Essay About Cincinnatus and George Washington
Part of our job is helping our students see the connections from past to present. It’s always nice when the great figures in history do it for us.
George Washington needs no introduction to you. Our commander-in-chief, first Constitutionally elected president, crosser of the Delaware, endurer of Valley Forge, first in our hearts and minds, is never far from the lesson plans of the Social Studies teacher.
Lucius Quinticitus Cincinnatus (519-430 BC) was patrician farmer in the early Roman Republic. His middling political career took a sudden turn in 458, when a group of senators arrived at his farm, breathless with the news that the city had suffered a major defeat in battle. The entire Roman army out in the field campaigning against the Sabines had been encircled and faced destruction. With the Rome on the brink of disaster, the Senators informed Cincinnatus he had been appointed dictator to save the city from ruin.
Note: In republican Rome, “dictator” had little of the sinister connotation it carries now. Rather it referred to a special, temporary position created only during time of crisis, when Rome needed one, decisive leader to oversee its defense. While Romans cherished their Senate and divided government, they knew in an emergency too many cooks could spoil the broth.
While it’s not recorded if Cincinnatus raised his eyebrows incredulously or not, he did what any virtuous Roman would. He told his wife he was leaving for awhile and asked her to bring him his toga. Arriving in Rome, Cincinnatus rounded up every able bodied man left and personally led them into battle. The Romans smashed the Sabines, rescued the encircled soldiers, and Cincinnatus returned to Rome a hero.
Here was his chance for honor, glory and self-promotion. Yet Cincinatus would have none of it. He gave up his dictatorial powers and returned to his farm a scant 15 days after he left.
So aside from being farmers, what does Washington have in common with this man?
For one, they were both the only men their nations could turn to in a time of crisis. It’s hard to underestimate how dire the circumstances were during the Revolutionary War. Leading 13 independent colonies divided by geography, slavery and varying loyalties against the greatest military power in the world was no easy task. Undermanned and under supplied, it was a war the Patriots should have lost, and likely would have lost without the steadying hand of Washington.
Washington proved his worth long after the immediate crisis was past. Revolutions are easy, creating a government from the ashes of the old order you just destroyed takes real talent. And here America was lucky, after the Articles of Confederation proved too weak to unify the colonies and it looked like everyone might end up going their own way, Washington came to the rescue again. He was the only one man to whom everybody, Federalist and Democrat-Republican, northerner and southerner could turn. Elected unanimously as the first president under the Constitution, Washington ably guided the ship of state, setting up the judiciary, keeping America out of the war between Britain and France and putting down the Whiskey Rebellion.
But great leaders are a dime a dozen in our history text books. What came next really sets George Washington and Cincinnatus in a category all their own. After two terms as President Washington was done. Retired. Going home to farm, thank you very much. In a world of divine monarchs and meglomaniacal dictators, this came as a great shock. Who gives up power voluntarily? No one, that’s who. Napoleon would complain that the people wanted him to be like George Washington.
Neither man wanted the power given to them by their countrymen, but they served out of duty. And the first chance they got, when everything was set to rights, they got the hell out of their as quick as could be. Among the many other issues he faced, Washington had to fend off attempts to proclaim him king. The Senate actually recommended he style himself “His Highness the President of the United States of America, and Protector of their Liberties.” Someone suggested all Presidents be named “Washingtons” just like Rome had Caesars.
So did Washington know about Cincinnatus? Of course. And he admired him. Cincinnatus was actually a well-known guy back then, inspiring the eponymous Order of Cincinnati of which Washington was also the first president. The comparison between the two men was not uncommon.
To see history reaching out of the depths of 2500 years to influence the founder of our country is a powerful testament to the importance of our discipline. Hopefully your students enjoy this connection as much as mine have.