By William J. Watkins Jr.

The media call it Brexit – a catchy term for the recent vote by citizens of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. What actually happened was secession, and therein lies a lesson for the United States.

Americans are taught that political unions are everlasting and that secessionists are rebels and traitors who ought to be despised. Supreme Court Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase’s description in Texas v. White (1869) of the union as complete, perpetual and indissoluble is accepted constitutional dogma. Legal authorities, however, do not view secession in pejorative terms.

“Black’s Law Dictionary,” for example, defines secession as “the act of withdrawing from membership in a group.” In essence, a people simply remove themselves from the jurisdiction of a government or power. Britain did just that in the historic referendum of June 23, 2016.

Attitudes toward secession change over time as people find themselves in new and different circumstances. Two-hundred and forty years ago, British leaders waged war to prevent 13 North American colonies from leaving the empire and forming their own government. The colonists were described as “spoilt children” needing a good spanking from His Majesty’s armed forces.

This effort at discipline, for all practical purposes, ended at the Battle of Yorktown when Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington. The united colonies successfully seceded from the British Empire and established the independence that had been declared in 1776. The American grievances that led to secession are remarkably similar to those expressed by Brexit proponents.

For example, Americans protested that a distant parliament passed laws governing the internal affairs of the colonies rather than leaving such matters to colonial legislatures. The British feel the same way about the EU’s central government in Brussels regulating such minutiae as the length of imported bananas and the electric conductivity of honey.

Americans complained about judiciary laws that required the accused to be tried in London rather than at home by a jury of his peers. Brexiters inveighed against the European Court of Justice adjudicating cases on principles alien to the ancient British constitution.

Americans resented mercantilist economic policies that enriched the Mother Country at the expense of her colonies. The British voters resented sending millions of pounds to Brussels to be used to prop up the ailing economies of various Eurozone countries.

President Obama took the exceptional step of meddling in British internal affairs by urging a vote to remain in the EU. He further threatened that if the United Kingdom did leave, it should not expect the U.S. to rush negotiating a trade treaty or to provide any other form of aid.

President Obama likely opposed Brexit because he prefers centralization and fears that one or more of the states in the American union might rediscover the principles of self-determination. Indeed, several American states, upon ratifying the Constitution of 1787, declared that the powers delegated to the national government would be recalled if the new government became oppressive.

For instance, the Virginia ratifying convention averred that “the powers of government may be reassumed by the people whensoever it shall become necessary to their happiness.” According to Dumas Malone, an American historian and Pulitzer Prize winner, in the early republic “there was nothing particularly startling in the idea that the Union was dissoluble, and threats against it were common.”

The case made by the Brexiters against the EU could easily be made by a state against the national government in Washington, D.C. Congressional statutes and regulations issued by administrative agencies govern the most mundane and local matters.

The Supreme Court claims final say on the Constitution and even forbids states from defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman – the accepted definition for millennia. The people of the states are taxed to help fund a wasteful welfare-warfare state that has accumulated a debt of $19 trillion.

Brexit is yet another reminder that secession is not a dirty word. A people have the fundamental right to remove themselves from the jurisdiction of a political authority and to establish their own government. It is a principle we would do well to remember as our national government becomes more incompetent, intrusive and domineering.


William J. Watkins Jr. is a research fellow at the Independent Institute and the author of the forthcoming book “Crossroads for Liberty: Recovering the Anti-Federalist Values of America’s First Constitution.”

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