Many actors who use force legitimize their choices by citing justice. The American Civil Rights Movement and similar efforts, from Gandhi in India to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s coalition in apartheid-era South Africa, used a form of nonviolent direct action that was forceful but not violent. The point in each case was to change government policy within a quasi-democratic environment, and thus none of these movements justified criminal violence or terrorism. Some people mistakenly think that such an approach is possible in the midst of a violent civil war or international conflagration, but it is beyond credulity to think that peaceful sit-ins, marches, and bus boycotts would have swayed Stalin, Mao, Hitler, or the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer and others such as Claus von Stauffenberg attempted to use force within Germany to stop the Hitlerian regime and bring the war to an end.

This essay is the third in a series looking at moral forms of resistance through the lens of just war statecraft. Some of these ideas are adapted from my forthcoming book, A Basic Guide to The Just War Tradition: Christian Foundations and Practices. Just statecraft principles of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intent help us to distinguish between the work of Dr. King and the lawlessness of the Black Panthers. It also helps us distinguish between the lawful use of force for self-defense and justice as opposed to criminal violence and terrorism. When it comes to governments wielding the power of the sword, so-called state terrorism (e.g. torture of dissidents) and unrestrained warfare are never justified. At the heart of this is the distinction between lawful, restrained force and unlawful, unrestrained, vengeful violence. As an example, revolutionary violence that is designed to burn down existing law, institutions, and social norms, such as the French, Russian, and Chinese Revolutions, never meets the definition of a just war. We will look at revolutionary violence in the next essay in this series.

For Americans, in particular, this brings up a very important question. Was the so-called “American Revolution” a just war? More specifically, was it just for the colonists to employ force? Based on our categories, it would be better to call the 1776 conflict the American War for Independence because it was clearly not a revolution: it was a self-defensive war. After 150 years in North America, the colonists had to make a choice in the 1770s about whether or not they would continue to allow their fundamental rights as British citizens to be trampled upon. Imagine what it would have been like to have been a merchant in Boston or New York in the 1770s, with revenues drying up due to rising taxes and embargoes, not to mention British troops and Hessian mercenaries taking over your home and stables for their own use, with little or no financial compensation, sleeping under your roof not far from your teen-age daughter.

Because many citizens in Britain’s North American colonies were highly religious, the arguments made by pastors in sermons, both spoken and printed, carried tremendous weight. Thus, it is important for us, as Christians, to look at the Christian just war arguments made by these individuals. Pastors such as Jonathan Mayhew, John Tucker, Samuel West, and others, looked to biblical passages such as Romans 13 as well as the works of Calvin, Knox, Ponet, and others, and concluded that citizens had a dual obligation to resist tyranny in extreme situations, yet, as much as possible, live dutifully as obedient subjects.15 A typical example of this is Samuel West’s claim that “the same principles which oblige us to submit to government do equally oblige us to resist tyranny . . . . ”16 The question is when does the balance tip to resistance?

The paragon of such sermons was Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 “Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Authorities.” John Adams, who later served as U.S. president, said that “everyone in the colonies” read Mayhew’s famous sermon on colonial rights and that Mayhew was a “transcendental genius . . . who threw all the weight of his great fame into the scale of the country and maintained it there with zeal and ardor till his death.”17 This sermon was printed and reprinted numerous times in the colonies and in London. Mayhew began, 

Let us now trace the apostle’s’ reasoning in favor of submission to the higher powers, a little more particularly and exactly. For by this it will appear, on one hand, how good and conclusive it is, for submission to those rulers who exercise their power in a proper manner: And, on the other, how weak and trifling and unconnected it is, if it be supposed to be meant by the apostle to show the obligation and duty of obedience to tyrannical, oppressive rulers in common with others of a different character.18

Mayhew distinguished between the moral duty of the Christian to submit to lawful authority and the citizen’s appropriate response to “lawless, unreasonable” tyranny: 

Those who resist a reasonable and just authority, which is agreeable to the will of God, do really resist the will of God himself; and will, therefore, be punished by him. But how does this prove, that those who resist a lawless, unreasonable power, which is contrary to the will of God, do therein resist the will and ordinance of God?19

Consequently, Mayhew argues, 

Thus, upon a careful review of the apostle’s reasoning in this passage, it appears that his arguments to enforce submission, are of such a nature, as to conclude only in favor of submission to such rulers as he himself describes; i.e., such as rule for the good of society, which is the only end of their institution. Common tyrants, and public oppressors, are not entitled to obedience from their subjects, by virtue of anything here laid down by the inspired apostle.20

This lays the groundwork for action against “tyrants and public oppressors.” Mayhew’s argument goes on at length, articulating a rationale that increasingly became a part of the colonial consciousness: the purpose of government was to secure the common good. Citizens, working with established political authorities at the local and state level, had a moral duty to resist tyranny.

In sum, it was a member of the black-robed regiment, America’s clergy, who provided one of the earliest and most sophisticated theological rationales for the American War for Independence. Jonathan Mayhew provided this argument in 1750, long before the conclusion of the French and Indian War (1763) resulted in massive taxes on the colonists (e.g. Stamp Act), before the Boston Massacre (1770) and the Boston Tea Party (1773), and before the redcoats attacked Lexington and Concord (1775). His ideas were directly influential on others, including the framers of a dozen declarations, most those made in July 1775 and July 1776.

‘The Shot Heard Round the World’ & The Declaration of the United Colonies (1775)

Violence in North America came to a head in April 1775 in what Americans call “the shot heard round the world.” Earlier in the same year, Boston was occupied by British troops and imposed martial law. Although the locals were told they could leave, they were under constant scrutiny and routinely searched. Moreover, General Carleton, the governor of Canada, was accused of instigating brigands and American Indians to attack frontier settlements. British troops attacked American colonists on April 19, 1775 near Lexington and Concord, and then one day later, on April 20, 1775, Virginia Governor Lord Dunmore ordered the clandestine emptying of the Williamsburg arsenal, which was countered by Virginia militia led by Patrick Henry. Subsequent jockeying between the colonials and British troops culminated in the Battle of Great Bridge, near Norfolk, Virginia later the same year.

After the April 19th killing of colonists in 1775 as well as the ongoing British heavy-handedness, the Continental Congress laid out its complaints about the violence in July that year with the Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms. The document provided a rationale for self-defense that completely aligns with just war thinking. The date is noteworthy: It is twelve months, to the week, before the more famous July 4, 1776 Declaration of Independence. In the 1775 Declaration the colonists beseeched London to not provoke “the calamities of civil war.” There is no talk of independence.21 A careful look at the text of the document shows that it brings together elements from Chapter 3 on intermediate authority’s responsibility for security and the wider set of just war criteria.

The 1775 Declaration begins with a question about legitimate authority: Does God grant to government “unbounded authority . . . never rightfully resistible, however severe and oppressive . . .” or is it “instituted to promote the welfare of mankind”? This is a critical question because it hearkens to the very foundations of just war statecraft, most notably Romans 13: “For he [the government official] is the minister of God to you for good . . . . ” Because of this, temporal authorities have the responsibility to “bear the sword” to “execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” The colonists were deeply embedded in a Christian worldview, regardless of the unorthodox faith of some prominent individuals such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. They took Romans 13 and Old Testament examples of moral leadership very seriously, applying them to other founding documents such as the Mayflower Compact and provincial constitutions. Their argument was simple: political authority is a divinely ordained good. When political leaders become tyrants, and when there are alternative forms of political authority that will preserve the lives, livelihoods, and way of life of citizens, then it is perfectly acceptable to act in self-defense. 

The Continental Congress asked, “What is the purpose of political order in the first place?” This was a question that had been hotly debated in Great Britain over the previous century, as King James and others had argued for a divine right of kings that gave government a carte blanche based on its supreme authority. By the late eighteenth century, some members of the British Parliament were making a similar claim: London could do as it pleased. The 1775 Declaration by the colonists made this point, “By one statute it is declared, that parliament can ’of right make laws to bind us in all cases whatsoever . . . .’ What is to defend us against so enormous, so unlimited a power? . . . We saw the misery to which such despotism would reduce us.”22

The colonists argued that London lost its moral authority to govern when it violated its basic responsibility to protect the well-being of citizens within the Commonwealth. This includes a variety of threats to their security, both passive and active, that are discussed below.23 

The 1775 Declaration argues that governing charters, constitutional rights, and colonial legislatures represent a richer understanding of the political arrangement providing political order in the colonies: “Our forefathers . . . left their native land, to seek on these shores a residence for civil and religious freedom.” The writers note that at little cost to the Crown, over a period of nearly 150 years, British colonists had through their own blood, sweat, and fortunes, settled the “distant and unhospitable wilds of America.” They were largely self-governing with royal charters; the relationship was so “mutual[ly] beneficial” as to “excite astonishment.”24

The 1775 Declaration transitions from a discussion of legitimate authority to one of just cause:

Parliament . . . in the course of eleven years, [has]:

– undertaken to give and grant our money without our consent, though we have ever exercised an exclusive right to dispose of our own property; 

– statutes have been passed for extending the jurisdiction of courts of admiralty and vice-admiralty beyond their ancient limits; 

– for depriving us of the accustomed and inestimable privilege of trial by jury, in cases affecting both life and property; 

– for suspending the legislature of one of the colonies; 

– for interdicting all commerce to the capital of another; 

– and for altering fundamentally the form of government established by charter, and secured by acts of its own legislature solemnly confirmed by the crown; 

– for exempting the” murderers of colonists from legal trial, and in effect, from punishment; 

– for erecting in a neighboring province, acquired by the joint arms of Great-Britain and America, a despotism dangerous to our very existence; 

– and for quartering soldiers upon the colonists in time of profound peace. 

– It has also been resolved in parliament, that colonists charged with committing certain offences, shall be transported to England to be tried.25

This is a damning list of trampled liberties. Running throughout it all is a series of taxes (“Acts”) that have been imposed upon the colonies one after the other for the previous eleven years, many with the explicit purpose not only to raise revenue but to demonstrate the political primacy of the British Empire. These taxes were buttressed by a naval blockade and various anti-smuggling initiatives designed to choke American trade, and thus threatened the livelihood of thousands of colonists. This was a direct assault on the notions of individual liberty and private property. 

The 1775 Declaration described the motivation for this economic warfare: “These devoted colonies were judged to be in such a state, as to present victories without bloodshed, and all the easy emoluments of statuteable plunder.” London could pillage its own people and they were required to submit. And now, the king and parliament had called the self-defensive actions of the colonists “a rebellion” and promised to take “measures to enforce due obedience.”26

A second set of just cause arguments revolve around the legal rights of citizens within the understood constitutional framework of the British Empire. The colonists were accustomed to trial by jury of their peers, but London had revoked this in numerous instances, setting up an alternative juridical system. Admiralty courts were empowered to deal with many cases, meaning that what had formally been a civil case (e.g. contraband found among legitimate cargo) now could be tried under Admiralty law, with no jury nor appeal, including the confiscation of the entirety of one’s property and imprisonment.

More concerning, however, was that the colonists had every reason to fear being transported to Canada or even London for trial before an inhospitable audience, without recourse to local witnesses and evidence. Additionally, the armies quartered on North American soil, which no longer were focused on fighting the French and which increasingly were in league with Native Americans—who at times terrorized the borders of the colonies—all suggested a malign plot to force the colonies into servitude.

In short, the colonists made a classic legitimate authority proposition, arguing that London has neglected its responsibilities to them as citizens, choosing a tyrannical course of action to gravely limit the basic rights of the colonists. The colonists made a just cause argument that their actions were legitimate self-defense. They went on to emphasize their right intent. Their purpose was not to plunder their neighbors or establish a new kingdom. 

Lest this declaration should disquiet the minds of our friends and fellow subjects in any part of the empire, we assure them that we mean not to dissolve that union which has so long and so happily subsisted between us . . . We have not raised armies with ambitious designs of separating from Great-Britain and establishing independent states. We fight not for glory or for conquest . . . [but] in our native land, in defense of the freedom that is our birthright . . . for the protection of our property . . . against violence actually offered, we have taken up arms.27

The colonists counted the cost, and they reminded London that there would be a strong likelihood of success if the colonies were forced to defend themselves. Despite the powerful British Navy, the colonists could turn internally for all of the basic resources of life. The North American continent was rich in resources and space, and the colonies had a robust population. The colonies spread over a wide geography that would not be easy for London to tame, particularly if the colonists could achieve some sort of alliance with foreign powers. Such an alliance would not be surprising and would have been seen as clearly threatening by Great Britain: there is little doubt that France, Spain, and others could become involved in a global war like that of the Seven Years War (French and Indian War). Furthermore, if some in London believed that they could split off rebellious Massachusetts from “loyal” New York or the southern colonies, the signers of this 1775 Declaration insisted on the unity of the colonies. The 1775 Declaration concluded with a summary of the strategic milieu: 

Our cause is just. Our union is perfect. Our internal resources are great, and, if necessary, foreign assistance is undoubtedly attainable. We gratefully acknowledge, as signal instances of the Divine favor towards us, that his Providence would not permit us to be called into this severe controversy, until we were grown up to our present strength, had been previously exercised in warlike operation, and possessed of the means of defending ourselves.28

In conclusion, the colonists reminded London of their many previous petitions, making claims about last resort and proportionality of ends. For a decade, since 1765, individual colonies had sent various petitions and appeals to London, nearly all of which were met with hostility. American representatives, such as Benjamin Franklin, crossed the Atlantic to make their case, but were typically not given audience in official settings. Colonials saw their freedoms reduced, their options limited, and their livelihoods challenged. More specifically, the recent 1774 Coercive (“Intolerable”) Acts were essentially acts of war: Boston Harbor was closed, the Charter of Massachusetts was revoked, the Administration of Justice Act remitted criminal cases to be tried in Britain, the Quartering Act required colonial residents to house British troops and German mercenaries in their own homes, and the territory of Canada was extended to deny colonists access to Western lands. What was next, the imposition of English bishops? Banishment of dissenters? Mercenary troops sent to conquer the civilian populace? The 1775 Declaration finally asserted,

We are reduced to the alternative of choosing an unconditional submission to tyranny . . . or resistance by force . . . We have counted the cost of this contest and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery.29

The American War for Independence was a long and painful ordeal, as every war is. Our history books and Hollywood have helped create a set of images that humanize the issues, the valor, the sacrifice, and the loss of those eight years of war (April 1775 – September 1783). It was a war fought, at least on the American side, at first as a sort of self-defensive war that was buttressed with a moral sense that the colonists’ rights, as British citizens, were being trampled and denied or taken away completely. Those liberties, enshrined in the 1776 Declaration of Independence and, later, in the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, gave a broader moral appeal to the gritty years of war. When it comes to how the war was fought, Hollywood has taken a bit of the luster off that distant war by showing some of the historical excesses (Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, A&E’s Turn) and tragedies of the conflict. We can be thankful that the final peace settlement, however limited, provided a decent start for the new republic. There were no mass reprisals against Tories. There was no post-war dictatorship (as is common after wars of independence). There was no disintegration of political order. The basic objective of 1775—to live in a society based on the English constitutional system of ordered liberty—was realized. Of course, the early American situation had many dangers, whether on the frontier, in the South (Spanish and French territories), the ongoing British naval and army presence that resulted in the War of 1812, or the republic falling apart due to inter-colonial strife. Moreover, the new republic would struggle to overcome the sin of its peculiar institution, slavery.

Nevertheless, the American War for Independence was fought by legitimate political authorities who assumed the mantle of national leadership from within existing colonial political arrangements. The Continental Congress and provincial governments responded to the violence perpetrated by the British government with measured and organized responses, rooted in the responsibility of government to provide self-defense for the lives, livelihoods, and way of life of its citizens. General Washington made every effort to ensure that national defense followed the law of armed conflict and did not disintegrate into terrorism and vengeful violence. Later, as president, he was a unifying figure that sought only friendship with former adversaries. Thus, unlike the character of many revolutions and rebellions, the Spirit of ’76 met the just war statecraft principles of legitimate authority, just cause, and right intention.


15. See Steven M. Dworetz, The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990), 156: “The clergy did not treat St. Paul as a radical simply as a matter of Revolutionary exigency. Jonathan Mayhew in 1750, and Samuel West in 1776, offered the same ‘liberal’ interpretation of Romans 13. Even before Mayhew this interpretation appeared in a number of pamphlets and sermons . . . The ‘liberal’ reading of Romans 13 was not, in fact, an American innovation. Quentin Skinner traces the prototype to John Colet, a fifteenth century English humanist . . .”

16. Samuel West, “On the Right to Rebel Against Governors,” (Boston, 1776), in Charles S. Hyneman and Donald L. Lutz, Eds., American Political Writing during the Founding Era: 17601785, Vols. I & II (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1983), 412.

17. John Adams on Mayhew as cited in Eric Patterson, “Jonathan Mayhew: Colonial Pastor against Tyranny” Providence (October 8, 2020), accessed at

18. From Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 sermon, “Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Authorities” in Eric Patterson, “Jonathan Mayhew: Colonial Pastor against Tyranny” Providence (October 8, 2020), accessed at

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. From the Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms of the Continental Congress (July 1775). The entire Declaration can be found at:

22. Ibid.

23. It is noteworthy that whereas some Loyalist clergy argued that the colonials should be ever respectful of King and Parliament, an influential group provided a different reading of Romans 13, the New Testament basis for citizens submitting to government authority. For instance, Jonathan Mayhew, Samuel West, John Tucker and other influential ministers interpreted Scriptural passages like Romans 13 to emphasize both obedience to authority and to support the right of resistance. A typical example of this is Samuel West’s claim that “the same principles which oblige us to submit to government do equally oblige us to resist tyranny…” Some of the writing referred to at the time included Peter Martyr Vermigli (who advocated resistance), John Ponet’ A Short Treatise on Political Power (he supported tyrannicide), John Knox, and others, who argued that resistance was justified—even morally required in some cases—if the national political authority became corrupt and tyrannical. The appropriate body to take such action, it was generally argued, was intermediate political authorities (e.g., chartered colonial governments) acting within the rule of law to preserve the security, rights, and freedom of the citizens. The most famous American making these claims was Jonathan Mayhew’s 1750 “Discourse Concerning the Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to Higher Authorities.” This sermon was printed and reprinted numerous times in the colonies and in London; John Adams famously said that everyone had read it in the colonies.  For more on this line of thinking, see Mayhew’s sermon at: (Accessed March 1, 2015) and Steven M. Dworetz’s The Unvarnished Doctrine: Locke, Liberalism and the American Revolution (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1990).

24. From the Declaration of the United Colonies on the Causes and Necessities of Taking Up Arms of the Continental Congress (July 1775) at

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Ibid.

29. Ibid.