Three Men Who Would Not be King

It's rare for someone to give up power. That's especially true if you believe yourself to be a good ruler, and you probably wouldn't be a ruler unless you thought you were a good ruler. So, it's almost never done. Most people hold on to as much power as they can get for as long as they can. They step away only when they are forced to. But every now and then, a leader comes along that takes power, and yet doesn't seem to want it. So they decide to walk away on their own.


In 594 BC Solon remade the laws of Athens and created the Athenian Constitution. He got people to swear to abide by the laws. And then, instead of remaining head of the state. Instead of being King. Instead of ruling and wielding power he... get this... exiled himself for 10 years. Yes, that's right. He kicked himself out of his own city. The adventures he had traveling around for the next decade are a series of epic and legendary adventures. But exiling himself so that he couldn't change the laws, and wouldn't be King, that's a singularly impressive moment.

In 458 BC the Roman Republic was losing a war. A farmer named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was called upon. He had been Consul for a brief time before. Now, he was made dictator. He formed an army. Marched it against the Aequi, beat them in an odd battle which is very similar to one Julius Caesar would have many years later, and then came back to Rome. He resigned after 16 days in office. He saved the Roman Republic well within 16 days, and then voluntarily left office. An office that he had a legal right to hold for 6 months, and an office that most people in his position would have held for the rest of their lives. Instead, he went back to his farm.

On April 30th, 1789 George Washington was sworn in as the first President of the United States. There had been some uncertainty as to what form of government the United State of America would have.

James McHenry was Secretary of War under George Washington and John Adams and recorded this brief conversation in his journal when Ben Franklin was walking out of the Constitutional Convention on September 17th, 1787.

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Elizabeth Powel: "Well, Doctor what have we got—a republic or a monarchy?"

Benjamin Franklin: "A republic, if you can keep it."

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Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were both overseas at the time. Jefferson as minister to France and Adams as minister to Great Britain. They still had their views though. Here is part of a letter from Jefferson to Adams on November 13th, 1787, in response to seeing the results of the Constitutional Convention.

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"How do you like our new constitution? I confess there are things in it which stagger all my dispositions to subscribe to what such an assembly has proposed. The house of federal representatives will not be adequate to the management of affairs either foreign or federal. Their President seems a bad edition of a Polish king. He may be reelected from 4. years to 4. years for life. Reason and experience prove to us that a chief magistrate, so continuable, is an officer for life. When one or two generations shall have proved that this is an office for life, it becomes on every succession worthy of intrigue, of bribery, of force, and even of foreign interference. It will be of great consequence to France and England to have America governed by a Galloman or Angloman. Once in office, and possessing the military force of the union, without either the aid or check of a council, he would not be easily dethroned, even if the people could be induced to withdraw their votes from him. I wish that at the end of the 4. years they had made him for ever ineligible a second time. Indeed I think all the good of this new constitution might have been couched in three or four new articles to be added to the good, old, and venerable fabrick, which should have been preserved even as a religious relique."

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Three other major founding fathers didn't attend because they didn't support how much the Constitution was centralizing power: John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Samuel Adams. George Mason, the godfather of the Bill of Rights, refused to sign. And many other delegates refused to attend, left early, or refused to sign because they believed the central authority was too great. Patrick Henry's response to his invitation was that he... “smelt a rat in Philadelphia, tending toward the monarchy.”

In a letter to George Washington shortly after his election James McHenry addressed him as a King.

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"Though I may be among the last in congratulating my dear general, upon his elevation to a rank which few men are born to enjoy and still fewer deserve, yet I am persuaded you will believe that I feel as much sincere joy on the occasion, as those who may have been earlier in their demonstrations. You are now a King under a different name and I am well satisfied that sovereign prerogatives have in no age or country been more honorably obtained, or that at any time will they be more prudently and wisely exercised. This expectation excites in every bosom the finest sensations and I am sure had a secret and powerful influence in disposing the minds of the people to embrace the new constitution. That you may reign long and happy over us and never for a moment cease to be the public favorite is a wish that I can truly say is congenial to my heart. Please visit me enroute to New York."

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George Washington had James Madison write a farewell address for him in 1792, because Washington was planning on going back to his farm. But, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, who were political rivals, both encouraged Washington to do another term because of the tensions both within the United States, and with foreign powers.

He agreed. But one term later, in 1797, he had Hamilton rewrite that farewell address, and he had it published. George Washington walked away. It's an astonishing act that we don't recognize today largely because of what George Washington did, because of the precedent that he set for the United States and the world.

The King of England, George the third, was impressed. Rufus King was the American minister to Britain. Here's part of a letter from May 3rd, 1797, about when he was talking to British royal court painter Benjamin West about what King George thought of Washington voluntarily leaving office.

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"But that in regard to General Washington, he told him since his resignation that in his opinion "that act closing and finishing what had gone before and viewed in connection with it, placed him in a light the most distinguished of any man living, and that he thought him the greatest character of the age."

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George Washington's farewell address was published on September 19th, 1796 with the title "The Address of Gen. Washington to the People of America on His Declining the Presidency of the United States". In that letter he addresses many issues that are central to keeping the Republic alive and well, issues that are just as relevant to us today. One of them being a system of checks and balances and a separation of powers.

This greatness of character is a rare quality. As Lord Acton said, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." And as Montesquieu observed, "Anyone who possesses power has a tendency to abuse it. It is an eternal truth. They tend to go as far as the barriers will allow."

But sometimes, sometimes there is a Solon, or a Cincinnatus, or a George Washington. A leader that steps forward to fulfill their duty, to serve the people, and when that is done they step away again. May there always be such rare greatness among men.

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Read more of Jeff's thoughts at: http://www.jeffreyalexandermartin.com/

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