Sunday, June 7, 2015

Frazer on whether the American Revolution was a "Just War"

Gregg Frazer has a new article out in the Journal of Military Ethics entitled “The American Revolution: Not a Just War.” Dr. Frazer has, if you don't remember, made the case that the American Revolution violated the biblical injunction against revolution contained in Romans 13. Of course, such a claim would spark controversy among American Christians who take a "patriotic" view of history. This article is much deeper in that it explores the American Revolution through the lens of the eight classic criteria for what constitutes a "just war." A taste:
The most famous and fateful example of this pattern concerned the Tea Act and the colonial response to it. After complaints from the colonists, Parliament withdrew most of the Townshend Acts – except for a 1.7 per cent tax on tea. The Tea Act, which gave the British East India Company tariff breaks, actually lowered the cost of tea for Americans despite the remaining tax. The primary target of the Tea Act was Ireland, not the American colonies, but the only subjects who responded violently were the Americans. The so-called Sons of Liberty used threats and violence to prevent Bostonians from making their own choice of whether to buy tea at a cheaper price. Due to their threats, few dared to accept the tea and many ships were turned away without unloading. In Boston, the governor’s sons agreed to take consignment of the tea, but the Sons of Liberty made sure that the dock workers would not unload the cargoes. Without legal authority, they then threatened the ship captains to get them to leave or at least not pay the duty required; but if the duty were not paid, the governor would not allow the ships to leave and customs officials could eventually seize the cargo. The end result would be that the tea would enter Boston’s market and Bostonians would have the choice of buying the cheaper tea. Rather than allow Bostonians that choice, the Sons of Liberty dumped 342 chests of tea into Boston harbor, destroying £8000 to £18,000 worth of tea. In today’s currency, the value of the tea would be $2 – 4 million. The Boston Tea Party was much more than a simple prank (Harvey 2002 : 113).
Benjamin Franklin, America’s friends in Parliament and the American public were shocked by this vandalism, but Boston refused to punish the perpetrators or to pay for the destroyed property. Colonial authorities had previously refused to punish other lesser- known incidents of violence and vandalism, such as the Gaspee incident in which a ship's captain was shot and a law-enforcement ship burned by the Sons of Liberty without consequence. Repeated acts of this kind forced the British to pass tougher laws and take greater control. After the so-called Tea ‘Party’, the British government had to decide between reasserting its authority or losing Massachusetts. As a result, a series of punitive laws called the Coercive Acts (which the colonists called the ‘Intolerable Acts’) were passed. That punishment for lawlessness produced greater cries of ‘tyranny’. Again, one should think of what would happen if such acts were committed today in the US. Would the governing authorities just look the other way or dismiss it as a ‘party’? If punishing acts of violence and vandalism is a normal, reasonable function of government, then the Americans’ just cause claims must be questioned.
That just scratches the surface. Read the whole thing.


Tom Van Dyke said...

The other side of the argument is on the website but costs $40.

The Declaration of the United Colonies: America's First Just War Statement

Eric Pattersona* & Nathan Gillb*
pages 7-34

Was the American War for Independence just? In July 1775, a full year before the Declaration of Independence, the colonists argued that they had the right to self-defense. They made this argument using language that accords with what we can broadly call classical just war thinking, based, inter alia, on their claim that their provincial authorities had a responsibility to defend the colonists from British violence. In the 1775 Declaration of the United Colonies, written two months after British troops attacked colonial citizens, such arguments are made. This essay carefully looks at the historical context of the 1775 Declaration, the arguments made by the colonists, and the philosophical and theological underpinnings of those claims, and concludes that the colonists made a compelling argument commensurate with just war thinking.

JMS said...

There is a good debate on this topic with Gregg Frazer, Jonathan den Hartog, and Mark David Hall — who offer different perspectives on this subject, at

But, does Professor Frazer's (whom I respect highly) interpretation really matter? American Whigs certainly believed they were fighting a "just war." (James Byrd, "Sacred Scripture, Sacred War). Citing George Marsden, "the problem with just war theory is with the theory - 'it is too theoretical' in that 'it does not take into account how people actually behave'." (p. 166) Byrd concludes that, "just war theory 'does not take into account how people actually behave,' nor does it account for how American Whigs read and interpreted scripture in the 1770s. "Most revolutionaries claimed to be fighting a just war." Byrd has the evidence (sermon database) to backup the claim that "patriots believed that their cause of liberty had divine support, [and so] fought a war that blended political and religious motivations rather seamlessly." (pp. 166-167)

Tom Van Dyke said...

"Most revolutionaries claimed to be fighting a just war." Byrd has the evidence (sermon database) to backup the claim that "patriots believed that their cause of liberty had divine support, [and so] fought a war that blended political and religious motivations rather seamlessly."

True. That also gets into the "Calvinist resistance theory" thing, 'Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God' and all. The Presbyterians had been fighting the crown since the Puritan Revolution of 1643.

I liked Gregg's arguments, he hit all the bases. As you know, the colonists didn't accept Parliament as a rightful authority--the colonies got their charters from the crown well before the Glorious Revolution of 1688, which established Parliament's power above the king.

So when Gregg says that the colonies were bound to obey Parliament because the king told them to, I don't know if sovereignty is transferable like that. Even a king is accountable to his people and Parliament was in no way accountable to the Americans.

Gregg's argument hinges on this, and that's where I think it falls apart.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Tom, I'm not able to access the article, so could you quote the section where Gregg said that the colonists should have obeyed parliament. I'd love to compare his reasoning with that of James Wilson in his
Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.

Even though I cannot access the article, I've heard and read Gregg's argument before, and I suspect that my article Rebellion or Revolution? still provides a sufficient response.

Mark David Hall said...

This issue had its origins in a Christians in Political Science panel at APSA that included Frazer, Patterson, and Glenn Moots. Good times.

I haven't reread Frazer's paper, but we debated his position for about 2 hours after the panel during dinner. It is important to recognize that he takes an absolutist view of Romans 13 that most Christians reject. For instance, Barack Obama declares himself Dictator for Life tomorrow and executes every member of Congress and the Supreme Court--too bad for us, we Christians have a Romans 13 obligation to obey him. That he absolutely tears up the Constitution in doing so (which gives him the authority to act in the capacity in which he is currently acting (i.e. President and not Dictator) is completely irrelevant.

If Wilson, Adams, Jefferson, Sherman, etc. are right in their constitutional arguments, I think a good case can be made that the War was justified. I make the case in the podcast mentioned above and in my Sherman book.

Among the worst criticisms of Just War theory is the one attributed to Byrd above (which I think is an accurate account of his views). It conflates the obvious reality that individuals inevitably violate the basic tenets of just war theory with the validity of the theory itself. Jus Ad Bellum provides an important way about think when nations should go to war--and not go to war. Why didn't America and England go to war over the Maine-Canada boundary, or the Washington-Canada boundary? All sorts of reasons, but hopefully among them statesmen on both sides were committed to the idea that war should be the last resort when resolving disputes of this nature.

What about wars America has fought? Some seem to be clearly just--i.e. WWII--others not so much--US-Mexican War. Now, we know that America violated Jus In Bello when fighting WWII (in minor ways at the tactical unit level and in major ways (Hiroshima)), but does that mean the War was unjust? If so, there has probably never been a just war. I think it more useful to say that WWII was a just war from the perspective of the allies, but that upon occasion they violated Jus In Bello. These instances should be condemned, but the solution is not to abandon just war theory altogether.

For those interested in such questions, Daryl Charles and I have proposed an edited collection of essays evaluating each of America's wars from a just war perspective. Glenn Moots is writing the chapter on the War for Independence. We are still seeking a publisher.

Mark David Hall

Tom Van Dyke said...

Blogger Bill Fortenberry said...
Tom, I'm not able to access the article, so could you quote the section where Gregg said that the colonists should have obeyed parliament. I'd love to compare his reasoning with that of James Wilson in his
Considerations on the Nature and Extent of the Legislative Authority of the British Parliament.

Sorry, Bill, since Jon posted it, the publisher shut the gateway down to Gregg's article too. I'm 99% sure he made that argument, and he did address [and dismiss] Wilson's. [Although he might have impeached Wilson himself, I'm not sure.]

I did think Gregg hit all the correct notes, but I thought his conclusion rested on that single untenable premise.

That was a new argument for Gregg, though. Mostly, as Mark notes above, he's been arguing an absolutist Romans 13 reading, which is a theological truth claim--to accept the argument, one must accept Gregg's religious beliefs. Regardless, the Calvinists had been resisting that reading for over 100 years, and they weren't about to start in 1776.

As far back as Aquinas, "usurpers" have no legitimacy even under Romans 13. I think it no coincidence "usurp" appears 3 times in the Declaration, aimed at the king

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations

as well as the parliament

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our Brittish brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. well as an "abdication"

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

which is how Britain characterized chasing the rightful king James II out of the country in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and Parliament installing the compliant William and Mary.

Bill Fortenberry said...

I am in the process of listening to the above podcast, and it seems to me that Gregg is blissfully ignorant of some key aspects of British and American law. His argument is that believers are required by Romans 13 to submit to the government unless and until the government demands that they do something against the commands of God. I've discussed this with Gregg before, but as I'm listening to the podcast, I keep wondering how he would respond if he were asked about the lesser magistrate argument. It seems to me that his position would require him to reject this argument and claim that Christians should submit to the highest authority first and only submit to the lesser magistrate unless and until that lower government demands that they do something contrary to the commands of the higher government.

If he holds to this view, then it seems that his argument against the Revolution contains a weakness in the simple fact that, under British law, the highest form of government is not the king but rather the law itself. The king of England was just as much a subject of the law as the colonists. And if the law is the supreme governing authority, then the colonists were only required to obey the king unless and until he required them to do something contrary to the dictates of the law. The argument that Wilson and others made was not that the colonists had a right to rebel against the authority of their king. Their argument was that they were required to submit to the laws of England, and that it was this submission to a higher power than the king which required them to resist the king. This was not a religious argument but a legal one, and it seems to me that Gregg lacks the familiarity with British law that would be necessary for him to counter such an argument.

Bill Fortenberry said...

By the way, Mark. I think that y'all have made an excellent choice in adding BJ Swearer to the faculty there at George Fox University. BJ and I have collaborated on a few projects here and there, and I've been very impressed with his research.

Gregg Frazer said...

It is too bad that too many people apparently accessed the article for free and the publisher shut down access. If you could actually read the article, you would see the answers to all -- or at least almost all -- of your questions/criticisms.

I address the Romans 13 issue -- but not in a caricatured fashion as in Mark's hypothetical. Incidentally, my view of Romans 13 is identical to that of Calvin -- though not to that of some CalvinISTS.

I address the so-called "lesser magistrate" issue and I deal specifically and at length with Wilson's argument in "Considerations." A major problem that some have -- including Eric Patterson in his article -- is that they automatically assume that everything that the colonists (inc. Wilson) said was TRUE. If that's the case, then, yes (tautologically), it would be foolish to take another position. But not everything they said was in fact true.

I am not blissfully ignorant of English law. Those who make the argument that the law was the highest authority (or that the Constitution is the highest authority in the US today) are, of course, correct. But what does that mean practically? "The law" (or "the Constitution" -- as we've seen in the last two days) is not self-interpreting. Someone has to interpret and apply the law in order to make the rubber meet the road. The issue is: who has authority to do that?

Those who claim that authority for themselves are antinomian and make themselves the law. In Romans 13, God gave authority to PEOPLE -- to agents of His; in the language of Romans 13: to "ministers of God" and "servants of God." In the Old Testament, to "shepherds" and "anointed" and "My servant." As Calvin rightly says: "even if the punishment of unbridled tyranny is the Lord's vengeance, we are not to imagine that it is we ourselves who have been called upon to inflict it. All that has been assigned to us is to obey and suffer." Calvin also said: "if you go on to infer that only just governments are to be repaid by obedience, your reasoning is stupid."