How Did George Washington End up Getting Called “The American Cincinnatus”?

by | Nov 10, 2023 | Quick Reads

The title “American Cincinnatus” bestowed upon George Washington harks back to Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman and military leader revered for his selfless service and commitment to the Republic. Like his Roman counterpart, Washington was celebrated for his willingness to relinquish power for the greater good of his country, solidifying his legacy as a model of republican virtue in the nascent United States.

Cincinnatus’s legacy emanates from 458 BCE when Rome faced a dire military emergency. He was appointed dictator, an office given broad powers during times of crisis. Cincinnatus accepted the role reluctantly, left his farm, led the Romans to victory, and then, remarkably, resigned his post and returned to his plow only 15 days later, despite having the authority to hold onto power for six months. His actions became a symbol of civic virtue, modesty, and the ideal of service above self.

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Washington’s parallel narrative began with the American Revolutionary War. Chosen to lead the Continental Army, he accepted the monumental task with humility, aware of the enormity of the struggle for independence and the responsibility it carried. His leadership was pivotal in the eventual victory over British forces, securing American independence.

But Washington’s Cincinnatus moment came at the war’s end in 1783. With the British defeated, the Continental Army was restless, feeling neglected and unpaid. There was talk among some officers of a coup to force the government to meet their demands, potentially making Washington a military ruler. Instead, he defused the situation with an impassioned address at Newburgh, appealing to their honor and patriotism. Later that year, he resigned his commission, giving up control of the army to return to Mount Vernon. This voluntary surrender of power stunned the world; monarchs and generals of the time often clung to their authority.

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Washington’s Cincinnatus-like stature was further cemented when he was unanimously elected as the first President of the United States. Despite his reluctance, he served two terms, setting up a government structure that would endure. Again, in the spirit of Cincinnatus, after his presidency, Washington refused a third term, setting a precedent for a peaceful transition of power that has been a hallmark of American democracy.

The decision to return to private life after serving as President reinforced Washington’s image as the American Cincinnatus. He could have tried to become a ruler or even king, as some proposed, but he remained true to the principles of republicanism, valuing the young nation’s stability over personal power.

Washington’s resignation of his military commission and his refusal to undermine the fledgling democratic institutions by overstaying in presidential office illustrated his commitment to the ideals upon which the United States was founded. His actions resonated with Cincinnatus’s legacy, emphasizing the importance of duty over personal ambition, the virtues of citizen leadership, and the moral imperative to empower the rule of law and governance by the people.

The term “American Cincinnatus” thus encapsulates Washington’s legacy as an epitome of leadership defined not by the wielding of power but by the conscious abdication of it for the sake of a democratic ideal. It honors Washington’s profound impact on the office of the presidency and his enduring influence on the expectation that those who serve do so for their country’s benefit, not for personal gain. His legacy as the American Cincinnatus endures, reminding us that the true measure of leadership is found in the ability to serve and then step aside, allowing the principles of freedom and democracy to flourish.

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