethic. Interacting with the text, contributions by Pre-Reformation thinkers Ambrose and Augustine argued that the power of the sword existed to correct, oppose, and condemn sin. 15 Chrysostom, Salisbury, and Aquinas presented further additions to the ethic by upholding the authority of the institution over the individual, 16 by acknowledging tyranny as the root of war, 17 and by justifying sedition against tyrants. 18 Reformation thinkers such as Calvin would further develop the tradition by acknowledging the legitimacy of lower magistrates to conduct, organize, and legitimize rebellions against higher tyrannical magistrates. 19 Post reformation thinkers Suarez, Locke, and Buchanan would affirm the legitimacy of rebellions against tyranny, and would advance the definition of tyrannical rule as,
Wherever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’ harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command to compass that upon the subject which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate, and acting without authority may be opposed, as any other man who by force invades the right of another. This is acknowledged in subordinate magistrates. 20
The surrounding historical context of the Colonists would further clarify the charge of tyranny. The English experience prior to the American Revolution was saturated with justified rebellions against alleged tyrants. The Thirty Years War saw Protestant nation-states rebelling against an overreaching tyrannical Emperor, and resulted in the Peace of Westphalia, which gained autonomy for Protestant city-states. The Glorious Revolution saw Englishmen affirming their Constitutional rights against an overreaching monarchy, and resulted in a Parliamentary system that prevented absolute monarchial power by balancing powers and centralizing the Bill of Rights of 1688 and Constitutionalism in the life of English government. The Colonists would later find themselves citing and fighting for the very rights guaranteed in England’s Constitution and fought for by Protestants in the Thirty Years War and the Glorious Revolution.
In addition to apparently evidencing some of the Just War criteria, Scripture spoke to several of the foundational principles of government and rights central to the Colonial mind. 21 It comes as no surprise that upon arriving to America and passing the Mayflower Compact of 1620, the Calvinistic and Puritanical Pilgrims would enter into a social covenant/contract that both preceded the social contract theorists and evidenced commitments to the rule of law, 22 to the common good, 23 and to consent. 14 After the extended period under the unofficial policy of salutary neglect, Colonists found themselves continuing in the spirit of the Mayflower Compact and the Bill of Rights. Upon Britain’s attempts to pay off its war expansions by taxing the Colonists directly, the colonies responded by claiming the act unconstitutional to the rights of consent and representation guaranteed to Englishmen. They expressed themselves through both petition and protest. Britain responded in turn with acts seeking to affirm its sovereignty, and in so doing violated additional guaranteed rights. It was not until Parliament and its armies revoked entire governments, abolished the rule of law, intruded upon private property, denied the rights of prosecution, militarized its presence, sought the seizure of the colonists arms and supplies, and spilt colonial blood in their attempts, that Colonists declared their independence. In light of Scripture’s portrayal of associated principles, in light of the contributions of great Christian thinkers on rebellion and tyranny, and in light of the English and American contexts, the American Revolution’s charge of tyranny on the grounds of the denial and infraction of unalienable rights adhered to the just cause ad bellum principle.
1 John Keown, “America’s War for Independence – Just or Unjust?” 284.
2 In “Was the American Revolution Just?” Tooley abridges Keown’s argument on just cause as follows: “He primarily disputed that war for American independence was a ‘just cause,’ and accused the Americans of exaggeration when their Declaration of Independence inveighed against Britain’s plans for ‘absolute despotism’ through ‘death, desolation and tyranny.’ Regarding taxation, Keown asserted that American colonists were less taxed than the British, that Britain rightly expected help in paying for the French and Indian War, and that the colonies were unwilling to pay for their frontier defense. Besides, the Americans paid for more in taxes after the American Revolution, he noted. As to American complaints of taxation without representation, Keown wrote that American legislatures were more democratic than the British Parliament, the colonies had effective paid agents representing them in London, and most British themselves had no direct role in electing their Parliament. Interestingly, Keown extensively quoted two English Protestants, the man of letters Samuel Johnson, and the Methodist evangelist John Wesley. Dr. Johnson insisted the Americans, or at least their ancestors, had foresworn the potential for voting at home in favor of riches in America. Rev. Wesley professed that he, like 90 percent of all Britons, had no direct representation in Parliament, yet still enjoyed civil and religious liberty to the ‘utmost.’ Keown defended the British closure of Boston’s port and other coercive acts as the justified reaction against American ‘criminality,’ like the famous destruction of British tea. And British trials for Americans outside their own colony, without benefit of a local jury, was justified with local opinion unwilling to punish acts against the British crown. American fears for their liberty were ‘misplaced,’ Keown insisted, as the British had “no plan to restrict colonial liberties or impose authoritarian administration.”
3 See Table 2 for a listing of related principles within Scripture, the Declaration, and the Mayflower Compact. On Liberty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–”
4 The Declaration on Equality: “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them . . . We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,”
5 The Declaration on Rebellion: “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government,”
6 The Declaration on the Common Good: “laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.””
7 The Declaration on Consent: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”
8 The Declaration on the Rule of Law: “[King] refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
9 See Table 3 for a comparison between these rights and grievances among The Declaration of Independence (1776), and the English Constitution (Petition of Right and Bill of Rights). As the language of the Lockean influenced document states, the People maintain the right to revoke and recreate a social contract. “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
10The Declaration on abuses against the Rule of Law: “He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good. He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them. He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only. He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures. He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people. He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the Legislative powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within. He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. He has obstructed the Administration of Justice, by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary powers. He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.”
11 The Declaration on abuses against Consenting to Standing Armies and Private Property: “He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures. He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power. . . . For Quartering large bodies of armed troops among us”
12 The Declaration on abuses against Trial by Jury: “For protecting them, by a mock Trial, from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States . . . For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of Trial by Jury: For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences”
13 The Declaration on abuses against Self-Governance: “For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments: For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever. He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.”
14 The Declaration on abuses against the Common Good: “He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people. He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation. He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands. He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
15 In Summa Theologica, ii-ii, q. 42, art. 2, r.o. 3, Thomas Aquinas explains tyranny as a just cause for sedition where he states, “A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler [citing Aristotle]. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind. . . . Indeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects [effect of the tyrant’s actions], that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, since it is ordered to the private good of the ruler and to the injury of the multitude.” In Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.31, John Calvin expresses his agreement, stating “If there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that . . . they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.” In De Jure Regni Apud Scotos, ii, 47, George Buchanan goes so far as to say that a tyrant is the “enemy of humanity,” and to overthrow such tyranny “the most just of all” wars.
16 Augustine, “Letter 153,” sec. 3, in Augustine: Political Writings, 73. 81. “Therefore if you take action against the crime in order to liberate the human being, you bind yourself to him in a fellowship of humanity rather than injustice. . . . Sometimes it is mercy that prompts punishment, and cruelty that prompts leniency.” (Augustine)
17 Chrysostom in “From the Twenty-Fourth Homily on Romans,” in From Irenaeus to Grotius, 92, on the institution versus the individual: “I am not talking about each ruler individually, but about the institution of government. That there should be structures of government, that some should govern and others be governed, that things should not drift haphazard and at random. . . . That is why the text does not say, “there is no ruler except from God,” but, speaking of the institution: ‘there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”
18 Salisbury in Policraticus, viii, 17, in The Stateman’s Book, 336. commenting on the passage mentioning the taking up and dying by the sword describes tyranny as the root of war: “For if iniquity and injustice, banishing charity, had not brought about tyranny, firm concord and perpetual peace would have possessed the peoples of the earth forever, and no one would think of enlarging his boundaries. Then kingdoms would be as friendly and peaceful . . . and would enjoy as undisturbed repose, as the separate families in a well-ordered state.”
19 Aquinas, in Summa Theologica, ii-ii, q. 42, art. 2, r.o. 3, on sedition and deposing a tyrant: “A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler [citing Aristotle]. Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind.”
20 Calvin, in Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.31, on legitimate authority of upper magistrates: “If there are now any magistrates of the people, appointed to restrain the willfulness of kings . . . if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that . . . they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.”
21 Locke’s Second Treatise in Holmes 264.
22 See Table 2 for a treatment of paralleled principles in the Scripture, the Declaration (1776), and the Mayflower Compact (1620). See Table 4 for a treatment of verses possibly alluding to Just War principles. Scripture On Government, Authority, Subjection, Anarchy, Justice, and Punishment: Gn. 9:5-6; Dt. 17:14-20; Rm. 13:1-7; 1 Pt. 2:13-14; Judg. 21:18-25; Ps. 82:2-4; Eccl. 8:11. On Disobedience: Dn. 3:13-27; Ex. 1:17, 21; 6:10; Mt. 2:8, 12. On the Common Good: Rm 13:4; 1 Sm. 12:3-4; 8:11-17. On Condemning Self-Enriching Rulers: Dt. 16:19; Ps. 26:10; Pr. 15:27; 17:23; Is. 33:15; Ez. 22:12; Am. 5:12; Hab. 1:2-4. On Liberty, Slavery, and Oppression: Gn. 2:16-17, Ex. 20:2; Dt. 28:28-29, 33; Jd. 2:16-23. On Unchecked Power: 2 Sm. 11; 1 Kg. 11:3-4; Dt. 17:17; 1-2 Kgs., 1-2 Chr., Mt. 10:1-4; Tit. 1:5; Jam. 5:14. On the Rule of Law: Dt. 17:18-20; 2 Sm. 12. On Consent: Gn 1:27; 9:6; Jam. 3:9; Rm. 13:4; Ac. 6:3; 1 Kg. 12:15-16; Ex. 3:9-10; Judg. 14:4; 2 Kg. 25:1-21; Mt. 2:16-17; Lk 13:1; Ac. 12:1-2.
23 See Table 2. Mayflower Compact on the Rule of Law: “by virtue hereof to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, acts, constitutions, and offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general good of the colony; unto which we promise all due submission and obedience.”
24 Mayflower Compact on the Common Good: “for our better ordering, and preservation and furtherance of the ends aforesaid”.
25 Mayflower Compact on a Social Contract/Covenant: “combine ourselves together into a civil body politic . . . for the general good of the colony”. The Mayflower Compact on Consent: “in the presence of God, and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic”.
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