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A “New And Strange Order Of Men”
Just what moved those Revolutionary War officers to form the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ organization? Some said it was treason
August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
In view of the simple virtues that the name implied, it is perhaps unfortunate that Henry Knox played an important role in drawing up the Cincinnati’s charter. Timothy Pickering, Quartermaster General and himself a member of the society, would later remark that Knox’s language “bore the marks of his pomposity.” Even the charter’s title had a solemn ring; it was called the “Institution.”
Nevertheless, a true patriot could hardly quibble about the three principles—financial, fraternal, and patriotic—to which the society proposed to devote itself: An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature, for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing.
An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor, so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American Empire.
To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the Officers. This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularfy extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence…towards those Officers and their Families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it.
It was not these goals but the rules set up to carry them out that almost brought down the Cincinnati.
The General Society was divided into state societies, each completely autonomous, which collected funds from members and kept in touch with the others by circular letters and periodic general meetings. Membership was limited to those officers of the Army (later the Navy would be included) who had served to the end of the war, had resigned with honor after three years’ service, or had been “deranged” (the term meant honorably retired) by act of Congress. When a charter member died, succession would pass to his “eldest male posterity” or to another branch of his family “who may be judged worthy.” In other words, only one member of each family, usually the oldest son, could belong at any one time. To acknowledge America’s debt to France, her ally in the Revolution, provision was made for a French society. The Cincinnati eventually decided to include all foreign officers who could meet the general requirements.
Recognizing that there were men other than officers who might be “eminent for their abilities and patriotism,” the Institution set up honorary memberships. These were good only for the lifetime of the person concerned and could not be inherited.
Knox had dreamed of a distinguishing insignia for veterans, and the Institution provided for one. A medal, or badge, of gold would be struck. It would hang from a blue ribbon edged with white, thus uniting the colors of America and France. On one side the medal would show Cincinnatus being presented with a sword by three senators, his wife and plow waiting discreetly in the background. The other side would depict the farmer-hero being crowned with a wreath by Fame. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, lately of the Continental Corps of Engineers, won the commission to design the society’s certificate of membership and badge. L’Enfant chose the American bald eagle for the basic design of the medal.
With the groundwork laid, the founders now needed a president general, as their leader was to be called. The choice was obvious: George Washington was unanimously elected at the Verplanck meeting. Generals Knox, von Steuben, and William Heath were asked to call on Washington and request his acceptance. They did so, and at Newburgh on May 20 the General agreed to serve.
Once the Commanding General had signed on, other officers were quick to follow. During the summer of 1783, societies were founded in all thirteen states, the original membership eventually totalling some 2,400 men out of the nearly 6,000 who were eligible. Among the joiners were such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton, Nathanael Greene, John Paul Jones, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Horatio Gates, James Monroe, William Moultrie, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and William Clark. The distinguished roster in itself aided recruitment. The order’s reception in France was even more enthusiastic. Louis XVI relaxed a rule which forbade his officers to wear foreign decorations. Major L’Enfant, with forgivable partiality, observed that the badge had become more popular than the traditional Order of St. Louis. In all, 356 men, the cream of the ancien régime , joined the French society. Lafayette, de Grasse, and Rochambeau tried to outdo one another in the interest they could show. Denis-Jean Dubouchet, who had fought for America but not long enough to meet society requirements, crossed the Atlantic to plead his case. He succeeded, getting an appointment from Washington himself, and returned to France feeling well rewarded for his pains.