A Just War

 

 

 

Based on the just war doctrine first enunciated by Saint Augustine, the American Revolution was a just war.

 

Over the centuries the precise content of the just war doctrine has varied.  The classic definition of it by Saint Thomas Aquinas is set forth in Part II, Question 40 of his Summa Theologica:

“I answer that, In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged. For it is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior. Moreover it is not the business of a private individual to summon together the people, which has to be done in wartime. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Rm. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Ps. 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (Questions. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom. [*The words quoted are to be found not in St. Augustine’s works, but Can. Apud. Caus. xxiii, qu. 1]): “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.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

The most recent formulation of the Just War doctrine for the Church is set forth in the Catechism at 2309:

” The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

- the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

- all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

- there must be serious prospects of success;

- the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

As can be easily seen, there are differences between the formulation of the Just War doctrine by the Angelic Doctor and the Catechism.  Saint Thomas was concerned that a lawful authority declare the war.  Petty barons declaring endless petty local wars was a curse of the Middle Ages, and the Church was constantly trying to bring to a halt this type of endless local feuding, and hence the concern of Saint Thomas that war be an instrument solely of a sovereign.  Second, a war has to involve some sort of fault by the other side to make the war just.  Third, a rightful intent to use the war as a means to accomplish a just end.

The most recent interpretation of the Doctrine in the Catechism seeks to set the bar higher, much higher, for a just war, than Saint Thomas did.   The damage, which I assume is not restricted to physical damage, by the aggressor, must be “lasting, grave and certain”,  an element not contained in the formulation of Saint Thomas.  All means short of war must have been attempted and have shown to be “impractical or ineffective”,  a requirement also absent from the three requirements of a just war of Saint Thomas.  There must be serious prospect of success, something which literally only God would really know at the beginning of most conflicts, and which is not mentioned by the Angelic Doctor.  The final element speaks about a war not producing “evils and disorders” graver than the evil to be eliminated, once again a requirement not to be found in the three components of a just war set forth by Saint Thomas.  This one seems to be the product of the devastation wreaked in World War II, and a fear of the use of wmds in a future conflict.

In the Eighteenth Century a just war analysis from a Catholic position would have been far closer to the formulation of Saint Thomas than that of the current Catechism, and it would also have been easier for the American Revolution to pass the test.  From a moral standpoint I assume that the Catholic views on the subject at the time would have been the relevant consideration to judge the morality of the Americans who rose in revolt, since obviously it would be unfair to judge them by a standard foreign to their time.  However, since I blog for fun, and shooting fish in a barrel is rarely fun, we will use the interpretation of  the just war doctrine of the current Catechism to judge the American Revolution.

I.   the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

A fairly lengthy history of the dispute between Great Britain and the 13 colonies is needed in this section of this post and I beg the reader’s indulgence.

Under the policy of “benign neglect” the 13 colonies from their foundation to the end of the French and Indian War had usually been left to their own devices by the British Crown and Parliament.  Royal governors appointed by the King found themselves confronted by elected legislatures which effectively governed the colonies.  Unpopular laws, at least unpopular in the colonies, passed by Parliament were dead letters in the colonies where attempts to enforce them were rare and local juries, in any case, would not convict those who ran afoul of such laws.  Under these conditions the colonies throve, and the English government usually  wisely looked the other way.

All of this changed at the end of the French and Indian War, and the cause of the change was money.  England had won a smashing victory over France, annexing Canada and various other French colonies, but it had been an expensive victory and the new imperial responsibilities were not cheap.  The English government, realizing that the Americans were the most lightly taxed people on Earth, decided that the 13 colonies should share in the financial burden.  This was a radical break with tradition as Parliament had never directly taxed the colonies before.

The first of the taxes was the Sugar Act, a tax on sugar in 1764.  This was followed swiftly by the Stamp Act tax of 1765, which required stamps showing payment of a tax on most printed materials, except for books.  The reaction of the Americans was immediate, and actually predated the passage of the Act when rumors of it had reached America in 1764.  The position of the Americans was well set out in the Virginia Resolves, authored by Patrick Henry and passed by the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 30, 1765:

“Resolved, That the first Adventurers and Settlers of this his majesty’s colony and Dominion of Virginia brought with them, and transmitted to their Posterity, and all other his Majesty’s subjects since inhabiting in this his Majesty’s said Colony, all the Liberties, privileges, Franchises, and Immunities that have at any Time been held, enjoyed, and possessed, by the People of Great Britain.

Resolved, That by the two royal Charters, granted by King James the First, the Colonists aforesaid are declared entitled to all Liberties, Privileges, and Immunities of Denizens and natural Subjects, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born within the Realm of England.

Resolved, That the Taxation of the People by themselves, or by Persons chosen by themselves to represent them, who could only know what Taxes the People are able to bear, or the easiest method of raising them, and must themselves be affected by every Tax laid on the People, is the only Security against a burdensome Taxation, and the distinguishing characteristick of British Freedom, without which the ancient Constitution cannot exist.

Resolved, That his majesty’s liege people of this his most ancient and loyal Colony have without interruption enjoyed the inestimable Right of being governed by such Laws, respecting their internal Polity and Taxation, as are derived from their own Consent, with the Approbation of their Sovereign, or his Substitute; and that the same hath never been forfeited or yielded up, but hath been constantly recognized by the King and People of Great Britain.”

There we have it in a nutshell:  Americans are not to be taxed except by taxes passed by their legislatures, and that their legislatures have the sole authority to make the laws governing their internal affairs.  Ominously for  British rule in the colonies, a Stamp Act Congress assembled in New York in October 1765.  It produced a Declaration of Rights and Grievances, which reaffirmed the central point of the Americans that they could only be taxed by the action of their legislatures.  Eventually all the colonies endorsed this Declaration of the Stamp Act Congress, and the value of  concerted effort was hammered home to the Americans.

The uproar was so intense from the Americans that Parliament repealed the Stamp Act in February of 1766.  William Pitt, the English Secretary of State who had led England to victory in the French and Indian War, now in opposition to the government, stated in Parliament:  “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.”  Parliament also passed, Pitt and a handful of members voting against it, a Declaratory Act which stated:

“AN ACT FOR THE BETTER SECURING THE DEPENDENCY OF HIS MAJESTY’S DOMINIONS IN AMERICA UPON THE CROWN AND PARLIAMENT OF GREAT BRITAIN

Whereas several of the houses of representatives in His Majesty’s colonies and plantations in America have of late, against law, claimed to themselves, or to the general assemblies of the same, the sole and exclusive right of imposing duties and taxes upon His Majesty’s subjects in the said colonies and plantations; and have, in pursuance of such claim, passed certain votes, resolutions, and orders derogatory to the legislative authority of Parliament, and inconsistent with the dependency of the said colonies and plantations upon the crown of Great Britain: may it therefore please Your Most Excellent Majesty that it may be declared, and be it declared by the king’s Most Excellent Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the authority of the same, That the said colonies and plantations in America have been, are, and of right ought to be, subordinate unto, and dependent upon the imperial crown and Parliament of Great Britain; and that the king’s Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, of Great Britain, in Parliament assembled, had, hath, and of right ought to have, full power and authority to make laws and statutes of sufficient force and validity to bind the colonies and people of America, subjects of the crown of Great Britain, in all cases whatsoever.

II. And be it further declared and enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all resolutions, votes, orders, and proceedings, in any of the said colonies or plantations, whereby the power and authority of the Parliament of Great Britain to make laws and statutes as aforesaid is denied, or drawn into question, are, and are hereby declared to be, utterly null and void to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”

In short Parliament had complete control over the colonies, any actions of the colonial legislatures notwithstanding.  In America the repeal of the Stamp Act was met with wild rejoicing and the Declaratory Act was ignored, most Americans assuming that it was a mere face saving device.

It was not.  In 1767 Parliament passed the so-called Townshend Acts, named for Charles Townshend, Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury).   Under the Revenue Act, duties were imposed on paper, paint, glass and tea imported into the colonies.  The theory in Parliament was that since this was not an internal tax but rather an external duty, the colonists would not object.  The Revenue Act also affirmed the use of writs of assistance, broad search warrants, as part of an effort of the British government to stamp out smuggling in the colonies.  The Commissioners of Customs Act established the American Board of Custom Commissioners to enforce the trade restrictions preventing the colonies from freely trading with foreign countries and their colonies.  The Vice Admiralty Court Act of 1768 established admiralty courts to prosecute trade and custom violations in the American colonies.  No trial by jury was allowed in these courts, which was the whole point since colonial juries were quite reluctant to prosecute smugglers, who brought them cheap goods from foreign lands.  The New York Restraining Act suspended the New York legislature for its failure to allocate funds for the quartering of British troops under the Quartering Act of 1765.  The legislature avoided suspension by allocating the funds, but also passed a resolution stating that Parliament lacked the power to suspend an elected legislature.

The reaction in the colonies was explosive.  Boycotts were organized against British goods throughout the colonies with George Washington taking the lead in Virginia.  Petitions against the Acts were submitted to Parliament by the legislatures of Virginia and Pennsylvania.  Parliament refused to receive the petitions.  Colonial assemblies were threatened with dissolution if they followed the lead of the Massachusetts legislature in its circular letter  protesting the Acts.  When the Massachusetts legislature refused to rescind the circular letter it was dissolved.  Prosecutions of smugglers, most notably John Hancock, made them popular heroes and inflamed popular opinion.  British troops were brought into Boston in 1768 and evidence was sought of treason under the Treason Act of 1543, with the trials to be conducted in England.  No treason prosecutions were undertaken due to difficulties with gathering evidence, but the threat of Americans being shipped to England to be tried for treason had a huge impact on American public opinion and increased the anger growing against King and Parliament.  Growing tensions between troops and townspeople in Boston, culminated in the Boston “Massacre” on March 5, 1770, brought on by a mob of Bostonians attacking a small detail of British troops.  John Adams successfully defended the troops against charges of murder and added lustre to American justice by demonstrating that even in those inflamed times an American jury was willing to acquit British troops based on evidence.  Ironically, on the same day as the “Massacre”,  the British Parliament, partially yielding to the unending American protests, repealed the imposts on paint, glass and paper, but kept the tax on tea.

A brief period of relative peace ensued.  The Tea Act of 1773 ended this period of peace.  Parliament, seemingly unable to leave this issue alone, now allowed the nearly bankrupt East India Company to export tea directly to the colonies rather than through London.  This actually cheapened the cost of the tea for the colonists, but the fatal flaw was the tax on the tea.  As any man with any sense could have predicted in Parliament, the American reaction was intensely negative.  Protests ensued throughout the colonies with the ships of the East India Company being refused the right to dock in several colonies, and in all the colonies but one, the tea that was landed was ultimately shipped back to England.   In Massachusetts, Royal Governor Thomas Hutchinson refused to allow the East India ships to leave until the tea was unloaded.  On December 16, 1773 the Boston Tea Party occurred and the crisis between Great Britain and America entered a new and more dangerous phase.

Initially many American leaders, including George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, disapproved of the Boston tea party.  Parliament responded with the Restraining Acts in June of 1774.

The Boston Port Act closed the port of Boston until the East India Company had been recompensed for the tea dumped in Boston Harbor and until the King was satisfied that order had been restored.

The Massachusetts Government Act  transformed the government of Massachusetts by making it in effect a department of the British Crown. Under the terms of the Government Act, almost all positions in the colonial government were to be appointed by the governor or the king. The act also greatly restrained the activities of town meetings in Massachusetts.  Americans were especially aghast at this act.  If this could be done to Massachusetts, what was to prevent the King and Parliament from altering in such a manner the government of any of the colonies?

The Administration of Justice Act allowed the governor of Massachusetts to move trials of accused royal officials to another colony or even to Great Britain if he believed the official could not get a fair trial in Massachusetts.  This Act was commonly called the Murder Act in America since it appeared to many colonists to ensure that representatives of Great Britain would never again be brought to trial in America for any crimes they might commit, and thus could literally get away with murder.

The Quartering Act  allowed the British to use unoccupied buildings for the quartering of troops in the colonies.  Since the presence of the British troops was detested already by the colonists, one can imagine how hated was the commandeering of private buildings for the housing of these same troops.

There were wise men in Parliament who understood that these acts might well provoke the Americans into rebellion.  William Pitt, now Earl of Chatham, spoke out against these acts as did Edmund Burke.  In April of 1774 Burke pleaded with Parliament to reverse course and to simply revert to the policy of Great Britain prior to 1765 and allow the Americans to tax themselves:

“Again, and again, revert to your own principles—Seek Peace, and ensue it—leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, not attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they antiently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it. They and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system. Let the memory of all actions, in contradiction to that good old mode, on both sides, be extinguished for ever. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it. Let this be your reason for binding their trade. Do not burthen them by taxes; you were not used to do so from the beginning. Let this be your reason for not taxing. These are the arguments of states and kingdoms. Leave the rest to the schools; for there only they may be discussed with safety. But, if intemperately, unwisely, fatally, you sophisticate and poison the very source of government, by urging subtle deductions, and consequences odious to those you govern, from the unlimited and illimitable nature of supreme sovereignty, you will teach them by these means to call that sovereignty itself in question. When you drive him hard, the boar will surely turn upon the hunters. If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No-body will be argued into slavery. Sir, let the gentlemen on the other side call forth all their ability; let the best of them get up, and tell me, what one character of liberty the Americans have, and what one brand of slavery they are free from, if they are bound in their property and industry, by all the restraints you can imagine on commerce, and at the same time are made pack-horses of every tax you choose to impose, without the least share in granting them. When they bear the burthens of unlimited monopoly, will you bring them to bear the burthens of unlimited revenue too? The Englishman in America will feel that this is slavery—that it is legal slavery, will be no compensation, either to his feelings or his understanding.”

The voices of reason were ignored.  In America the Restraining Acts quickly became known as the Coercive Acts and the Intolerable Acts.  Americans were aghast, and many moderate Americans were moved to join those advocating resistance to Great Britain.  Out of this furor came the First Continental Congress which met on September 5, 1774.  The Congress called for a colony wide boycott of British goods commencing on December 1, 1774 and a Petition to the King, listing the grievances of the colonists and asking for redress of these grievances.  The Congress also provided for a meeting of a Second Continental Congress on May 10, 1775.  Rather than crushing American resistance, the Restraining Acts provoked a reaction which laid the basis for an embryonic federal government for the colonies.

General Thomas Gage was appointed military governor of Massachusetts in early 1774.  He embarked on a campaign to disarm the Massachusetts militia.  In an event that is largely forgotten today but was a huge event throughout the colonies in 1774, on September 1, 1774 Gage sent an expedition of British troops to seized the powder at the arsenal located in Sommerville, Massachusetts.  The British succeeded in their mission and almost started the Revolutionary War.  Militia units formed up in alarm throughout Massachusetts and surrounding colonies in New England, thinking that a war had begun while wild rumors flew, and it was several days before calm was restored.  This Powder Alarm caused the militia in Massachusetts and the colonies to take steps to protect their arsenals for fear of a deliberate British policy to disarm them and leave them helpless before the redcoats.  The stage was set for Lexington and Concord.

On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke gave an important speech in Parliament on Conciliation With America.   He proposed that Parliament reverse a course which was leading inevitably to war and recognize that the Americans should tax themselves, and govern themselves on internal matters,  through their own legislatures: 

“My Resolutions therefore mean to establish the equity and justice of a taxation of America by GRANT, and not by IMPOSITION; to mark the LEGAL COMPETENCY of the Colony Assemblies for the support of their government in peace, and for public aids in time of war; to acknowledge that this legal competency has had a DUTIFUL AND BENEFICIAL EXERCISE; and that experience has shown the BENEFIT OF THEIR GRANTS and the FUTILITY OF PARLIAMENTARY TAXATION as a method of supply.” 

Near the end of his address Burke had this striking passage:  Let the Colonists always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government,–they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance. But let it be once understood that your government may be one thing, and their privileges another, that these two things may exist without any mutual relation, the cement is gone-the cohesion is loosened–and everything hastens to decay and dissolution. As long as you have the wisdom to keep the sovereign authority of this country as the sanctuary of liberty, the sacred temple consecrated to our common faith, wherever the chosen race and sons of England worship freedom, they will turn their faces towards you. The more they multiply, the more friends you will have; the more ardently they love liberty, the more perfect will be their obedience.  Slavery they can have anywhere–it is a weed that grows in every soil. They may have it from Spain; they may have it from Prussia. But, until you become lost to all feeling of your true interest and your natural dignity, freedom they can have from none but you. This is the commodity of price of which you have the monopoly. This is the true Act of Navigation which binds to you the commerce of the Colonies, and through them secures to you the wealth of the world. Deny them this participation of freedom, and you break that sole bond which originally made, and must still preserve, the unity of the Empire.”

Parliament paid no heed to Burke and the next month the war began.  An attempt by General Gage to seize militia powder and supplies at Concord ended in bloodshed at Lexington and Concord, and by nightfall on April 19, 1775 an army of 20,000 militiamen besieged Boston.

It was more than a year between the war beginning and the American colonies declaring to the world their independence on July 4, 1776.  During that time the Second Continental Congress authorized on July 8, 1775 the Olive Branch Petition  to King George as a last attempt to restore the peace.  It ended with the following statement:

“We therefore beseech your Majesty, that your royal authority and influence may be graciously interposed to procure us relief from our afflicting fears and jealousies, occasioned by the system before-mentioned, and to settle peace through every part of our Dominions, with all humility submitting to your Majesty’s wise consideration, whether it may not be expedient, for facilitating those important purposes, that your Majesty be pleased to direct some mode, by which the united applications of your faithful Colonists to the Throne, in pursuance of their common counsels, may be improved into a happy and permanent reconciliation; and that, in the mean time, measures may be taken for preventing the further destruction of the lives of your Majesty’s subjects; and that such statutes as more immediately distress any of your Majesty’s Colonies may be repealed.

For such arrangements as your Majesty’s wisdom can form for collecting the united sense of your American people, we are convinced your Majesty would receive such satisfactory proofs of the disposition of the Colonists towards their Sovereign and Parent State, that the wished for opportunity would soon be restored to them, of evincing the sincerity of their professions, by every testimony of devotion becoming the most dutiful subjects, and the most affectionate Colonists.

That your Majesty may enjoy long and prosperous reign, and that your descendants may govern your Dominions with honour to themselves and happiness to their subjects, is our sincere prayer.”

The King refused to receive the Petition and the Americans received the response of the King in his Proclamation of August 23, 1775 for the suppression of rebellion in the colonies.  The war was on and nothing short of victory would end it.

For a decade the colonists attempted by every means to convince Parliament and the King of the folly of their course.  They asked for nothing new, merely the return to the status quo prior to the passage of the Stamp Act in 1765.  Wise men in Parliament, most notably Edmund Burke, recognized the justice of the American position, but no peaceful means would stop the King and Parliament from treating the Americans as mere subjects for legislation by Parliament.  The legislatures of the colonies were regarded as of absolutely no importance and subject to dissolution or outright suppression at the whim of Great Britain.  The Americans were in jeopardy of losing the most precious civil right, the right to rule themselves.  After a decade of encroachments on this right, the Americans were justified in believing that only defending their right to rule themselves by force of arms would preserve that right to them and their posterity.

II.  - all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

This section can be dealt with quite briefly.  In the first section I outlined the attempts by the colonists to resolve their differences with the King and Parliament over a decade, all to no avail.  This was not a case of a rush to arms but a slowly building crisis.  At the end the Americans had the stark choice of either defending themselves with arms or being ruled by the sword from Great Britain.

III.  - there must be serious prospects of success;

This strikes me as the oddest requirement of the current just war doctrine.  History amply demonstrates the difficulty of predicting the outcome of a war at the outset of it.  Many wars are moral in spite of no hope of victory:  the Warsaw Ghetto uprising in 1943 for example.  In any case, I think the Americans had grounds for optimism overall.  The 13 colonies encompassed a huge area and the difficulties for Britain in raising the number of troops to control this area were formidable.  Great Britain had numerous powerful enemies, France, Spain, etc, who might well eventually assist the Americans.  If the Americans could fight long enough the British might well sicken of an expensive war 3,000 miles away.  Although facing the might of a globe spanning empire, the Americans had cause from the outset to be reasonably optimistic as to the eventual outcome.  I think the best strategy for the British would have been to have adopted a naval enclave strategy of controlling the major ports of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Charleston, using them as bases for fleets to blockade the smaller ports,  and waiting for economic collapse to cause the Americans to come to terms.   The British controlled each of these ports during the war, but never more than two at the same time.  However, I doubt the British government would have had the patience for such a strategy.  Of course this is all speculation, as is attempting to puzzle out the outcome of most wars at the outset.

IV.  - the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.”

Of course modern means of destruction did not exist in the Eighteenth Century although standing in a line of troops awaiting an enemy volley or a bayonet charge was no day at the beach.  The Eighteenth Century has a reputation of a gentlemanly period of limited war.  This is somewhat overblown, but certainly the type of destruction wreaked in most conflicts since 1914 was largely foreign to the Eighteenth Century.  In the American Revolution a few towns were burned, most notably New York, probably by accident, but by and large the most harm done to civilians was due to the economic collapse caused by the British blockade of most American ports.  However, the blockade was porous to a large extent, and needed supplies did get through, and there were no famines in America during the war.  America quickly recovered after the war, and, as wars go, the American Revolution had little long lasting impact on the civilian population.

These are my reasons for believing the American Revolution was a just war under just war doctrine.  I do not believe it is a particularly close call.

25 Responses to A Just War

  • Good post, Don. My concerns about the actual justness of the war have always been found in two areas. Given that some of the leading patriots (mostly in MA) like Samuel Adams could rightfully be called rabbel-rousers. Sam Adams was nowhere nearly as thoughtful and principled as his cousin John, but did have a gift of zealous leadership. On the whole I think his contribution is problematic from a Catholic standpoint.

    The other issue ties into the above. Were things really becoming that bad for the colonists? Were they overreacting to legitimate governing decisions? Objectively, it’s hard to say for sure. I always tend to soothe my doubts by considering April 19, 1775. The justice/injustice of all prior affairs become somewhat suspended at that point. General Gage’s actions were an act of war – at the very least a deliberate provocation to war – and the results could have been easily foreseen by any reasonable man.

    Now after a week of discussions and arguments on this blog I’m doubting my doubts. I think you and others have done a good job arguing that the escalations by the crown over the previous decade were not only unjust, but knowingly intended to harm and/or provoke the colonists, and were only to increase in number and severity. But I guess in the end it’s the words of Edmund Burke’s that tend to exonerate the colonists and condemn the king and parliament.

    Good series of posts, sir.

  • I think I agree with all Burke’s arguments. My doubts as to the justice of the war center, I guess, around whether it was really appropriate for the colonists to get all that worked up about the state of taxation in the first place. Historically, I can see why they did. And once they objected, the British crown seemingly did everything in their power to push the colonists further and further in the path towards war.

    But while I can agree that the taxes were without precedent in the colonies and were imposed in a fashion which the colonists had decent reasons for considering unjust, there’s a part of me that wants to say that the level of taxation was simply not worth getting that upset about.

    That may be a case of overly imposing a modern set of experiences and expectations, however.

    That’s a quibble, though. Very well written and researched post. Thank you.

  • I think the biggest problem you’re going to have in justifying the Revolution is in #4. While the imposed taxes were unjust, they were hardly that damaging save in principle. Do taxes justify killing? This is exactly what the Church would demand under #4, so that the good obtained outweighs the evil done. I hardly think so. Moreover, Aquinas is very clear that rebellions themselves are very dangerous, as the loss of order and the resulting chaos is very bad for a society (particularly its unity), thus meaning that rebellions have to meet the very highest standards in order to be considered just. The intrinsic ills of rebellion have to be added to the evils that would have to be outweighed by the good accomplished by independence.

    It’s also worth noting that just b/c the English were provoking us to war doesn’t mean we’re justifying in fighting it. All that means is that England is fighting an unjust war (which I think is VERY clear), not that we’re fighting a just one. Two opposing sides can be engaged in an unjust war against each other at the same time.

    Finally, the reason they have the “chance of success” is that as you can see in Aquinas, there is a sense that the war has to benefit the overall common good. Fighting a losing war b/c of a principle is only going to do further damage to the society. Of course, this is one of the most difficult standards to discern but I think it’s a very necessary one.

  • Very good points Michael.

  • Thank you for your kind comments Rick and for your kind comments Darwin.

    In reference to your comments Michael, I think the Americans were fighting to retain the right to rule themselves and I agree with them that this is a right worth fighting for. As to the Angelic Doctor and rebellions, what has to be taken into account in the American Revolution is that the colonialists were very much fighting to preserve the status quo initially. If King George and Parliament had simply passed an Act in 1775 confirming the status quo prior to the Stamp Act, the Americans will be only taxed by their legislatures and the legislatures have the sole power to legislate in regard to the internal affairs of the colonists, all but a few of the Patriots would have been willing to accept it. No such offer was made, and Independence came about because it became clear to most Americans that the status quo they yearned for would never be granted to them by George III.

  • Two opposing sides can be engaged in an unjust war against each other at the same time.

    I can see how this could be true in certain kinds of situations (say you have two tribal/ethnic groups both trying to ethnic cleanse the others) but in general it would seem to me that if someone wages a unjust aggression against you, wouldn’t it fairly obviously be just to resist that unjust aggression?

    Is there something I’m missing there?

  • I think the Americans were fighting to retain the right to rule themselves and I agree with them that this is a right worth fighting for.

    Yes, it is worth fighting for but is it worth killing over? This is not an issue of a foreign country attempting to take over; this is an example of a jurisdictional battle between the colonial assemblies and Parliament. It’s notable that the Burke quote you give suggests that Parliament would have to grant those rights to the colonists, not that those rights existed before the French & Indian war.

    Furthermore, Aquinas specifically discusses that the presence of a tyrant is not sufficient to justify war & rebellion, as it is possible that God has allowed the tyrant as a punishment for the sins of the people. Thus, in Aquinas’s mind, the tyrant has to be exceptionally bad (at war with his own people, essentially) to justify revolt.

    To put this in perspective, would any state or group of states be conducting a just rebellion due to the federal government’s usurpation of states rights and excessive taxes?

    People are going to die, including innocent people. While that number is not large, that doesn’t matter. Just war doctrine is not a consequentialist theory. To engage is war, to take a life, always requires dire circumstances and no other resorts. That is a very high standard, one which a tax and jurisdictional dispute is hard pressed to meet.

    As to the Angelic Doctor and rebellions, what has to be taken into account in the American Revolution is that the colonialists were very much fighting to preserve the status quo initially. If King George and Parliament had simply passed an Act in 1775 confirming the status quo prior to the Stamp Act, the Americans will be only taxed by their legislatures and the legislatures have the sole power to legislate in regard to the internal affairs of the colonists, all but a few of the Patriots would have been willing to accept it. No such offer was made, and Independence came about because it became clear to most Americans that the status quo they yearned for would never be granted to them by George III.

    I don’t think that quite gets to what Aquinas is saying. He argues that a rejection of the ruling order necessarily leads one to chaos as well undermines the unity of a society. The brother against brother idea is something that horrifies Aquinas, as the division of a society at such root undermines the community as a whole. This makes it difficult for such critical institutions as the community, family, and Church to function properly, thus endangering their ability to provide the necessary framework for man to function, thrive and ultimate receive salvation. Thus Aquinas takes care to argue that rebellion is only permissible in the worst of situations.

    While the colonists were being harmed and treated unjustly, I don’t think they were so mistreated as to justify war.

  • Thus, in Aquinas’s mind, the tyrant has to be exceptionally bad (at war with his own people, essentially) to justify revolt.

    This is precisely why the events of April 19, 1775 is so important. Whether the acts of the king and parliament previously were intended to be oppressive or provocative it became hard to consider them any but at that point. Great Britain began to wage war against the colonial population that night. They hoped to chop the colonial head off in one fast swipe and declare an easy victory. That didn’t happen and they got a very surprising ass-kicking. The war was on from that point forward.

  • Darwin

    I can see how this could be true in certain kinds of situations (say you have two tribal/ethnic groups both trying to ethnic cleanse the others) but in general it would seem to me that if someone wages a unjust aggression against you, wouldn’t it fairly obviously be just to resist that unjust aggression?

    Is there something I’m missing there?

    Well, the just war theory is designed around making sure the war is serving the interests of peace and the common good. So if one fights a war with no chance of winning, even against an unjust aggressor, you’re not serving the interests of peace and the common good; you’re just fighting to fight.

    If you fight a war, particularly in the modern age, that’s going to be exceptionally bloody, it may not be just. Nuclear war is a good example of this. If for example fighting a war required fighting a nuclear war, along with Armageddon that comes with as a result, it wouldn’t be just to fight back.

    Finally, the intention of securing peace has to be there. For example, the Soviets in WWII were repelling an unjust German invasion, however the intention was not to restore peace but to extend the Soviet landholdings.

    Using those criteria, you can see how it’s possible for two sides to be engaging in just war against each other. You could probably plug many other wars into the equation as well.

    It might also be helpful to think about the difference between Lockean justification of revolution/war and Thomistic ones. Locke believed that any violation of the social contract (i.e. rights violation) moved us back into the state of nature, a place where any attack justified killing. We have to be careful to avoid that thinking, as it’s prevalent especially in the narrative justifying the Revolution in American textbooks. Thomas on the other hand takes a much more cautious approach, seeking always to encourage people to peace whereas Locke would lead many people more to war.

    I think your question is good and it shows the difficulty of the just war theory. It very much leads to many scenarios where one has to turn the other cheek.

  • Rick

    This is precisely why the events of April 19, 1775 is so important. Whether the acts of the king and parliament previously were intended to be oppressive or provocative it became hard to consider them any but at that point. Great Britain began to wage war against the colonial population that night. They hoped to chop the colonial head off in one fast swipe and declare an easy victory. That didn’t happen and they got a very surprising ass-kicking. The war was on from that point forward.
    This is good. Y’all are making good points. By the way, I lean towards the American Revolution being unjust but I may be wrong. I do think the American narrative of the war is unjust, but you’re getting to why it might actually be just. Allow me to challenge you a little bit here.

    The problem you’ll have is that Britain was responding to an act of rebellion. That is, the rebellion/war was already happening to some extent. I don’t know that I can say attacking a rebellious group that’s stockpiling weapons is necessarily a oppressive action; most governments should act when that’s going on.

    So I don’t you can say “England attacked, therefore rebellion was justified” b/c England attacked b/c of the rebellion that was already present unless you separate them someone (i.e. Before England attacked Concord, the rebellion was unjust but the methods England used showed that in fact England had created a war against its own people, justifying martial defense). I suppose it’s possible, but it seems rather difficult. But I’m open to your response.

  • After the first paragraph, there should be no italics. Mea culpa.

  • “Yes, it is worth fighting for but is it worth killing over?”

    Without a doubt in my mind. In the case of the Americans they were being told that although they had thought they ruled themselves, Parliament, at any time, could alter their government and impose any laws they chose. This was far more than a jurisdictional dispute. It went to the heart of whether the colonialists were free men, or mere subjects who had no voice in their government.

    “as it is possible that God has allowed the tyrant as a punishment for the sins of the people.”

    With all due respect to the Angelic Doctor one could just as easily suppose that God brings a tyrant forth to provoke a rebellion in order to serve His purposes. The motives that can be ascribed to God for human events are endless and I think resting public policy on an assertion that something is “God’s Will” is normally a mistake since the will of God is often exceptionally inscrutable in my experience.

    “To put this in perspective, would any state or group of states be conducting a just rebellion due to the federal government’s usurpation of states rights and excessive taxes?”

    Sure under these conditions. The Federal government imposes new taxes on only the Midwestern States. These states are stripped of representation in Congress. When legislatures and citizens protest the unfairness of this, federal legislation is enacted ensuring that all state officials in these states will be appointed by the President and that the legislatures will meet in session only when these new officials say that they will. A Declaratory Act is passed by Congress stating that the Midwestern States are subject to the laws passed by Congress in all things, any acts of the legislatures or the state constitutions notwithstanding. In the meantime Chicago, the hotbed of resistance, is garrisoned by federal troops. Under these conditions I would be willing to place my 52 year old carcass at the disposal of the state forces of Illinois organizing to fight this.

  • “He argues that a rejection of the ruling order necessarily leads one to chaos as well undermines the unity of a society.”

    Yes, but in the case of the colonies they had been ruling themselves since the inception of the colonies. It was George III and Parliament who were disturbing the ruling order.

  • On Burke, Peter Stanlis and the sadly departed Francis Canavan SJ have written much worth reading about him and North America.

    What a genius he was…..

  • Thanks, Michael. First:

    I don’t know that I can say attacking a rebellious group that’s stockpiling weapons is necessarily a oppressive action; most governments should act when that’s going on.

    I think it’s important to consider time and place. Just because our modern society has been so blessed by material prosperity, relative peace, etc. AND due to those things has become a little whacked about how it views firearms and weapons, that we need to be careful how we consider an act of disarming a population – and how to view “stockpiling weapons”.

    To our modern ears “stockpiling weapons” sounds like something a doomsday cult does in preparation for Armageddon. However, colonial America was still basically frontier living. Firearms were absolutely necessary for harvesting wildlife as well as defending oneself. Remember, the army of the colonies was a citizen militia that was raised and supported in part by Great Britain (who used these very militias to fight her battles with the Indians). Stockpiling weapons was an ongoing business, it was necessary and a constant thing all along.

    You don’t have to be a member of the Sons of Liberty – or even be terribly sympathetic to them – to be very distraught about the idea of the imperial government sending out regulars to confiscate your weapons store. The mounting tensions regardless of who was at fault for what and when leave one with little choice but to assign nefarious motives to that act.

    After all, just because General Gage had the authority to do it, doesn’t make it just. There are limits to what a government can do its citizens, right? Personally I think they crossed the line and I think it’s pretty obvious the citizens (not just the SoL) of the day thought so too.

  • Thanks for fixing my last post.

    Rick:

    My history may be fuzzy, but it was clear that they weren’t stockpiling just for hunting or Indians, but for resistance to the Brits, right? I’m all for the 2nd amendment and all that, but I think stockpiling against the government is a serious act of rebellion.

    Donald:

    Without a doubt in my mind. In the case of the Americans they were being told that although they had thought they ruled themselves, Parliament, at any time, could alter their government and impose any laws they chose. This was far more than a jurisdictional dispute. It went to the heart of whether the colonialists were free men, or mere subjects who had no voice in their government.

    This is Aquinas’s thoughts.Summa II Q42 A II.

    Reply to Objection 3. A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Ondeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.

    What I’m challenging you on is this. That while England may have been tyrannical, that the disturbance that came from the colonist’s resistance was greater than the harm done from England, thus meaning that the overall common good was harmed and the war was unjust. We may get to an impasse here, but I think you’ll need to show not only that England was being tyrannical, but that it was of such devastating tyranny as to justify war.

    With all due respect to the Angelic Doctor one could just as easily suppose that God brings a tyrant forth to provoke a rebellion in order to serve His purposes. The motives that can be ascribed to God for human events are endless and I think resting public policy on an assertion that something is “God’s Will” is normally a mistake since the will of God is often exceptionally inscrutable in my experience.

    I think Aquinas’s point is to give one pause before assuming that jettisoning the tyrant is the will of God b/c he is a tyrant and is in sin, which is the way Locke looks at it. Of course God may will that the tyran be defeated, but he may not, which is why it is very important to look at the other tenets of the just war theory; namely the amount of damage being done by the tyrant compared to the amount of damage done by a violent rebellion.

    As to the federal v. states example, it may also be important to remember that the colonists were not innocent in all this. There were quite a few of them, especially anti-Catholic Sam Adams, who were actively seeking to provoke war. The Boston Tea Party is such an action. While the Brits overreacted, it’s not like most of their moves were out of the blue and solely after a desire to grab power, but to try to retain order.

    Of course, how much each action was for order and how much for power of Parliament is a difficult trick, which is why these decisions are very complicated and require much prayer.

    P.S. Thanks to the both of you for arguing in a charitable manner. It’s rare to see it on blogs, and so I like to compliment it when I see it.

  • Michael, I guess I’m disputing the the term “stockpiling” and then using it as a means to show ill intent on behalf of the colonists. The arsenal at Concord was already in existence prior to this lead up and was not something anyone would have considered threatening or an ominous sign. That the militia may have felt threatened by the actions of the British and were solicitous about keeping the munition stores full and safe is not an act of aggression or an imminent threat. I guess what I’m trying to say is the arsenal at Concord was the default and prior to the escalations was actually something the British looked favorably upon.

    I’m trying to be careful to not utilize biased rhetoric in support of my position, though I know I basically just did. However, I did try to use it in support of genuine argument. I can only explain feeling the need to use that is that I think your characterization is laden with it the other way.

  • Rick:

    I’m trying to be careful to not utilize biased rhetoric in support of my position, though I know I basically just did. However, I did try to use it in support of genuine argument.

    Absolutely. I hope I didn’t give the impression I thought otherwise. I thought your observation was a good one and one I need to keep in mind.

    Michael, I guess I’m disputing the the term “stockpiling” and then using it as a means to show ill intent on behalf of the colonists. The arsenal at Concord was already in existence prior to this lead up and was not something anyone would have considered threatening or an ominous sign. That the militia may have felt threatened by the actions of the British and were solicitous about keeping the munition stores full and safe is not an act of aggression or an imminent threat. I guess what I’m trying to say is the arsenal at Concord was the default and prior to the escalations was actually something the British looked favorably upon.

    That’s what I was asking. Namely, was the purpose or level of the munitions such to be an obvious threat to the Brits. Now I will need to go do some research on my own to look more into what the situation was in Concord. Do you have any links or sources that may be helpful in this regard?

  • Michael, I breezed through a couple wiki entries and am satisfied enough with the content to stand here feeling both confirmed and corrected.

    The Minutemen entry is adequate enough to get a feel of the militia system and it’s history and how it was effected by the building crisis with the Crown (see the section about the revolutionary period). I think this is relevant to understand that the militias weren’t merely an organized revolutionary outlaws and that they were by nature armed by themselves and that was the status quo.

    Read about the Powder Alarm to see how things were and how they changed during the British escalations. Here is where I was wrong. I stated that the Concord arsenal predated these events. It did not. I thought Concord contained one of the magazines that were emptied and munitions hidden. Apparently the munitions came from another town to be hidden there.

    See the Lexington and Concord entry for details on the British intentions to confiscate the colonist’s arms and the hunt for the cannon and munitions. Oh, and the fires set too.

    IDK, it’s hard for me to not consider those events as an act of war.

  • When we consider the justice of the colonists cause, we should do well not to forget their opposition to the Quebec act and to limits on their ability to encroach on territory that the British crown had yielded, in treaties, to Indian tribes. I’m not sure how these causes, the justice of which is, at the least, suspect, would affect the overall jus ad bellum of the Revolution, but the do seem like they need to be considered.

  • I believe that by “there must be a serious prospect of success” can be interpreted to mean whether the intended consequences will be met without any unintended adverse consequences which are just as bad if not worse then the evils being fought. For example, World War II may have eliminated the Nazis but resulted in a great part of Europe falling under the yoke of Communism for over 60 years.

    As Howard Zinn once wrote:

    We’ve got to rethink this question of war and come to the conclusion that war cannot be accepted, no matter what the reasons given, or the excuse: liberty, democracy; this, that. War is by definition the indiscriminate killing of huge numbers of people for ends that are uncertain. Think about means and ends, and apply it to war. The means are horrible, certainly. The ends, uncertain. That alone should make you hesitate.

  • Awakaman, while your point is not lost on me, and I have great sympathy regarding the fate of Eastern Europe post-war, I think WWII is poor support for your point. I think FDR selling out Eastern Europe to Stalin was basically immoral, imprudent, unnecessary and unwise. However, the fate of those people would have been no better had the Axis Powers not been defeated, plus much of Western Europe and a good chunk of Asia and other parts of the world would have suffered the same fate. And since Western Europe and the US prevailed and were able to stand as a successful contrasting example – and as a stumbling block to Communist expansion – those 60 years may have been a drop in the bucket in comparison to what might have been. I don’t like playing “what-if” all that much, but I think these are reasonable observations and conclusions.

  • Rick:

    You state that the “fate of these people would have been no better had the Axis Powers not been defeated” but the point of my previous post was maybe they would not have been in a better position under the Axis then the Communists but a lot fewer of them would have been dead as a result of a four year war of attrition.

    “[T]hose 60 years may have been a drop in the bucket compared to what might have been?” I think the most probable result of non-British/French/US intervention would have been a prolonged war of attrition between Germany and the USSR which woud have resulted in the collapse of both regiemes.

    Finally, what do you mean by the US prevailed

  • No, awakaman, without a doubt one of them would have prevailed, probably the Nazis without lendlease to the USSR and the western bombing campaign that tied down so much of the Luftwaffe in the West, not to mention a third of the Wehrmacht that, without western opposition, could have been deployed against the USSR. Then the West would probably have faced a Nazi regime armed with nuclear ICBMs circa 1952.

  • Hand hit the submit button prior to finishing:

    Finallhy what do you mean by “the US prevailed and were able to stand as a successful contrasting example.” How so? By showing that we were willing to kill alot of our own troops, others troops and a lot of innocent civilians in the name of “liberty and freedom/” By showing that we were willing to enter into an alliance with one evil in order to defeat another? Sure the Axis were defeated but excuse me if I view the post WWII world as much worse than the ante bellum world – and that applies to the effect the prolonged and expanded war had on areas of the world which were not ceaded to Stalin and Mao after the war.

Follow TAC by Clicking on the Buttons Below
Bookmark and Share
Subscribe by eMail

Enter your email:

Recent Comments
Archives
Our Visitors. . .
Our Subscribers. . .