CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In Cincinnati, Ohio stands a statue of a man by the name of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus is known today as a legendary ancient Roman leader, serving in the year 458 BC. He is depicted as a bearded man dressed in an ordinary tunic with his left arm leaning against a plow while in his outstretched right hand is offered the great Roman fasces, a bundle of rods tied together around an axe handle with the blade protruding out of the end. In ancient Rome it was a symbol of the dictator's power. It looks as if the bronzed statue is reaching out his fasces for someone to assume while he gets back to the work at hand, namely plowing his fields. As it turns out, that interpretation is indeed the meaning behind the statue and, as the story goes, that is exactly what happened.
Cincinnatus was a Roman nobleman who had retired to his farm from public service. Rome was being heavily threatened by their neighbors, the Aequi, and the task at hand was daunting to say the least. The leaders fell into a panic and one of the consuls nominated Cincinnatus to be dictator in order to lead the army out of its predicament. Cincinnatus was working his farm when he heard the news and he heeded the call back into public service. He created a battle plan and swiftly defeated his enemy. After he had performed the duty for which he was called, he promptly disbanded his army, resigned his position, and went home. As the appointed dictator, he could have served for the remainder of his lifetime. Instead, his reign lasted a mere 16 days!
Fast forward 2,247 years and we learn that a man by the name of George Washington has assumed the presidency of the newly formed republic in America. Washington is often considered a latter day Cincinnatus. Before his presidency, at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, he, like Cincinnatus, resigned his command, disbanded his army, and went home to his farm. Years after his retirement he later returned to public service as our first president. When our U.S. Constitution was written, there were no term limits as we know them today. The very notion of the leader of the newly formed country being elected to the highest office was a remarkable change from the monarchical system most of the Founding Fathers were accustomed to, so term limits, while mildly considered, were not at the forefront of the agenda in 1789. Washington, a man who no doubt was held in high prestige and adoration by the citizens, could have easily served his country as a sort of "elected monarch" until his death. Yet, like Cincinnatus, he chose a route of virtue and declined to serve beyond his first two terms as president and once again retired to his farm.
This raises the subject of elected office today. While the presidency now has term limits, many public offices around our country do not. Our founders would not fully understand today's career politicians. Most officeholders in the late 18th century were retired men or men of privilege. The British philosopher, Francis Hutchinson, wrote, "Since well-to-do gentry were exempted from the lower and less honorable employment, they were rather more than others, obliged to an active life of some service to mankind." As noted by Gordon S. Wood in his book, "Empire of Liberty," the founders, most of them well-to-do gentry themselves, understood this and they complained about it. They didn't see politics and office holding as a profession. They saw it as a burden, although they knew declining the call would be unvirtuous. Even so, they would relinquish their private ambitions and would gain intense labor in their service.
To the early Americans, showing yourself eager for public office was viewed as being selfish. They wondered if that person had selfish ambitions in mind as opposed to the public good. Benjamin Franklin claimed that he never once solicited a single vote or had any desire of his own to hold public office. He served as the public demanded, not as he desired. And let us not forget that it was normal for those who served in public office in the 18th century to want to return to private life. Today, we very rarely see these beliefs emulated. Most of our politicians today have selfish ambitions in mind. How do we know this? We know this by what they say and how they act.
Whether liberal or conservative, they are almost always determined to serve their own agenda and their own personal causes, as opposed to the cause of the common good of the people. Today, it's more about power than virtue.
My objective is not a public call for term limits or demanding broad retreats of power by our leaders, but to advocate a return of virtue to public life. Now there's a term, virtue, which has truly eluded American political culture. It has become an ancient word in a sense. But let us hope it does not become as ancient as Cincinnatus and nearly forgotten. Let us hope we never forget the virtue of Cincinnatus, Washington, Franklin and many other great leaders who were unafraid to strike down their own power and truly put country above self.
Hodge lives in Hurricane.