A reply to Professor John Keown on whether the American Revolution was a just war.
Responding to my critique of his rejection of the American Revolution based on traditional Christian Just War teachings, Georgetown University Professor John Keown insists that two thirds of colonial Americans agreed with him.
Unless he has previously undisclosed early American polling data, his point is unproven. Probably he references an aging John Adams’ famous supposed conjecture, 40 years after the war, that one third of early Americans supported revolution, one third were unsure, and one third were partial to Britain. One writer has surmised that Adams was actually referring to American attitudes towards the French Revolution and its British adversary, a chief issue during Adams’ presidency.
Some scholars estimate that 15 to 20 percent of American colonials favored Britain. Possibly about 2 percent of the newly independent United States’ population migrated to Canada because of their British sympathies. America’s war for independence remarkably united 13 previously disparate colonies, as expressed by their elected representatives. Americans sustained an often ill clad, unfed but still viable and spirited multi-racial army for more than 7 years, against superior invading forces that occupied American cities and frequently ravaged the countryside. As a percentage of population, the Revolution’s death toll would equal about 2-3 million fatalities today, making it the most deadly American conflict after the Civil War.
Not once after the conflict began did the cash-strapped and often fleeing Continental Congress seriously consider surrender or anything less than full independence. Such perseverance had to have required considerable popular support. In contrast, dissent against the war in the British Parliament was considerable. And Britain’s merchant class, among others, loudly protested the war’s costs and impact on trade. Although Britain was far more populated and wealthier, and it did not endure attacks on the homeland except for a spirited naval foray by John Paul Jones, it was British public opinion that turned; America’s never did.
Keown disparages the “planned aggression” of the American rebels at Lexington and Concord. The famous “shot heard round the world” came only after 10 years of American political and economic protests against British attacks on freedoms that had been historic for Englishmen and their once loyal colonists. And no one knows who fired it while the farmers and tradesmen lined up on Lexington Green against invading British regulars. These uninvited royalist troops sought to seize the arsenal of the Massachusetts colony, arms purchased by Massachusetts taxpayers, for their own defense, through the Massachusetts militia. The British military commander in Boston had already dissolved Massachusetts’ legislature and aspired to crush the colony’s new provincial congress. Britain’s own revolts against royalist tyranny in the 1640s, after King Charles dissolved Parliament, and in 1688, after King James II dissolved militias in favor of his own royalist army, were fought over similar outrages. As Winston Churchill smilingly observed to Americans, during World War II, American Revolutionaries fought in defense of ancient English liberties against a Germanic king (George III’s family was from Hanover) and his German (i.e. Hessian) mercenaries.
Keown questioned whether the American Revolution employed force as a “last resort.” But after 10 years of appeals for redress of grievances, appeals supported by British statesmen like the Earl of Chatham and Edmund Burke, how 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?
As Chatham, Britain’s famed premier during the French and Indian War, declared in Parliament in 1777, two years after war began: “If I were an American, as I am an Englishman, while a foreign troop was landed in my country, I never would lay down my arms — never — never — never! You cannot conquer America.” And at the start of the political struggle with Britain, in 1766, Chatham was similarly sympathetic: “I rejoice that America has resisted. Three millions of people, so dead to all the feelings of liberty, as voluntarily to submit to be slaves, would have been fit instruments to make slaves of the rest.”
Chatham understood what Keown evidently does not. Britain’s Tory regime of that time was assaulting not just American liberties but ultimately English liberties, in pursuit of what Burke denounced as “injustice, oppression and absurdity.” America’s struggle was more than a mere tax dispute but an assertion of inalienable rights rooted in British custom and law and further refined in the Declaration of Independence. Keown faults Americans for all the war’s inevitable horrors. But why not fault instead the Tory regime’s dispatch of troops to America to suppress their previously faithful subjects? Does Just War permit colonial governments unlimited license upon their colonists, while allowing the colonists no resort at all, except to suffer endlessly until both law and liberty are extinguished?
As to slavery, Keown’s connection of it to Just War teaching in this case is unclear. The British were not fighting to end slavery, and Americans were not fighting to defend it. Colonies where slavery least existed, in New England, were the most adamant for independence. Deep South colonies were more reluctant. British Tories who fled to Canada took their slaves, protected by British law. Thousands of black Americans fought in the American Army, influencing George Washington’s own eventual anti-slavery views. In contrast, the infamous British General Banastre Tarleton, author of the “Waxhaw Massacre” in South Carolina, later served in the British Parliament as a fervid defender of the slave trade. Britain abolished slavery, which was confined mostly to its Caribbean colonies, only more than 50 years after the war and could do so only by agreeing to compensate the owners. Could Britain have afforded this enormous expense had America’s slaves added several times to the cost? And did not the words of the Declaration of Independence, affirming human equality, fan the tide of eventual abolition by both Britain and America?
Uncharitably, Keown berates the Declaration’s author for supposedly having enslaved his own children. In fact, all of Sally Hemmings’s children eventually were freed or permitted to escape. Their paternity remains unproven. And the latest scholarship argues against an aging Jefferson fathering multiple children with a young slave mistress while also living with his grown daughters, their husbands, his grandchildren, and hundreds of house guests, with none of them apparently noticing. Unlike Washington, Jefferson failed to free all but a few of his slaves, partly thanks to enormous debts that deprived him of ownership. But when signing the law outlawing America’s external slave trade (permitted but not mandated by the Constitution, as I incorrectly said in my earlier article), contemporaneous to Britain’s own ban, he became the last president publicly to denounce slavery until Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, America’s religious and secular left commonly deride America as little more than a long catalogue of crimes against the Indians, slaves, later immigrants, Japanese internees, and countless ostensible global victims of American imperialism, in stark comparison with an otherwise supposedly blameless humanity outside America. For them, the American Revolution is a petty tax dispute waged by hypocritical slave masters, ushering in an infamous empire. These scoffers are also typically campus lounge pacifists, who see Just War teaching primarily as a tool for proving no war is just.
Keown is more sophisticated than this crowd and, as an orthodox Catholic, cannot be easily counted among the utopians of the Religious Left. But his analysis shows a bias against America. And his stringent portrayal of Just War teaching begs the question of whether he would ever support any armed conflict. Even the most noble among fallen humanity are unlikely to neatly thread all the needles that academics like Keown demand. And Just War teaching, traditionally, is not just a limitation on war but is also, no less strongly, a command for force when required by justice.
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