The American Cincinnatus

George Washington. By: Gilbert Stuart.

George Washington, to some, is revered as a brilliant general. To others, he is to be remembered because in his will drafted in the summer of 1799, he freed all of his slaves and took the extra step of ensuring that the slaves would be taught to read and write and be prepared for “some useful occupation.” Gordon Wood, Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, 40.

However, Washington set perhaps one of the most important precedents for the future of America after the Revolutionary War. He “surrendered his sword to the Congress on December 23, 1783, and retired to his farm at Mount Vernon.” Id. at 41. He did so despite the fact that “it was widely believed that Washington could have become king or dictator.” Id.

This act fit into the late 18th Century notion of being a disinterested patriot. He knew “that he had acquired instant fame as a modern Cincinnatus.” Id. at 42.

Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, in Ancient Rome, was a true hero. He lived outside of Rome on a farm, and he learned that Rome was in serious danger of being invaded by the Aequians. He left his farm to fight in the war and was declared a dictator by the Senate of Rome, a powerful, mighty position that few could resist perpetuating. After the war was won and Rome was safe, Cincinnatus resigned his dictatorship and returned to his quiet life on the farm. Livius, Titus, The History of Rome, Vol. 1. Electronic Text Center. University of Virginia Library; see also Carl J. Richard, The Founders and the Classics: Greece, Rome, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 55-56, 70-72.

Washington’s analogous story led many around the world to worship Washington as the quintessential disinterested leader, unquestionably taking action in the public’s best interest. This would set an example for the dignity and integrity expected of future presidents. It would also create a legendary aura around Washington.

Perhaps this aspect of Washington’s legacy is forgotten in modern times. The legacy should not be forgotten, however. He created the expectation that the president would act in only the most disinterested, dignified manner. But it would always remain something less than a monarchy.

Future presidents have had no choice but to fit into the mold that Washington created with his actions. At a time when the presidency was an unclear concept, Washington introduced clarity to it. His virtue has had massive consequences for the strength and integrity of the presidency.


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