Brexit, the American Revolution and the Endless Battle for Self-Government

Two hundred and forty years before Brexit, there was Amexit, also known as the American Revolution.

In terms of historical consequence, the Brexit vote and the American Revolution do not occupy the same universe, but they are linked by a belief in popular sovereignty and a refusal to be ruled by a distant authority with only an attenuated mechanism – if this – for representation.

In Brexit the British people decided that their Parliament should prevail over the ruling apparatus of the European Union, and in our Revolution we decided that our colonial assemblies should prevail over the ruling apparatus of the British Empire. Both acts demonstrated a harshness to government by consent that seemed unreasonable and even dangerous to critics.

The Revolution was fueled by popular passions that shocked and embarrassed some more cautious colonial elites at the prospect of seceding from Britain, echoing the elites’ reaction to Brexit.

John Adams rebuffed “sneers and rebuffs” directed at “the multitude, the million, the populace, the vulgar, the mob, the herd, and the rabble, as the great always like to call them.” (I am indebted to the masterful new book “Toward Democracy” for this quote and others.)

If pro-Brexit forces seem too sensitive to British sovereignty, consider the sensitivity of the architects of the American Revolution. They believed that if the government only had the leeway to rule arbitrarily, it was already tyrannical. It is necessary, Adams warns, “to nip the seeds of arbitrary power in the bud.”

The Founders sought to protect the fundamental principle that the people, again Adams’ words, are “the source of all authority and the original of all power”.

Alexander Hamilton wrote that “the only distinction between slavery and freedom” is whether man is governed either “by the will of others” or “by the laws to which he has given his consent”.

By this standard, the case against the British Parliament was very intuitive: the MPs did not live in the colonies and the settlers did not elect them.

If the arguments were often complex, could Parliament impose “external” taxes, but not “internal” taxes? – the crux of the problem was not. Benjamin Franklin wrote as early as 1768 that either “parliament has the right to make all laws for us” or “it has the power to make no laws for us”.

When it arrived, the American Revolution was a very British affair. His supporters cited British writers like John Locke and Algernon Sidney, long-held freedoms under the informal British constitution, and their own rights as Englishmen. “Perhaps there never was a people,” wrote Samuel Adams, “who found themselves more strongly attached to their natural and constitutional rights and liberties than the British colonists on this American continent.”

History did not come full circle, but it did look over its shoulder when one of Brexit’s leading proponents, Conservative politician Michael Gove, cited the American Revolution as the inspiration for the separation of the EU Britain.

Of course, the circumstances are very different. The EU did not suspend the British Parliament. He’s not sending a fearsome fleet across the English Channel to crush all resistance and hunt down UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage and hang him (although some EU officials may harbor that fantasy ). Britain obviously did not become a newly independent nation when Brexit passed.

But the Brexit vote reminds us that the threat to self-government never really diminishes; it simply takes different forms (and more or less benign or harmful). This is why self-government must always be jealously and jealously guarded – something our ancestors understood and practiced.

Levi Preston, captain at the Battle of Concord, explained decades later why he had fought: “What we meant by opting for these red coats was this: we always ruled ourselves, and we always had the intention to do so. They didn’t mean we should.

It’s a sentiment as relevant today as it was over 200 years ago – and always will be as long as men yearn to be free.

Teresa R. Cabrera

The author Teresa R. Cabrera