Politico Magazine recently ran an article about what the president doesn’t understand about George Washington. Even without details about the presidential excursion to Mount Vernon, it is safe to say that what the latest president doesn’t know about the first president is roughly coequal with everything that has been written in the many volumes about Washington. Even so, the Politico article cannot help but reveal its own bind spots. The deceptive categorization “History Dept.” on top of headline doesn’t stop Peter Cannellos from making some pretty egregious historical errors throughout the piece. It starts immediately when Cannellos compares Washington with Caesar, Napoleon, and “every past conqueror.” Washington was a rebel, maybe even a revolutionary, but it’s beyond generous to call him a conqueror.
But I’m not here for semantic quibbles. There is a much more egregious error made by Cannellos–and, if we’re being fair, so many more in the general public–about Washington: when faced with the possibility of tremendous and permanent power, he gave it all up to retire to his life of quiet recluse, preferring principled democratic service to dictatorial authority. It is the Cincinnatus myth, named after the famous Roman general who was twice given total authority by the Roman Senate and twice gave it up voluntarily when his assigned task was completed. The myth has such a deep and enduring hold on the American national consciousness that we have a major city named after Cincinnatus (and, indirectly, after Washington and the Society of the Cincinnati over which he presided as the first president).
Cannellos sums it up like this:
[Washington] gave up power. This wasn’t expected of him; most Americans hoped he would remain president—for life, if possible. He chose instead to return to his farm at Mount Vernon. He yearned for home but also to establish enduring precedents for the nation whose independence he had helped painfully win: No man is bigger than the country. The office is more important than any president. Power is a privilege to be wielded and then handed to another.
It’s an attractive story; I mean, who wouldn’t want to live in a country founded by such a man? This rendering is even true in some of its more technical specifics. The problem is that it’s founded on a deep misunderstanding of what it is that leaders like Cincinnatus and Washington gave up.
Let’s talk briefly about Cincinnatus, who in the fifth century took on dictatorial powers to stop an invading army and later to thwart a revolution. In both cases the general relinquished his powers in accordance with the law once his assignment was done. In some ways, Cincinnatus’ power was substantial could make laws or ignore existing laws, execute people by fiat, lead the Roman army without the advice or consent of the Senate, and spend the treasury as needed. The problem was that, in the fifth century, the Roman army was not that big, the Roman treasury not that rich. Still centuries away from a Roman empire the mastery of which would be any great prize. The Romans themselves understood this; that’s why as they grew, the stopped appointing dictators. When crises in the first century BCE forced them back to dictators in desperation, there are no men of the “high moral character” of Cincinnatus left to be found. Except, what’s changed is not the morality of Romans but the degree of temptation. What separates Julius Caesar (who makes an appearance in Cannellos’s article) and Cincinnatus (whose presence is only implied) is time not character.
The lesson from ancient history is instructive when thinking about Washington. It is easy to see his refusal to become a king and his voluntary resignation after two terms as great sacrifices when viewed through the lens of the modern imperial presidency–or even the presidency of people like Abraham Lincoln. The government tha Washington stood at the head of was a second try experiment with highly limited and still untested powers. His branch of that government was certainly not the strongest and would only get weaker (temporarily) after he left it and the Supreme Court began to assert itself. Washington–correctly–understood the Constitution and the theories of government behind it to grant primary power to the legislative branch, and he deferred to them in almost everything except that which was specifically and narrowly within his purview.
In fact, it is best to remember that Washington almost certainly exercised more power in almost ever other role in his later life than he did as president. As a general, his control of the substantial continental military was nearer to absolute and substantially more consequential than anything he wielded as president. His influence as a tycoon of Virginia real estate granted him more tangible powers as well. As president in the late eighteenth century he was a second-tier bureaucrat and statesman.
If that seems hyperbolic, the reality of the current presidency is more so. The reason modern politicians are so desperate to cling to power is precisely because they have it. They vie for control of arguably the most powerful nation in the world. The current president wields greater power and authority not only than did Washington but also significantly more than George III did in England. When patriots called for Washington to be made a king like those of Europe, it was not an invitation to power but to impotence. (Just think about the impending fate of the French king.) When they called on him to be president, the country he presided over was supposed to be one with a government only as strong as absolutely necessary with an executive whose very existence was a concession to the failure of the previous system.
So when the current president quipped, in his inimitable style, that “If [Washington] was smart, he would’ve put his name on [Mount Vernon]…You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.” The most appropriate response–the one given by the actual historian present–was to point out that Washington managed to get his name on plenty of stuff, like the capital city in which the president resides. The worst response, however, is to lapse into elegy about the man who had all the power in the world and surrendered it out of duty and love of country. Washington, like his predecessor Cincinnatus, simply quit his job because he had a better one waiting back home.