“The first—the last—the best: The Cincinnatus of the West.” Lord Byron paid tribute to George Washington by way of a classical metaphor, which, by the early 19th century, had become the predominant analogy to our first president’s martial success and civic virtue.
The name of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the 5th century BC Roman dictator, would have been immediately recognized by classically educated trans-Atlantic elites. A citizen general called from the tilling of his field to rescue Rome’s republic from hostile Italian tribes, Cincinnatus returned to his agricultural toil after a miraculously brief tenure in office.
While Washington’s claim on the title of American Cincinnatus remained uncontested through the decades following the revolution, the image of Cincinnatus, connoting disinterested public-mindedness in the exercise of the highest office, was also irresistible to those wishing to justify their places in public affairs.
Figures such as Adams and Hamilton also cast themselves in the mold of Cincinnatus, while, assuredly, recognizing Washington’s superior status. Nevertheless controversy was ignited by a fraternal organization of disbanded Continental Army officers—the Society of the Cincinnati. Both the society and its critics sought to claim Cincinnatus as their own and tar their opponents as Caesarean tyrants, thereby defining the terms of American civic virtue.
This debate stands as an early example of what historian Carl Richard describes as the “partition” of classical ideology among the founding generation, in which “The Federalists retained custody of mixed government theory while the republicans kept the classical pastoralism. Each party became half-classical, half-liberal: the Federalists remained aristocratic but embraced the new industry: the Republicans remained pastoral but embraced the new democracy.”
The Cincinnati, like other nationalists, saw Cincinnatus’ true significance not in his returning to the field, but in his leaving it. For these advocates of stronger central government, his reflexive abandonment of private concerns for the public good made him an avatar of positive liberty for whom politics was the highest calling. It was the Cincinnatus of the Jeffersonian Republicans, however, that left a lasting impression on the national character. This was Cincinnatus the renouncer, whose defining act of greatness was to lay down his office and return to the plow, leaving government safely in the hands of his fellow citizens, the people. The figure who emerged from this discourse combined an exaltation of private life alien to classical republicanism with idealized agrarian virtue drawn entirely from the classical inheritance.
The Society of the Cincinnati was instituted May 13, 1783, in the shadow of the Newburgh conspiracy. Henry Knox, the society’s likely originator, had clearly thought through the application of the Cincinnatus metaphor to the situation of the army. “The officers of the American army…possess high veneration for the character of that illustrious Roman, LUCIUS QUINCTIUS CINCINNATUS; and [are] resolved to follow his example, by returning to their citizenship.”
While the charter cites Cincinnatus’ return, it fails to reference agriculture or any private function and implies a high level of civic engagement by the former dictator and his namesakes. The society’s iconography likewise diminished Cincinnatus’ retirement. Of the two images that Pierre L’Enfant placed on his proposed design for the medal of the society, only the first, depicting senators approaching Cincinnatus at his farm, was ultimately placed on the eagle badge. Cincinnatus greets the visitors by turning his back towards his wife, who looks on, holding an infant to her breast as another child tugs the folds of her dress. The predominance of public service over private affairs could not be more apparent.
Even the obverse of L’Enfant’s medal, with its winged victory, urban scene, and background of modern warships, gives the impression of triumph more than rural simplicity. Beneath appear the words esto perptua—“let it be eternal”—and an image of joined hands symbolizing the Cincinnati’s continued friendship and society. Washington resigning from the Virginia vestry this was not. Equally telling was the society’s motto, omina relinquit servare rempublicam—“he left behind everything to serve the republic.”
Less than a month later, before the existence of the society was widely known, an author under the pseudonym “Freedom” berated “half-pay officers” in the pages of the Boston Gazette, demanding that they follow the example of Cincinnatus who “laid aside his sword, returned to his plow and lived nobly independent.” These themes were picked up by the society’s most prominent critic, the South Carolinian Aedanus Burke, or “Cassius.” In his “Considerations,” Burke asked, “Did that virtuous Roman, having subdued the enemies of his country, and returned home to his cabbages; did he confer an hereditary order of peerage on himself and his fellow soldiers?” To which “Cassius” provided an answer: “No; it was more than he dared to do.”
Writing in 1785, Hugh Henry Brackenridge set the case against the Cincinnati to verse, mocking the gaudiness of the society’s regalia and proposing an alternative motto. Brackenridge’s Cincinnatus is radically agrarian and meant to cast the society’s misuse of his name as a kind of desecration.
…’twere better you had made it
Nunc victor ad aratum redit
[Now the victor turns back to the tilled field]
O’ some intelligible phrase
That would bespeak the proper praise
Which really did belong to such
As not ambitious over much,
Returned from victory and war
To till the ground and take the care
Of stock upon their fans; but wore,
No other ensign than before,
With such barbarous Latin as this.
Pseudonyms such as Burke’s lent themselves to adversarial relations, which were often analogized to ancient rivalries. A New York “Cato,” for instance, spurred his most bitter antagonist to adopt the hated name “Caesar” simply to cement the rivalry with a classical analog. Although controversy over the Cincinnati had by then receded, the ratification debates provided an opportunity for Arthur Lee, who had once described the society to John Adams as resembling Cincinnatus “in name alone.”
Lee reclaimed Cincinnatus in the most direct way, by taking the dictator’s name. This appropriation was remarkably successful. One Federalist was so eager to advertise his opposition that he clumsily adopted the pseudonym “Anti-Cincinnatus” under which to write in support of the constitution. While “Anti-Cincinnatus” criticized Lee for abusing the “worthy patriotic society,” his very self-presentation effectively ceded ownership of Cincinnatus’ memory to the Anti-Federalist camp.
That, in fact, is where it was to remain. Over the last decade of the 18th century, such diverse figures as the Parisian sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon and American mythmaker Parson Weems used Cincinnatus to portray Washington as a populist hero. Under Jefferson’s guidance, Houdon shunned the iconography of the Cincinnati in sculpting his statue of Washington for Virginia’s capitol, instead emphasizing rural emblems such as the plow and Washington’s riding cloak, a symbol of his speedy return to Mount Vernon. Weems, at the turn of the century, wrote complimentary biographies of Washington and Cincinnatus, describing the former as the owner of “only four acres” and the latter as a would-be yeoman.
Much like Weems’ cherry tree fable, “the man who could have been king” has had staying power enough to become a cliché. While isolated voices did call for Washington to be invested with regal power, the real meaning of the epithet is that his greatness remains wrapped up in his willingness to surrender power at a time when it would have been all too easy to retain.
Well into the 19th century, this aspect of Washington’s character was communicated by reference to Cincinnatus. Yet while Cincinnatus’ love of country over power was always an integral part of his legend, other less modern virtues were also on display. When Cincinnatus accepted the dictatorship, he was not merely demonstrating a farmer’s loyalty, but also the republican aristocrat’s place in civic affairs and corresponding obligation to prioritize public service in exchange for glory.
That Cincinnatus’ name was taken up by a group of former officers whose goal, quite apart from agricultural independence, was to remain engaged in the life of the nation, provided an opportunity to exorcise these antique demons from his soul. By winning Cincinnatus back from the Cincinnati, the Jeffersonians and their forbears crafted the Roman into a new, uniquely American archetype: the farmer, soldier, and reluctant statesman.
Dennis Garcia is a graduate of NYU Law School and an associate at the Cato Institute’s Levy Center.