Why the American Revolution Was A Just Cause
By Reed Benson
What a state of affairs we have reached in our time! Political correctness dictates that your sophistication can only be proven by your willingness to bash the founding fathers of the American nation. One can hardly turn around without stumbling across someone who eagerly demeans George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, George Mason, Patrick Henry, or any of the other men who gave us the United States of America. Coming from the political and social left, this is no surprise, for they have been playing this game for decades. What I find disappointing is the willingness of the far right to also join in the fray, eager to highlight any weakness in one of our founding fathers and using that as a vehicle to purposefully malign his entire person, discrediting him utterly and disparaging his lifework.
One relatively recent angle of attack purports that the American Revolution was an act of insubordination, unjustified in every way, devoid of biblical sentiment, borne out of the godless views of the French Enlightenment, and intellectually joined at the hip with the other two major revolutions of the modern era: the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. It is my goal to show that this criticism is unjust and inaccurate. Americans today can and should be proud of the unique accomplishments of our founding generation. While they of course were imperfect, these men nonetheless rank among the greatest individuals of the last two millennia. Their names should be honored and their reputations defended. The fruit of their labors, namely the United States of America, deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest political units ever to exist in the annals of world history.
American Colonists and the British Government
As a beginning point, let us examine the relationship between the American colonists and the British government. More particularly, let us consider how the colonists reacted to what they believed were unjust laws imposed upon them.
First, the American colonists applied the biblical doctrine of the lesser magistrate. In its simplest form it is the idea that if a given civil authority is perceived to be functioning in a manner that is unbiblical and plainly unjust, a lower civil authority will lead the effort to seek corrective action and if necessary to resist that authorityís overreaching acts of tyranny. The doctrine of the lesser magistrate derives its biblical support from 1 Kings 12:1-20, 2 Kings 11:1-20, and other places. In the former passage, Israelites of old appealed to Rehoboam, who was about to be crowned king. "Please lift the heavy hand of taxation!" was the cry. Jeroboam, a Lesser Magistrate, led this appeal; he had been one of the leading officers in the kingdom of Rehoboamís father, Solomon. Rehoboam foolishly rejected this appeal, and with the blessing of God Jeroboam established the independent northern Israelite kingdom (1 Kings 11:29-38). In the latter passage, Athaliah was ruling as queen over the nation of Judah. Her wicked reign ended in its seventh year when Jehoiada, the high priest, called forth the military officers and led them in an oath to remove Athaliah and have her executed. The boy Joash, the true claimant to the throne, replaced her. God blessed the action of these lesser magistrates.
The doctrine of the lesser magistrate was expounded strongly by John Calvin, John Knox, and utilized by Martin Luther and other Protestant Reformers. Indeed, without it the Protestant Reformation would have never occurred. How did the colonists apply this doctrine?
The American colonists made multiple formal appeals for redress of grievances, each composed and delivered by official representatives of colonial governments. The act of separation was enacted only after rejection of these repeated appeals. Official representatives of colonial government formalized the final act of separation.
The doctrine of the lesser magistrate has many precedents in British history, including the Magna Carta in 1215, the Scottish Declaration of Independence in 1320, and the English Bill of Rights in 1688.
Second, the American colonists made no effort to harm the king or any of his household or remove him from office. Indeed, George III was not viewed as an enemy to destroy.
Third, the American colonistsí original goal was to receive the same treatment that English subjects in Britain received. This was a rejection of virtual representation, the notion that Englishmen living in America would have their interests defended by parliamentarians who had never even seen the American colonies, let alone understand their points of view. Virtual representation was already criticized by some of the more thoughtful members of Parliament, and reform programs had already been introduced to reapportion Parliamentary seats to accurately reflect the realities of English citizenry in both the British Isles and abroad. Unfortunately, these proposals were rebuffed until many years later when the British government finally agreed to recognize the rights of overseas Englishmen, too late to save the relationship with the thirteen American colonies.
Meanwhile, how was the British government reacting to the repeated appeals of the American colonists? Parliament sent clear signals that it viewed the American colonists in such a state that they no longer wanted to trouble themselves with the responsibility of governing the colonies. This attitude reached its peak with the passage of the Prohibitory Act in December 1775. At George IIIís request, Parliament declared that the colonies and their ships would no longer receive the protection of British military forces. The Prohibitory Act was, from the British point of view, much like a frustrated father kicking a rowdy teenager out his house, telling him he was on his own in the wider world. However, a number of people in England dissented with the passage of this law, among them most notable Edmund Burke, the great parliamentarian and author. They correctly perceived that that the colonists would be left only two choices: either re-align themselves under the protection of another strong nation such as France or Spain (unthinkable really), or declare their own independence and look to their own defenses in a rough and tumble world.
Ironically, and simultaneous to the Prohibitory Act, the British government prepared a massive army to crush colonial resistance. The most revealing factor in this arrangement was the hiring of foreign troops from the German state of Hessia. This is powerful evidence that the colonists were not viewed as British citizens, with the same rights as other British citizens, but as foreign subjects fit for re-conquest by any means. These troops began to land in New York City in June 1776.
Few alternatives were left to the American colonists, for the British government had eliminated all room for possible areas of compromise. Other than surrendering all rights of their own as well as those of their children, the colonists could only organize resistance on the basis of political independence. The mindset of the American colonists is perhaps best captured by a sermon given by Reverend David Jones of Philadelphia on July 20, 1775. The title says it all: "A Defensive War in a Just Cause . . . Sinless." Jones did not develop his thesis from mid-air; he was merely echoing fundamental precepts from the Protestant Reformation. For example, the 1550 Confession of Magdeburg reads as follows: "We will undertake to show that a Christian government may and should defend its subjects against a higher authority which should try to compel the people to deny Godís Word and to practice idolatry."
What about Romans 13? It states, "Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation" (Romans 13:1-2). Some have argued that this means that all government comes from God, whether they are tyrannical or just; thus, all civil authorities should be obeyed in all respects and any resistance against tyranny is contrary to Godís moral will. Reverend David Jones answers this clearly by explaining that this text is prescriptive, not descriptive. If the whole passage is examined, it explains what government should be, not what it was in Paulís time: "For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for his is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil" (Romans 13:3-4). While most tend to read this as applying solely to a lowly citizenís relationship to a civil authority, it also teaches that a given civil authority must submit to his higher power, that is, God. Jones reminded his listeners that every civil ruler has a duty to secure tranquility and the defense of property in accordance with Godís Law. Failing in these areas, he is open to accountability and correction by other civil authorities. Romans 13 cannot be a descriptive rule to be followed at all times, for there have been many occasions in history when the "powers that be," have only seized that power through force, yet only to be forcefully removed by either the former power, or yet a third power. When multiple tumultuous transfers of power occur, it is impossible to obey each successive authority, for to obey one is to disobey the other. A man must therefore choose to obey his civil authority based on something other than that authorityís mere existence in power. Simply holding power, being among the "powers that be," does not secure legitimacy. Logic dictates that Romans 13 is prescriptive, not descriptive.
Jonesís interpretation has not been lost in recent times. Dr. Greg Bahnsen, a leading mind on the application of Godís Law in society, had this to say regarding Romans 13: "Paulís words have definite bearing on what governments ought to be and ought to do and what citizens ought to be and ought to do, and his words can hardly be construed as offering unqualified acceptance of every specific human ruler."
Regarding the specific case of the American Revolution, John W. Robbins, in his book Freedom and Capitalism, sums up the application of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate: "The American War for Independence was a war between two established governments: the American colonial governments and the Continental Congress versus the British Crown. It was not a rebellion of private citizens. It was not some secular theory of revolution that guided the American patriots . . . It was this doctrine of lesser magistrates, not some anarchist theory, that fostered the growth of freedom in the United States."
It can thus be stated unequivocally that the American Revolution was a justified and measured response to unjust and tyrannical actions brought on by the British government. The results of the American Revolution have been the envy of much of the planet for two centuries. No nation has enjoyed such liberty, tranquility, and material abundance, and it is only to the degree that we have recently departed from our founderís vision that we have seen some of those liberties eroded. The simple fact that a large portion of the worldís inhabitants over the past two centuries have wanted to live in the United States is evidence enough of the success of the American Revolution and the vision of our founders.
Comparisons with the French Revolution
Was the American Revolution just like the French Revolution? Was the intellectual basis the same? Was the spirit and the social atmosphere the same? The answer is no.
Much has been made to suggest that the French Enlightenment writers were the intellectual inspiration of both the American and the French Revolution. At best this is only partly true. Even if it were, that does not prove anything, because many falsely assume that the Enlightenment was a monolithic movement made up exclusively of godless ideas. In actuality, the book from this period most often quoted by the founders of the United States, The Spirit of the Laws, was written by Montesquieu, a man who greatly admired the separation of power found in the British government and hoped to see France modify its absolutist monarchy along the lines of the British constitutional monarchy. He was in no way an atheist, and in fact had been educated in a Roman Catholic school. Had his ideas not been abandoned by the radical elements that came to dominate the French National Assembly in the early 1790s, the French Revolution would have had a far more pleasing and peaceful outcome.
Furthermore, to emphasize the thought that the French Enlightenment was not the fountainhead of the American Revolution, it is worth noting that the book most often quoted by the American founders was the Bible, not any Enlightenment writer, including Montesquieu.
The French Revolution was a complex series of events with several major phases in which different players tried to control events and impose their vision upon the nation. When generalizing about it, one runs the risk of giving the wrong impression, for the political factions involved were quite diverse in their aims and worldviews. However, with that caveat in mind, an honest analysis of the French reveals that ultimately it bore many marks of a true rebellious spirit.
In the beginning, when the more moderate Girondists were in control, the National Assembly presented no real appeals to the king. All the previously established Lesser Authorities (the first and second estatesóthe aristocracy and the church) had been discredited. What was presented to the king were demands, many of which he agreed to. But that was not enough. Soon any pretense to functioning under the principle of the lesser magistrate was abandoned completely, and events spun out of control. Policy in the National Assembly was subject to the whim of the Paris mob and the radical Jacobean demagogues who swayed them. In many respects, the French Revolution was less a series of political events than a violent social movementóa conflict between the poor masses and the wealthy aristocratic class, of which the king was the representative head.
Ultimately, as the spirit of rebellion deepened, the king was not only removed from office, but was killed, and as many members of his family as could be found. Indeed, events only became more delirious as every member of the old aristocracy was subject to trial and execution, simply for the "crime" of being a member of the wealthy privileged class.
Regarding the changes that the National Assembly sought, there was little historical precedent. France had functioned under a blend of Roman and old Frankish Salic Law, quite unlike English Common Law. There simply were no historical antecedents for limiting the power of the king in the manner desired.
After the radicals gained the upper hand, Atheism became the dominant philosophical worldview. Christianity was associated with the excesses of the old regime and the autocratic tendencies of the Roman Catholic Church (France had no Protestants any more; a century earlier they had been either murdered or they fled). Unlike America, where church pulpits were the center piece of biblical resistance to injustice and people flocked to hear the Bible read, French revolutionaries attempted to convert churches to centers of atheistic teaching. In this they were only partly successful; but meanwhile it unleashed a spirit of true lawlessness.
The results of the French Revolution were extreme bloodshed and a chaotic succession of governments. It was not until Napoleon restored order under his own new absolute monarchy that normal functions of life were again possible.
It is a gross inaccuracy to argue that the spirits of the American Revolution and the French Revolution were the same. The operating principles were different, the organization of the antagonists was different, the mood was different, and as is now profoundly obvious, the results have been very different.
Comparisons with the Russian Revolution
The differences between the American and Russian Revolutions are so stark that few thoughtful people attempt to link them. Yet a brief review of facts may be of value to emphasize this.
Like the French Revolution and unlike the American, the Russian Revolution had several distinct phases. As in France, the moderates dominated the first phase. Had the vision of Alexander Kerenskyís democratic provisional government remained intact, the history of the twentieth century would have been far better. Unfortunately, he was not given the time needed, and the pressures of the First World War opened a gap for the radical elements of Russian society to seize power in a violent coup. These were the Bolsheviks, and they lost no time in solidifying power using any means necessary.
The Bolsheviks made no pretense to any guiding precept remotely resembling the doctrine of the lesser magistrate. This small but highly organized cabal of violent men had no experience in governing. Indeed, they were largely comprised of the Russian underclass, with many of them having spent time serving sentences for violent crime.
As is well known, they quickly killed the czar and all members of his family. They appear to have never had any regrets.
As is well known, none of the changes they proposed had historical precedents upon which they based their claims. They could appeal to nothing in Russian history.
As is well known, they had no biblical basis for anything they did, either in principle or in practice. Indeed, their hostility to God, the Bible, and anything remotely Christian is probably without equal in world history.
There were at least three profound and devastating results in Russia: First, an absolute dictatorship far harsher than the Czarís was immediately imposed and rigorously maintained for three-fourths of a century. Second, they instituted an inherently stupid economic system that destroyed the nationís capability for production, making continual rapacious conquest a necessity to support the regime. Third, they built a deserved reputation as the most bloodthirsty regime in world history, executing tens of millions of their own inhabitants.
Any suggestion that any aspects of the Russian Revolution, real or theoretical, bear resemblance to the American Revolution is absurd.
Comparisons with the Great Rebellions of the Bible
A brief consideration of the three most well known rebellions of the Bible that were plainly condemned by God will show significant distinctions with the American Revolution.
Our first example is the case of Miriam and Aaron accusing Moses of marrying an unfit woman, thereby disqualifying him as an appropriate leader of Israel, This tale unfolds in Numbers 12:1-15. On the positive side of the ledger, a lesser authority was one of the agents of action, namely Aaron, the high priest. Also to the credit of Miriam and Aaron, the confrontation was apparently made in private, not public. However, no historic precedent existed for this kind of action and they had their facts wrong; Moses wife was acceptable. Furthermore, no appeal was made by the lesser authority for a redress of their grievanceóthey simply wanted to intimidate Moses and have him removed. The result was a relatively modest judgment. Miriam was temporarily plagued with leprosy and humiliated.
The next example was more serious. Korah and his company of 250 princes rallied against Moses. Numbers 16:1-50 reveals the details. In this case, lesser authorities were the agents of actionóthat was good. But nothing else can be said about this story that was positive. Korah and his comrades mishandled every other criteria by which they may be judged. The confrontation was highly public. The way they approached Moses revealed sinister motives. No historic precedent existed for this, unless you count the judgment of Miriam in which a pattern had been established that Moses was Godís unique choice for leadership. Apparently Korah and his followers were slow learners. These lesser authorities made no appeal to Moses; they simply wanted to remove Moses and insert themselves in his position. In this case the judgment was swift and severe. The sentence was public and total destruction of the rebelís entire households, followed by a plague upon their supporters. Perhaps they should have been paying closer attention to the matter involving Miriam!
Our third example is the sad story of Absalom and his rebellion against his own father David. The Bible takes four full chapters to tell this tale (2 Samuel 15-18). First, we note that no lesser authority was involved. Absalom was not yet the heir-apparent and held no legal authority. No historic precedent existed for the removal of a king in Israel. Absalom made no appeal to his father David, nor did anyone else. Absalomís plan was a secret and violent coup that revealed great bitterness and evil in his heart. The confrontation became a public war involving the lives of many innocent men; men whose blood was ultimately on the hands of Absalom. Removal of the existing authority in violent manner was the goal; and all the more shameful in that this was Absalomís own natural father. The result was public and total destruction of the rebels, along with thousands of innocents. To this day, Absalomís name is associated with the worst kind of ungratefulness and rebellion.
Practical Questions for Us before We Resist an Authority
While we cannot turn back the clock and relive our lives, we can use the past as a pattern by which we can make wise choices for ourselves from this point forward. How we view the American Revolution may have bearing on the political choices this nation collectively makes in the future. Additionally, there are many closer areas of application of the principles of authority: our own church body, the place where we work, and local government.
We do not want to be caught up in an evil spirit of rebellion that is condemned by God and destructive to all around us. Human nature is subtle and we are capable of slipping into a seditious frame of mind without recognizing it. Therefore, before you resist an authority, ten questions are presented here upon which you should reflect.
1. Have you made an appeal to your erring authority?
2. If this involves multiple layers of authority, did a lesser authority make the appeal?
3. Was Scripture or well-established historic precedent the basis of the appeal?
4. If possible, was the appeal made in a private setting?
5. Have you considered the lives of other people that unknowingly may be affected?
6. Is fleeing the jurisdiction of your erring authority basically impossible?
7. Have you sought the counsel of others who have faced a similar situation?
8. Have you searched your soul and concluded that removal of this authority is not your ambition?
9. Have you searched your soul and concluded that you do not seek violence, force, or coercion?
10. Have you searched your soul and concluded that suffering the injustice is unwise and not pleasing to God?
If all of these can be answered in the affirmative, then resisting an erring authority may be justified. The facts of the American Revolution meet these criteria.
It is my hope that we will avoid the temptation to poke sticks into the reputation of our national founding fathers. While no one insists that these men were perfect, we have a stunning lack of heroes in our time. Must we whittle away at our founders lives until there is nothing left, leaving our youth with no one worthy to emulate? The legacy of our founders, the United States of America, is a worthy one. The stains that we discern on our national fabric are primarily of our own doing and are not to be laid at the feet of the great men who bequeathed to us this nation. Let us do our part to sustain that which is noble and good from our past while we seek to correct the ills of the present.