Anti-immigration politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have celebrated the United Kingdom’s vote for Brexit as a new “Declaration of Independence” for Britain. Tory Lord Chancellor Michael Gove endorsed Brexit by calling on his fellow Britons “to act like the Americans who declared their independence and never looked back.” Brexit supporters Nigel Farage, the anti-immigration leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, and Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, have called the result a new “Independence Day.” On this side of the Atlantic, 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said, “The Brexit referendum is akin to our own Declaration of Independence.” Even conservative commentator George Will, who writes for the Washington Post, wrote that “the 23rd of June can become Britain’s Fourth of July – a Declaration of Independence.”
But they’ve got America’s founding document exactly backward. The original American patriots would be horrified to hear their opus invoked in the service of Brexit.
The architects of American independence favored strong pro-immigrant policies for the colonies. King George III’s abandonment of those policies (he had stopped the flow of people to North America) was one of the Declaration of Independence’s major complaints. The founders called for a government that would allow for free movement of goods and peoples.
In the declaration, the founders denounced George III for endeavoring “to prevent the population of these states.” They blamed him for “obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners” and lamented that he had reversed decades of British laws that “encourage … migrations hither.” Like Britain’s pro-“remain” politicians today, America’s founders valued the skills that foreign workers could bring and understood that immigrants purchase manufactured goods, helping to drive economic growth. “New settlers to America,” Benjamin Franklin said, would quickly add their skills to the pool while also providing “a growing demand for our merchandise to the greater employment of our manufacturers.”
Brexit supporters and the declaration’s authors also part company on the role of government. Many in the pro-“leave” camp are suspicious of government and complain about “a growing E.U. bureaucracy” as a “bland leviathan.” But America’s founders celebrated the creative potential of the state to promote the general welfare and happiness of the people; they wanted an activist government – one that would intervene in the economy to promote growth. “Government,” the Second Continental Congress declared in 1775, “was instituted to promote the welfare of mankind, and ought to be administered for the attainment of that end.” John Adams, one of the Committee of Five who drew up America’s declaration, thought that the new document would encourage the development of state-sponsored industries. In addition to subsidizing agricultural products, he thought the states needed to sponsor societies that would encourage “arts, manufactures, and commerce.”
And, following resolutions of the Second Continental Congress, state after newly formed state did just that. When John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail Adams, celebrating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, he highlighted the state-making functions of the document. He emphasized the lines proclaiming that the new republic perform all “the acts and things, which other states may rightfully do.” “The form of government which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons and in the greatest degree,” Adams concluded, “is the best.” This is a far cry from the Brexiter denunciations of big government. It’s closer to the views of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who celebrated the European Union’s “ability” by “working together to tackle big challenges.”
The “England first” sentiments of many Brexit voters and politicians are closer in spirit to the policies that George III and his minsters pursued in the 1760s and 1770s. In the face of an enormous sovereign debt, they, too, blamed those outside of England for not paying their share. “It is now high time,” argued the government economic spokesman Josiah Tucker in 1775, that North America contribute substantially to British revenue. They, too, asserted that England was footing the bill for the welfare of others. Another government spokesman, William Knox, thought that instead of providing subsidies for American development, the government needed to “raise a revenue” in America. Members of the Patriot Party in Britain (such as John Wilkes and William Pitt the Elder) and the United States (such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington) thought otherwise. They believed that the best way to pay down the debt was for the government to take action to promote economic growth. Government stimulus for economic development, argued the influential British Patriot Richard Price, would have generated “a growing surplus in the revenue.”
America’s founders, unlike today’s Brexiters, wanted a government that supported open lanes for both trade and migration. They understood the economic value to be gained from these things. They lamented that George III had cut “off our trade with all parts of the world,” in much the same way that supporters of “remain” lament loss of access to European markets. It is those who want Britain to remain within the E.U., not their opponents, who share the spirit of the American founders.