Monday, July 04, 2016

The American Revolution As An Exit From The British Empire

In response to a comment on a post about Brexit a couple of weeks ago , I noted that the North American colonies'  break from England was also a contentious exit:
"I know the British establishment felt the same way when the North American colonies voted for independence. Our US history books paint it as a singularly good thing, but there was just as much angst in the colonies over it. Perhaps this vote gives us a new perspective on 1776. Or not. At least the EU is not sending troops to prevent this."
So it seemed appropriate to write with this view in mind for the 240th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.

In the meantime, it became clear that others had made the same mental leap when I saw a tweet that mentioned "Amerexit."

I don't want to belabor the point, but merely remind those who celebrate the Fourth of July this year, that at the time of the Declaration of Independence, there was much opposition and the conflict was bitter.

Here's an excerpt of a letter the former Massachusetts governor, Thomas Hutchinson wrote in response to the Declaration of Independence:
"I should therefore be impertinent if I attempted to show in what case a whole people may be justified in rising up in opposition to the powers of government, altering or abolishing them and substituting, in whole or in part, new powers in their stead; or in what sense all men are created equal; or how far life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness may be said to be unalienable. Only I could ask the delegates of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas how their constituents justify the depriving more than an hundred thousand Africans of their rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and in some degree to their lives, if these rights are so absolutely unalienable. . . 
From a disposition to receive willingly complaints against rulers, facts misrepresented have passed without examining. Discerning men have concealed their sentiments, because under the present government in America, no man may, by writing or speaking, contradict any part of this Declaration without being deemed an enemy to his country, and exposed to the rage and fury of the populace.”  [emphasis added]
Pennsylvanian John Dickinson, who had enjoyed great popularity when he led the opposition to the Stamp Act, could not bring himself to sign the Declaration.  From the History Net:
Yet on July 1, 1776, as his colleagues in the Continental Congress prepared to declare independence from Britain, Dickinson offered a resounding dissent. Deathly pale and thin as a rail, the celebrated Pennsylvania Farmer chided his fellow delegates for daring to “brave the storm in a skiff made of paper.” He argued that France and Spain might be tempted to attack rather than support an independent American nation. He also noted that many differences among the colonies had yet to be resolved and could lead to civil war. When Congress adopted a nearly unanimous resolution the next day to sever ties with Britain, Dickinson abstained from the vote, knowing full well that he had delivered “the finishing Blow to my once too great, and my Integrity considered, now too diminish’d Popularity.” 
"Indeed, following his refusal to support and sign the Declaration of Independence, Dickinson fell into political eclipse. And 234 years later, the key role he played in American resistance as the leader of a bloc of moderates who favored reconciliation rather than confrontation with Britain well into 1776 is largely forgotten or misunderstood. 
To be a moderate on the eve of the American Revolution did not mean simply occupying some midpoint on a political line, while extremists on either side railed against each other in frenzied passion. Moderation for Dickinson and other members of the founding generation was an attitude in its own right, a way of thinking coolly and analytically about difficult political choices. The key decision that moderates ultimately faced was whether the dangers of going to war against Britain outweighed all the real benefits they understood colonists would still enjoy should they remain the king’s loyal subjects. 
Dickinson and his moderate cohorts were prudent men of property, rather than creatures of politics and ideology. Unlike the strong-willed distant cousins who were leaders of the patriot resistance in Massachusetts—John and Samuel Adams—moderates were not inclined to suspect that the British government was in the hands of liberty-abhorring conspirators. Instead, they held out hope well into 1776 that their brethren across the Atlantic would come to their senses and realize that any effort to rule the colonies by force, or to deny colonists their due rights of self-government, was doomed to failure. They were also the kind of men British officials believed would choose the benefits of empire over sympathy for suffering Massachusetts, the colony that King George III, his chief minister, Lord North, and a docile Parliament set out to punish after the Boston Tea Party of December 1773. Just as the British expected the Coercive Acts that Parliament directed against Massachusetts in 1774 would teach the other colonies the costs of defying the empire, so they assumed that sober men of property, with a lot at stake, would never endorse the hot-headed proceedings of the mob in Boston. Yet in practice, exactly the opposite happened. Dickinson and other moderates ultimately proved they were true patriots intent on vindicating American rights."

Dickinson's letter opposing the Declaration can be read here.

There are a lot of differences between the situation in 1776 and the one today.  I'm not suggesting the Brexit decision was a good one or that the Declaration was a bad one.  I'm merely saying that in both instances there was great uncertainty, a lot of emotional attachments to both sides, and a great deal of conflict.

The colonies were breaking away from the country that owned them.  Great Britain is backing out of an agreement they choose to enter.  In both situations there are people who see the rules coming from 'outside' are restricting the freedom of the nation and its citizens.  And in both cases the consequences of making a split were uncertain.   And those who signed the Declaration faced hanging if the British caught them.  Those who pushed for Brexit merely face the scorn and ridicule of the world's media.

For Americans, it's important to remember that what we take for granted as a great moment in world history was hotly contested and the outcome was not at all certain.

Happy Independence Day.

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