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 don’t occupy the same universes, but they are connected by a belief in popular sovereignty and a refusal to be governed by a remote authority with only an attenuated mechanism — if that — for representation.
In Brexit, the British people decided that their Parliament should trump the governing machinery of the EU, and in our Revolution we decided that our Colonial assemblies should trump the governing machinery of the British Empire. Both acts exhibited a punctiliousness about government by consent that struck critics as unreasonable and even dangerous.
The Revolution fed off popular passions that shocked and embarrassed some Colonial elites who were more cautious about separating from Britain, in an echo of the elite reaction to Brexit. John Adams pushed back against the “sneers and snubbs” directed at “the multitude, the million, the populace, the vulgar, the mob, the herd and the rabble, as the great always delight to call them.” (I’m in the debt of the magisterial new book “Toward Democracy,” for this and other quotes.)
If the pro-Brexit forces seem overly touchy about British sovereignty, consider the sensitivity of the architects of the American Revolution. They believed that if government merely has the leeway to rule arbitrarily, it is already tyrannical. It is necessary, Adams warned, to “nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud.”
The Founders sought to protect the bedrock principle that the people, again the words of Adams, are “the Source of all Authority and 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 another,” or “by the laws to which he has given his consent.”
By this standard, the case against the British Parliament was highly intuitive: Members of Parliament didn’t live in the Colonies, and the colonists didn’t elect them. If the arguments were often complex — could Parliament impose “external” taxes, but not “internal” ones? — the crux of the matter wasn’t. 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 came, the American Revolution was a very British affair. Its supporters cited British writers like John Locke and Algernon Sidney; long-standing liberties under the informal British constitution; and their own rights as Englishmen. “Perhaps there was never a people,” Samuel Adams wrote, “who discovered themselves more strongly attached to their natural and constitutional rights and liberties than the British Colonists on this American Continent.”
History didn’t come full circle, but it did look over its shoulder when a leading advocate of Brexit, the Tory politician Michael Gove, cited the American Revolution as inspiration for Britain’s separation from the EU.
Of course, the circumstances are vastly different. The EU didn’t suspend the British Parliament. It isn’t sending a fearsome fleet across the Channel to crush all resistance and to hunt down Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, and have him hanged (although some EU officials might harbor this fantasy). Britain obviously didn’t become a newly independent nation upon the passage of Brexit.
But the Brexit vote is a reminder that the threat to self-government never truly abates; it just takes different (and more or less benign or noxious) forms. This is why self-government always needs to be jealously and zealously guarded — something our forefathers understood and acted upon.
Levi Preston, a captain at the Battle of Concord, explained decades later why he had fought: “What we meant in going for those redcoats was this: We had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.” It’s a sentiment as relevant now as it was more than 200 years ago — and will always remain so as long as men yearn to be free.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.