Thomas Paine on Just War

Thomas Paine
Thomas Paine


In his 1776 bestseller “Common Sense,” Thomas Paine cautions his fellow Americans that “a long habit of not thinking a thing WRONG, gives it a superficial appearance of being RIGHT, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”

Is the six decade old American policy of interventionism, or that policy which searches out and wages war upon nations which have not attacked our people, nor robbed our property, just such an example of something which has by habit acquired a superficial appearance of being right?

The American Founders had a ready answer for such a war policy. They termed it “offensive war.”

In that popular Revolutionary War series “The Crisis”, Thomas Paine says as to the justness of the American War for Independence:

My own line of reasoning is to myself as straight and clear as a ray of light. Not all the treasures of the world, so far as I believe, could have induced me to support an offensive war, for I think it murder.

This was a common sense, biblically based, universally held moral conviction of the day. Simply, as the individual is only justified in killing in self-defense, so the nation is only justified in the strictly limited right to kill in self-defense, or more specifically, in defense of the lives, property, and rights of those people who by common agreement or election delegated this power to the state. Kept within these bounds the power to kill is legal and just. Beyond this is tyranny, or an unlawful arbitrary use of power not legitimately possessed, and in the specific case of offensive war, murder also, if not mass murder.

But then, in such a case, the guilt of the nation’s leaders deepens in that it involves our largely moral and patriotic young men and women of the military in the offensive war dirty work of misguided politicians, of sending bullets, bombs, and missiles into a nation that committed no crime against America, and for executing justice (if that is what our nation’s leaders wish to call it) upon a people for which America’s leaders possess no delegated authority, no, not over offenders or victims. And consider, some of these valiant soldiers become beset with psychological issues which may never resolve in this life. While morale, in general, often descends as the justness of the American Cause becomes more and more questionable.

By contrast, there is a power that has been with the American military in the past, and still is with her today, when our national leaders stay within the bounds of that moral law which has so long been attached to and vital to the proper exercise and defense of our liberties. God’s blessings attend. There stirs in the thoughts and hearts of the American soldier an uncommon inspiration; even while and an uncommon goodness and success seems to marks his every labor too. In this last quote from Thomas Paine’s “The Crisis,” one sees the effect upon words when our cause is just, and one can only imagine how wonderfully these words moved the troops for good as their beloved General George Washington, read them aloud. Wrote Paine:

I have as little superstition in me as any man living, but my secret opinion has ever been, and still is, that God Almighty will not give up a people to military destruction, or leave them unsupportedly to perish, who have so earnestly and so repeatedly sought to avoid the calamities of war, by every decent method which wisdom could invent. Neither have I so much of the infidel in me, as to suppose that He has relinquished the government of the world, and given us up to the care of devils; and as I do not, I cannot see on what grounds the king of Britain can look up to heaven for help against us: a common murderer, a highwayman, or a house-breaker, has as good a pretense as he.

Yes, Paine knew, Washington knew, his troops knew, and all of America knew, that God would be with and prosper our cause – and He did. The English, who were waging an offensive war upon their own brethren could not feel the same. That their empire would not long thereafter come to ruin is of little surprise.

Steve Farrell is the Founder and Editor In Chief of The Moral Liberal, one of the original pundits at (1999-2008), and the author of the inspirational novel, Dark Rose.