Monday, March 15, 2010

Et tu, Hamilton?

Today marks the end of the political career of a general who would be king and the beginning of the political career of a general who would not.

On this date, the 15th day of March (known in antiquity as the Ides of March) in 44 B.C.E., Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of Roman senators. Julius Caesar had risen to prominence in Roman society by means of careful and cynical political maneuvering and by the age of 41 he had finagled a consulship. Caesar quickly and corruptly marginalized the other Consul (Bibulus) elected with him and his detractors thereafter referred to that year as "the Consulship of Julius and Caesar." Consuls were in effect the chief magistrates of Rome, and one year as consul was normally followed by another year as a Proconsul in charge of a Roman province. Caesar's political enemies attempted to assign him proconsulship of Italian natural resources instead of an actual province, but he was able to convince his allies to have him named the Proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul, Illyricum and Transalpine Gaul (northern Italy, the Balkans, and southern France). And, instead of having control of these provinces and with them command of four legions for just one year, Caesar convinced his allies in the Senate to make his term of proconsulship five years. Within a year, Caesar had illegally raised two additional legions in the provinces under his control and was poised to invade and subdue the tribes of Gaul. By the time his allotted term as proconsul was up, Julius Caesar had subdued Gaul, invaded the British Isles, and put down another insurrection in Gaul, all the while ensuring that his exploits were made known in great exaggeration by the Roman public.

Recalled to Rome, Caesar feared for good reason that he would be tried for treason to get rid of him and his ambitions. He returned to Rome with a legion at his back and civil war ensued. Caesar pursued his rival, Pompey, and, upon Pompey's death and the end of an Egyptian civil war in which he meddled, Caesar celebrated with his infamous tryst with Cleopatra. Upon his eventual return to Rome he soon engineered his election as dictator and consolidated power approaching that of an emperor. His assassination in 44 B.C.E. touched off yet another explosive civil war, the end result of which would be the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire. Thus, the blame for the demise of the Roman Republic can be placed at the feet of Gauis Julius Caesar.

Contrast the behavior of Julius Caesar with that of George Washington. Perhaps the most important action of Washington's tenure as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army took place on this date in 1783. Informed that a meeting of a great many of the officers of his army had been called at Newburgh, New York for the purpose of sparking an insurrection against the Continental Congress, Washington made immediately to the site and confronted the conspirators, many of whom were his closest and most loyal officers. Washington could very easily have allowed his army to convince him to lead their march on Congress. Washington would have undoubtedly been popularly proclaimed the new emperor of America, and would have had the loyalty of an Army that had followed him through thick and thin (mostly the latter) for the better part of the previous eight years.

The Army was angered by Congressional failure to properly remunerate the veterans of the force that had kept congressional necks from stretching at the end of British nooses. The leaders of the Army were ready to revolt. Washington would have none of it. He first chastised the assembly, calling them "unmilitary" and "subversive of good order and discipline." Such was the force and presence of the man, that this admonishment stayed, if temporarily, the push for a military coup. Washington went on to promise that he would do everything in his power to ensure that the patriot veterans received all that was due them for their late service against the British. His final gesture was one of sheer dramatic brilliance not seen again in uniform until the generalship of Douglas MacArthur a century and a half later. Washington withdrew a letter from his pocket and then, in what was then considered an unmilitary act, put on a pair of reading glasses. His apology has become as legendary as any other quote in the vast lexicon of leadership quotations in American military history.

"Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown old in the service of my country and now find that I am growing blind."

It is reported that his men wept at the sight and realization that Washington had sacrificed as much as any in the room, and, while having every right to personally lead the march on Congress, would continue to sacrifice his own ease and ambition for the sake of the legs of principle upon which the new nation was ready to begin its march into history.

Would that we had more national leaders imbued with the principled and sacrificial discipline of Washington, rather than the more predominate ambition of Caesar.
Post a Comment