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George Washington:

An American Cincinnatus

By Kimberly "Max" Brown, PhD

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Statue of George Washington, Washington Square Park, Philadelphia, PA.  Washington is posed standing next to the fasces, the bundle of rods that was an ancient Roman symbol of power and authority.


Mt. Vernon seen from across the Potamac River, Mt. Vernon, Virginia

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Statue of Cincinnatus at his plow in Cincinnati, Ohio, the city named after him.

Throughout history, rural farming communities have answered the call to military service, usually in numbers far greater than their urban counterparts. Ancient Rome, like America, was an agricultural community in its origins. Fully 80% of the population of the Ancient Roman World was involved in agriculture. Owning a farm was an important source of wealth for the ancients. Little surprise that, from the earliest days of the Roman Republic, the qualities necessary to be a successful farmer became important Roman virtues. (Shelton pg 2) The hard work, austerity and self-reliance of the farmer, who was also willing to fight to defend his land, were ideals that illustrate good character.  Landowners promote farming, therefore landowners embody these virtues. Early heroes of both Rome and America personify this self-image, believing that the virtues of the farmer allowed them to succeed in both agriculture and war.

In August 1776, General George Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army of the American Revolution, was in Lower Manhattan. He faced a British onslaught like nothing the colonies had seen before: 32,000 troops and over 400 naval vessels-- including 73 warships--were anchored in the harbor off Staten Island. When the New Yorkers saw the huge numbers of enemy amassing so close by, they abandoned the city in panic. Washington split his vastly outnumbered army in two, half remaining in Manhattan and sending the other half to Brooklyn. Final preparations were made and battle plans drawn up.

Shortly before what would be the first important test for the newly named United States Army, Washington dismissed his generals and laid aside the maps of defenses and enemy positions, taking several precious hours to pen a ten-page letter to his estate in Virginia at Mount Vernon. (From George Washington to Lund Washington, 19 August 1776) He wrote to his steward and cousin Lund Washington, insisting that tulip poplar, locust, apple and dogwood trees should be planted "pretty thick," and "interspersed with greens such as holly pine and cedar." Rather than explaining troop positions and supply lines, Washington takes pains to discuss where flowering shrubs such as rhododendrons should be placed, as well as details about fencing to protect the plantings from horses that may trample them. All of these trees, he instructed, must be gathered and transplanted from his own woods around Mount Vernon, for that forest would supply all the planting stock that was needed. He was designing an extensive rural pleasure grove on the very eve of war.  

Washington's correspondence also expressed some ideals of farming we can trace back to the ancient world such as austerity: He called Mount Vernon--- a house with 10 outbuildings, 80 servants​ and 300 men, women and children enslaved on just under 3000 acres overlooking a majestic bend of the Potomac River--- "my rural Cottage, where homely fare & a cordial reception shall be substituted for delicacies & costly living."

Washington often expressed admiration of farm life:

"I think with you that the life of a Husbandman of all others, is the most delectable. It is honorable—It is amusing—and with Judicious management, it is profitable. To see plants rise from the Earth and flourish by the superior skill, and bounty of the labouror fills a contemplative mind with ideas which are more easy to be conceived than expressed."

​The man who had defeated the most formidable military force on Earth at the time did not wish to be idolized as a military tactician or to hold the political power and authority of Dictator or even King, but, despite appearances, saw himself as little more than a humble farmer, wishing to retire under "my own vine and my own fig tree."

Once victory over Britain had been concluded, Washington resigned from his post as Commander-in-Chief, rather than seize power for himself. For acceding to republicanism, he was praised as an American "Cincinnatus," after the famous Roman General. Cincinnatus had been summoned from his farm to save Early Rome from invasion in 458 BCE. The defeat of the enemies took a mere 16 days, and after his victory, Cincinnatus refused the dictatorship in order to return to his simple life of farming, a model of Roman Republican character.

In the words of historian C. Richard, “although duty calls a virtuous man to war or to political office, he was supposed to prefer the quiet blessings of life on the farm to the wielding of power.” Washington seems to have been very conscious of the Cincinnatus connection and his reputation as a farmer-soldier. Metaphors abound: the name "George" derives from the ancient Greek 'georgos,' meaning "farmer." Washington was also the first president of the Society of the Cincinnati, an association of Revolutionary War Veterans.  He called Mount Vernon his "villa," which in Italian means country residence. The intense desire to retreat from the stress of politics and public life for the joys of an income-producing homestead should be​ the farmer-soldier’s guiding philosophy. A farm and the wish to be attached to nature bestows purity that permits a man to escape from the vices and complexities of life. However, we must remember that the luxuries, pleasures and income produced from Washington's land were made possible by the never-ending, brutal toil of slavery. This too was something Washington had in common with his ancient Roman counterparts. The many country villas of the Roman world were also income producing agricultural concerns worked by large numbers of slaves, kept in check through violence.

After one performed his duties as a soldier, he would expect to return home to resume his normal lives. For Washington and Cincinnatus, returning to their country life illustrated their strength of character: the return to the farm demonstrates that war has not changed them. Historians agree that George Washington found solace in the replies from Lund, which he read avidly. Washington was unable to visit Mount Vernon during the Revolutionary War, except for a short stay in 1781 on his way to the final battle  at Yorktown​. He found his home in desperate need of repair.​ Both in Ancient Rome and Colonial America, soldiers who were also farmers might be away from their homes for years at a time on military campaign, and might return to find that their land and the income from it would not be maintained without them. 

Today, Veterans return home to create gardens and farms of their own, many for the first time. Numerous organizations that offer support to Veterans through therapeutic gardening, social horticulture and agricultural opportunities in organic farming and ranching are flourishing. Programs such as Gardens for Heroes, Veterans Healing Farms and the Farmer-Veteran Coalition all acknowledge that the hard work, service and self-sacrifice developed in the military lend themselves well to working on the land.

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