This week we finished the preliminaries of the American Revolution and will start the fighting in earnest after the weekend. I hope that our examination of the events leading up to the Revolution has helped see the issue from both sides. Can we get out of our American skin and at least sympathize with the British? Quite a few of the students have developed some sympathy with the British perspective, which shows me that they are thinking and honestly engaging the material.
One crucial issue involves the ‘Sons of Liberty.’ Were they freedom fighters or terrorists? Against them we might say that. . .
- They used violence, and the threat of violence, to achieve political ends. They destroyed property, tarred and feathered people, etc.
- They used force to rob people of their freedom. For example, lets take the Tea Act. Let us suppose that you lived in Boston and in general, supported the British perspective in this debate. This would have put you in the minority, but it’s a free country, right? You have been looking forward to drinking tea again, but after the Tea Party you can’t.
The pro-British colonists could easily say that, “You Sons of ‘Liberty'” act under the cloak of freedom. But you are not willing to let the people choose freely. If the tea gets unloaded and you convince people not to buy it, well and good. If you can’t then you don’t represent the people anyway. You use force to take away my liberty to buy tea, which is perfectly legal, so you can have your way. Your violent acts show you don’t really trust people at all.
In their favor we could argue that
- A variety of peaceful means of protest had been tried, and those failed to even be acknowledged by Parliament.
- They would often warn people beforehand, and as far as I know, they did not kill anyone.
In response to #2 above, the Sons of Liberty might say,
- “It is true that we deprive you of your liberty to buy tea. But, this was for your own good and that of the whole community. If people bought tea we would become slaves to the British. It is right to take away the liberty to destroy yourself, just as we would take away your right to buy heroin on the open market. If you become an addict, that effects everyone around you.
- The same is true for tea in this case. If you buy it, everyone will indirectly suffer a loss of their liberty, yours included.
We are faced with a tough choice here. If we say that they are in fact ‘terrorists,’ what does this do to our view of the Revolution itself? If we say they are ‘freedom fighters,’ how do we respond to acts of terror today? Some of them at least claim that the current political situation has left them with no other option. Since they have no planes, tanks, and missiles they will fight with what means they have available. Are they ‘freedom fighters’ too?
Or, does the label ‘terrorist’ or ‘freedom fighter’ depend on the purpose of the acts and the end in view? Lincoln believed that Revolution was a moral, and not a political right. In this vein of thought the line between terrorist and freedom fighter can be drawn by the purposes they serve. So, if Al Queda attempts to establish a Medieval caliphate on the Mid-East they are terrorists, but the Sons of Liberty act for “freedom for all.” But does this mean that, “the ends justifies the means?” I do not mean to say that suicide bombers and the Sons of Liberty are the same. There is a big difference between smashing a customs house and the willful and random destruction of human life. But we must at least ask ourselves if there are in fact, uncomfortable similarities.
This week I wanted the students to consider whether or not the American Revolution can be justified from a Biblical perspective. This of course involves moral and political questions in general, but I did want them to consider the issue specifically in light of Romans 13:1 -7.
1 Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.2 Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. 4 For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. 6 This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.
Related to the America Revolution, I think prominent Christian thinkers would have viewed this passage differently in light of our study.
I think he would have been anti-Revolution and pro-British. He strongly supported secular authority in general. I think he would have told the colonists to be quiet and get back in line. He may have thought the colonists concerns with taxes made them too worldly.
He developed what he called the ‘Lesser Magistrates Theory.’ He was not in favor of revolution coming from the people as a whole, as he believed it violated Romans 13. But what if those in authority violate their trust? And what if ‘lesser magistrates’ (i.e. colonial officials, Continental Congress?) took up the mantle on behalf of the people. These ‘lesser magistrates’ are still people ‘in authority’ and they can lawfully lead a Revolution provided it was for the right reasons, etc. Perhaps this is why many New England Presbyterians and Congregationalists supported the Revolution.
I can’t say exactly what he would have thought and will make a guess. I do think that Aquinas saw government originating not in a ‘top down’ way,’ but in a more ‘bottom up’ way in line with his thought of the natural law and the fact that he believed that government, or some sort of organizing principle, would have come about even if mankind had never sinned. He might have emphasized that governments originate with the people, and they have power only ‘to do good.’ When they stray from that, they lose their real power. Evil never has authority over anyone.
We know what John Wesley, the great Methodist evangelist, thought it quite hypocritical that slave owners would talk loud and long about “liberty.”
Friday we took a break from our heavy discussions over the past few weeks and did an activity comparing 18th and early 19th century American art and architecture to England’s at the same time. Of course there are many similarities, as one might expect. After all, the two places were, and still are, similar in many ways. I wanted the students to focus on the differences. In the end I think we deduced that:
- American art at times lacks developed style and technique
- Americans tended to be simpler and more straightforward people
- Americans did not have the wealth of the English, and clearly were not an aristocratic people
- European art could tend to idealize the frontier experience of nature. Naturally, having not experienced it, one could more easily idealize it. American art did not portray an idealized nature.
- Clearly too, Americans and the British thought of themselves differently. The British are more “cultured,” while the Americans seems more “sober-minded.”
You can probably see some of the differences below. First, a couple of Americans:
Below are some contemporary British aristocrats:
Their expressions say it all. In a fight, I’m putting my money on Ellsworth and Sherman. Even in this famous painting of Benjamin West (a European) on the death of General Wolfe, one gets the impression that Ellsworth and Sherman would have said something like, “Sir, if you are going to die would you please be quick about it . . .and stop mugging for the audience!”
I hope the students will enjoy our look at the war itself beginning next week.