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“Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. Most people can bear adversity. But if you wish to know what a man really is, give him power.”     Robert Green Ingersoll


Good People:  Jim Kratsas is an esteemed historian (see below) who is also a laid back, golf obsessed, fun loving, kind and generous person.  When he came to speak to a class of WMU Cooley law students he not only talked about presidential power and ethics, but he also gave them poker tips.  We once witnessed a Trivial Pursuit game where Jim took on eight people who worked collectively as a team – and he beat us by a wide margin.

Jim has graciously agreed to join us occasionally to write about significant ethics moments in history.  Enjoy his insight and humor – he is quoted extensively here.

“While the Declaration of Independence now is a critical document in our nation’s history, it was an event that followed seven years later which saved the Declaration from the scrapheap of history.

George Washington had led the Continental Army to a signal win at Yorktown that concluded the American Revolution with a victory over the British Empire.  But even that battle win paled in magnitude to Washington’s actions a few short months afterward.

Washington was the most celebrated American in the world and America’s hero. In a rare instance of history, Washington relinquished his command of the Army to the Continental Congress, signifying the essential premise of a republic that the civilian government was in command of the military. This was to be a government of the people, not of a king or an aristocracy.

Washington could have been king or dictator, and there were many Americans who believed he should be. His actions took many in the Congress by surprise as well as many Americans and members of the Continental Army. His relinquishing of power caused a stir in Europe. Even George III was reported to have said upon learning of Washington’s resignation, “If [Washington] does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”  An American in London, on the resignation, wrote that he “excites the astonishment and admiration of this part of the world. ‘Tis a Conduct so novel, so inconceivable to People, who, far from giving up powers they possess, are willing to convulse the Empire to acquire more.

But Washington was a student of the classics and to him there was no more selfless person than Cincinnatus.  Cincinnatus was a retired elder stateman who had returned to his farm to live the rest of his life quietly. When the Romans faced an invasion which the state was unable to adequately respond to, the Senate called upon Cincinnatus to leave his farm and assume leadership of the empire as a dictator. He was given complete control of the state. Upon achieving victory, Cincinnatus relinquished his power and returned to his farm.  History has long regarded Cincinnatus as a model of public virtue[1]

Cincinnatus knew that if he retained power, the stability of the state would be threatened, either by civil war, invasion or both.  By walking away from power Cincinnatus effectuated a peaceful transition of power back to the republic and brought stability to the state and its citizens.  If he hadn’t, he would have jeopardized the health of the very state he had spent his life serving.

Cincinnatus had given Rome a victory and its republic back. Washington knew the new nation he had dedicated himself to, needed not to replace George III with George I. It needed a new government of the people; it needed a republic. Washington recognized when his own “Cincinnatus moment” had arrived.

Both men had the extraordinary insight and self-discipline to put public virtue over private gain.”

Jim Kratsas’ comments help us better understand and navigate today’s events.  What Washington and Cincinnatus did sounds easy and magnanimous in theory.  Both men worked hard and made great sacrifices. Suddenly possessed with immense monetary benefit, luxurious perquisites and unlimited influence, isn’t it simply human nature to view these benefits as rewards for years of hard work and sacrifice? Many of their peers believed similarly and assumed the men would hold onto the power they had amassed.

Yet, they didn’t.  Most strikingly, by relinquishing power, they made it possible for their competitors – their political opposition, to succeed.   And the obvious question is why?

According to Socrates' theory of value, there are two sorts of good: virtue and happiness. Both are unconditional goods. But happiness is a "self-generated" good in that it "derives its value strictly from its inherent properties;" whereas virtue is an "other-generated" good in that it derives its value from happiness, precisely from its conduciveness to happiness. [2]

Cincinnatus and Washington valued virtue – the pursuit of other generated good.   And they “walked their talk” as we say today.

Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves and our leaders is whether we are pursuing virtue or happiness? Are we, or our leaders, willing to relinquish power for the greater good of the republic?


* James Kratsas is the former deputy director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum where he worked for 27 years.  He was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and earned his BA and MA in history at West Virginia University, and his MA in museum studies at Duquesne University.  Before joining the staff at the Gerald R. Ford Museum, Kratsas worked as curator of the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum, and as curator of the Kansas Museum of History. Published in 2017, Kratsas is the author of Gerald R. Ford: A Life, which he wrote as a companion to the museum exhibits.  He is an associate with the Hauenstein Center of Presidential Studies at Grand Valley State University.

Historian James Kratsas

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucius_Quinctius_Cincinnatus

[2] https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/socratic-virtue-making-the-best-of-the-neither-good-nor-bad/  Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, Book Review of Naomi Reshotko, Socratic Virtue: Making the Best of the Neither-Good-nor-Bad, Cambridge University Press, 2006, 218pp., $85.00 (hbk), ISBN 0521846188. Reviewed by David Wolfsdorf, Temple University

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