The French traveller Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville wrote after visiting George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1788: " You have often heard him 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."

Brissot's educated readers would have been familiar with the story of the Roman general Cincinnatus from the Roman historian Livy. According to the story, powerful enemies of Rome, the Aequians, were threatening an invasion of the city. The Roman Senate believed the current consul was unprepared to meet the crisis. They voted unanimously to confer the extraordinary powers of dictatorship on their most distinguished former general, L. Quinctius Cincinnatus.

Cincinnatus was living on his four-acre farm outside of Rome. Senate representatives found him working in his field. When he learned of the emergency facing Rome, he left his plow standing in the field and led the Romans to victory against the Aequians. Fifteen days after assuming the dictatorship, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his plow.

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, Washington dramatically resigned his commission and returned to his farm once the war had been won. In emulating Cincinnatus, Washington calmed any fears that he might use his position as a successful general to become a military dictator. Instead, Washington showed that he placed public service above personal gain.

For Romans and Americans alike, Cincinnatus represented the ideal republican simplicity, an enlightened poverty that spurned luxury and cultivated a nobility of spirit.

For the Revolutionary generation, the republican simplicity of the American farmer provided a pointed contrast with the perceived luxury of the British empire. As the American Cincinnatus, Washington embodied America's agricultural self-sufficiency, which he saw as a crucial element in its economic and political independence from Great Britain.

Depictions of Washington as Cincinnatus were popular in the Revolutionary and Early Republican periods. In 1783, Washington was elected first president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of military officers who served in the Revolutionary War. The society's Latin motto, Omnia reliquit servare rem publicam ("He gave up everything to serve the republic"), suggests the story of Cincinnatus.

Source: Cincinnatus
© 2021 Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association. All Rights Reserved.

Back to top