Historical Heroes: Cincinnatus, Washington and Whipple

We do not educate our children to follow in their footsteps.

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We have so many hypocrites in American politics today that it’s worth looking back and considering men who are honorable heroes.  These are examples who should be followed today.

Consider what Lord Byron wrote about Washington: “The Cincinnatus of the West, / Whom envy dared not hate, / Bequeathed the name of Washington, / To make man blush there was but one!”   You may wonder about Cincinnatus – who was he, and why did Byron compare Washington to him?

Cincinnatus, born around 519 BC, was a Roman statesman who gained fame for his selfless devotion to the republic in times of crisis and for giving up the reins of power when the crisis was over. Although he was a historical figure, his career has been much embellished by legend.   In 458 BC Cincinnatus was appointed dictator of Rome in order to rescue a consular army that was surrounded by Rome’s enemy.   Cincinnatus was a patrician and former Roman consul who had fallen on difficult times, finding himself farming a small plot of four acres along the right bank of the Tiber River at the time of his appointment. He is said to have defeated the enemy in a single day and celebrated a triumph in Rome. Cincinnatus maintained his authority only long enough to bring Rome through the emergency. He then resigned and returned to his small farm. (Most scholars see no factual truth in the further tradition that Cincinnatus was given a second dictatorship in 439 BC to check the monarchical ambitions of Spurious Maelius.  Once again, he is supposed to have ceded his power after ending the crisis.)

His appointment as dictator was only for six months, but it gave him absolute power.  Yet Cincinnatus, a conservative citizen but one who lacked wealth, relinquished his position of power before his term was up and made no attempt to retain power and control.

Now compare him to Washington.  The parallels with General George Washington were not lost on his contemporaries. Called up from his retirement at Mount Vernon to lead the Continental Army during the War for Independence, Washington dramatically resigned his commission and returned to his farm once the war had been won. In emulating Cincinnatus, Washington allayed real fears that he might use his position as a successful general to retain power as a military dictator. In the process, Washington illustrated that he placed public service above personal gain.

“You have often heard him compared to Cincinnatus,” the French traveler Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville wrote after visiting Washington at Mount Vernon in 1788. “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.”

Washington played an indispensable role in adopting and ratifying the Constitution of the United States. He was then twice elected president by the Electoral College.  He implemented a strong, well-financed national government while remaining impartial in a fierce rivalry between cabinet members Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton.   He set enduring precedents for the office of president, including the title “Mr. President,” and his Farewell Address, widely regarded as a pre-eminent statement on republicanism.

Washington’s most important legacy comes during moments of temptation, when the lure of power was before him. Twice during the Revolution, in 1776 and again in 1777 when Congress was forced to abandon Philadelphia in the face of advancing British troops, Gen. Washington was granted virtually unlimited powers to maintain the war effort and preserve civil society, powers not unlike those assumed in an earlier era by Roman dictators. He shouldered the responsibility but gave the authority back as soon as possible.

After the war, there were calls for Washington to claim formal political power. Indeed, seven months after the victory at Yorktown, one of his officers suggested what many thought only reasonable in the context of the 18th century: that America should establish a monarchy and that Washington should become king. A shocked Washington immediately rejected the offer out of hand as both inappropriate and dishonorable, and demanded the topic never be raised again.  We can see why Byron compared him to Cincinnatus.  He was great both in the things that he accomplished and in his rejection of retaining personal power.

Having discussed Cincinnatus and Washington, I would like to mention William Whipple, a lesser known patriot.  He was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence as a representative of New Hampshire and a member of the Continental Congress from 1776 through 1779.  He has also commanded a brigade during the American war of independence.

He owned a single slave, named Prince Whipple.  The slave actually was with him as a soldier and body guard during the war of independence,  After the war, Whipple freed his enslaved servant, believing that no man could fight for freedom and hold another in bondage. He wrote:

“A recommendation is gone thither for raising some regiments of Blacks. This, I suppose will lay a foundation for the emancipation of those wretches in that country. I hope it will be the means of dispensing the blessings of Freedom to all the human race in America.”

It should be noted that other signers of the Declaration of Independence (including its author, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington), retained their slaves. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that “all men are created equal” and called slavery a “moral depravity” and a “hideous blot,” continued to hold around 600 human beings as property his entire adult life.   

Thomas Jefferson fathered at least six of the children of Sally Hemmings, a black slave.  Sally Hemings worked for two and a half years (1787-89) in Paris as a domestic servant and maid in Jefferson’s household.  While in Paris, where she was free, she negotiated with Jefferson to return to enslavement at his home in Monticello in exchange for “extraordinary privileges” for herself and freedom for her unborn children.   Decades later, Jefferson freed all of Sally Hemings’s children.  Jefferson did not grant freedom to any other enslaved family unit.

Needless to say, neither Washington nor Jefferson followed Whipple’s example, and the American Civil War was the result of their failure to put an end to enslavement.

Although I do hold Washington and Jefferson in high regard, Whipple is a special example of a person who should have extra recognition.  So far as I am aware, he did nothing to undercut his decision to free his slave.  He was very significant even if lacking in fame.

We should ask ourselves why we no longer seem to have citizens like Whipple, Washington and Jefferson.  Or Cincinnatus.  We do not educate our children to follow in their footsteps.

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