Tuesday, October 1, 2013

George Washington, Cincinnatus and the Presidency

     A couple of months ago I was in DC and made time to wander through the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  I came upon Washington Resigning His Commission, the 1841 sculpture by Ferdinand Pettrich.

     Framed by a bright light in the afternoon, the statue takes on an otherwordly aspect.  More prosaically, the gallery label notes that Washington turned down the powers offered him by the Congress.  His model was Cincinnatus, the Roman political leader who held dictatorial powers to defeat outside invaders, and relinquished all such powers to return to civilian life after his success.  He resigned the commission on December 23, 1783, in the Maryland State House in Annapolis.  A portrait of the event by John Trumbull hands in the Capitol Rotunda.

     The Smithsonian gallery label says in part: "Ferdinand Pettrich created this work when political power in the United States was being consolidated around the federal government. He may have felt that this historic moment in Washington’s life would remind a new generation of the nation's founding ideals, and of the dangers of too much power given to too few."

     The statue was made in 1841, barely 60 years since the Constitution was adopted.  Today the Imperial Presidency and those who continue to push that office to satisfy ego and narcissism would do well to stand in front of this statue and think about the gallery's suppositions.

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