American Independence: An Eighteenth-Century Brexit

I listen to a fair number of news podcasts, one of which is The Guardian’s Today in Focus. I like the way The Guardian reports on international news we don’t tend to hear a lot about in American news outlets, like Brexit and the process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union.

If you haven’t been following Brexit, here’s the BBC’s good, straight-forward explanation of it. What’s important to know is that on January 15, 2019, Members of Parliament overwhelming voted down Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to leave the European Union, which, at this point, means the United Kingdom will leave the EU on March 29, 2019 with “no deal.”

The phrase “no deal” expresses the fact that the United Kingdom may leave the European Union without any agreed upon terms to define its new, non-member relationship with the EU. Without an agreed upon relationship both the UK and the EU’s member nations will enter a period of ambiguity, which seems likely to cause some legal and economic turmoil in Europe.

Neither the United Kingdom nor the European Union wish the UK to leave the Union without establishing the new terms of their new relationship. However, the two sides seem to be at an impasse. The EU has been reluctant to give the UK the favorable terms and status it wants as most EU member nations are upset Britons voted to leave the Union and think they can do so with few consequences.

On the other side, the United Kingdom believes it won’t have to leave the EU without a deal. Britons maintain the governments of Ireland, the Netherlands, and France will come to their aid and pressure European Parliament to give them a favorable exit deal because each of these nations conducts a lot of trade with the UK. However, the reporting I’ve heard demonstrates Ireland, the Netherlands, France, and Germany have settled in to maintain a hardline. They don’t want the UK to leave the EU without a deal in place, but they’re standing by the Union and placing its needs first.

The issues and politics of Brexit are complex. I recommend you check out European reporting on this issue because it’s a situation that will have global ramifications.

American Independence: An 18th-Century Brexit

The more I learn about the details of the EU-UK showdown over Brexit, the more I can’t help but recognize the similarities between this crisis of union and one that took place during the late eighteenth century.

In 1776, the United States voted to declare its independence from the British Empire. The Americans’ desire for independence and British reluctance to grant it created its own exit-from-a-union crisis, a crisis that involved a long, violent, and bitter war. After eight long years of fighting, Great Britain and the United States agreed to the Treaty of Paris, 1783, the terms of which ended the American War for Independence (or the American War of Rebellion) and established the course by which the United States would leave the British Empire.

Within the treaty, Great Britain agreed to recognize the independence of the United States, evacuate British soldiers from the American states, limit the expansion of Quebec to its 1774 boundary lines, and granted Americans the right to fish in British waters. In exchange, the United States agreed American debtors would repay their debts to British creditors in pounds sterling and Congress would recommend that each state either restore Loyalists to their property or compensate them for what they had confiscated.

Much like the present-day European Union member states, Britons seethed over what they considered to be generous exit terms. Prime Minister William Petty-Fitzmaurice, the Earl of Shelburne, defended the agreement. He informed the House of Lords the terms would promote a reciprocal free trade between the United States and the Empire. He acknowledge his concessions to a narrow Canadian boundary, American rights to western lands, and free navigation of the Mississippi River might seem great now, but they would ultimately allow the United States to expand and thereby greatly expand the number of American markets for British manufactures. From Shelburne’s point of view, Great Britain wanted and needed the ability to freely trade with the United States.

Many Americans agreed with Shelburne, but many Britons did not. John Barker-Holroyd, the first Earl of Sheffield, penned Observations on the Commerce of the American States, a pamphlet underscoring the unhappiness many Britons shared when it came to the terms of the United States’ departure from the empire. Sheffield argued Great Britain did not need to establish a free trade with the United States because it wasn’t in Britain’s interest to do so.

Sheffield posited that with the exception of tobacco, the United States had few quality agricultural products to offer Great Britain that it could not obtain elsewhere. The United Kingdom could import fish, lumber, ashes, and wheat from Canada and naval stores from the Mediterranean and Russia. He disagreed with those who claimed that not granting free trade to the United States would mean British merchants and traders would lose business to their counterparts in France, Spain, and the Netherlands. Instead, he contended that Americans would prefer and continue to trade with Great Britain because of the quality of its manufactured goods and because none of those nations could offer Americans the credit they needed to conduct a profitable trade. He also added that as neither France nor Spain would allow the Americans to trade with their Caribbean colonies, the Americans would have little choice but to pursue a significant trade with the British Empire.

For their part, many Americans held grand, optimistic, and rosy ideas about what it would be like to live without the restrictions of the British Empire. What they found as events unfolded was that their independence came at a sizable cost.

No longer members of the British Empire, the world took advantage of American merchants and ships. Barbary Pirates preyed on American shipping because American ships now sailed without strong naval protection. European merchants like the Bronkhorst brothers of France refused to trade fairly with and honor their debts to American merchants because they knew the fledgling United States government could do little to intervene, while their home government would do all it could to protect them. And as the Earl of Sheffield correctly noted, few nations and merchants proved willing to grant Americans the credit they needed to conduct a profitable trade.[1]

For many years, the United States and its people struggled without their membership in the British Empire. Even Great Britain used their weak Confederation government against them. As history shows, tensions between the United States and Great Britain mounted. Neither nation followed through on the terms they agreed to in the Treaty of Paris and as a result the two nations went to war again in 1812.

The context of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is different from the context of the United States’ departure from the British Empire. Nearly two and half centuries have passed. And yet, similarities between the two situations exist. In both cases, there is and was a fight about the terms of the exit. There is and was a great concern about the ambiguity the exit will create. What will trade, laws, and politics look like, and how will they function, once a nation leaves a larger union?

It took the United States and Great Britain time to figure out their new relationship. And it will undoubtedly take the United Kingdom and the European Union time to figure out their new relationship. In the meantime, it may do Britons good to look at their history. Their history will show that a demand for independence creates hard feelings and securing it can be hard and come with consequences. Aspects of their lives will be different once they leave the European Union.

British history may also help Britons better empathize with the hard feelings of their European colleagues. Americans genuinely enraged and hurt British feelings with their demand to leave the British Empire, it’s a hurt that bears a likeness to that demonstrated by some present-day Europeans. Plus, Britons may also find comfort in knowing that their nation has already lived through a similar crisis. It took a lot of time, but the hard feelings between Great Britain and the United States subsided and new opportunities for their relationship emerged.

[1] For more on the consequences independence caused American merchants see my article “Trade, Diplomacy, and American Independence: Cuyler, Gansevoort & Co. and the Business of Trade During the Confederation Era,” Journal of Early American History, vol 5, issue 2, July 2015.