The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

A photo of a ballot. Caption: "Brexit. How the vote went in the end." By Flickr user (Mick Baker)rooster.

“Brexit. How the vote went in the end.” Courtesy of Flickr user (Mick Baker)rooster. (Creative Commons License)

Last week, Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. The leave vote passed by narrow margins and wreaked havoc on the country’s economic and political systems. It also revealed a wide generational divide with younger Britons voting to stay, while older voters opted to leave.

“I’m so angry,” a young Brit tweeted this week. Another, 24-year-old Eileen from Belfast, told The Guardian newspaper, “Young people voted to remain and older people voted to leave. I feel that I have been let down by an older generation who won’t be affected by the volatility of this decisions.” Eileen is referring to recent findings that 75 percent of Brits aged 18 to 24 voted to stay in the EU. Conversely, most voters aged 65 and over voted to leave.

Generations also divided over issues of separation during the American Revolution and Civil War. Like today’s Brits who voted to leave, most Americans understood their support of southern secession or independence in terms of leaving a union. For 18th century American colonists, that “union” was the British empire, which many took immense pride in. Loyalists saw the colonies’ future as better served under the protection of the British Parliament and King, rather than as an independent nation.

Explicit references to southern secession also touched on these themes of unity. Before the Civil War, most Americans understood their state to be a part of a plural United States of America. Supporting secession proved a form of “disunion,” where southerners opted to remove their state from the union.

The key difference between Brexit and Americans during the Revolution and Civil War is that young people usually supported the kind of sweeping change that comes with leaving a union. It’s difficult to get specific numbers as to how many colonists were Loyalists or Patriots in Revolutionary America, but as University of Edinburgh historian Frank Cogliano said, Patriots tended to be younger, while Loyalists were often older.

Younger male colonists saw independence as a way to rebel against colonial America’s culture of deference and parental authority.

In 1982, historian Jay Fligelman even called the American Revolution a revolt “against patriarchal authority,” whereby husbands and fathers ruled over their dependent wives, children, indentured servants and enslaved peoples, regardless of gender. Peter Onuf, an expert on the American Revolution and co-host of BackStory, pointed out the emphasis on youth in the name of the famous “Sons”–not “Fathers”–of Liberty groups, which promoted independence.

During the Civil War era, secessionists tended to be younger, too. In his book The Last Generation: Young Virginians in Peace, War, and Reunion, historian Peter Carmichael studied 121 white Virginian men born between 1831 and 1843. He found that during the 1850s, young men chose and actively campaigned for secession, much to the behest of their elders, or the “old fogeys,” who sought a more cautious approach to dealing with slavery’s expansion. For these young men, secessionism proved the only way to revive Virginia from the tired leadership of their elders’ generation, which they believed had cost Virginia economic modernization and its national prominence.

Since youth and seniority inform people’s experiences, historians now see age as a useful category of analysis, alongside things like race, class, and gender. We can see examples of this today. As the fallout from Brexit continues, one thing seems certain: future historians will understand the Brexit referendum as an instance when age made a critical difference.  


Media Contact:

Diana Williams
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist
[email protected]

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