by The Editor
Today is Washington’s Birthday.
“Presidents Day,” for all its commonness in the U.S.A., is not the holiday’s official name. A day once dedicated to a very great man, who turned down offer to bring a King George to both Britain and America (alongside George III), has been expanded by the populous to celebrate the legacies of men such as Richard Nixon or, for that matter, George W. Bush.
In honor of Washington’s two hundred and eighty-first birthday, Magellan explores greatness behind America’s first president.
AN AMERICAN city was named after him, and there a statue of him lies. Besides this simple truth, what we know of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus is scarce, in fact, but not in spirit: to the average American who has an interest in politics, being queried for the name of our best president is not an uncommon occurrence. And while, as in the United Kingdom, a plurality of Americans cannot rejoice in shouting the name of a great least common denominator in politics – Sir Winston! – their quest is simplified by the journey of Cincinnatus and the story he left behind for perpetuity.
His life, which came 419 years before that of Caesar’s, was not as romantically heroic. But it left itself in stark juxtaposition with the latter. Though both rose to be dictators, one hoarded the power into an early grave and the other to an early retirement. In the later annals of history, Oliver Cromwell, Napoléon I, Lenin, Mao, and Castro took charge of their nations’ political helms under the auspices of reform and revolution. Napoléon, a fiercely committed protégé of Caesar, joined Lenin in paying the price for his actions. The duo suffered through assassination and exile, whereas Cromwell was punished by a posthumous execution.
Cincinnatus was appointed Master of the People for a six-month term. Livy, who lived during Caesar’s lifetime, recalled that Cincinnatus was plowing his farm upon receiving news of the his selection. The next morning he nominated his second-in-command, and assembled all of Rome’s military-age men the same evening. The invading force, the Aequi, was utterly destroyed by force of Cincinnatus and his deputy, one of Rome’s most august soldiers.
Legend has it that Cincinnatus returned to Senate to prevent Spurius Maelius from overtaking the government. Evidence on this is, at best, shallow. But the allegation embodies the larger-than-life personality trusted to Cincinnatus during his lifetime. The Roman people loved him, and as evidenced by Livy’s “Ab Urbe Condita,” so did his ancestors.
The forthcoming historical implications would eclipse those within his life, or possibly those within Rome. Had the aforementioned dictators followed the Master of the People’s advice, perhaps history would have been kinder to them, too. While Cincinnatus had, in sixteen days, restored order and tranquility to the Roman territories, on his six-day stay in Malta Napoléon reformed the national administration, set up public schools, and abolished slavery. His success, his honor, his pride had succumbed to hubris in stages, reaching a climax in 1815 at Waterloo. Cromwell, too, plagued his reputation with greed. Having won a battle against the monarchy, Cromwell sat upon the Stone of Scone and accepted a watered-down version of the Crown. He would have been better served in accepting his own wisdom, presented to a parliament sitting beyond its term: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately … Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
It is, therefore, not difficult to see that the course taken by Cincinnatus is the honorable path. His importance is not minimized by the little we know about him. When rumor travelled over the Atlantic that George Washington would vaunt democracy by favoring a presidential election over monarchical rule, Britain’s George III remarked dubiously, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” Magellan disagrees. That title belongs to Cincinnatus, the man in whose footsteps the late President Washington followed.