In 1783, General Henry Knox and other officers in the Revolutionary Army established the Society of the Cincinnati as a veteran’s society. They elected George Washington as the first president of the society since more than anyone he exhibited the values of honor, patriotism, duty, and self-sacrifice modeled by the original Roman hero, Cincinnatus. Although the story is not well-known today, most classically educated men of that era understood the reference. Cincinnatus was the model for patriotism and virtue in that he served while refusing power and glory to ensure continuation of the Republic. The story has great applicability to the heroes of today, who wish to live a life of service.
Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus was a patrician during the early days of the Roman Republic, as recounted by Roman historian Livy. In 460 B.C.E., Cincinnatus became consul, one of two chief executives in the republican government serving a single year. When his son was accused of murder, he sold off much of his property to repay those who had been injured, and then he retired to his farm, which he worked with his own hands. Some suggested he be made consul for life, but he refused since it was against the law. In 458 and again in 439, the people of Rome requested that he become a dictator to meet emergencies, first, an invasion of the Aequi and, second, a revolt of plebeians. At that time, a dictator was an appointed official given supreme power for six months to respond to an emergency. It did not become associated with tyrants until Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life and passed the position to his adopted son, Augustus. In the case of Cincinnatus, he served only long enough to end the emergencies by defeating the Aequi and putting down the rebellion, then he returned to his farm to work happily.
It was because Cincinnatus exhibited the virtues of republicanism that the Revolutionary generation held him up as a model. Revolutionary soldiers believed they were following this model in their own service by joining the cause, defeating the enemy, and then returning to their homes. Thus, they established the Society of Cincinnati as a fraternity of retired soldiers. Probably more than any man in their generation, George Washington upheld the values of Cincinnatus. Drafted to serve as the commander of the Revolutionary army, he served only until the end of the war and then resigned his commission in 1783, despite many calling on him to assume control of the chaotic national government. When elected president in 1788, he served two terms and then retired to his farm in 1797, a tradition maintained until 1940 and now enforced by law. This achievement was particularly noteworthy when one considers that most revolutionaries, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Fidel Castro, have refused to walk away from power. Sadly, the Society of Cincinnati of 1783 did not live up to its name. Due to its hereditary membership, many criticized it as a new aristocracy, and Washington refused to join unless this practice ended. However, once he died, the society reinstituted hereditary membership, and it has since been a historical society but little else.
The true legacy of Cincinnatus is continuation of the values he modeled, which remain the values of the U.S. military – service, patriotism, honor, duty, and self-sacrifice. In fact, the military is the primary place where these values continue to be taught and sustained. Those who serve do so in the same sense as Cincinnatus. Among the military services, reservists and National Guardsmen probably best represent these values. They go when called. They obey their authority. They complete their mission. Then they go home and return to their farms and businesses. They willingly pick up arms when needed, but then they lay down their arms and return to their ordinary lives. It is this attitude of service and sacrifice for the nation that best defines military service members.
There remain today modern heroes like Cincinnatus who live a life of service. These are not merely the relatives of dead white men, as some describe our founding fathers. They are all who have served and then lay down their arms and their power to return to their homes and families. The values of patriotism, duty, service, and sacrifice continue among the military service members, and especially among reservists. They keep the values of Cincinnatus alive by the way they live their lives. Without such men willing to do their duty, this republic would fail as certainly as the Roman Republic did.
© 2019 J.D. Manders