You have to go back to 458 B.C. to find the legendary Roman leader who inspired the greatest act of America’s first president.
Baltimore’s Washington Monument, located in the city’s Mount Vernon neighborhood, is less famous than its Washington D.C. counterpart. But it’s arguably more interesting.
The Monument is a 180-foot tower with a 15-foot George Washington statue on top. But Washington isn’t depicted in his military uniform. Instead, he’s dressed in a Roman toga, and he’s laying down a scroll he holds in his hand. Why a toga instead of a tri-cornered hat? The artist knew the story of Cincinnatus, and its connection to Washington.
Cincinnatus was a Roman consul who went back to his farm to live a simple life after his term in power expired. When Rome faced the threat of war, however, Cincinnatus was called back to Rome as a dictator – which was allowed under the law.
Cincinnatus was granted 6 months of absolute power. After only two weeks of battle, Cincinnatus claimed victory – an incredible achievement. But instead of capitalizing on his military power and popular support, Cincinnatus once again left Rome and returned home to his farm.
The people implored him to stay. He was a war hero beloved by all, and no one would oppose him. But Cincinnatus held firm. He said no to absolute power. He said that Rome is a republic, and in a republic we follow laws.
George Washington made a similar choice. After victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington resigned his commission as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army.
This is one of the most important moments in American history. At the time, Washington was effectively the leader of the colonies. He was the war hero who had just secured America’s independence from Great Britain, and was known as the “father of his country.”
Washington was a larger than life figure, even in his own time. He could have easily held onto this power. The people wouldn’t have been surprised, and they probably would have accepted it.
But Washington had something on his mind other than desire for power. He was focused on what America could be, if only he set the proper example in this critical early moment.
He decided to give up his power in an unambiguous way. That act stands as the foundation for executive restraint in the United States. Washington’s powerful example of voluntary, peaceful transfer of power shocked the entire world.
John Trumbull, the American artist known as the “Painter of the Revolution,” depicted this moment in his famous work General George Washington Resigning His Commission. Today, the painting hangs in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Trumbull had this to say about Washington’s decision:
What a dazzling temptation was here to earthly ambition! Beloved by the military, venerated by the people, who was there to oppose the victorious chief, if he had chosen to retain that power, which he had so long held with universal approbation? The Caesars, the Cromwells, the Napoleons, yielded to the charm of earthly ambition, and betrayed their country; but Washington aspired to loftier, imperishable glory, – to that glory which virtue alone can give, and which no power, no effort, no time, can ever take away or diminish.
George Washington followed the example of Cincinnatus. Because of his restraint, America has avoided the fate of so many other fledgling democracies across history.
Washington’s message to us is clear: Limited government is essential to liberty. Those in power must want to embrace restraint. As John Trumbull said, it was “one of the highest moral lessons ever given to the world.”