The American Cincinnatus

George Washington
mountvernon.org

Before we start, a question for our readers. Do you prefer when I write about current events, or when I rummage about in our national attic, as I have been doing this week? I won’t say I’ll necessarily abide by what you say, often I write about what interests me at the moment. That’s likely to continue, but perhaps the emphasis could be one or the other, or even a combination, as we’ve sometimes done, applying the lessons of history to things today. Hartley did indeed say, “History is a foreign country, they do things differently there”. But that doesn’t exclude us from learning lessons there either. Let me know what you think in comments.


At the end of last July in Law and Liberty,  Matthew J. Franck wrote a fascinating account of John Marshall’s admiration (and biography of) George Washington.

George Washington resigned his commission as the commander in chief of the Continental Army in a public appearance before the Confederation Congress (then sitting in Annapolis) on December 23, 1783, in his own words “commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God.” Eleven days later, from Richmond, Virginia, John Marshall, a former captain in the 7th Virginia Regiment now married, settled down, and practicing law, wrote to his old friend and fellow veteran James Monroe:

At length then the military career of the greatest Man on earth is closed. May happiness attend him wherever he goes. May he long enjoy those blessings he has secured to his Country. When I speak or think of that superior Man my full heart overflows with gratitude. May he ever experience from his Countrymen those attentions which such sentiments of themselves produce.

Marshall’s veneration of Washington was not unusual among the officers and men who had served under the commanding general. What may have been unusual was the extent to which Marshall’s admiration remained durably undimmed to the end of his own long life more than a half century later.

Nor was it confined to Americans, George III himself, asked John Adams, then Minister to the Court of St. James, what he would do. Adams told him that Washington would return to his farm. The King then said, “Then he will be the greatest man in the world.” This is also where the phrase “The American Cincinnatus”  comes from. In memory of the great Roman general who twice did the same thing, only to suffer persecution.

This last edition, first published posthumously in 1838, is the one brought back into print by Liberty Fund in 2000, edited by scholars Robert Faulkner and Paul Carrese. As Faulkner says in his foreword, “Marshall’s Life of Washington is political history as well as biography. . . . the only comprehensive account by a great statesman of the full founding of the United States.” This is history lived by the author, more Thucydides or Xenophon than Plutarch. And so Marshall, who could remember well the temper of the times, remarks of the beginnings of the Revolution:

Although the original and single object of the war on the part of the colonies was a redress of grievances, the progress of public opinion towards independence, though slow, was certain. . . . To profess allegiance and attachment to a monarch with whom they were at open war, was an absurdity too great to be of long continuance.

Which is something we Americans tend to forget. Back in 1776 very few really wanted Independency as Samuel Adams was wont to call it. They wanted their grievances addressed. They were, in fact, proud of being British. And yes, that is why it bears striking parallels to both Brexit and Trump’s election.

That’s probably enough from me. I would like you to read the linked article, and I’d like you to join me in shortly buying the book, as these things go these days, it’s not particularly expensive.

I’ll leave you with this thought though, as we watch both Washington and London engage im such vituperative arguments.

In one respect, Marshall’s Washington makes for very sobering reading today. We tend to think of George Washington as the Marble Man—all looked up to him, and he merited every encomium bestowed on him. There is much truth in this; he was, after all, the only man ever elected President effectively by acclamation—and twice! But Marshall does not omit another truth: that there were plenty of people eager to bring him down, even among his own countrymen. Rival generals and suspicious congressmen during the Revolution schemed to displace him at the head of the army. As President, Washington had a “honeymoon” that lasted less than two years; then the knives came out, first for men like Hamilton who were his advisers and his instruments, and by the end, for Washington himself.

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16 Responses to The American Cincinnatus

  1. the unit says:

    NEO is a unique blog, he does things differently there.
    I like what the way its been for a good many years. I forget just how far back. Picked up your link way back younder at Rat’s.
    Glad you don’t pick at the daily booger every day. Plenty of other places where to read slander, put-downs, name calling by liars, morons and idiots. Well, I couldn’t lie. Had to call them something. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. the unit says:

    I wonder though if Franck’s second to last paragraph is a sort of a not so subliminal message I misunderestimated. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nicholas says:

    I generally prefer either old stuff or abstract stuff rather than current stuff. I like the Sunday Funnies and generally prefer short things on weekdays now that I’m in work again. Not that my preferences should influence you – but you asked…

    Liked by 2 people

    • NEO says:

      I asked because I do prefer (usually) to please those that read here, you included. In lots of ways, I agree with you, not least for the reasons that The Unit stated. Back in the day, it was easier, I mostly wrote for Jessica, and that seemed to go down a treat for most, but is now too far in the past to be a good guide. As always , what will show up is mostly something that caught my interest, otherwise I’ll not get it finished. The archives here are littered with half done drafts. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • the unit says:

        What catches one’s eye can at least be individually interesting. Gosh, so the whole misses it!
        Was it dog food or flea treatment ad I saw with the Airedale? Whut, an Airedale? Made me think of Bruce and his dog from 60+ years ago. I think the only Airedale I’ve seen, then or ever.
        So didn’t change anything for the better or worse. But learned about Jack in WWI.
        Just for fun, put up a half done draft…with ellipsises and see what we’s can add… 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Nicholas says:

        Yes, as is AATW with some of my own, flashes of inspiration that came while I was trying to sleep but couldn’t be fleshed out in the cool light of day.

        I am actually currently wondering whether to refrain even from weekend writing at the moment. I have some posts to write about doubt, but I think it would be a breach of trust for me to write from an atheistic perspective at AATW.

        Liked by 1 person

        • NEO says:

          Yeah, maybe. I have sorta, but I was referring more to an agnostic period in my li. Still Done right, it might be OK, it’s certainly topical, especially in the UK. But handled wrong, it could backfire badly.

          Liked by 1 person

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