The Legacy of James MacGregor Burns
New Horizons in Leadership Studies series
Edited by George R. Goethals and Douglas Bradburn
Chapter 1: Discovering leadership in the early republic
An observation: none of the Founding Fathers—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams—ever wrote about “leadership.” Not once. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the official record of the English language, states that the word first appeared in 1821 in England. This raises an interesting question. If no one spoke of “leadership” at the American founding, can we? The answer is yes, for two reasons. First, the actual origins of the concept of leadership date to the American Founding, much earlier than the OED identifies. While the OED claims that leadership originated in the nineteenth century, its first usage dates to at least the 1790s in America. Thanks to new digital resources that allow for text mining, it seems that the first time the word appeared in the English language was in 1796. Based on a search of an early American newspaper database, on May 28, 1796, the Aurora General Advertiser, an anti-Federalist newspaper, reproduced an article from a Federalist newspaper that contained the following passage: The antifederal faction are somewhat mortified at the secession of Madison from the Leadership of the party and of the assumption of the dictatorship by Gallatin. They know the former, but they cannot find out what entitles the latter to take the lead. Second, aside from when this word emerged, this passage also helps explain why the word leadership emerged when it did. Its development in the 1790s reveals a key facet of how successful leadership, especially political leadership, operates in a democratic republic.