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Top Presidents Ranked - The American Cincinnatus

Published in Blog on December 04, 2023 by Jakob Fay

Read parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series for my previous rankings.

Legend has it that when King George III learned that General George Washington might resign from his illustrious military post and return to civilian life, he quipped that “if he did, he would be the greatest man in the world.”

This popular American story is derived from the personal account of Benjamin West, an American painter appointed to the royal court to paint portraits of the king. Despite serving during the outbreak of the Revolutionary War — an uncomfortable position for the American sympathizer — West and the king reputedly developed a sufferable acquaintanceship and occasionally exchanged ideas about American politics.

Near the end of the war, according to a fellow artist, the king “asked West what would Washington do were America to be declared independent. West said He believed He would retire to a private situation.” Incredulous, the king offered his famed appraisal of the future first president.

Years later, when Washington stepped away from a possible third term in power, the king again reportedly confessed to West his estimation that “that act closing and finishing what had gone before and viewed in connection with it, placed [Washington] in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age.”

Whether or not the king actually uttered those words, the sentiment behind them is undeniably true: multiple times in his life, at critical junctures, when history itself hung in the balance, George Washington, like Cincinnatus before him, defied human and political nature and relinquished power, an inconceivable feat — especially to an English monarch. 

SEE ALSO: Top Presidents Ranked pt. 3 - Indomitable in Purpose

Such behavior is now synonymous with Washington’s legacy, but we dare not forget how truly novel it was.

The Founders’ entire model for American government was underlined by Lord Acton’s prescient adage that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Anticipation of such insidious autocracy and preventatives against the same were baked into virtually every decision they made in composing the new American government.  

They were, in other words, fully persuaded that no man would ever possess the moral courage to do what Washington did — twice.

Actually, more than twice. Thrice during the war, General George Washington was “granted virtually unlimited powers to maintain the war effort and preserve civil society, powers not unlike those assumed in an earlier era by Roman dictators. He shouldered the responsibility but gave the authority back as soon as possible.”

After the war, he soundly rejected calls to place a crown upon his head. When his officer Lewis Nicola penned a proposal “admitting the title of king” to the beloved general, Washington fired back:

“With a mixture of great surprise & astonishment I have read with attention the Sentiments you have submitted to my perusal. Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War, has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army as you have expressed, & I must view with abhorrence, and reprehend with severity—For the present, the [communication] of them will rest in my own bosom, unless some further agitation of the matter, shall make a disclosure necessary…. Let me [conjure] you then, if you have any regard for your Country, concern for your self or posterity—or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your Mind, & never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature.”

SEE ALSO: Top Presidents Ranked - The Man in the Arena

With the same incredulity that King George viewed Washigton’s demurral of kingship, Washington regarded the suggestion with outrage. A year later, when a similar scheme blossomed into
the Newburgh Conspiracy, a bid for mutiny against Congress to coerce long overdue pay, Washington again diffused the situation.

In each instance, the father of his country evidenced the tremendous character for which he was often praised: "His integrity was pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known, no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision," Thomas Jefferson observed. "He was, indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man." After Washington’s death, in describing his “10 talents”—or defining traits—to Benjamin Rush, John Adams lauded the former first president for his “great Self Command…. [T]o preserve So much Equanimity as he did, required a great Capacity.”

Almost implicitly, George Washington seemed to understand that he was, in every step he took in his public life, a pacesetter — not just for his contemporaries but for generations to come. He embraced that responsibility with grave solemnity, carrying himself in such dignity and fashion as was fitting a representative of the new nation. It is not hyperbolic to assume that if he had faltered, the entire American experiment in liberty would have faltered with him, too.

George Washington permanently defined the role of the presidency, and he defined it well. “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” his role in shaping the most exceptional nation in mankind’s long history cannot be overstated.

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