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CINCINANTI'S CITIZEN CRUSADERS
By Rick Pender
More than two millennia ago, when what is today Cincinnati was nothing more than a bend in the Ohio River, surrounded by verdant forests and wildlife, empires flourished elsewhere. In Rome, five centuries before Christ was born — in 458 BC, to be precise — a retired consul of the Roman Empire named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus had returned to farming. However, as an army of barbarian tribes threatened from the East, the Roman Senate gave Cincinnatus the powers of dictator so he could protect the nation, relieve weary troops and eradicate the enemy. He did so – in 16 days’ time, so legend has it. Thereupon he relinquished his powers and returned to his farm. To this day, he is held up as a model leader and citizen – a man who neither sought power nor held on to it when his duties had been fulfilled.
In American history, George Washington has been called an American Cincinnatus because he held his command only until the British were defeated. He could easily have seized political power and ruled the newfound nation. After the Revolutionary War, a group of former officers formed The Society of Cincinnati, recalling the Roman legend. The city on the Ohio River was named after this organization, and The Cincinnatus Association derives its name from those same roots. There is a statue of Cincinnatus at Sawyer Point near the river, of course. You can also see a representation of Cincinnatus in the 1983 trompe l’oeil painting of a Roman temple by Richard Haas at on a building façade at Central Parkway and Vine Street.
About a century after Washington’s presidency, Cincinnati was a booming 19th-century metropolis. In the late 1880s a strong Republican machine, established by a man who came to be know as “Boss” George Cox controlled the city and the county – manipulating everything from City Council and the police to the courts. After three decades Boss Cox was succeeded by Rudolph Hynicka in 1914. Through the Republican Central Committee, which was constituted of ward and township captains, Hynicka maintained tight control over the city, although he spent most of his time in New York City, where he managed a chain of 40 burlesque theaters throughout the United States and Canada.
By 1920 even the Republican-dominated newspaper, The Times Star, was calling for Hynicka’s ouster, and many citizens wanted a change in the way the city did business. An unassuming man Victor Heintz was the catalyst who brought that change. His German immigrant parents moved to the “big city” of Cincinnati from rural Illinois in 1880 when Heintz was four years old. He graduated from Hughes High School (1892) and the University of Cincinnati (1896); he attended the law school at UC, where William Howard Taft was the dean. (Taft was also the presiding judge of the Federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals at the time.)
Heintz became a successful attorney, entered politics and was elected to Congress in 1917. But just three months after he took office, he relinquished his seat to serve in the National Guard. Then, following World War I, he resumed his law career, but before long he was enticed to become a political organizer for the Republican National Committee. Heintz traveled all over the Eastern United States, so he got to see how many cities operated politically. He was especially troubled by the corruption he saw in his hometown. He urged a group of Cincinnati leaders to address this issue and brought them together in a series of meetings in February 1920. That group soon began to call itself The Cincinnatus Association. So it would not be suggested he was doing this for personal gain, Heintz voluntarily refrained from leadership.
All the members of the Cincinnatus Association were white businessmen in 1920. Most (although not all) were Republicans, many from the party’s committee structure, which sorely needed to be changed. In the early 1920s, the Association expected its members to examine an assigned area, and then reported back to the rest of the group. The Association defined four related purposes, which still pertain:
- Regular meetings would provide a forum to discuss civic and public questions.
- Speakers would be invited to address the Association and the public.
- Information would be widely disseminated to support or oppose particular movements or projects.
- The Association could initiate its own projects after thorough investigation.
There have been ongoing debates over the years, which continue today, about the role of The Cincinnatus Association and how aggressively it should press its agenda. L. L. Tucker, in his 1965 Association history, asked: “Should the Association be an activist instrument, or function like a forum or sounding board?”
On October 9, 1923, the Association sponsored a debate regarding the merits of a proposed tax increase. Speaking against the increase was a young Republican lawyer: Murray Seasongood. Cincinnati was deeply in debt at the time. Of 43 American cities with populations over 150,000, Cincinnati had the highest per capita bonded indebtedness. More than half of the income generated by taxes was being consumed by the increasing debt. Even so, the city was in horrible physical disrepair, its streets so full of potholes it was almost impossible to navigate.
Despite the city’s financial woes, Seasongood delivered a scathing attack, subsequently dubbed “The Shot Heard Round the Wards,” on the proposed increase and the Republican organization supporting it. His arguments swayed many opinions, and the levy was roundly defeated in November 1923. That success inspired a resolution at the Cincinnatus meeting on November 13 of that year: “That the Cincinnatus Association make a comprehensive investigation of municipal government and confine its activities during the coming year to this one subject.”
Over the next decade, under the watchful oversight of Cincinnatus, the reform of the city’s government was undertaken and the political machine was disassembled. This period, sometimes referred to as the “era of good government,” saw a new City Charter which established the city manager form of government, a model that prevailed until just a few years ago when it was replaced by our present “strong mayor” mode presently in place. The Cincinnatus Association continues to play a role in the ongoing conversation about the revision of Cincinnati’s City Charter.
Over the years, Cincinnatus has addressed many essential civic issues. Education has repeatedly been a serious area of effort, as have community planning and urban development. Cultural issues also have occupied Cincinnatus members: the Association led the effort to create a home for the Natural History Museum (1957-58) on Gilbert Avenue, then spearheaded the development of the Cincinnati Museum Center (1990), converting the deteriorating Union Terminal into an attraction and community asset. In 2004, the Association stepped up to play a significant role in the passage of a Hamilton County property tax levy to bolster the Museum Center’s budget and provide time to build a necessary endowment. In 1960, the Association fostered the creation of a classical music non-commercial radio station, WGUC-FM.
Progress in the areas that the Association seeks to influence has often been frustrating and slow. In 1965, historian L. L. Tucker wrote: “Frequently there is an appreciable time lag before a Cincinnatus resolution achieves reality. For example, Cincinnatus has been urging some form of consolidation between the county and city governments since 1920, but as yet only an iota of progress has been recorded.”
Nevertheless, Cincinnatus has a remarkable track record of service to the city of Cincinnati and surrounding communities. Its presence has made a difference for nearly a century, and its endorsement and actions are respected: Each member has joined the Cincinnatus Association to make a difference, to create a better place to live. And that commendable legacy lives on in the 21st century.
Brief summary of accomplishments