Beneath The Surface

Something happened the other day and it bothered me. I’d like to share it with you to see what you think. It’s only a couple of minutes’ reading. Here we go.

On Twitter I follow a person who sends out a daily tweet on “this date in the American Revolution.” Whatever today is, the guy tweets about some event that happened on that same day back in the American Revolutionary War, 1775-1783.

It was Wednesday, October 23 when the tweet popped up on my phone. The entry was about “on this date in 1783 Virginia passed a law that freed black slaves who had fought on the American side in the Revolutionary War.” Or words to that effect.

I love the American Revolution. Loved it since I was a kid. Got about 300 books in my library on the topic and still buying more. And so I thought “wow!” I absolutely didn’t know this fact. A major event in slave-holding Virginia. Amazing. I thought I’d write a blog post about the leadership side of the moment–maybe about how a leader can take a courageous step to do something unpopular but vitally necessary. I’d even add a “what-if”–what if Virginia had done this back in 1776 when the Declaration of Independence was written? That would be a fun entry, I thought.

I’m fast out the gate and doing some quick research. I especially wanted to know how the law unfolded.

Well, I never wrote it. I never had the chance to do so. Stopped dead. That’s because of what I encountered in my research. Follow along.

I looked at a link to the law in the original tweet. It took me to a summary of a couple of lines. A title of the law, in fact. It also had a copy of the law from an old book. I clicked and read the law’s wording. After this, I pulled out from my library several biographies of Virginian leaders (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry). None of them included the law. If you went by these books, you’d never know the law existed.

That’s odd, I thought. Poured a fresh cup of coffee and then I went online and searched results from various key phrases, terms, and words. Nothing or very close to it. I did find links to primary sources such as Virginia’s governor, the legislative assembly, and records of the legislature. Checked them and…nothing. The governor wrote about other stuff. The legislative assembly didn’t have enough members show up in October to do any of its business and sent a sheriff to track down thirty or so absentee elected members. Only one or two references to the law’s title could be found in legislative compilations. Elsewhere, on historical websites, no more than a copy of the title was evident. What the heck is going on? The law might as well have been written in invisible ink. For you Godfather movie fans, the law swims with the fishes.

My conclusion is three-fold. First, the law must have benefited next to no one. Few if any slaves must have gotten their freedom this way. Otherwise, more writings about the law would have been produced, whether then or since. Second, the silence was purposeful–by not emphasizing the law, white slave-owners could be more confident that further pressures on them wouldn’t boil up. Pass the thing quietly and let’s drop it. Third, a current of guilt must have flowed like an underground river through enough of Virginia’s political leaders to have produced the law’s enactment. After all, the war had ended that same year as the law was made. A ghost of gratitude to soldiers hovered in everyone’s darkness.

Think about the third point I just made. Guilt.

The guilt had a motivating power. It likely compelled a group of people to do something they hadn’t done before. The power of guilt shoved them forward one step, one key step from holding slaves to allowing at least some form of freedom from slavery. That’s no small achievement. Score one for guilt.

The guilt had its own hothouse. There was a defined point in time and space when it flourished. Virginia was home to some of the American Revolution’s most significant and symbolic leaders. Virginia was the site of the last major American battlefield victory, the scene where a British surrender had sounded the coming of the end of the war. Also, not to be overlooked, the legislative session of October 1783 was sparsely attended. In a largely empty setting, a few people well-organized and committed could succeed in a controversial action.

The guilt had a shelf life. As time passed, the gravity of living pulled it down, wore it out. No one used the guilt to take two or three or four more steps. No one picked up on it. The result was guilt aged, faded, and disappeared. Unsustainable. Guilt’s shelf life was supremely important in the context of a society and culture dominated by slavery.

Take the guilt point back into your own leadership and life right now. Where does guilt exist for you as a leader? Do you use it? Does it use you? On purpose or by accident? Does guilt move you in a particular way? How do you see it in your team or a key team member or your overall organization? Can guilt be part of culture?

A final remark. A fact expressed in one sentence–like today’s date as an anniversary of something also on this date in the past–doesn’t tell anything like the whole story. What’s worse, its brevity can not only conceal a larger reality, it can also distort that same reality. That’s what I learned.

The single fact may just be the tip of a truth buried far beneath the surface.

All the best, Dan