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The Political Leader as Master of History: Identifying Key Principles and Leadership Lessons Learned
By | 01/03/2012 3:30AM | SOLUTIONS

5 Ways Leaders Benefit from Identifying Enduring Principles and Key Lessons Learned (Part 1 of 3)

Once the British defeated Napoleon in 1814 they immediately fortified their forces in the fight against the U.S. in the Second War of American Independence. America was unprepared. And with an unpopular war and an undisciplined and ill-equipped militia, the outcome was uncertain. What aided America’s prosecution of the war, up to this point, was Britain’s main engagement in Europe—the Napoleonic Wars. “After Napoleon’s exile,” however, “the trickle of troops to the New World turned into a torrent.”1

The U.S. soon endured a degrading defeat in a hot summer battle that…one Columbia historian has marked as “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms.”2 Following the Battle of Bladensburg and the rapid, panicked retreat of American troops—later immortalized in a poem as “the Bladensburg races”3—the capital was left defenseless. They all fled—officers and soldiers, officials and residents alike. Even the president, James Madison, who was present on the battlefield at Bladensburg, abandoned his home, leaving the White House without its occupant and the country without its leader.4 It would become known as “the most humiliating episode in American history.”5

When the British troops entered Washington, they found it eerily quiet. The great capital of the United States had been utterly deserted. With malicious delight, the troops hastily began to burn the public buildings.

In a single, striking act of bravery, Dr. William Thornton, the Superintendent of the U.S. Patent Office, stayed behind with the hope of preventing the destruction of the building. Close enough to see the beads of sweat on the enemies brow, Thornton argued that the building’s contents were private property and, furthermore, he said, “to burn what would be useful for all mankind would be as barbarous as formerly to burn the Alexandrian Library, for which the Turks have been ever since condemned by all enlightened nations.”6

His bravery saved the building.

Sadly, however, several public buildings were set ablaze, burning through the night. One British officer boasted, “The sky was brilliantly illuminated by the different conflagrations.”7

Rear Admiral George Cockburn and his unit found the White House itself completely empty. Lt. Gen. Harry Smith later remembered, “we found a supper all ready, which was sufficiently cooked…and which many of us speedily consumed, and drank some very good wine, also.”8

Alas, the British set fire to the White House and the Capitol Building; both of which burned nearly to the ground. The Capitol Building, unhappily included the great collection of rare books and papers inside the Library of Congress. Former President Thomas Jefferson wrote to a senator: “I learn from the newspapers that the Vandalism of our enemy has triumphed at Washington, over science as well as the arts, by the destruction of the noble edifice in which it was deposited.”9

As president, Thomas Jefferson had taken a vigorous interest in the library, suggesting books for the collection and appointing the first librarian.10 After the fire, Jefferson offered to sell his personal collection (more than double the collection of Congress) to start a new library. When the wagons carried off the last of his books at Monticello, Jefferson said sorrowfully to John Adams, “I cannot live without books.”11 And he immediately began building a new library.

In his twilight years, Jefferson turned his mind to posterity and the importance of ensuring the survival of liberty and the rights of man, through education. With the study of history central to his pursuit, Jefferson articulated his thoughts on the training of future leaders. “History, by appraising them of the past,” he said, “will enable them to judge…the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men.”12

It was a sentiment widely shared among his contemporaries. From impassioned dialogues to blistering debates, from papers and publications to the Grand Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia; the constellation of thoughts and actions that surrounded the formation of the United States was unmistakably rooted in the wisdom and principles of the ages and the lessons learned from a hard-fought history. From Classical Greece through the Enlightenment, from the Magna Carta to the British Bill of Rights, from Locke and Rousseau to Adam Smith and Montesquieu—the Founders were drinking from a deep well of knowledge and wisdom, from the history and philosophy of political leadership.

The nation that emerged from those fiery exchanges was a nation born out of principles. Indeed, if ever there was a nation grounded in the lessons and insights of history, that nation is the United States.

Those early debates were not merely between men and women roiling from the injustices and tyranny of King George III. Nor were those early debates merely the strivings of rebellious freedom-seekers or even the self-interested paroxysms of slave-holding, socio-economic elites. Beyond self-interest and vain conceit, those early debates were fueled by the passions of minds grounded deep in enduring principles, the lessons of the past—the ideals of classical liberalism and the principles of republicanism, beliefs and values that led to the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, ideals grounded in the lessons of history aimed at the pursuit of “life, liberty and…happiness.”13

What made America great and what will ensure her greatness in the future, is the extent to which she remains grounded in the wisdom of time, rooted in enduring principles and the unrelenting lessons learned from the past.

Next Post:
5 Ways Leaders Benefit from Identifying Enduring Principles and Key Lessons Learned (Part 2 of 3)
Coming Soon!
Series Outline:

The Political Leader as Master of History
  1. Learning Leadership Lessons from the Heroes of History
  2. In History Lies the Secrets
  3. Recognizing Repeating Patterns and Recurring Themes
  4. This Post: Identifying Enduring Principles and Leadership Lessons Learned (Part 1 of 3)
  5. Next Post: Identifying Enduring Principles and Leadership Lessons Learned (Part 2 of 3)

"That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history
is the most important of all the lessons of history."
Aldous Huxley, author Brave New World

Notes and Bibliography
  1. Hickey, Donald R. (1995). The War of 1812: A SHORT HISTORY. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. Pg. 53.
  2. Young, James Sterling (1966). The Washington Community 1800-1828. New York: Columbia University Press. Pg. 184.
  3. Hickey, Donald R. (1995). The War of 1812: A SHORT HISTORY. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. Pg. 61.
  4. Howe, Daniel Walker (2007). What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford History of the United States). New York: Oxford University Press. Pg. 65.
  5. Brogan, Hugh and Mosley, Charles (1993). American Presidential Families. New York: Macmillan Publishing, Co. Pg. 244.
  6. Byrd, Robert C. & Hall, Mary Sharon (1988). The Senate, 1789-1989, V. 1: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. Pg. 64.
  7. Hickey, Donald R. (1995). The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press. Pg. 201.
  8. Smith, Harry (1902). “Sir Harry Smith: An Autobiography, Showing Him to Have Seen Warfare in Four Continents.” The New York Times. May 24, 1902. Last Accessed: August 17, 2011. Full quote: “We entered Washington for the barbarous purpose of destroying the city. Admiral Cockburn would have burnt the whole, but Ross would only consent to the burning of public buildings. I had not objection to burn arsenals, dockyards, stores, barracks, but well do I recall that, fresh from the Duke’s humane warfare in the South of France, we were horrified at the order to burn the elegant houses of Parliament and the President’s house. In the latter, however, we found a supper all ready, which was sufficiently cooked without more fire, and which many of us speedily consumed, and drank some very good wine, also.”
  9. Byrd, Robert C. & Hall, Mary Sharon (1988). The Senate, 1789-1989, V. 1: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. Pg. 64.
  10. Murray, Stuart A.P. & Basbanes, Nicholas A. (2009). The Library: An Illustrated History. New York: Skyhorse Publishing. Pg. 156.
  11. Jackson, Donald D. (1981). Thomas Jefferson and the Stony Mountains: Exploring the West from Monticello. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. Pg. 86. Quote: “As he told John Adams, “I cannot live without books.””
  12. Jefferson, Thomas (1900). The Jeffersonian Cyclopedia: A Comprehensive Collection of the Views of Thomas Jefferson. Pg. 276. Full quote: “By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of the youths of genius from among the poor, we hope to avail the State of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as the rich, but which perish without use, if not sought for and cultivated. But of all the views of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading in the first stage, where they will receive their whole education, is proposed, as has been said, to be chiefly historical. History, by appraising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views. In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve. Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, thought it be essentially necessary. An amendment of our Constitution must have come in aid of the public education. The influence over government must be shared among all the people. If every individual which composes their mass participates of the ultimate authority, the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth…” Pg. 276.
  13. Jefferson, Thomas (1776). The Declaration of Independence.
  14. Picture of the Parthenon: Adapted from Thermos, Creative Commons. Wikimedia Commons.

"The lesson of history is that to the degree people
and civilizations have operated in harmony with
correct principles, they have prospered."
–Stephen R. Covey



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