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Leadership in America
By Barbara Kellerman
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS Copyright © 2015 Barbara Kellerman
All rights reserved.
EVERY NATION has its founding myths, myths about its genesis that not only endure but that set the stage for whatever is subsequent. In the case of leadership in America, it matters that our founders were revolutionists, leaders who first were followers, subjects of the British Crown, until they successfully seized power and ultimately authority by force. It matters to leadership in America that many of these founders, including General George Washington, were ready and willing to put their lives at risk for the principles they held dear. And it matters to leadership in America that they refused to suffer a system that they had come to detest, to deem not only tyrannical but illegitimate. War wrenched the American colonies from the British Empire and secured the United States of America. To this day this war, the American Revolution, has an impact on how leadership in America is exercised.
History matters. It matters that American history is different from, say, Canadian or Mexican history, or for that matter from British history. The United States is singular in that it was the first to boast a band of revolutionists that declared the old authoritarian order dead, and a new democratic order begun. It was the first among nations to put into practice or, better, to try to, the humanistic ideas that distinguished the ideals of the Western Enlightenment.
The American Revolution was not the first of the American rebellions. By the time independence was declared in 1776, the colonies had a history of resistance, a history in which those who ostensibly were powerless took on those who obviously were powerful. In 1676 in Virginia, for example, there was Bacon's Rebellion, an uprising of white frontiersmen joined by slaves and servants that so threatened the British governor he was forced to flee the capital, Jamestown. England's response was to send a thousand British soldiers to pacify the forty thousand American colonists and, after order was restored, to hang the leader of the insurrectionists, Nathanial Bacon. But Bacon's Rebellion was just one among many revolts against the English, all up and down the eastern seaboard, in colonies from Massachusetts to Virginia. In New York there were strikes of coopers, butchers, bakers, and porters. In New Jersey there were demonstrations by farmers against landowners. And years before the Boston Tea Party, in Massachusetts there were protests and petitions and pamphlets, all signs and symbols of growing hostility to the English Crown. In truth, while the colonists lived in a monarchy and were monarchical subjects, they never did much respect royalty. From the beginning they were "the most republican of people in the English-speaking world. Every visitor to the New World sensed it."
In the decade or so before 1776, resistance against the British came to a head, especially, again, in Massachusetts. In 1767, riots in Boston broke out, against the Stamp Act. Three years later came a fight since known as the Boston Massacre. (Ten thousand Bostonians, over two-thirds the total population, took part in the funerals.) And in 1773 there was the Boston Tea Party—a protest against the English government and the English-owned East India Company—that led to the imposition by the British of martial law.
As historian Edmund Morgan has vividly detailed, there was from the start a striking inconsistency, a stunning hypocrisy. Here is a case in point: two Virginians, both leaders, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. On the one hand both led the fight for freedom. On the other hand both owned slaves. It was not that every single white man was a slave owner. Rather, it was that the men who came together to found the United States of America, which was dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, either did own slaves or were "willing to join hands with those who did." This striking contradiction characterized American history not merely briefly, but for nearly two hundred years, from before the revolution straight through to emancipation. Still, it never precluded a conglomeration of republican ideas and ideals from dominating politics. In colonial America a slave labor force was isolated from the rest of society, while the rest of society—a body of large planters and a larger body of small planters—was increasingly committed to freedom and equality. In fact, (white) Virginians remained throughout the colonial period at the forefront of opposition to England, and took leading roles in creating the American republic.
The American Revolution was, then, the culmination of decades of resistance and rebellion, which in time hardened to righteous rage at royalty thousands of miles and an ocean away. As Thomas Paine put it in his iconic, incendiary booklet Common Sense, intended to persuade the public to support independence from Great Britain, "This new World hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother [country], but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendents still."
Above all, the freshly minted governors of the United States of America determined to protect against tyranny. The Constitution was to be crafted with this in mind, structured to preclude the possibility of too much power held by a single individual or institution. Put on notice by yet another revolt—Shays' Rebellion, in 1786, again in Massachusetts—the framers viewed their task as a balancing act. They wanted a system of representation that would respond to the legitimate needs of the people, but they also wanted to curb the peoples' passions and greed. Similarly, they thought to gain safety and security by creating a stronger and broader union, but they did not intend for this union to be so broad or so strong as to tip toward tyranny. It was James Madison who proposed the solution that ultimately prevailed—the Constitution of the United States. It was he who perhaps best understood that in order to preclude populism and factionalism from destroying the Revolution's hard-won gains, it was necessary to secure the new nation, in its entirety. It "alone could be thought to stand superior to the people of any single state."
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the Constitutional Convention. For if the intention of the revolution was utopian, no less than the destruction of the old monarchical society, the reality the morning after was different. It is, as we have seen even in our own time, one thing to destroy the old, and quite another to build the new. "To form a new Government requires infinite care and unbounded attention," George Washington warned in 1776, "for if the foundation is badly laid, the superstructure must be bad." A "matter of such moment," he continued, "cannot be the Work of a day."
And it was not. It took over a decade, until 1787, for the founders to agree to and sign off on the United States Constitution. Above all their intent was to fragment political power while, simultaneously, providing sufficient political power to make possible good governance. The Constitution included a federal system, which gave some powers to the federal government and others to the states; staggered elections for the president, the House and the Senate, so that no majority could seize power in a single swoop; and a separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Whatever the deficiencies of this fragmented political system, it did over time accomplish what the framers wanted and intended. It precluded tyranny, even by the executive, while providing a system of governance that, whatever the mood of the moment, over more than 225 years of American history has served the United States of America relatively well. (The Constitution is not beyond reproach, however, especially not now, when the federal government is so obviously dysfunctional.
But so far as leadership is concerned, leadership of any kind, America's fractured political system has complicated the task. Democracy is, under the best of circumstances, a messy business. Leading democratically is far harder and less efficient than leading autocratically. (As Winston Churchill famously put it, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others that have been tried.") And when the history of a country leaves a legacy that renders its citizens virtually allergic to authority, leadership is the more difficult.
America is unlike other modern democracies—say, those in Western Europe—not only because of its revolutionary genesis, but also because Americans have never known another form of government. There never was a king on American soil. Nor did the papacy ever rule here, in contrast to England, for example, where the Anglican Church was in the grip of the crown. Nor was there ever a despot or autocrat to rival those in other lands. Nor was the colonial aristocracy ever as well established, as wealthy, or as dominant as its British counterpart.
Democratic political leadership is the only sort of political leadership ever enshrined in America, which is precisely why effective leadership has always been relatively difficult to exercise, and why effective followership has always been relatively easy. Put differently, historically it has been comparatively hard to create change from the top down, and comparatively easy to create change from the bottom up. Again, this is in consequence of history. "In the end the disintegration of the traditional eighteenth-century monarchical society of paternal and dependent relationships prepared the way for the emergence of the liberal, democratic, capitalist world of the early nineteenth century."
Until the mid-eighteenth century, most Americans, if they were white, assumed that life in the "new world" would continue to mirror the life they left behind in the old world, in Europe. It would be hierarchically ordered, with some rich and others poor, some honored and others obscure, some powerful and others weak. The assumption was that authority would continue to exist without challenge. But the Revolution changed all that, permanently. There was no clinging to the past once defiance of power "poured from the colonial presses and was hurled from half the pulpits of the land." There was no clinging to the past once "the right, the need, the absolute obligation to disobey legally constituted authority had become the universal cry" (italics mine). And there was no clinging to the past once, instead of obedience, it was resistance that was a "doctrine according to godliness."
After the United States of America became hard fact as opposed to imagined figment, after the Constitution was finally and fully ratified (1790), the anti-authority fever that had fueled the Revolutionary War hardened into an anti-authority attitude that has marked America's political culture ever since. In an earlier book, I wrote that so far as leadership in America is concerned, it has three key characteristics: a general antagonism toward governmental authority; a particular ambivalence toward those in positions of power; and an uncertainty about what constitutes effective leadership and management in a democratic society. And no wonder, for in the half century that followed the Revolution, what little did remain of the traditional social hierarchy virtually collapsed. In its place was a quest for independence that historically was unprecedented: first was independence from Great Britain, then independence of the states from each other, then independence of the people from the government, and "lastly, the members of society be equally independent of each other."
Some fifty years after the conclusion of the Revolution, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic treatise, Democracy in America, marveled at how independent and idiosyncratic were ordinary Americans. "Since they do not recognize any signs of incontestable greatness or superiority in any of their fellows, are continually brought back to their own judgment as the most apparent and accessible test of truth.... There is a general distaste for accepting any man's word as proof of anything." The implications of this for leadership in America—for leadership in general, not just for political leadership—are easy enough to see. I will follow your lead if it is in my interest to do so, for whatever reason, such as the promise of reward or the fear of punishment. But if I am to follow your lead of my own free will, you will have to persuade me that it is what I want to do, not merely what you want me to do. If you cannot, or will not, I will chart my own course as I see fit.
There are alternative views of American history, "spirited controversies about the underlying dynamics." Some historians are persuaded that the founders were not much better than their predecessors, the English, the earlier entitled class that sought to control profits and power. They see the nation's progress as more fundamentally marked by economic fights than shared values, and they are persuaded that early patterns of power persist to this day. (These patterns presumably explain why to this day the haves remain strongly advantaged over the have- nots.) In addition, as earlier suggested, it has become almost impossible in the past several decades to comment on the American experiment without referencing the large swaths of people originally excluded from the promise of the process—particularly women and people of color.
Still, as I will further explore in the next section, ideas have an impact. They affect how and what we think, and what we do and why. In this case they explain why, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems obvious that the odious legal inconsistencies that had stained the republic since its inception would eventually, inevitably, be eradicated. Eighteenth-century America was, then, about promises made on paper: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." And nineteenth-century America was about promises realized—about extending these "inalienable rights" to all men and, finally, early in the twentieth century, to women.
Change took time, change spilled blood. That most wretched of all American wars, the Civil War, is still widely regarded as a necessary evil, necessary to preserve the Union and emancipate the slaves, necessary to put into democratic practice democratic theory. But notwithstanding our lionizing, our veritable worship of President Abraham Lincoln, he did not initially intend to upend the system by freeing the slaves. At the start of the war his goals were to restore the Union and bar slavery from spreading further. In fact, in order to keep Kentucky in the Union (to use as a military base), Lincoln deliberately muffled any talk of abolition, changing course only when he realized the South was so strong that the Civil War would likely not end until slavery did. Not by accident was the ex-slave turned abolitionist orator, Frederick Douglass, more prescient than his president. It was Douglass who foresaw even in 1861 that "the Negro is the key of the situation—the pivot upon which the whole rebellion turns." He could see in a way that Lincoln could not that the inexorable logic of events would eventually oblige the American president to make eradication of slavery the spear point of the war.
The trajectory of American history suggests that change of great magnitude—such as the abolition of slavery—nearly never happens of its own. Nor is it typically initiated by leaders, people in positions of authority, who generally are invested in the status quo. Rather, change of great magnitude requires pressure from below, populist pressure exerted by those in the middle or even at the bottom. The reason is, as Martin Luther King pointedly put it in "Letter from Birmingham Jail," those with power nearly never surrender to those without —unless they are compelled to do so. "We know through painful experience," King wrote, "that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed."
Excerpted from Hard Times by Barbara Kellerman. Copyright © 2015 Barbara Kellerman. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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