The ancient Romans had a myth they revered.
It concerned the patrician farmer turned general, Cincinnatus. In a time of extreme threat, the Romans offered Cincinnatus absolute power.
He was reluctant to assume it. When he defeated the enemy, he relinquished the power he held and went back to his farm.
Historians now doubt the veracity of some parts of the Cincinnatus tale.
But there is no doubting the power of his legend.
It helped shape the young United States because it inspired George Washington. Like the mythical Cincinnatus, Washington always seemed hesitant to take power and eager to give it back.
His repeated renunciations of office and authority added to his appeal.
Americans wary of tyranny felt they could trust a man reticent about using power and happy to surrender it.
That trust helped a fledgling republic find its feet.
I thought about the myth of Cincinnatus the other day.
It was on a day when Hoosiers gathered to rally and testify at the Statehouse regarding the redistricting process. Many are concerned that the legislative maps that will determine Indiana’s representation for the next 10 years will be drawn to favor Republicans even more.
It’s a valid concern. The current maps, which also were drawn by the GOP, are so gerrymandered that, in most legislative districts, they make voting all but pointless.
The Republicans who already have overwhelming power in every part of state government are itchy for still more unquestionable and unassailable authority.
While the rally at the Statehouse was going on, I was recording a Zoom discussion with former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard. The conversation primarily was about the balance and separation of powers in the Indiana and U.S. Constitutions.
Shepard is one of the most astute students around of law and history.
At the beginning of our discussion, he noted—correctly—that America’s commitment to portioning power out to three branches of government sprang from a desire to keep one person or one group of people from having too much control. The founders of this country feared arbitrary authority. They sought ways to fashion a government that could function and, at the same time, represent the will of the people.
That is not an easy task.
Because the government depends upon the consent of the governed for its legitimacy, there must be a relationship of some good faith between those who lead and those who follow. Trust and acts of good faith are essential.
I asked Shepard at one point what happens in our system when people in power don’t act in good faith. I cite President Andrew Jackson’s refusal to enforce a Supreme Court decision in the early 1830s.
Shepard didn’t have an easy answer because there isn’t one.
Much of our system of government depends upon people in power being willing to do the right thing. When those in power refuse to honor their obligations, refuse to play by the rules, our country struggles to function.
Which brings me back to the question of redistricting and the thought of Cincinnatus.
Republicans in this state—like Democrats who hold sway in other states—want to draw maps that favor them because they hunger for power. They see short-term things—lowered tax rates, etc.—as the end of the process.
The founders of this country had a different end in mind. Their fundamental goal was to prove that a nation with a government that drew its authority from the consent of the people could survive.
They feared those who would be monarchs or autocrats and who would abuse the authority entrusted to them in the service of narrow or personal ambitions. They felt they could trust only those leaders who hesitated to assume power.
That’s why the story of Cincinnatus spoke to them with such force.
And that’s why Cincinnatus’s example, real or myth, seems so attractive to me now.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.