“the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants” –Thomas Jefferson (or maybe it musn’t!?)
I propose a trade: I ask for your attention in reading this note, your reflection after reading it and your action afterwards in the way you think appropriate. In return I will share a framework of thinking I have found valuable (I will try to be brief and offload my disclaimers to another future post).
Today is July 4th, 2018 Independence Day. Citizens of the United States of America spend this day in many different ways, as is their right and prerogative. Many spend the day cooking out, attending parades or watching fireworks. Many wear red white and blue and feel generally positive toward their nation. Many do not consider that we are celebrating the anniversary of a moment in a war. Many of those that do imagine it in vague patriotic terms captured in paintings with brilliant blues, deep reds and stark whites, dashing soldiers, fluttering flags and noble generals on steeds. But ours is a nation born in fire and blood. In a very real war of pain and triumph, sacrifice and conquest, heroism and villainy. It was a war of rifles and muskets, deception and diplomacy, tomahawks and sabers, of printing presses and pulpits, of trade and of terror.
Humans must live in consensus that is in agreement on how we will behave and interact with one another. There are three fundamental methods of persuasion by which humans can move toward consensus on better ideas. The first and most basic is force. By threatening to use violence to destroy or degrade the life, liberty or property that another human values you can persuade them that your idea is preferable. The second is trade, or the moneythat facilitates it. By offering to trade something of value that you have in return for something of value another human has, whether that be a good, service or past or future expectation of these you can convince them your way is the most ideal. The third and most subtle method is influence, through use of logical or emotional appeal, through communication of thoughts and testing of trust and consistency you can move another’s idea to align with yours.
Human history contains unceasing combinations of these three methods of persuasion being used to move populations along spectrums of power between centralization and decentralization and between innovation and tradition. The centralizing innovation of corporations and ship building moved many of our ancestors to these shores. The decentralizing tradition of sectarian religion drove many of them in the migration. The decentralizing innovation of localized self-governance (by white male property owners) led to their chafing at the centralizing tradition of taxation on their trade that fueled the war.
Before the revolution began, the populace started from a consensus on many things, but key among them that the King of England was the rightful sovereign, that the colonists were subjects of the Crown of Great Britain, that trade was important, taxation (at some level) a right of the sovereign and that the rights of subjects included representation to and thus influence on the sovereign in decisions about their life, liberty and property. As English subjects, the colonists came from a historical context of enhanced liberties (decentralization of power) in trade (Islands must trade!), in influence over the use of force (through parliament) and in influence through broadly granted freedom of speech (driving much of Britain’s power through the enlightenment). The colonists experienced even greater levels of decentralization of the sovereign’s use of these methods: due to their remoteness they by necessity traded broadly with both their mother nation and others. They exercised influence, speech, the pen and the press to convey knowledge across oceans and amongst colonies geographically dispersed far beyond their original Islands. They inherently participated in the use of force both to defend against attacks and to initiate them against the native people who lived here first and the European partners that sought to challenge Britain (France and Spain). This use of force drove up debt that the Crown sought to assuage by increasing taxes on the colonists. It also habituated the colonists to directly using all three of the fundamental methods of persuasion: force, trade and influence to adjust the consensus to meet their ideals.
As the revolution began, the consensus began to break down. As tensions escalated trade and influence through speech and writing and British reactions to these such as the Coercive Acts and the Boston Massacre drove further divergence in agreement. John Adams believed that the revolution was complete in people’s minds before the hostilities began, but this is probably only true for a small subset of the population. There is much debate about what percent of the population hewed to which beliefs but for convenience let’s take the argument of thirds. A third supported the Crown (Loyalists or Torries), a third supported the rebellion (Patriots) and roughly 40% just wanted the war to be over. To have force exit the active list of persuasion methods. Regardless of exactly which percentages were accurate at which point in the war, a basic understanding of guerilla tactics, rebellions and wars can tell us that a rather small percentage of colonists pulled triggers on either side (say 3–10%). The remaining 20% of supporters of each side used other methods of influence: words, money, supplies, succor to support their preferred group of militants. It is important point out that the combatants of each side were heavily augmented by outside militaries (the British by their standing army, Native allies and Prussian mercenaries and the Colonists by mostly the French).
The task of this war was to convince the other side and its allies that your preferred ideas were going to win and should be conceded. Both spectrums of power were important, technologies that decentralized power to individuals, rifles that allowed a colonist to hit enemy officers at remote ranges early in the conflict, and traditional practices like those taught by von Steuben that led to colonial forces capable of massed musket fire, proof to France they could be worthy allies. Both sides used symmetric tools of information influence: in-person speeches and exhortations from pulpits and town squares and asymmetric, scalable disseminations from printing presses. Both sides used terror tactics: tarring and feathering, hanging, burning and pillaging. Both sides sought to reward through direct compensation to soldiers, bribes and trade agreements. Both sides sent diplomats to negotiate with other powers and advocate for commitment of more resources to use one method or another of influence on the other side. There was much back and forth in the balance of power and the future consensus of governance was much in doubt . And then the patriots declared independence.
The commitment to a future consensus became imbalanced. Now the struggle had become life and death for one side, but not the other. Though individuals’ risk to their life, liberty and property had existed before now, the entire cause was committed to freedom, decentralization and separation from the Crown or defeat and death as traitors for any active supporters. It was a step through a one-way door, a burning of the metaphorical boats on the beach. A commitment to a violent end to the struggle by the patriots. An announcement that the tools of trade and influence would be solely supporting efforts. That the patriots could not be convinced or bought off. The British and the loyalists retained the option to leave — to accept an outcome of influence and ideas or trade and money and forego force.
Our birth of fire and blood was noble and flawed, conflicted and complicated. We adjusted our consensus to one with more decentralization and freedom than had ever been seen before, but it was far from perfect. It was merely a commitment to move toward a more perfect union. Throughout the years trends across the axes of power have continued to go back and forth. The People have continued to use varying degrees of the three fundamental methods to influence their fellow Citizens to new agreements. Innovative technologies have emerged which radically decentralize and empower individuals, and which centralize and consolidate power. Technologies have emerged which enable superior trade, influence and speech (hi from medium all!!) and even use of force. We stand at an extremely exciting moment where technology trends seem to be driving toward decentralization in fantastic new ways. But the axes of power and the fundamental methods of influence remain, and one tradition we should respect and exercise is a commitment to eschew the use of force in favor of trade and influence over our fellow citizens to align our government with our own beliefs. To leave Thomas Jefferson’s’ blithe words about the blood of patriots and tyrants as applicable only in last resort. To use the representative influence we have through our elected leaders to ensure our collective actions as a nation drive toward a more perfect union.
You’ve given me your attention (thank you!), I’ve shared some frameworks that help me think about the world. If you’d like to think more deeply I encourage you to re-read the Declaration of Independence(it’s short!) Maybe the Constitution for the United States andBill of Rights(if you can make time).
I call on you to reflect: do the actions and words of the Government of the United States, their use of our collective influence, wealth from trade and force match what you believe to be right? Are we delivering on the commitments and promises that we recorded publicly in paper (the immutable ledger of the time) as our foundational core beliefs? If you think not how might you use the more subtle of the methods of persuasion,trade/money and influence to move toward an improved consensus ? What luxury that we needn’t rely on force and can use the more pleasant two methods to drive toward a more perfect union!
“The revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities began.”
— John Adams
(Or maybe it wasn’t)