Georgetown University ethicist John Keown has failed to succumb to the rigor of my logic that the American Revolution did meet Christian Just War criteria! Once more, he leaves the same suspicion as when our enjoyable debate began. Does he believe any war is ever just? Or does he join many others in recent times who have largely reinvented Just War standards into a rhetorical tool against virtually all force? This subversion of traditional Just War teaching has become even more pronounced in many circles since 9-11, with religious critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts often solemnly citing Just War, without fully admitting that they do not find any war just.
Keown hints at the stratospheric standard he demands for Just War when he argues the American Revolution did not abolish slavery. Must a war redress all injustices to be legitimate? If so, no war is just. Traditional Just War teaching, beginning with St. Augustine, never insisted on such perfectionism, knowing it would have invalidated this teaching. Both sides in the American Revolution maintained slavery. Most of the new United States abolished slavery before the British Empire did. And the Revolution’s aspirations of human equality and rights for all certainly animated abolitionism in America and Britain. Keown’s cynicism is revealed in a quote he cites from one historian, who harrumphed that the Revolution allowed wealthy “white men” to advance while leaving virtually all others behind, amid much persisting “discriminatory” legislation. “Discriminatory” compared to what? Among discriminations that the American Revolution almost immediately removed from the old regime were religious tests for public office, military rank, academic tenure, and suffrage.
No, the American Revolution, like every war, and every human endeavor, did not create utopia. Christians typically do not anticipate the extinction of all injustice until God reigns on earth. But in the years immediately following the war, most northern states abolished slavery, and all states vastly expanded the franchise. The dramatic economic growth after the Revolution, fueled by low taxes and limited government, benefited virtually all classes, with the population quickly doubling, tripling, and quadrupling, thanks to high birth rates and high immigration. Women’s rights were a natural extension of the Revolution’s promises. Alexis de Tocqueville observed how the early Republic highly regarded women, who enjoyed a degree of independence unusual in Europe.
Keown tries to limit the American Revolution’s origin to a trifling tax dispute, with all the British repressions simply the reasoned reaction to misbehaving colonists. Taxation without consent of elected representatives, the abrogation of colonial charters, the eventual dismissal of legislatures, the usurpation of colonial courts, the quartering of hostile troops, the seizure of colonial arsenals, and the suppression of trade were all assaults on liberty that the colonists, no less than for their English cousins in their own earlier struggles, found intolerable.
Keown blames the victims for starting the spiral by not passively accepting injustice from their ruling sovereign. Will Keown more daringly, and with more political incorrectness, next condemn Gandhi’s revolt, which, though, pacifist, ultimately killed and destroyed far more than did the American Revolution?
Incongruently, Keown dismissed my reference to Britain’s own parliamentary led revolts against unbridled royalism, saying the colonists were rebelling against both Parliament and King. But the colonists had their own legislatures, already long recognized in British law, not to mention a trans-colonial Continental Congress. The American Revolution easily fit the Christian Reformed tradition’s understanding that revolt against tyranny is legitimate if led by responsible lower magistrates. This understanding informed the British parliamentary rebellion in the 1640s, and no less the American colonists in the 1770s.
Great British statesmen like Edmund Burke and the Earl of Chatham recognized this principle and openly opposed the British suppression of the colonists. Keown dismisses their points, rooted in the British constitution. Instead, in his original article, he relied heavily on John Wesley, an evangelist, and Samuel Johnson, a literary gadfly, both of whom were themselves initially sympathetic to the colonists. Why do Wesley and Johnson trump Burke and Chatham? And when exactly would the colonists have been justified to rebel? What more should they have endured? Interestingly, Keown never explains. He likewise ignored my suggestion that he justify the British military suppression of the colonists, according to Just War criteria. He complains that it’s not clear that I abide by the “standard just war tradition as set out in [his] paper.” But it remains unclear that his interpretation is in sync with historic Just War teaching, or instead reflects the modern subversion of it. He briefly observes that Just War’s seven criteria have been met “on occasion.” When exactly? His insistence on the American Revolution’s injustice would be more persuasive if he could point to a similar conflict, or any conflict, that was just. Revealingly, he has not.
One of the earliest masters of the Just War tradition, Thomas Aquinas, argued that “disturbing” a “tyrannical government” is “no sedition,” unless disturbing it creates greater harm than the original tyranny. Even earlier, Augustine reputedly wrote, “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” The parameters of traditional Just War are considerably wider, and more humanly attainable, than what Keown now suggests. His insistence on a pure “right intention,” which is impossible among fallen humanity, effectively means that no war qualifies as just, nullifying the whole purpose of Just War teaching.
In their “Olive Branch Petition” of July 1775, several months even after Lexington and Concord, the Continental Congress appealed as “still faithful colonists” to King George III for peace. The monarch peremptorily responded with a declaration of war against the “traitors.” America’s Founders and patriots were not angels, as they themselves readily admitted. But their defensive war, waged against a foolish monarch who had rejected compromise and peace, was just, according to the rules of faith then available. Those rules remain more persuasive than what Keown now proposes.
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