Voluntarily giving up power is such a rarity, we name cities after those who do. Such men make independence and liberty possible.
Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519 – 43o BC) was a Roman Senator who wanted to retire from public life. But the Roman people wouldn’t let him. So he came up with a plan. He ran for Consul, the highest office in the Roman Republic. This was a one-year, term-limited position. Cincinnatus was elected easily, and served out his year. At the end of his term, he retires to his estate, and manages his farm in the Patrician tradition.
Cincinnatus would have otherwise been a mere footnote in history. However, the Aequians, a tribe to the northwest of Rome, declared war on the Republic in 457 BC.
Minucius, one of the Consuls that year, raised a legion, and marched into Alban Hills whereupon the Aequians promptly laid siege to his fortified camp, trapping him. At least one rider managed to get through enemy lines to deliver the news back to the Senate in Rome.
The Senate calls and emergency session, and appoints Cincinnatus dictator. A few short days later, a Senate delegation arrives at Cincinnatus’ Estate to congratulate him. According to legend, the delegation came upon him out in the fields with his hand on the plow.
Ordering his servants to unhitch the oxen, he calls for his toga. One servant makes to take the plow into the barn. Cincinnatus waves him off. “Don’t touch it. I’ll be back.”
Independence And The Birth Of A Legend.
Cincinnatus goes back to Rome, raises another legion, marches out to the Alban Hills, rescues Minucius, and beats the stuffing out of the Aequians.
The Romans make a yoke out of spear shafts and compel every surviving Aequian male walk to beneath it as a declaration of fealty. The Aequians take an oath never to raise arms against Rome again. Thus, another tribe on the Italian peninsula is brought under the dominion of Rome.
Cincinnatus goes back to Rome, rejects the offer of a triumph (a parade in his honor), and hands back the writ of dictatorship.
The Senate had voted him emergency powers for 180 days. Cincinnatus gave up those powers on day 16. Wrap your brain around that.
2,240 years later…
At the close of the War For Independence, officers of the Continental Army at the Headquarters in Newburgh, NY met to discuss certain grievances and to consider a possible insurrection against the United States Congress.
The national legislature had failed to honor its promises regarding salary, bonuses, and pensions for the Army. Who would have thought? Congress failing to honor its promises, but yes, even back then. The officers had heard from Philadelphia that the new government was broke, and they may never be compensated.
On March 15th 1783, Washington’s officers gathered in a church building in Newburgh effectively holding the fate of the fledgling republic in their hands. They discuss seizure of the reigns of government and making Washington the king. Unexpectedly, Washington enters. He is not entirely welcome. Never-the-less, he addresses them and makes the case for the new congress, and counsels patience. His reasoning is not very well received. He carries with him a letter from a member of the congressional finance committee, explaining in detail the challenges of the new government. He begins to read.
After struggling for a couple of paragraphs with the hand-written script, Washington stops. Then, something amazing happens. Reaching into his coat pocket he produces his glasses. Few of them knew he wore reading glasses. This display of frailty from such a larger-than-life figure served to hush the restless room. Washington spoke, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles. For I have not only grown gray, but almost blind in the service of my country.”
A God Becomes Mortal…
In that moment of vulnerability, Washington’s men were deeply moved, even shamed. Some accounts written afterwards said that many were moved to tears. Now all of them looked with great affection upon this aging man who had led them through so much.
Washington read the remainder of the letter then left without saying another word. His officers preceded to cast a unanimous vote validating the authority of Congress, thus quelling the first serious sedition within the United States. Not through force of arms, or by U.S. Marshals kicking down the doors, but through reason a group of men – competent experienced, battle hardened leaders – inspired by a giant among them, found their moral compass and the republic survived.
To paraphrase Eric Cartman…
Washington announced that he would resign his commission to a powerless congress. When word of his intentions reached George III, the monarch said, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” On December 23, Washington did indeed resign, and like Cincinnatus, retired to his estate.