John Keown: America's Unjust Revolution: A Rejoinder to Mark Tooley

Roundup: Talking About History

[John Keown is Rose F. Kennedy Professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics of Georgetown University.]

Mark Tooley has kindly replied to my paper which argued that America's War for Independence was unjust. His reply, much of which is taken up with a broadly accurate summary of my paper, makes some interesting points. It fails, however, to dent my argument.

Tooley begins and ends by targeting the"Religious Left" for trying to reinterpret the traditional"just war" criteria into"impossibly stratospheric standards, so that no war can ever be moral." He claims that this"stratospheric standard" seems to afflict my analysis. Not so. Regardless of what the"Religious Left" may or may not think about war, I adopt the traditional just war criteria without gloss. And while those criteria are not"stratospheric" they are strict: a war must satisfy them all, and do so convincingly, if it is to be just. The American War for Independence signally failed to do so.

Tooley notes my conclusion that the colonial uprising may have satisfied two of the seven criteria:" competent authority" and"probability of success." Of the latter he writes that it seems obvious that it was satisfied because the rebels won. This does not follow: the probability of success must be judged at the beginning, not the end. As David McCullough puts it in his impressive book 1776 the result seemed, to those who had been with George Washington from the beginning of the conflict,"little short of a miracle." What, then, of Tooley's response to my conclusion that the war did not satisfy the remaining criteria?

Was war a"last resort"? Tooley comments that the colonial trade embargo was"disrupted by events at Lexington and Concord." These"events" were, of course, the deliberate resort to lethal violence by rebels in order to retain arms they had stolen from the authorities (clearly with a view to turning them on their lawful owners). Lexington and Concord were evidence, as one military historian has put it, of"planned aggression" by the rebels. Moreover, the response of the Continental Congress to these"events" was not the reigning in of the New England aggressors but an endorsement and escalation of their violence....

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