Mark Tooley: Was the American Revolution Just?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.]

Americans of all stripes recently celebrated our country's 234th birthday. But it is fashionable by some on the Religious Left to discredit the American Revolution as primarily the selfish reaction against reasonable taxation. In their eyes, the original Tea Partiers of 1773 are as offensive and today's Tea Party rebels against big government. And since the Iraq War, if not before, the Religious Left has tried to reinterpret traditional Just War criteria into impossibly stratospheric standards, so that no war can ever be moral. Just War teaching thereby becomes a reflexive rebuke to all force, rather than a careful reasoning tool.

The stratospheric standard seems to afflict the critique of the American Revolution by John Keown, a respected ethicist at Georgetown University.

Recently I wrote for The American Spectator about an Evangelical Left commentator mocking America's War for Independence as simply about greed. But that commentator, like most on the Evangelical Left, is overtly pacifist. Religious pacifists will sometimes deploy their version of Just War rules to prove the supposed impossibility of moral force. But they do not treat the tradition very seriously, except as an occasional rhetorical tool. Keown treats the tradition more seriously, and his critique of America's founding late last year ("America's War for Independence: Just or Unjust?") was in the intellectually weighty Journal of Catholic Social Thought, affiliated with Villanova University. Keown's rejection of America's war for independence as immoral deserves a response.

Keown acknowledged that many Roman Catholics in revolutionary America enthusiastically supported independence from Britain. John Carroll, later America's first Catholic bishop, famously accompanied Benjamin Franklin to Quebec to persuade (unsuccessfully ) Quebecers to join them against Britain. John's brother, the statesman Charles Carroll, became the last living signer of the Declaration of Independence. But Keown still deduces that the American Revolution failed to meet the 7 traditional standards of Just War teaching: just cause, proportionality, right intention, competent authority, probability of success, last resort, and comparative justice.

Reluctantly, Keown granted that the Continental Congress may have qualified as a "competent authority" to wage war. The delegates were "moderates," mostly elected by mass meetings in their respective jurisdictions and they waged war in a "controlled fashion." Keown also seemingly admitted that America's Revolutionaries had the "probability of success," which should seem obvious, since they did in fact win. He is skeptical the Americans could have won without France. But it would seem that the British capacity to subdue a large and prosperous colony spread across half a continent, and opposite an ocean, was always doubtful, assuming American will persevered. Forty years later, the Duke of Wellington advised his government to end the War of 1812 with America, even after Napoleon's defeat, thinking the mission unnecessary and unwinnable. What was true in 1815 was probably true in 1775....

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