A Further Perspective

America’s Unjust Revolution: What British Tyranny?

A third and final response to Mark Tooley from Georgetown's Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics.

By 9.13.10

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Mark Tooley has probably done as well as anyone could in his attempt to reconcile the American Revolution with the "just war" tradition. He is, however, hammering a square peg into a round hole. His third blow is no more successful than his previous two.

He wonders (again) if I am opposed to all war. I reply (again) that I am not. The just war tradition is not pacifist; neither am I. Nor have I "reinvented" its criteria as a "rhetorical tool against virtually all force." I reiterate that I adopt the standard criteria as articulated by orthodox sources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Tooley says my case would be more persuasive if I could point to any conflict that met the criteria. I do not see why that should follow, but I am happy to oblige. It seems to me that the Allies in the Second World War were justified in resisting the aggression of the Nazis and the Japanese. (This is not, of course, to condone everything the Allies did, such as the nuclear incineration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a flagrant breach of the just war's prohibition on targeting non-combatants.) However, the Allies' resistance in that war was to attacks; the resistance of the colonial rebels was to a tax.

Tooley claims I try to reduce the War for Independence to a "trifling tax dispute, with all the British repressions simply the reasoned reaction to misbehaving colonists." I never claimed the tax dispute was "trifling," but the rebellion was (as Alvin Rabushka writes in his monumental study of taxation in colonial America) a "tax revolt, first and foremost." My paper asks:

Did the imposition of a few, limited taxes on the wealthy colonies to help pay for their security constitute a just cause for armed insurrection?

Despite three bites of the cherry, Tooley has failed to provide a cogent answer. And his list of British "repressions," such as the dissolution of colonial legislatures, is (as I pointed out in my last rejoinder) merely a list of understandable actions taken by the British to counter open rebellion. Tooley has, again, failed to explain why those actions were unjust, let alone tyrannical. Does the government not have as much a right to suppress unjust rebellion as citizens have a duty not to foment it?

He writes that I blame the rebels for "not passively accepting injustice." Not so. I question whether they suffered any injustice at all, let alone tyranny. He also implies that I criticize the Revolution for not redressing all injustice and for not creating utopia. Again, not so. I criticize the Revolution because it was itself an injustice and would have remained so even had it created utopia. Whatever good it brought about was brought about by violent treason against legitimate, lawful government.

Tooley, rightly, recognizes important authorities in the just war tradition like St. Thomas Aquinas and notes that Aquinas allows for resistance to a tyrannical government unless greater harm is created thereby. But Tooley has failed to show either that the British were tyrannical or that overthrowing British rule (by initiating what turned into a world war) did not create greater harm. He simply assumes what he needs to prove. Where does Aquinas teach that colonists (or, indeed, non-colonists) may justly rebel if they are taxed without representation? (Where, indeed, does he teach that there is even a right to representation?) I may add that a number of the eminent scholars who have kindly read and endorsed my paper include leading authorities on St. Thomas. My paper follows the just war tradition according to Thomas, not Tooley.

Tooley repeats that Burke opposed the "suppression" of the colonists. I repeat that Burke, whatever he thought of the wisdom of taxing the colonists, voted to affirm Britain's right to tax them. Tooley cites the British constitution, but according to that constitution the King in Parliament, the supreme law-making body, had the sovereign right to legislate for the colonies in all matters, including taxation.

Tooley criticizes the British for rejecting Congress's "Olive Branch Petition" of July 1775 and for replying with a declaration of war. But war had already been waged by the rebels, at Lexington, Fort Ticonderoga, and Bunker Hill. Indeed, only weeks before Congress sent the Petition, it not only raised a Continental Army but authorized it to invade Canada. (So much, we may note, for the rebel war being "defensive.") It is hardly surprising that its Petition met with a frosty British reception. Whether or not the British could have handled the crisis better (and we should remember that they too, before and after the war started in earnest, made peace overtures which were rebuffed) has little bearing on the crucial moral question: whether the rebels were justified in precipitating that crisis.

A hypothetical may help to illustrate the patent injustice of the Revolution.

Imagine that thousands of American citizens, wanting to leave the mainland in search of a better life and to populate a large, uninhabited island a thousand miles off the west coast of the U.S., petition the U.S. Government to live on the island under U.S. jurisdiction, ruled by a Federal Governor. The Government agrees.

No sooner have the emigrants planted the Stars and Stripes on the island than they strike gold, build up a healthy trade with the mainland, and become hugely wealthy. However, the Japanese, wanting to expand their sphere of influence and enrich their coffers, invade the island. The U.S. successfully defends the island in a major, protracted war which costs many American lives and drains the U.S. Treasury.

To offset the massive cost of the war and of guaranteeing the island's security (a cost which has produced large tax hikes for Americans on the mainland), the U.S. Government imposes a modest tax on coffee imported by the islanders. Some islanders refuse to pay, claiming that as they have no right to vote for members of the U.S. Congress, the Federal tax demand is unwarranted. They seize a U.S.-registered ship in the island's port and jettison its cargo of coffee into the sea. They also assault IRS officials, riot, and torch the Governor's mansion.

When a detachment of U.S. Marines is sent to the island to restore order, some islanders confront them with loaded rifles and with cannon stolen from the local Federal Armory. Shots are exchanged. The Marines, outnumbered, retreat under withering fire. Many Marines are killed. The survivors reach the relative safety of the island's capital, which is promptly besieged by the rebel islanders.

The U.S. Government demands that the rebels lay down their arms and respect U.S. law. The rebels (representing perhaps only a third of the island population) refuse and declare independence, backing up their declaration with further attacks on U.S. forces on the island. A full-scale war between the rebel islanders and the U.S. ensues.

Have the rebel islanders waged a "just war"?

In conclusion, I am pleased to inform readers that, courtesy of the editor of the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, my original paper, which Mark Tooley has so gamely sought to criticize, will soon be posted on the website of the Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

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About the Author

John Keown is Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics of Georgetown University.