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The Stupid Use of Power You Have: Fourth of July Lesson

The Stupid Use of Power You Have: Fourth of July Lesson July 4, 2015

Wise mentors gave me a lesson about leading that has stood up very well: If you have power, do not test it unless you must. When a leader must use power, he has failed somehow and will have less power in victory than he had before he won. This is a general truth and I am sure there are historic exceptions, but it has worked well for me. The proverb comes associated with a deeper truth: I will do for love what I would never do for force, money, or power.

The CEO can buy service, but not loyalty. When he ends up surrounded by mercenaries, his time is short.

He had the power and he used it.
He had the power and he used it.

July 4, 1776 is the ultimate historic example of this truth. We must remember that if John Adams was right, only about one-third of Americans favored revolution. Polling would have all favored staying united with the United Kingdom. The tide of history was in favor of the expansion of the Empire and leaving was to defy the future. In fact, for the next one hundred years, Great Britain would become the greatest colonial empire the world has ever known.

What went wrong for Britain?

The mad king and his ministers convinced Parliament to use their power and rights combined with force. Britain was right that the American colonialists should pay for the expensive wars that had protected them from hostile forces. They were right that the power of the Empire was overwhelming. They were wrong that a civil war, for such it was, could be won.

The Revolution could not be “won” because even if the Americans had been quickly defeated militarily, they would not really have submitted. The British would have had to occupy centers of rebellion like Boston forever. Since the American colonies were not even the most valuable in North America (see the sugar growing islands for the jewels of Empire), this was folly. Men in parliament like Edmund Burke saw this stupidity and writers from Charles Dickens to Conan Doyle would look back on this missed opportunity, mourn over the folly, and teach the British public a lesson.

Men did for love of Washington what they would not do for money.
Men did for love of Washington what they would not do for money.

Canada and Australia voluntarily will send their brightest and best to defend the motherland from love, and did so in World War I, in ways that “rights” and “powers” could not have compelled them to do. What would have happened if Aussies had been joined by Virginians at Gallipoli? It might have happened if not for the genius of George Washington who knew he need only not lose to win, and the stupidity of the King’s ministers who counted their victories and thought they were winning.

Britain captured the key cities and seduced a great American hero, Benedict Arnold, to betray his cause. Thousands of Americans signed up to fight for the British army and the United Kingdom struck at the evils of slavery during the War. They did so many things right, what went wrong?

Jefferson was a very bad man, but a very great writer. His (heavily edited) Declaration understood the basic point: Britain could not win a war of ideas using guns. You could occupy Boston, but not Bostonians. Losing hearts, steeling them to suffer and fight, meant that even victory was defeat. The patriots did not have to win at the polls, they merely needed to win a large enough group to the idea that lives, fortunes, and sacred honor must be given to the cause of liberty.

That was never going to be most Americans, and it was scarcely enough Americans, but it never would have been any but a fringe group if the British had not overplayed their hand and demanded victory. Why tax tea? Why fight for an idea that they could not enforce?

Britain’s defeat to the colonials meant they would rarely (the Boers were the great foolish exception) try to use huge force to hold a territory. The Empire became a combination of cajoling locals, slow granting of limited liberties, and obvious gifts of progress to the colony. Colonialism is not a good thing, but the British learned to do it well from the lessons of 1776.

They used power in a limited way. They refused to occupy when occupation was contrary to a large enough population. They learned that fighting against rights that Englishmen at home demanded created sympathy for the other side in Great Britain.

America and her government should recollect this. We cannot occupy a land where many people do not wish our (even benevolent) rule. Our national government should not use legality to impose by force what the hearts of a significant number of Americans (a great minority) will not grant voluntarily. When we must use the lash, great civil war will come.

The patriots were right: they were fighting for their rights as Englishmen, the ideal that did not often exist even in England. Most Americans thought sacrifice in favor of such “talk” was foolishness, but the British government overplayed their hand and a great possession was lost. Presidents, CEOs, pastors, and other leaders should take warning.


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