On Relinquishing Power 

 February 18, 2021

By  Oak Norton


In ancient Rome there was a farmer named Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus. During a crisis, he was made dictator over the nation to lead the military in battle. A mere 15 days later after being victorious in battle, he relinquished his title and returned to his farm. He could have chosen to remain in power as the leader of Rome but instead, he gave it up and went back to farming.

Years later, another crisis arose and he was asked to lead the nation again as dictator. He did so successfully and again gave up power and returned to his farming just 21 days after being given absolute power.

In each instance, Cincinnatus gave up power as soon as his appointed task was accomplished when he could have remained the dictator of Rome. This example of one who served his country selflessly in a crisis and gave up that power for the public good is a remarkable example. A small farming town in New York is named Cincinnatus in his honor, and Cincinnati, Ohio is also named for him.

In more recent times we have a similar example. George Washington led the continental army against the British in the Revolutionary war. At the end of the war he could have become king and many wanted him to. Instead, he gave up power and returned to his farm. Later, he was elected president and after 2 terms in office, voluntarily gave up power and returned to his farm when he most likely could have remained president until his death.

In 1783, the year we won the Revolutionary War, an American painter named Benjamin West was in England to paint a portrait of King George III. The king asked Benjamin what Washington planned to do now that he had won the war. He replied, “they say he will return to his farm.”

The king responded, “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.”

Discuss: Why did the king say that?

Lord Acton, a British historian, politician, and writer, is best known for this quotable statement: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

It is the rare person who can accept power, use it with care and prudence, and ultimately relinquish it not thinking themselves indispensable, even if for a time they were.

Discuss: Why do some people cling to power and others do not?


(Featured image of Cincinnatus at Schönbrunn by Bede735, used with permission under CC 3.0 from Wikimedia)

Oak Norton

Father of 5 children, husband to 1 amazingly patient woman, entrepreneur, and education advocate.

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