The ‘defining sin’ of a country shapes its history and sparks fresh anxiety and discord whenever any social issue is looked at too closely, often over centuries. Genocide has that role across both American continents, but in the United States specifically the defining sin is slavery, with racism its after-glow. Here, from the 1787 Constitution to the 1861 Civil War, political crises were common between slave and free states, played out in Congress, the courts and the Presidency.
There were repeated compromises over which states and territories would be free and which slave, as the nation grew westward. One of them was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, by which free Maine and slave Missouri were admitted to the Union, on condition that everywhere north-west of the southern border of Missouri (36o30’N) would thereafter be free, and everywhere south-west of it would be slave.
But the compromises eventually broke down and the matter was settled in the Civil War of 1861-1865. Slavery became illegal (except for convicts) with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, and people of African ancestry were thereafter recognised as eligible for citizenship. That this breakthrough was largely cosmetic, until a further struggle in the 1960s (which still continues), shows just how powerful a country’s defining sin can be.
England also has a defining sin, which like America’s is accompanied by the sustained and characteristic injustices of inequity, exclusion, oppression and exploitation. In England it is ‘class’, not ‘race’, and it is based not so much on skin-colour as a marker of ethnicity and legal status, but on wealth, speech, education and other markers of social status. Many observers have noted how England’s defining sin of class arises whenever any social issue is examined closely, just as racism does in America. It is an interesting comparison, but what does it have to do with Brexit?
There’s little point in pretending that Brexit is not being advanced by parts of the wealth-owning elite in England, or that slavery was not protected by parts of the slave-owning elite in the slave states. In both cases, their causes needed mass support from people who had nothing much to gain from their success: poor people in England and poor whites in the slave states. In both cases, and in many others, nationalism, racism, fear, and envy of ‘othered’ and demonised groups were found convenient for this purpose, along with the active suppression of dissent.
Looking in more detail at slavery, enough white men (the only voters) were convinced by racist entitlement myths and fear to keep the slave system going, decade after decade. In this the slave-owning elite were helped by an electoral booster that they had managed to include in the 1787 Constitution. This allowed for slaves to be ‘worth’ three-fifths of a person in terms of the number of representatives that each state sent to Congress. In other words, the more slaves there were in a state, the more representatives it sent, even though the slaves could not vote for them. This is now hard to imagine, but it made a huge difference to who got elected.
In 1857, the struggle between slave and free states, and the thinkers, propagandists, activists and interest groups on both sides, had reached the stage at which the US Supreme Court could no longer avoid making a ruling on whether the Constitution sanctioned slavery, or not . The point at issue was the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise, and it is worth considering the implications of bringing such a decision to such a forum. For it made the choice depend on the balance of opinions among a tiny group of old white men, all of whom had been selected by a corrupt and slavery-influenced system and subjected to years of pressure by cynical interest groups, of which the most cynical (to judge from the selfish cruelty of their regime) were no doubt the slave-owners.
The result is not so surprising with hindsight. The Court ruled by a 7-2 majority on 6 March 1857 that although the Missouri Compromise was indeed unconstitutional, the Constitution did not inhibit the states’ rights to keep slavery going. The judges’ grounds were that the men who wrote the Constitution couldn’t possibly have meant to include blacks in their fine worlds about men being equal, since people of African descent were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect” and none could therefore ever be considered citizens of the United States. The slave interests were overjoyed, and started going on about ‘we won, you lost, get over it!’. Most others – the intelligent, the educated, the compassionate, the religious, the professional, and the well-travelled – were stunned, and after a few days they all started moaning about it in the newspapers.
The Court’s decision can be understood in terms of how slave-owners managed to bring the decision to a corrupt forum that they largely controlled. In this, the similarities with the 2016 Brexit referendum are obvious, with its biased press, subverted social media, public lies, shadowy foreign influences and illegal campaign spending. The details are very different, but the underlying process by which the best-organised and most ruthless side of the debate brought overwhelming influence to bear on a single decision point masquerading as ‘democracy’ (just as the American one masqueraded as ‘law’) are much the same.
In America, the Court’s judgement was so obviously wrong that it was not sustainable, not with capitalist modernity demanding freely-recruited labour to work privately-owned machines , and not with the likes of Frederick Douglass, John Brown and Abraham Lincoln working against it. All it really bought was a few more years of suffering for slaves, and of profit-making and tax-avoiding for the slave-owning elite. And then, when the free states insisted on change after all, the slave states walked out of the Union. At least three-quarters of a million Americans died in the war that followed.
Returning to 2019, the EU may have its own defining sins, or at least influences (notably the Ancient Roman empire via the Church, and the Holy Roman empire via Germany), but it stands inherently for a way of life that has no real place for the English class system and its unequal education, its off-shore tax havens, its piratical traditions, and its weak environmental and social protections. This is surely why parts of England’s wealth-owning elite wanted Brexit in the first place: to perpetuate an unequal system, just as American slave-owners had sought to do. And there are obvious similarities between the tricks that the two groups used, and their success in delaying reform for centuries. But considering the United States in 1857-1861 and the United Kingdom in 2016-2020, the question is: what happens next, for us?
In America, the 1857 ruling began a countdown to civil war, while positions hardened and emotions escalated. In Britain, the 2016 referendum began a countdown to Brexit itself, while positions have hardened and emotions have escalated. But does Britain really have to play out the rest of the scenario, or can we dodge the civil war part? In trying to, we have the huge advantage over the Americans of 1860 that we’ve been taught to submit to the class system so thoroughly, and for so long, that we may no longer possess the social volatility needed for armed struggle. Remember that it wasn’t the oppressed slaves, weakened by the habits and hardships of slavery, who made the American Civil War; it was white folk, righteous, self-interested and free, with each side attacking the others’ homelands on a matter of principle.
So, do the English care enough? Do we realise how far we’ve been trained to accept the class system? Could the EU intervene militarily in England, as the free Union did in the Confederacy? If it did, would Russia (widely suspected of influencing the 2016 referendum and US election) support the Brexiter side in Britain (as England did for the South in the American Civil War)? Perhaps not. I suspect rather that the English will manage only a divisive, resentful grumble that will drag on for years, while most of us get poorer and the rich use us as they wish. Since the alternative may be civil war, this could be as good as it gets. Until, that is, the whole system breaks under the multiple catastrophes of climate chaos, whereupon we’ll all starve.
But we can imagine other endings to this story. We could postpone Brexit and hold a free and fair referendum, either to ratify its terms or to cancel it. We could cancel Brexit and revert, older and wiser, to count our blessings as citizens of an EU member state. After that, we could lead the EU in its efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. And those efforts, replicated world-wide with the support of the EU, might be successful. To adapt Lincoln’s words at his 1861 inauguration, the bonds and friendships of our common European identity may be enough to save the day, when we are touched “by the better angels of our nature”. Those angels failed for Lincoln, but may still work for us.
© Julian Caldecott
 These Truths, A History of the United States, by Jill Lepore (Norton, 2018).
 The Age of Capital 1848-1875, by Eric Hobsbawm (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962).