Honorethics.org contributor Ajume Wingo had a great letter published in the Denver Post yesterday on Nelson Mandela. It discusses an important point almost totally ignored in the encomia we are hearing about the South African president: how unique and important it was that Mandela gave up power.Ajume Wingo

The true source of Mandela’s greatness is how he gave up that power. It was his exit — dignified and orderly — more than anything else that sets him apart. His exit from office at the height of his power, popularity and health put him in the company of Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington — exemplars of the rule of law and the ideals of leadership in a republic.

I know Ajume has been thinking and writing on the theme of rulership and liberalism for some time. In the developed West, we have grown accustomed to our leaders stepping down when their tenure is up, but of course there is little reason to make the same assumption in many parts of the world. Figuring out how to persuade leaders to give up power—especially when the populace will let them get away with keeping it—would be huge accomplishment for the cause of liberalism and rule of law.

Could leaders be persuaded by money? Maybe. However, as Wingo’s piece notes, African billionaire Mo Ibrahim has funded a foundation offering $5 million, and an annual stipend of $200,000, to African leaders who (among other things) “serve their constitutionally mandated term.” The prize seems to be an insufficient incentive. Maybe the prize cannot compare to the richer spoils of electing oneself president for life. However, we do have some historical precedent on the matter. As Ajume notes, Washington and Cincinnatus also refused sorts of kingship.

Beyond their non-pecuniary motives, I cannot say much about Cincinnatus’ or Mandela’s motives. But in the case of Washington, some historians argue that concern for honor was key. Douglass Adair, Lorrraine Smith Pangle and Thomas Pangle, Joanne Freeman, and Gordon Wood all speak to the concern Washington had for his honor and reputation.

Washington wanted to be honorable, certainly, but also to be honored, and he was obsessed with how posterity would think of him. He avoided the Presidency in the first place of of fear of being thought “ambitious.” He then had to be persuaded to a second term, and could not be persuaded to a third. This was at a time when people would shout, “Long live George Washington” on the streets, and inaugurations were sometimes referred to as presidential “coronations.” Much like Wingo on Mandela, Michael Wood concludes that, “[a]s in the case of his career as commander in chief [of the Continental Army], Washington’s most important act as president was his giving up of the office.”

Mandela, like Washington, set a liberal example for a new nation. Lest that example be for naught, it is important for the cause of liberation that we do something seemingly at odds with liberalism itself: Honor. Praise. Build monuments. Mythologize. Create a public pantheon. Ignore foibles and misdeeds. It’s all very inegalitarian and feels undemocratic. It’s also not particularly friendly to a free and honest exploration of the facts (“Washington the slaveholder“, “Mandela–was he a communist?“). Nevertheless, this liberal-honor hybrid model does have a demonstrated track record of success, and its benefits shouldn’t be despised.

Maybe honoring liberating leaders is a ladder we can climb up and kick away once the habits and virtues of liberal leadership become second-nature. But honoring those who give up power for having given up power is nonetheless critically important in certain places since that posthumous praise may well encourage other would-be dictators to follow suit. As subjects, I think friends of liberalism around the world can do their part by following Wingo’s example and make clear that we will honor leaders who give up power, even if we disagree with their substantive political policies, and however much we might feel that, in stepping down, they merely did their duty.