As a patriotic sort of American citizen, despite being a historian and well aware of the flaws of the nation I love, I am often thankful for the freedoms possessed by citizens of my land, freedoms that for some took a long time to obtain and a lot of fierce struggle. Nonetheless, it must be conceded that the United States is the result of a successful rebellion from an imperial nation (Great Britain), and to examine what sort of precedent it can supply for other similar movements. In particular, I would like to briefly examine the facet of the “appeal to heaven” and show its importance in viewing a rebellion and its aftermath.
The Bible has a curious passage dealing with the subject of starting a war with inferior means, which is a common situation in rebellions. In Luke 14:31-32 there is the following passage, which I describe later in a different context: “Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace.” So, part of one’s planning for a war should be the ability you have to handle the reality of the situation, and if one does not feel they have the means to succeed, to seek a quick (and therefore more generous) peace.
It is a striking fact, but perhaps often neglected, that the most important part of a rebellion is what happens before the rebellion starts. All rebellions, of whatever kind, deal with a crisis of legitimacy between a group of people and a ruling authority. For whatever reason, there is rising dissatisfaction with how a government is ruling and a group of elites among the discontented who claim that they could do a better job and that the people they represent would be better of separate from the corrupt or tyrannical authority they are now under. The basic gist of the argument is the same, even if the names change and the specific grievances change over the years. Sometimes these arguments are legitimate, and sometimes they are not.
If dissatisfaction reaches the level where a rebellion is planned, there remains the task of seeking the most broad support possible. The way this is done is called the “appeal to heaven.” There is no support greater than God’s aid, and the same sorts of appeals one makes to God are often effective in persuading other people as well. Let us compare two different independence movements within American history and demonstrate how the appeal to heaven was treated in both movements, and let us also examine how the problem of compensating for the difference in strength was handled between the two sides as well as the different outcomes of those movements. Let us hope to profit from the historical examples before us.
First, though, let us examine the “appeal to heaven” regarding the timing of the rebellion. Before the American Revolution Great Britain had passed a law called the Declaratory Act stating that they had the power to legislate whatever they wanted without the consent of the American colonies. It took more than a year after shooting war had broken out before the United States, in a solemnly worded document showing a long chain of abuses, made its case for independence (it may have been content with something like dominion status before then) “to a candid world” based on God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (aka property), all of which were at risk due to imperial disrespect. In 1860 and 1861, a group seven states rebelled from the United States before any abuses against them had the chance to happen, because they were unwilling to accept the verdict of a constitutional election, failing even to agree to a declaration of independence (though South Carolina, at least, attempted one, as bogus as its constitutional and historical grounds are: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_scarsec.asp). Perhaps the reason why the South did not come up with a list of legitimate grievances against the North is because they had none–to rebel without legitimate grounds is a very dicey thing to do.
Second, let us remember that when a just rebellion starts it starts after years of honest and good-faith efforts to find common ground and an agreement that maintains mutual dignity and provides for the resolution of grievances. When no good-faith effort is made, one does not have the right to decry a failure of negotiations. Likewise, one does not have the right to skip from negotiation to hostility simply because you wish to prevent a rival political faction from having the chance to be in power, as was done by the South in 1861. When you violate the process of making an valid appeal to haven, you risk having your petition denied on procedural grounds because you went about it the wrong way.
Third, it is necessary to have a plan in order to counteract the disadvantages insurgents usually face. Most insurgents have weaker institutional structures (though both in 1776 and 1861, this was not the case) and few insurgents have control of the land they wish to make independent at the start of their rebellion (again, though, both the insurgents of 1776 and 1861 did). However, there is usually also a difference in numbers and power between insurgents and the governments they fight–often governments have stronger navies, more modern equipment, and more numerous forces. How do rebel forces counteract that–most of the time by fighting asymmetrically, seeking alliances with the enemies of the nation they are fighting, and remembering that spirit is more important than territory in sustaining the will for freedom–and that big gains in territory spring from victory, rather than an extended defense of as much land as possible. By this standard, the American rebels of 1776 did a great job–their conventional army was respectable but their ability to fight “Indian-style” was decisive in several big victories (like King’s Mountain) and the strength of their diplomatic corps allowed them to gain wartime alliances with France, Spain, and the Netherlands, a very impressive showing for a new nation. The rebels of 1861 fared less well in comparison, despite a far stronger conventional army than that possessed by George Washington and company. The use of an extended defense (due to a fragile sense of nationhood among rebels, itself a subject worthy of examination) and the failure of the CSA to obtain the support of either Great Britain or France, in large part due to the incompetence of its diplomatic corps, prevented the Confederacy from gaining the international support it needed to counteract the greater industrial and naval strength of the Union.
What does the appeal to heaven mean? For one, it is not cart blanche to rebel, but rather a solemn undertaking to pursue all honorable peaceful options, an acceptance of war if no honorable peace can be maintained, and then a willingness to accept the verdict of the conflict handed down by heaven. If your appeal is accepted (1783 for the United States), then you must begin your work to be a fruitful member of the International Community. If your appeal is denied, though (1865 for the Confederacy), you have no recourse to complain about numbers and the greater power of your adversary, because you accepted the trial by combat and that verdict is not always favorable. You have no recourse to complain about the conduct of your opponents when you behaved as badly or worse.
Additionally, you have no right to whine about how you are a nation and have conferences and write your own histories and act as if you have a legitimate grievance when there are real nations in existence that have not yet been recognized by the international community that have actually won their independence the honest way, but are without large cheering sections, nations like Somaliland, Western Sahara, Northern Cyprus, or Taiwan. Unless you are willing to support unrecognized nations that actually exist somewhere other than the imagination, you have no cause to lament the fate of your own would-be nation. Man up and accept the verdict of the appeal of heaven, and don’t bring your complaints to me.