There is a recurring—albeit ill-informed—question in Christian circles regarding Romans 13 (which counsels dutiful subordination to legally established authorities) and the American Revolution: Were the Founding Fathers in sin when they rebelled against King George? Most recently, my son (a Harvard- and Yale-educated Mayo Clinic doctor who performs heart and lung transplants daily but does not have a lot of time for historiography) asked me for some references he could read to help answer this question, which was raised by some of his friends at church. This is my response:
I am not in my library, and thus not in a good position right now to refer you to works of scholarship, but I can briefly explain the position and why it is incorrect.
Your friends are reading Romans 13 and assuming from its admonition to obey the duly constituted authorities that any rebellion is necessarily wrong. This is incorrect, as follows.
1. Unlawful orders—even of duly constituted authority—may never lawfully be followed. E.g., in the case of the Sanhedrin’s ordering of the apostles to cease preaching Christ, their response was, “We must obey God rather than men.” Likewise, should a leader command the murder of 6 million Jews, or a husband command the abortion of his child, those so ordered not only may not but also must not obey. (Your mother reminds me to note the Egyptian midwives here also.)
2. God Himself shows us repeatedly the lawful overthrow of duly constituted governments, both by conquest and by internal processes. The most relevant of these is David’s displacement of Saul as king of Israel. This took place in two steps: First, the elders of Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon seceded from the united kingdom and established David as king of an independent kingdom of Judah. Later, the elders of the northern tribes elected David as their king also.
This teaches us two things (well, actually, two things relevant to this abbreviated discussion today): First, that in the system of government God personally designed, the legislative body (admittedly a bit less of a Congress and more of a constitutional convention, but elected and representative, which is the principal point) had power to elect and to dismiss kings; and second, that this power was in fact used lawfully, more than once (it comes up again after David’s death as well) and with God’s express approval.
3. In Anglo-American law, a parliament may not tax or otherwise encumber (such as with military service) a jurisdiction that has no representation in that parliament. This, of course, was the principal point of the American Revolution, and the principal constitutional debate within the United Kingdom at the time, as well. The London Parliament asserted its (unlawful and unprecedented) right to legislate for all subjects of the Crown, whereas the Jacobites (supporters of the restoration of the Stuarts) became the defenders of the historic constitutional tenet that though the king ruled over all, parliaments must be local and representative in nature with jurisdiction only over that territory from which they had been elected. (The irony of the party espousing the divine right of kings taking this quasi-republican position is a discussion best left for another day.)
In any case, when the London Parliament began imposing taxes, levies, quartering of soldiers, and other unlawful requirements upon 13 English provinces, each with its own parliament (the king being the chief executive of each one separately, the royal governor being his representative locally, just as governors-general represent the queen in Australia or Barbados today), it caused a constitutional crisis in the Colonies. England had largely neglected the Colonies early on because of the Civil War and then the Commonwealth and Restoration, and barely more than two more decades passed before the Glorious Revolution. During this long period of preoccupation, the Colonies had developed as though they were Scotland or Ireland, with their own institutions and their citizens possessed of the fullness of the rights of Englishmen. But when the French and Indian War (which to the English was the Seven Years War, the first truly global conflict) greatly stretched the Exchequer, the feeling in London was that the Colonies should be expected to pay “their fair share.” And thus the long descent to Revolution began.
It is important for you to re-read the Declaration of Independence, which after this email I suspect you will see through new eyes. You will find that, though it never references Romans 13, the entire document is a justification of independence, to people who knew Romans 13 well, in terms of the king having broken covenant with his subjects. And it is that last bit to which I’m seeking to draw your attention.
Anglo-American government is by covenant. Even in England, the king is not sovereign; Parliament is. And the colonists—law-abiding Englishmen, regardless of the province in which they happened to reside—were in covenant with a king who ceased keeping that covenant, and who allowed them to be rendered slaves rather than free men, that freedom being their lawfully acknowledged birthright.
This took on a rather different character after the Boston Tea Party, in consequence of which the London Parliament ordered the naval blockade of the Port of Boston and the cessation of all lawful commerce therein. This is to this very day in international law an act of war, and the colonists rightly understood it to be an act of war by the London Parliament against the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. They sought redress from their king—whose veto was absolute and in whom was vested supreme command of the Royal Navy—but he did nothing. Quite the contrary: He took the position of the London Parliament and enforced it. And over time the offenses mounted, from the Boston Massacre to the passage of bills of attainder to the military occupation of American cities and the dismissal of American parliaments.
In this environment, which broke into actual hostilities beginning in April 1775, the Colonial leaders sought what might be considered transatlantic marriage counseling and reconciliation for an extensive period. But when the king refused to relent from the equivalent of wife-beating and adultery, they came to the conclusion not only that the covenant had been broken but also that it ought to be broken. The Declaration of Independence was neither entered into lightly nor without abuses above and beyond those required for a lawful exit. To support the king was to reject right and support sin, period. The Revolution was no different in this regard than the refusal of Judah to accept Jeroboam as their king. It was the king who left his American subjects and provinces, not the other way around.
Your friends will at this point say something about Rome, and note that Paul was speaking to people under a far worse regime when under the Spirit’s inspiration he wrote Romans 13. They will be right, so far as that goes. But these are apples and oranges. Again, I will leave a proper discussion of Roman citizenship, and of Roman rule in Israel, for another day, but Scripture must interpret Scripture, and Romans 13 is only applicable to lawful commands no matter what position you take (see item 1 above). And as to America, each separate colony—like each of England, Scotland, and Ireland—was in covenant with the king, a covenant that was shattered by that king, who began daily giving unlawful orders both to them and to others regarding them. The colonists were right to rebel and were completely within their rights to rebel, not only by the precedent of Scripture but (crucially) by the terms of the constitution of the United Kingdom, of the principles of the Glorious Revolution, and of the English Bill of Rights.
Most likely your friends will not have an adequate answer to that, nor can they have without becoming scholars in this area, something they will not wish to do. If they wish to discuss this, though, I will be happy to make some time to visit with them for your sake.
P.S. If your friends would like a more explicitly Presbyterian answer, have them read John Knox, or better yet, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex (the title of which means “the law is the king,” the exact opposite of the dominant political theory of his time, which was rex lex, or “the king is the law”). In reading this, they will start to understand our Founding Fathers, a large percentage of whom were good Presbyterians, far far better.