Celebrating the “leading from below” Revolution

Every now and then it’s nice to reflect back on a holiday, rather than just enjoying the picnics and fireworks — or going to sales or back to sleep.

Yesterday was Independence Day in the US.  We celebrated the Declaration of Independence, the start of a war, the birth of a nation.  (In the holiday spirit, let’s leave aside that the war started a year earlier and the nation was really born 13 years later.) We celebrated a nation throwing off control from above and taking its destiny in its own hands.

There’s another interpretation of what we celebrated. It’s not the one we were taught in school or find in history books, even the best contemporary ones.*  It’s an interpretation that won’t surprise readers of this blog who know my interest in “leading from below.”

When we commemorate the 4th of July, 1776, we’re really celebrating the success of leading from below. For 10 years before 1776, that’s where the American Revolution was led from: below.  For 10 years, the revolutionary flame was kept alive and spread by people you’ve probably never heard of, people often dismissed as “mechanics and artisans”.  They wrote the letters, organized the committees, summoned and managed the demonstrations (affectionately called “mobs” in most history books), doing the dirty work of fighting complacency. They even built an inter-colonial network in an intra-colonial world.

July 4, 1776 was when those “above” in the American colonies belatedly signed up to take the lead. We know their names.  We have seen them in history books, on statues and stamps and school names.  They did great stuff, absolutely.  They took great risks, and some reaped great rewards.  But they did so only after the revolution from below prepared the way, built the foundation, and made it almost impossible not to step up.  Take a look at all the “leaders” you think you know.  You’ll find that they spent most of the decade before July 4, 1776 doing anything but leading.  They spent those years going to college, building their plantations or law practices, living on government salaries or government contracts.

The real leaders weren’t nameless, faceless ciphers.  We know exactly who they were.**  They just don’t get much attention.  Most didn’t prosper after the Revolution.  Some didn’t even survive the war; they were much more likely to be at the front than fleeing with Congress.  They’re not remembered, with the notable exception of one who was enshrined in a poem (and he is remembered for that midnight ride, not for his years of political work before then).

Their reward didn’t come from what they got out of it later.  Their reward came from seeing the revolution they started get the acceptance from above it needed to spread and succeed.  Sometimes, that’s what it’s like when you lead from below. Sometimes you get the credit and advancement you earned, but not always. Sometimes you just have to take satisfaction from having made great changes happen that wouldn’t have happened without you.  And sometimes, that’s worth celebrating.

[Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of ERM, its partners or clients.]

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* A great example is Joseph Ellis’ excellent Revolutionary Summer (Knopf, 2013).  Talking about Pennsylvania in the run-up to July 4, 1776, he writes:

“…in a dazzling display of political agility, these mechanics, artisans, and ordinary farmers mobilized enough supporters to create a provisional government dominated by pro-independence representatives.”

But the only names Ellis mentions are Tom Paine (hardly an effective organizer) and the begrudging admiration of John Adams, one of the late-arriving leaders from above.

** For some of the best insight into these leaders from below, you can consult the works of Pauline Maier and David Hackett Fischer.