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"Ne quid detrimenti capiat res publica": The Senatus Consultum Ultimum and a Print of George Washington

Emilio Capettini

UC Santa Barbara

In 1781 the French engraver Noël Le Mire designed and produced a print of George Washington modeled on a 1779 painting by Jean Baptiste Le Paon now believed lost (http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/91720123). This print, which enjoyed a wide circulation not only in France and Europe but also in America, shows the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army standing in front of a tent and holding copies of the Declaration of Independence and of the treaty of alliance with France; at his feet one can distinguish, torn to pieces, some proclamations issued by George III. The symbolic value of these iconographic details is clear. Yet these are not the only elements that contribute to making Le Mire’s print a fascinating document of the political and intellectual climate in the final years of the America Revolution. For the caption placed underneath the portrait, in addition to identifying the standing figure as “Le Général Washington,” contains the Latin sentence “Ne Quid Detrimenti capiat Res publica.” Quite surprisingly, these words have attracted almost no scholarly attention. In my paper, I will examine their significance within the context of French and American Republicanism, and I will argue that they are indicative not only of the tendency, on both sides of the Atlantic, to interpret Washington as a “contemporary ancient” (Osman 2015, 428) but also of Washington’s self-presentation when he accepted the role of commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. 

            The only scholar who, to my knowledge, has focused on this Latin phrase is Joseph Downs, who interpreted it as self-standing and translated it as “The State must harbor nothing detrimental” (Downs 1946, 164). Yet, as many members of the original audience of the print would have been quick to point out, these words, rather than constituting a general exhortation to uphold civic good, were part of the official formula of the senatus consultum ultimum, an emergency measure used by the senate in the late Republic to respond to threats to the stability of the state: consules videant ne quid detrimenti capiat res publica – “the consuls should see to it that the state receive no harm” (cf. Lintott 1999, 89-93). As is clear, then, this sentence functions as a direct commentary on the role of Washington, who, qua commander-in-chief, was granted supreme powers to deal with the threat posed by the British army. There is, however, an additional element that is brought into stark relief by the inclusion of these words in Le Mire’s print, namely, that Washington’s position was meant to be only a temporary one, destined to last only as long as the British threat existed. In fact, there was some anxiety in 1775 surrounding the decision to entrust the control of the Continental Army to a single man; the New York Congress, for instance, wrote to Washington to remind him that “a general in America … will faithfully perform the duties of his high office, and readily lay down his power when the general weal requires it” (Fitzpatrick 3:305 n. 28). Washington’s reply was a reassuring one: “When we assumed the Soldier, we did not lay aside the Citizen” (ibid.). And in a 1777 letter, he reaffirmed this sentiment with terms that evoke the senatus consultum ultimum: “I shall constantly bear in mind, that as the Sword was the last Resort for the preservation of our Liberties, so it ought to be the first thing laid aside, when those Liberties are firmly established” (Fitzpatrick 6:464). 

            If positioned within this context, then, the Latin sentence placed beneath Washington’s portrait appears to contain a very deliberate praise of the conduct of the general during the late 1770s – a praise influenced, to an extent, by Washington’s self-presentation – and can be interpreted as equivalent to the association of the American general with Cincinnatus that became virtually ubiquitous in the 1780s and 1790s.

Session/Panel Title

Reception and National Traditions

Session/Paper Number

13.4

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