Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Romans 13 and the American Revolution

Every now and then I run into Christians who have concluded that the American Revolution was a biblically unjustified war. These men (they’re always men) are bright and serious minded about the faith. Given the nationalistic flavor of much conservative Christianity in the U.S., I appreciate their willingness to challenge often unexamined assumptions of the (ostensible) congruence of our commitment to Christ and to our nation. That’s not necessarily an easy thing to do in a nation in which almost every church puts an American flag next to the altar. (The presence of the flag need not be a bad thing, to be sure. But the implication of its presence is, well, studiously ambiguous, and what modifies what is critical: Are we Christian Americans, or American Christians. The first is just fine. The second is a form of syncretism. It’s unclear to me that a flag next to the altar represents only the former and not the latter.)

Yet while I appreciate the sincerely held views of these individuals, I’ve typically found their historical understanding of the events leading up to the Revolution to be a bit thin in this way: In my experience, they tend basically to view the Revolution as a mob action against duly constituted authority. And so a fairly direct appeal to Romans 13 ends the matter in favor of the British and against the colonists.

But I do not think that things are at all that clear cut against the colonists. There are several points in particular that this “revisionist” view tends to ignore. First, it tends to ignore that the colonists were represented in their own local legislatures. Secondly, the view tends to ignore that there was real ambiguity in the British constitution about the relationship of the colonial “parliaments” to the British Parliament in London. Finally, the view ignores that the constitutional crisis over taxation was a crisis precisely over the constitutional question of the accepted British constitutional right to be governed only by those laws to which one has consented through the legislature.

It is well known that the colonies had their own legislatures. Less well known is that the role of these legislatures in the British Empire had not been constitutionally well defined in the first half of the seventeenth century.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688, as it were, ratified the constitutional principle that the British king ruled in (i.e., with) Parliament. This was the bedrock principle of British constitutionalism after 1688.

The problem arose because the colonists sort of thought that they took the constitutional right of representation with them while the metropolitan authorities sort of thought that the colonists didn’t take this right with them. The problem is that the issue really didn’t force itself on either “side” for most of the first half of the seventeenth century, and so the ambiguity remained. (If an ambiguity can fester, then perhaps we can call it a festering ambiguity.)

In any event, the colonists were not represented in the British Parliament in London, but were represented in their colonial legislatures. This becomes important.

The next step sounds really weird to the modern ear, but understanding it is critical to understand why the imposition of a mild tax met with such resistance from the colonists: Under the British constitution, “taxation” was understood as a voluntary gift from the people to the crown. The British took the notion of representation seriously. “Consent” from your representative was your consent. That a tax required parliamentary consent to be imposed, meant that the people voluntarily gave the revenue to the crown. This, too, was the bedrock principle of British constitutionalism.

From the beginning, the colonists framed their argument in terms of their rights under the British constitution.

For example, the colonial “Stamp Act Congress” resolved, among other things:

“That all supplies to the crown, being free gifts of the people, it is unreasonable, and inconsistent with the principles and spirit of the British Constitution, for the people of Great Britain to grant to his Majesty the property of the colonies.”

Similarly, in perhaps the most widely read tract of the era, John Dickinson, drawing on British legal precedent, argued that “gifts and grants of their own property . . . made by the people [to the king]” go under several names, as taxes and subsidies. “But whatever the name was, they were always considered as gifts of the people to the crown, to be employed for public uses.”

These references could be multiplied.

When the British Parliament imposed a tax on the colonists without the approval of the colonial assemblies, even though the tax was modest, the unexplicated ambiguity in the constitution regarding the relationship of Parliament to the colonial assemblies became immediately highlighted.

The irony, of course, is that both sides of the dispute thought they were fighting for the same principle. For the metropolitan authorities, 1688 vindicated the right of the Parliament – the one in London – to government the entire British Empire. For the colonists, 1688 vindicated the right of Englishmen to be governed by laws of their own consent wherever they traveled. The constitutional crisis concerned the portability of British rights.

The thing is, there was no principled resolution to this constitutional ambiguity, aside from insisting on one answer or the other.

The point for us, however, is that, as I understand the literature, historians seem to agree that the colonists had a colorable constitutional claim. There is no Romans 13 argument for why the colonists had to concede the previously unresolved question in favor of the metropolitan authorities, who, like the colonists, insisted on their previously unexercised “right” over the colonies as much out of interest as out of principle.

So the colonists had a colorable constitutional argument, and had constituted authorities – the colonial assemblies – who arguably had a right to intervene on their behalf against what was, arguably, a usurping political authority on the part of the metropolitan government.

This is not to say that the British Parliament did not also have a colorable argument. This is the tragedy of the Revolution – it pivoted around a constitutional ambiguity that, once revealed, could not be abstractly resolved because it implicated the direct interests of both sides in the dispute.

In any event, I see no biblical argument that would force the colonists to concede the constitutional argument in favor of the British that does not equally require the British to concede the point, and so, in my judgment, the colonists did not violate Romans 13 in insisting on their rights, provoking the British authorities to military action, and then responding in kind to the British military action.


Blogger kelerie6 said...

This is an excellent post. It is one of the best position statements on this topic I have read so far.

I am a history teacher teaching at an international Christian school and have recently posed this question to my students. The argument you make about the illegal and illegitimate imposition of British power over the colonial powers is especially strong. Romans 13 does not apply if the legitimate governing authority is the colonial legislatures. I consider the Revolution, at least in an abstract and conceptual sense, a war not of revolt but of defense against a quasi-legitimate government in Britain. In fact, parliamentary and monarchical efforts to rid the Colonies of their legitimate and time-honored legislatures was an insurrection and therefore must be defended.

September 15, 2008 6:30 AM  
Blogger Carl Vehse said...

The Declaration of Independence clearly states the reason that the American colonists' representatives "solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Free and Independent States; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved":

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

It is this reason that must be congruent with Romans 13 (and I believe it is!). Yes, the "taxation without representation" issue was one of the "facts" presented in the Declaration, but if that were the only complaint, the Declaration of Independence would not have been needed, as the document stated:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."

However there were much more facts "submitted to a candid world," as the Declaration lists, so that the course of action was clear:

"But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

Note that the action by the colonists (through their representatives) was "their right... their duty". This is a direct reference back to the "inalienable rights" and "the laws of nature and of nature's God", which are references, from William Blackstone, to natural and revealed (Scriptural) Law.

November 21, 2008 11:20 AM  
Blogger Jim said...


I think you're missing the interrelationship between the preamble and the litany of charges. The colonists saw no need to pit them against each other.

Representation is precisely the issue. Despotism" was the consequence of denying representation. That's the right vindicated by 1688.

November 22, 2008 1:25 PM  
Blogger Carl Vehse said...

The "interrelationship" is evident. The denial of representation was part of the charges presented in the Declaration. But unless one is implying that the authors and signers of the Declaration were lying, the Declaration's statements I quoted stand on their own as the justification for declaring independence.

November 23, 2008 5:43 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

What I'd suggest you need to do is to read the whole Declaration as their argument, rather than just the isolated phrases.

You've mistaken the conclusion of their argument -- political separation from Britain -- from the basis for that argument, which is contained in the specific charges.

And my argument nowhere requires that we pit one part of the Declaration against another. I'm baffled why you would misread the discussion in that way.

Finally, we need to understand the Declaration a part of a decades-long conversation between the metropolitan authority and the colonists. The Declaration did not appear out of nowhere, and was not meant to be understood as if it did.

December 17, 2008 9:16 AM  
Blogger ecarlso said...

I am a college student and wrote a paper on this not to long ago. While I do agree with the point that the colonial legislation was the governing authority, I do not agree with the argument that unrepresented taxation was a legitimate reason for breaking ties with the mother country. May I point out Mark 12:17, "Then Jesus said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.' And they were amazed at him."

October 06, 2011 7:10 PM  
Blogger Dusty Shimkus said...

The argument of taxation without representation is not that the colonists didn't want to pay money, it was that such taxation was illegal as Englishmen understood it. For a government to disregard its own laws makes that government illegitimate. As the author of the post argues, the colonists were arguing that they were trying to uphold the trust spirit of the English Constitution, the ideas (as it was not written) that forms the basis of government and therefore were justified in their arguments. Note that the Declaration of Independence wasn't signed until July of 1776 (obviously) while the fighting started in the spring of 1775. So independence was declared as a matter of last resort, long after the British crown invaded the American colonies that were trying to uphold the English Constitution.

As far as Jesus comments on religion, it is important to understand that if Jesus would have spoken against taxes it would have:

1) Changed the entire context of the crucifixion, as he would then be crucified for inciting a riot, not for claiming to be the Messiah (which he was)

2) Change the entire message of the Gospel, as now he would be a Jewish freedom-fighter instead of the Savior of the world

3)Placed emphasis on the earthly kingdom, instead of the heavenly kingdom.

And yes, I realize I'm six years late.

October 09, 2014 8:10 AM  

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