Brexit and the Dangers of Political Chicken

As I watched British Prime Minister David Cameron announce his resignation in the wake of the stunning “Brexit” vote that set the UK on a course out of the European Union this weekend, I couldn’t help but wonder what was going through his mind as he watched the influx of election results. After all, the referendum had been his idea; though he did not want the UK to leave, holding a referendum he believed would be defeated would have allowed him to dent the growing popularity of reactionary anti-EU and anti-immigrant voices from the UKIP and his own Conservative Party. Instead, that plan backfired, with seismic implications for British politics, economy, and society. It serves as a reminder that playing games with permanent political change — especially if one is not fully committed to that change — is a dangerous game.

George Cabot
Grave of George Cabot, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

In this, I’m reminded of my own country’s first major brush with secession: the Federalist Hartford Convention of 1814. Like the Brexit, it was called by politicians who were not truly committed to the threat, but who found themselves marginalized by the result.

In 1814, the United States and Britain were fighting the final year of the War of 1812, a conflict few in either country still remember. At the time it was a bitter conflict within the United States (for the British it was essentially a minor spur of the larger Napoleonic Wars) that was deeply wrapped up in debates over land and politics that defined the early republic. The war was an outgrowth of Jeffersonian politics that saw the great western expanse of North America as the nation’s future, while most in the opposition Federalist Party still saw a nation based primarily on commerce and trade. As a consequence, the Federalists tended to have power in coastal trade centers — major cities, New England — while Jeffersonian Republicans had more among rural voters in the south and, increasingly, the west.

The party divide was also one of class: the nation’s electorate changed rapidly in the first decades of the nineteenth century as more states — taking to heart the concept of republicanism that the revolution had ushered in — moved toward universal white male suffrage (even, in some cases in the north, extending the elective franchise to African Americans). This began to bring urban laborers into Jefferson’s party, as well as more and more voters in the expanding west, which was adding new states to the nation regularly. In the west, Jeffersonian Republicanism was the party of choice. All in all, this meant Federalists faced a devastating demographic trend that threatened to make their party a permanent minority.

Federalists viewed the War of 1812 as a war to benefit the Jeffersonians. First, war meant a strict boycott on trade with Britain, which was especially difficult for New England businessmen who depended on trans-Atlantic trade and had close ties with Britain. Second, a major front of the war was against Native Americans believed to be allied with the British, the end result of which was to be more land for more western settlement and more Jeffersonian votes. Third, it seemed to New Englanders that their militias were being called up to fight against their own interests. Few in positions of power in New England supported the war, and many actively opposed it.

Their solution to the war began with obstructionism. New England merchants openly defied the ban on British trade, and New England state authorities did little to stop them. Massachusetts Governor Caleb Strong refused to send militia to fight the war, and refused to send men north to Maine (owned by Massachusetts at the time) to man the border with British Canada. But radical voices among New England Federalists called for secession outright from the United States, which they saw as descending to rabble as Jeffersonians took over. This was especially true after the successful invasion and burning of Washington by British troops; New Englanders saw a weak American government that might be willing to negotiate.

Harrison Gray Otis
Grave of Harrison Gray Otis, Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, MA

The Hartford Convention, called during what would prove to be the final month of the war, set out a series of demands. The ‘cooler heads’ of Convention President Harrison Gray Otis and Massachusetts Senator George Cabot used secession as a cudgel rather than a goal: accede to the demands we set forth here, they implied, or secession will be the next step. They wanted tighter control over new states (radicals wanted to force western states out of the union altogether), invalidate long term trade embargoes like the one in place against Britain, reduce southern representation by repealing the three-fifths rule, and (rather creatively) requiring that no two consecutive Presidents come from the same state – an attack against the “Virginia Dynasty” that had produced three of the country’s first four Presidents, and would produce another after 1816.

Unfortunately for the Convention, its timing doomed it. Its demands arrived not as Washington capitulated to Britain, but as it signed a neutral, clock-resetting peace at Ghent in the Netherlands. Worse, before news of the Treaty of Ghent reached the United States, a British invasion of New Orleans was repelled in spectacular fashion by General Andrew Jackson, exactly the kind of low-born American rabble the New England Federalists so despised. Jackson’s victory recast a hopeless war into a titanic patriotic struggle. So too did Francis Scott Key’s triumphalist poem “The Star Spangled Banner”, which was by the start of 1815 being republished all over the nation. Instead of negotiating to weakness, the Federalists in Hartford found that they seemed now traitorous.

The Federalists never recovered from the war, and never held national power again. In 1816, their candidate for President failed to win a single electoral vote, and in the subsequent election, they didn’t even field one. The party became minor and regional before fading out entirely in the early 1820s, just before the populist Jacksonian Era began.

There aren’t that many direct parallels with the Brexit here; certainly the headline – the UK will leave the EU, but New England remained in the United States – is different. But they strike me as similar moves: threats of disunion made not with sincere desire but with political purpose. And each backfired dramatically: David Cameron is out of a job, and history will not likely smile upon him for his actions. Similarly, the Federalists are not viewed kindly by history for their actions in Hartford. They tried to keep their country from changing for fear of losing power, and instead merely doomed themselves as their country grew stronger around them. The impetus behind the Brexit was similar; we’ll see about the result.

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