Just War Concepts and the American Revolution

Jonathan Den Hartog

I was appreciative to see Guy Aiken's report last week from the Peace History Society. His post made an initial point I would have made--that discussion of the connections of war, peace, and religion are worth investigating. These were the same themes that emerged at a mini conference I had the pleasure to participate in last month, which asked "Was the American Revolution a Just War?" Organized by Glenn Moots (Northwood University), the conference featured some of the best conversations I've had in awhile.

Conference presenters quickly showed that the question could be interpreted in several ways. Some participants opted for a historical, contextualized definition of just wars, inquiring how the concepts were understood in the late eighteenth century. Other commentators opted for more universal definitions from the just war tradition, positing trans-historical, normative standards for war and justice. Both approaches brought valuable insights, even as my historian's sense appreciated the 18th-century perspective.

Following the traditional break-down of justice in going to war (jus ad bellum), justice in war (jus in bello), and just settlements after the war (jus post bellum), panels considered the Revolution from multiple angles. Theo Christov emphasized the thinking of Emer de Vattel for understanding sovereignty and the American Revolution. Vattel, along with Hugo Grotius and Samuel von Pufendorf featured prominently in discussions of the Revolution in regard to the law of nations in the 18th century.
Independence Hall
Independence Hall provided a great backdrop for conference discussions. (NPS)
Several papers discussed the ideals of conducting war and contrasted them with the horrors of the war as it developed. Phillip Hamilton demonstrated how Henry Knox's social and military ideals strongly guided his military conduct. By contrast, James Kirby Martin and Mark Lender illustrated that once the war became an existential war--one where the options were victory or enslavement and death--that limits quickly fell away. Papers by Benjamin Carp on the destruction of property and Cole Jones on the treatment of prisoners of war after Yorktown served to underline the destructive character of the war.

Benjamin Lyons helpfully applied ideas of the law of nations (as built on a concept of natural law) in tracing the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris.

Keynote speaker Jack Greene and presenter William Anthony Hay provided another helpful lens, as they considered the just war question from the British perspective. This Atlantic, comparative approach added complexity and balance to visions of the British imperial conflict.

For RiAH readers, I can observe there was some religious history discussion present. Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel were all, in different ways, influenced by their religious backgrounds and positions. Valerie Morkevicius considered Protestant and Reformed ideas of resistance to unjust authority, although even that survey left Morkevicius suspicious of the American usage of those ideas. In my paper, I traced John Jay's defense of the American Revolution. In addition to having political right on his side, he believed the Americans had divine support. Jay believed the American Revolution was defending true faith in America, and as evidence he pointed to the British disregard and misuse of churches. If this was the case, then the cause could be justified with biblical and language and religious rhetoric.

If anything, I might have expected more discussion of religious justifications of both going to war and fighting the war. Considering the recent scholarship of James Byrd, Mark Noll, John Fea, Thomas Kidd, James Hutson, and others, it might be worth-while bringing the religious history of the American Revolution into greater conversation with the political and military history of the Revolution. Those would be exchanges worth having!

Finally, I raise a question that came up and on which RiAH readers may want to weigh in, and that would be in the evaluation of justice. Just Wars claim they are fought because of a serious threat to a decline of justice. Recent thinking about justice post bellum assumes that the post-war settlement will have increased the justice of the situation. But how is that justice to be measured? Can it be quantified? If so, how? If not quantified, how should relative degrees of justice be expressed? Or, are these questions that crash upon the rock of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? I ask these questions as I am pondering them, so I look to collective wisdom of the Comments section.


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