Perhaps you've had Cincinnati chili. Delicious! No other chili comes close, at least to my mom's version. Or you're a Cincinnati Reds fan (horrible thought—this is a bitter Pirates’ fan writing). Or you've been to Cincinnati, a most beautiful city located at the confluence of the Licking and Ohio rivers. OK, most people know about Cincinnati. But do you know where the city's name comes from? George Washington.
No, this is not a slip of the fingers typing, an odd pronunciation, or a just plain wrong statement. Cincinnati was founded just after the end of the American Revolution, in honor of the Society of Cincinnati, which was a league of Continental Army officers. This society was named for Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a legendary hero of Rome when it was a republic and not yet an empire. And who did every American who knew about Cincinnatus think of when they thought about Cincinnatus? George Washington.
2 FarmersBoth Washington and Cincinnatus were pious: One was a Christian; one worshipped the traditional Roman gods. Both generals worked hard. Cincinnatus worked relatively quickly and took enemies by storm, whereas Washington's situation required a lot more time and patience. But the main, the fundamental, point of comparison is this: Both men were offered supreme power by their nations, and then, after wielding that supreme power well, laid it back down of their own accord.
While their military careers may seem to be the most obvious place to look for the similarities that formed their patriotism, selflessness, and incorruptibility, the best comparison is found in this: Both men considered themselves farmers.
Although it is generally agreed that Cincinnatus was a real historical figure, every detail in his story is questioned by one historian or another. Yet there is no question about one thing: His legend greatly influenced the Romans who came after him, not to mention the founders of the United States.
The story goes that Cincinnatus was born very close to the time (519 B.C.) that Rome expelled its kings and became a republic (509 B.C.). Right away, we can see that this would have been a volatile time, a time in which the actions of men of Cincinnatus's age would be critical in determining the success or failure of the young republic. Although he was from a rich and prosperous Roman family, Cincinnatus's situation changed drastically for the worse, and by about 458 B.C., he was reduced to living outside of the city (and political influence), plowing, by himself, the last small bit of property he possessed.
Enter the Aequi, an Italian tribe hostile to the Romans. They broke a treaty and attacked the Romans near Mount Algidus. The Roman general who came to the Romans' relief made a huge blunder and rested his men, while the Aequi quietly surrounded them. Only a few horsemen made it out of the encirclement, carrying the bad news to Rome.
Confronted with this news, the Romans in the city decided to make Cincinnatus "dictator." While dictator is a pejorative term now, the Roman dictator was a special office that came into existence only when the existence of Rome itself was threatened. It came with terrible, absolute power—kingly power—the power necessary to make the Romans act as a united force. It had only been invoked a handful of times before. Sure, it was a power that came with a term limit of six months, but one could abuse a lot of power in six months, or even attempt to dissolve the republic and establish a new kingdom.
The Romans came to fetch Cincinnatus. There he was plowing, without his toga on. The toga was the symbol of a Roman's dignity and responsibility as a citizen. Cincinnatus asked his wife to fetch his toga, and then discovered that he was the master of all Rome. He then acted decisively and immediately mustered all able-bodied Romans. He then acted strangely. He issued each conscript 12 valli, or entrenchment poles. Now, the normal practice was to issue one to each soldier, for the purpose of building a palisade wall around the camp. What was Cincinnatus up to?
The Romans and Aequians both found out when he again acted decisively: a double-time march out of Rome and, by means of the extra poles, a complete night encirclement of the Aequians, who were encircling the first Roman army. Cincinnatus's mix of efficiency and imagination resulted in the enemy's total surrender. He acted strangely again, in the weird way that a republic desperately needs: He immediately set down his power and went back to his farm.
One more detail needs to be added: Although the circumstances were not nearly as dramatic, Cincinnatus would be called to the dictatorship one more time, as an old man, and in a similar way acted decisively and then gave up power.
Turning to George Washington, we find that he was also born into a fairly wealthy family. He is legendary as a general to us, as Cincinnatus was to the Romans, although for different reasons. Whereas what we know of Cincinnatus's soldiership is brief, singularly victorious, and surrounded by the mists of ancient times, there is a long chronicle of Washington's fighting, starting from when he was about 22 in the French and Indian Wars all the way through the end of the Revolutionary War at age 51. More persistence and patience were required of Washington as a soldier, and he faced reversals and outmaneuvers before coming out on top in 1783.
Washington, the man who had accomplished the impossible and defeated the world's superpower of the time, promptly proceeded to lay down his supreme authority and head back to farming at Mount Vernon. Similarly, when he was torn away from farming again when he was elected president in 1789, he would step down from the presidency of his own accord in 1797, setting the precedent for the two-term limit, which most of his successors have observed.
The Virtues Proceeding From a Rural Life
A return to rural life is a refreshment, a restoration, a return to the original principles that made these men great leaders and greater citizens. Farming does not automatically make men good or great, but good farming does require some of the most important virtues that make men good and give them the potential for greatness. These virtues are patriotism, selflessness, and incorruptibility.
Consider patriotism. Cincinnatus and Washington both lived while their respective republics were being born and growing up. Here’s a crucial question: If you can't love what you don't know, how do you make the citizens of a new republic patriotic—to love something that, in a sense, they have just become acquainted with? One person who is very well placed to acquire this necessary love is a farmer, for a farmer knows very well the physical composition of his native country, what grows and doesn't grow, and how the seasons affect his crops. Someone who earns his living from the very soil of the land might well be willing to die for it. A conscientious farmer would have the wherewithal to be a conscientious patriot. And both these Roman and American patriots were conscientious farmers.
Washington studied the soil of his fields minutely. Instead of blindly sticking with the trend of growing tobacco in his native Virginia, he took stock of the soil erosion and the tiny profits he obtained from this plant, diversified his crops, and thereby prospered. He kept incredibly precise records of his plantings, his experimentations, and his profits. The historian Ron Chernow has pointed out that Washington's care for his expanding farm enterprises gave him the skills necessary to organize the Continental Army.
Selflessness, the second attribute, is demanded by farming. Thinking of the crops right in front of him, a farmer must find the best way to make them thrive. So too must he think of those who work the farm. Farming allows one to think of other human beings and their prosperity. Perhaps we can even see this in Washington's treatment of slaves. Washington had a far from perfect record with regard to slavery, but he had a much better record than almost any other large landholders of his time, making a provision to free all his slaves after his wife Martha's death.
As Washington's farming was directly linked with his patriotism and selflessness, so was Cincinnatus's. Who did the Romans go to in their hour of direst need, but to a man who was so poor that he had to work his land himself, yet so dedicated to the republic that they knew he would be ready to defend it in a heartbeat? Cincinnatus could have felt it within his rights to snub the messengers from the Senate. Why should he fight for a nation where he had become impoverished and had even been forced by his circumstances to leave the city? But there was something about the republic, something about being a poor, free citizen farmer instead of a wealthy subject that convinced Cincinnatus to take up immediately the heavy task he was given.
Of course, it was a heavy task, but he finished it—and within only a few days. He then faced the prospect of almost six months of unlimited power, during which time he could take advantage not only of the power but also of the gratitude of Rome to do whatever he wanted. He did not, and given that same power again, did not, just as Washington did not.
Why use your power for the sake of the common good—being selfless—unless you are convinced of the connection between that common good and your own? Why give up power when you have it, unless you are convinced that your true kingdom in the world is your home and property? This is the kind of conviction that makes men incorruptible, that is, men who refuse to abuse power. It is the conviction that taking care of what is yours as a citizen is a higher thing than lording over other citizens. This seems to be the source of the last virtue, the incorruptibility found in both these men.
While the fame of Washington and Cincinnatus starts with their power, it is completed by their relinquishing power, and that willingness to resign power is something related to their both being farmers. The contemporary Frenchman Jacques-Pierre Brissot, like our forefathers, realized this. In his “New Travels in the United States of America. Performed in 1788,” he wrote: “You have often heard [Washington] compared to Cincinnatus. The comparison is doubtless just. The celebrated General is nothing more at present than a good farmer, constantly occupied in the care of his farm and the improvement of cultivation."