Standing on the grounds of our state capitol in Raleigh is a life-sized statue of George Washington, whose birthday we remember in what has come to be known as “Presidents’ Day.” The bronze figure, by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, quietly tells a remarkable story that eclipses all the mythology that famously surrounds our nation’s first president.
The year was 1783. Under the command of General Washington, the rag-tag Continental Army had defeated the British, finally securing American independence. In gratitude and admiration, many called on America’s first hero to become America’s first king.
But Washington turned them down. In December, he resigned his commission in a letter to Congress: “Having now finished the work assigned to me, I retire from the great theatre of Action; and bidding an Affectionate farewell to this August body under whose orders I have so long acted, I here offer my Commission, and take my leave of all the employments of public life.”
In his biography of Washington, His Excellency, acclaimed historian Joseph Ellis underscores the truly exceptional character of Washington’s act: “Oliver Cromwell had not surrendered power after the English Revolution. Napoleon, Lenin, Mao, and Castro did not step aside to leave their respective revolutionary settlements to others in subsequent centuries. … Whereas Cromwell and later Napoleon made themselves synonymous with the revolution in order to justify the assumption of dictatorial power, Washington made himself synonymous with the American Revolution in order to declare that it was incompatible with dictatorial power.”
When England’s King George III was told what the celebrated American general planned to do, he said that history would consider Washington “the greatest man in the world.”
Houdon’s statue (a duplicate of which stands in the rotunda of the state Capitol in Virgina) depicts Washington as both a soldier and a citizen, dressed in his Continental army uniform and holding a walking cane in his right hand, a sign of his life as a civilian. To his left and behind him is a farmer’s plowshare. Washington’s left hand rests on a fasces, a bundle of rods that is an ancient symbol of authority. The sculptor included thirteen rods in the bundle, alluding to the original thirteen colonies.1
These objects portray Washington as a modern-day Cincinnatus, a farmer and general who — after leading the Roman army to victory — also relinquished his power and retired to his farm to live a peaceful life.
In 458 BC, Lucius Titus Quinctius Cincinnatus was plowing his fields on a farm outside Rome when messengers arrived to tell him that he had been named dictator to defend the city against an invading army. Leaving his plow behind in the field, Cincinnatus took up the supreme command and went on to defeat Rome’s enemies in just 16 days of battle. But Cincinnatus chose to hold power only as long as was necessary to deliver his country to peace; like General Washington would do more than a thousand years later, he then resigned his command and returned home to work on his farm.
On this President’s Day, George Washington still stands as a shining example of the citizen-patriot. He rose to the occasion when his beleaguered nation called — and then, foregoing all vainglory and power, retired to his former station when his country’s good fortune had been secured.
1. Library of Virginia: “George Washington, Marble Statue”