Cincinnatus

I was raised in the American patriotic tradition. At home and in school, we looked to the founding fathers as icons. When my attention turned to Roman history, I found the same sort of admiration for a man named Cincinnatus. He was a dictator, but to his credit he only held the office for a few days and he only held it twice. Under Roman law, the dictatorship was reserved for extreme crises and it came with a clearly defined term: the duration of the crisis or one year, whichever was shorter. Both times Cincinnatus was asked to serve his city, he managed to shepherd the nascent republic to safety and promptly resigned. Not every Roman dictator left his term so willingly.

This November, we will choose our next chief executive. I think that because of the extreme and increasing power of the Office of the President, we should be especially cognizant of each candidate’s restraint and humility. Candidates who have used their offices for self promotion should be looked at with great suspicion, as should any person who seems to use their office arbitrarily. Their actions do more than enrich bad actors through misspent taxes; they whittle away at the soul of our nation.

Our experiment in democracy is held together by faith in each other and in our electoral system. While we have weathered petty tyrants who viewed their elected offices as their personal fiefdoms before, I do not know if our faith has ever been so strongly shaken. Our nation relies on the humility of its citizens to know that they are a small part of something greater, but personal humility is worthless without something worth venerating. Without the perceived sanctity of our project, I worry what may become of us.

Addendum: Today is the 23rd of November and President Trump has not yet conceded to President-elect Biden. While a formal concession is unnecessary, he has actively hindered the transition of power to his opponent by denying him the funds necessary to assemble a government and by denying him access to security briefings. Regardless of the merit (or lack-thereof, based on his recent record in the court system) of Trump’s legal challenges to the election, presidential candidates of both parties are traditionally entitled to government provided security briefings. If Trump truly believed that the election was compromised and not simply that he should have been re-elected, he wouldn’t withhold information from the man who will likely replace him as our country’s leader and who should at minimum still be treated as a current candidate.

I have been greatly disappointed in the state of politics in my country in the last few years. To see so little respect from the President towards the same electoral process that saw him elected is deeply saddening, though not totally surprising. Unfortunately, without elections that are universally recognized as fair, our democracy can even die in the light.

The Monument to Enslaved Laborers

The blue-gray stone panels begin their ascent at less than ankle height. Arranged in a ring, they’re marked with horizontal notches that sometimes bear a name or a profession, and they increase in number as each panel reaches up. Eventually, all anyone can see are the notches. Each one represents an enslaved laborer at the University, and one of them bears the name Tom. I didn’t expect to see it, the same name as the founder of UVA, appear in yet another place on grounds, but it did.

This Tom was not born into wealth or even freedom, unlike the other, nor would he have ever been able to reap the benefits of his own work—stolen from him by the crime of slavery. Had he been free, I don’t know if he would ever have been honored with anything other than familial remembrance. He may have been forgotten entirely to history, and I wish that he could have been. I wish that he was not enslaved, but free to have done as he pleased. Instead, a stone was gouged at roughly knee-height and he is acknowledged, but not truly remembered.

His name is not alone. Scores of notches surround it. Each is a human life whose misfortune came from the cruelty and ignorance of other humans in a paragon of learning and civilization—the University of Virginia. I belong to one of the oldest organizations on grounds, the Washington Literary Society, which was founded in 1831. At the outbreak of the civil war, my predecessors and fellow Virginians gave the treasury of the society and their lives to support the vision of continued racial inequity referred to as the Confederacy. The end of the Civil War marked the end of slavery at the University, but it would be a mistake to say that it was also the end of racial inequity. An African American would not even enroll until 1950, and it was only with a court order overriding the Board of Visitors. Racial inequity continues to this day, both at the University and in the broader community of Charlottesville.

The monument reminds us of the ability of well educated people to make grievous and violent errors, en masse, for hundreds of years. It reflects a deserved stain on the legacy of the University community, but it also reflects our ability to right ourselves, even if we have never truly stood upright. Thinking of the unknown ways that we err, and the disdain future generations will have of us, is a natural consequence of visiting the monument, walking around it, and finishing the short walk by looking critically at where we have come from—at where we are. It is a simple, necessary, prompt to reflect; the burden is now on our shoulders. Our errors will affect people just like us.