Was our American Revolution a Just War?
King George III, his officers, Parliament, and Colonial loyalists considered the Revolution an illegal insurrection, a rebellion against their legitimate government. The leaders of the Revolution considered their acts justified and the war a just action against an illegal tyranny. So, was that war just, in the classical sense?
Jus in bello
Augustine and Luther argued that war can only be conducted by a legitimate authority, or government. Colonial leaders in the Second Continental Congress wrote and passed the Articles of Confederation. Why?
Those leaders knew the need for their colonies to bond, however loosely, with each other in order to form a government-in-fact; a government that embodied their political expectations and traditions and that could speak for their interests. So, in their eyes, this was no mere rebellion led by individual mob leaders, but a revolution in defense of a legitimate government.
The British government officially declared the colonies in rebellion and did everything it could to prevent other nations from recognizing the colonies as a nation. Why? When that occurred, the conflict could no longer be called a “civil war.” Recognition of the colonies as a nation and the Continental Congress as its legitimate government transformed the conflict from the suppression of an illegal rebellion into a war of aggression (invasion, conquest, & occupation) by Great Britain.
The armed conflict began in Massachusetts when British forces marched out of Boston to seize militia supplies in nearby townships and the militia responded in defense of those armories. Since Massachusetts was represented in the Continental Congress, its militia was a legitimate armed force of their government. They did not attack British forces; they responded to British attacks at Lexington and Concord. British military occupation of Boston then became one of an aggressor. The issue was one of self-defense, a justified reason for war.
The goal of the Continental Congress was to establish “independency” and restore peace to the (independent) colonies. The goal of the Continental Army was to remove British forces from their occupation of those areas in the colonies where they had established themselves through conquest. With the exception of the unsuccessful campaign in Canada, the Revolution and its leaders had no aggressive designs upon Great Britain. (Such designs would have been ridiculous, anyway.)
The raids on British towns and merchant shipping conducted by John Paul Jones were reactions to similar British acts in the colonies.
Probability of Success
This is the weakest of any Jus in bello point regarding the Revolution. It seems clear, from the correspondence left behind, that most thoughtful leaders of the Revolution felt that success could not be guaranteed without foreign intervention. Luther would point out that, in this case, the Revolution could not be justified since its most expected conclusion, victory by Great Britain, would probably result in evil far greater than that which the leaders sought to redress.
Jus ad bellum
Let’s look at how Continental forces conducted the war, too.
This is always a hard thing to evaluate, primarily because combatants and non-combatants are so closely intertwined in modern societies. There were times in human history when combatants were distinct from the populations of the regions in which they operated. Armies of the 12th to 18th centuries in Europe were professional forces, allied to a Prince or ruler. Non-combatants were the merchants, guild members, and farmer-serfs whose labor and taxes supported the Prince, and whom the Prince defended with his professional army.
It’s clear that Revolutionary and Loyalist sympathizers suffered from economic and social acts committed by the side that controlled the region. It’s also clear that, on occasion, prisoners of war were not well-treated (for instance, British treatment of Continental prisoners in the prison ships off of New York City and Banastre Tarleton’s action at the Waxhaw Massacre).
The Continental Army destroyed villages and crop stockpiles of the Six Nations Confederacy in the Sullivan Expedition of 1779. We should note that this expedition was in response to Six Nation and Tory campaigns against colonial frontier towns, such as at Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania and Cherry Valley, New York.
I cannot find a military campaign conducted by Continental forces that did not respond to valid military needs. Of course, there are many instances of misconducted operations or poor planning, but that is a different matter.
Would it have been best if the War of Revolution had not occurred?
Of course. War is not a good thing, by any stretch of imagination.
Was it a just war?
I believe it was.
Were unjust acts committed by British, Continental, or militia forces?
Yes. Not on the scale we know today, but bad enough for that time.
By the way, I don’t assert that British policy or acts were immoral. I only point out that, in the implementation of our Revolution, this war complied, for the most part, with the strictures of the Just War doctrine.