Wednesday, February 9, 2011

John Fea on the American Revolution & Concept of Just War

Outstanding article from Dr. Fea here. If one is some kind of orthodox Christian and a non-American, a British or Canadian citizen, for instance, one might scratch one's head at the attempts of Christian Americanists -- the sophistry and mental gymnastics they have to go through -- to reconcile everything about the American Founding with their creed.

A taste:

... But in the 1770s, cases for war against England failed to conform to classic Christian arguments used to support what we commonly refer to today as a "just war." In fact, just war arguments, often associated with historic church leaders such as Augustine and Aquinas, were rarely if ever employed by Revolutionary-era Protestant ministers and were certainly not employed by the founding fathers.

[...]

... John Wesley, the famed 18th-century English evangelical, could not understand why the colonists demanded more liberty than they already possessed as members of the British Empire. The colonists, he wrote, "enjoyed their liberty in as full manner as I do, or any reasonable man can desire."

[...]

Was the English government as "tyrannical" as the colonies claimed? And if it was, did the level of tyranny justify armed conflict? After all, Great Britain offered more freedom to the inhabitants of their empire than any other nation in the world.


I'm obviously no fan of King George III, or, for that matter the British Parliament against whom America's Founders rebelled. However, to call them "tyrants" seems a bit of a hyperbolic stretch, unless we accept quasi-anarchist libertarian arguments that ANY government that exceeds libertarian maximums (including those of every single American President) is in fact "tyranny."

17 comments:

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Because Fea quotes Carmicheal, as a Protestant minister, and he asserts what one must do before they go into battle against an enemy, religious conscience was of primary importance. And this was admitting to "orthodoxy" and dependence on "God".

One of the reasons the religios escaped to America was because they believed that the King's affair and divorce was "impure" or did not meet the standards of the Church.
But, such has it always been in Protestantism (the Protestant Pinciple). People don't agree about this or that, whether it is about behavior or belief and they disassociate themselves, to remain pure in their doctrine or what they believe is proper behavioral standards! These are sectarian religious groups.

Today with evolution and the survival of the fittest, being the "social framing" of social thoery; no one has a right to wage war, otherwise, the least of these will get trampled upon. OR the whole world will "go up in smoke" because human nature will be passion driven for survival for scarce resources. This is the evolutionary "moral" concern. But, it is not the basis of capitalism, as this is based in self-interest and productivity. Law was to protect others from intruding upon "your personal space" regarding one's life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.

So, is "self defense" a just war, YES, because otherwise, there is not balance of power or holding another accountable to personal OR national boundaries. This is what the "war on terroe" is about!

Tom Van Dyke said...

John missed the Calvinists, who provided the revolutionary theology, "resistance theory."

In fact the [unitarian] Jonathan Mayhew's famous sermon pointed out that they were trying to make some sort of saint out of King Charles, an interference with religious liberty no different than what triggered the Puritan Revolution that got Charles' head cut off in the first place.

He also skipped that the colonists didn't accept Parliament's authority anyhow, their charters had come from the king.

I found the whole thing puzzling for someone like John, whose work we all admire around here. It's true the colonists didn't argue Aquinas and "just war" theory, but as one of John's commenters pointed out, the conditions didn't obtain: it was not a war between two nations, it was a replay of the English Civil Wars of the 1600s.

Jason_Pappas said...

Interesting! I hadn’t seen the Revolution discussed in this manner. I’m not sure how often the Founding Fathers read Augustine and Aquinas (if at all!) However, they certainly read Hugo Grotius. One would think the topic would have come up during colonial debates. The just war concept predates Christianity and goes back to Cicero as I discuss here some time ago.

My suspicion is that the Founders deferred to Locke. Towards the end of the 2nd Treatise Locke discusses grounds for dissolving government. Jefferson’s “should not be changed for light and transient causes” comes from Locke. The traditional Christian notion leans towards peace at the expense of liberty.

The Founders feared where the trends were going in addition to being outraged over what had happened. In this regard they were being preemptive--contrary to traditional just war theory.

jimmiraybob said...

Fea - “Suggesting that the American Revolution was unjust seems almost sacrilegious. There have been periods in American history when promoting such a view could lead to charges of treason. But in the 1770s, cases for war against England failed to conform to classic Christian arguments used to support what we commonly refer to today as a ‘just war.’”

Doesn’t the revolution have to be distinguished from the war? Was rebellion justified? Was tearing down the homes and destroying property of and threatening the loyalists with significant bodily harm prior to any military activity justified? As you suggest, was the inciteful rhetoric accurate or justified? These acts, among others, seemed to have precipitated - provoked - the growth of the rebellion into an outright shooting war (although I believe undeclared). Was the war, after the facts of the rebellion, then justified? Per Adams:

“The American Revolution was not a common event. Its effects and consequences have already been awful over a great part of the globe. And when and where are they to cease? But what do we mean be the American Revolution? Do we mean the American war? The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

John Adams to Hezekiah Niles, 13 February 1818
Works of John Adams, 10:282-283

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jimmiraybob said...

Doesn’t the revolution have to be distinguished from the war?

I meant rebellion and not revolution. It's hard to pin down but I'm assuming here the "revolution" to cover both phases of rebellion and war for independence.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

jimmyraybob says, 'The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people; a change in their religious sentiments of their duties and obligations. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Doesn't this judgment presuppose that to be a "good religious person" one must submit, as in Romans 13, as all government is approved by God. And then it is 'understood that such submission of one's duties is "God's way" of giving one "Christ's character" becasue Providence IS God, what "Fate" has allowed?

Were the religious that came to our shores for freedom of conscience doing disservice to their real allegience, the British Crown?

Was it not right to "speak" to the Crown when the Crown was disadvantaging those who had left shores?

I agree that Revolution is NOT an easy problem to solve, for revolution bring instability and instability allows for militeristic, whether religious or secular, to take over. This usually brings more oppression than not, because so many fear social chaos, they are prone to tolerate any means of bringing abut social order! This is a danger in Eygpt right now!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

John,
Thank you for posting the entry on Cicero. '
His distinction about kinds of enemies is an important distinction. One must not go into war lightly, but circumspectly. I so agree.

Some have argued against American "might", as it has been used indiscriminately. I don't know enought to judge.

How are we uphold our ideals over the whole globe? We can't balance power with our enemies, because our enemies will not balance theirs!!! We will be the ones to pay the price for our naivete', I'm convinced!

Sometimes, I think that I should take some military stategy courses :)! World politics is all so complex.

Mark Hall said...

I like Fea's work, but I think the post Jon quoted from misses some key points. I'll note the most obvious:

Fea writes:

"Do high taxes justify a military rebellion against the government, even if such rebellion is in direct violation of passages such as Romans 13 that command Christians to pay their taxes?"

The issue was never the amount of the tax (as Otis and others pointed out), but who could legitimately levy them on American colonists. As Wilson, Adams, and Jefferson eloquently argued, and as others including my good friend Roger Sherman asserted, Parliament had absolutely no right to tax Americans. Only the colonial legislatures could legitimately do so. The only obligation American colonists had was to the King--which is why the Declaration of Independence is aimed solely at him, not Parliament.

What many colonists saw was a threat of tyranny because of a pattern of abuse of government power. If Canada levied a tax of $1.00 on each American and then tried to enforce it through military force, would armed resistance be justified (assuming negotiations failed)? If Americans simply paid the tax because it was small, does anyone really believe it would remain small in the future?
No Christian I know would say Americans have a Romans 13 obligation to obey Canada's Parliament.

That Wesley, a minister, did not agree with the constitutional analysis of Wilson, Adams, Jefferson, and Sherman hardly proves the case.

As a side note, I'll simply state that many Americans in the founding era claimed that the war was just. I'm not sure I agree with them, but from a historical perspective I think they had good reason to believe it was.

MH

Jason_Pappas said...

Mark, you make excellent points. The war was fought over principles. The harm wasn’t oppressive. I don’t believe the “just war” doctrine applies. It doesn’t allow a war for principle and/or liberty. It doesn't allow a war for indignity, honor, justice or rights.

Your Canadian example, however, is strained. We would go to war with Canada over an uncollectible tax of $1.00, would we? Even expropriation of the property of American citizens in Canada wouldn’t lead to war. We'd no doubt take measures, but war?

On the other hand, we did go to war with Mexico, liberating California in the process. I highly doubt it would pass the “just war” test.

Was “just war” ever part of our tradition?

Daniel said...

Wesley was slow in coming to his position against the American Revolution. Some of his earlier writings could have been (and were by some) understood as supportive. This would indicate that, even for him, it was a close call. When he did come to his position, he did state it rather strongly.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Daniel,
I didn't know that Wesley's view ever changed. He believed in a God over government, so revolution wasn't in his vocabulary. He didn't believe that government was by and for the people but by and for God/Christ as King! That is typically evangelical.

He also believed in the moral govenrment theory of atonement.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I rather like and think appropriate that the Revolution was really a "civil war", as America had not declared her independence!

I think that being abused in any situation calls for independence! (unless one wants to used as a doormat)! The colonists were considered as equal parties in the Tea tax.

Wesley would view slavery the same way that was discussed her on this blog several posts ago. Incremental abolition. Social change being done slowly.

While I believe that normally social change has to evolve, I don't believe that this was the situation with the Revolution!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

correcton; were not being considered as equal parties in the Tea tax. (and I think the comment on a separate state taking a tax within its borders was grounded in how the colonists undestood themselves!

Mark Hall said...

Jason,

A key part of my scenario is that Canada attempts to collect the tax through military force, by which I meant sending troops into the U.S.

"If Canada levied a tax of $1.00 on each American and then tried to enforce it through military force, would armed resistance be justified (assuming negotiations failed)?"

I agree that we would not and should not go to war if Canada simply expropriated American property.

I do think Americans make just war arguments all the time--although they may not systematically go through each traditional criterion. Many Americans criticized the war with Mexico as an unjust war, for example.

By the way, contrary to the provocative suggestion of Noll/Fea, I don't think a slave rebellion would meet just war criteria because there would have been no reasonable chance of success.

Jason_Pappas said...

Mark: I do think Americans make just war arguments all the time--although they may not systematically go through each traditional criterion.

I agree. Americans do think about the justice of their wars. There's no doubt that they thought the Revolution was a just cause (disclosure: I completely agree). I'm just not convinced that they subscribed to the so-called "Just War Theory."

Locke has thoughts about a just cause and a just manner of war. For example, he says it is just that the aggressor is punished by death (or living death: slavery). However, the property of the aggressor (after costs of war are subtracted) rightfully belongs to their (innocent) heirs!!!

Locke says that when two parties (individuals or political bodies) are not under the same ruling body, they are in a "state of nature." In a "state of nature" each party is responsible for securing their own rights. Thus, when we declared independence from England we were in a state of nature and were justified in protecting our natural rights.

This argument was known to the Founding generation. It wouldn't pass muster in the just war tradition of Augustine or Aquinas. I suspect they implicitly rejected the Catholic just war theories. Is there anyone who knowns of explicit discussions on this matter?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Sorry, Jason, I called you John, before :). Thanks for the entry.

Jason_Pappas said...

You're welcome, Angie.