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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
Unhappily for the order, such enthusiasm was not typical at home. Watchful eyes in America were viewing the fraternal developments with alarm. The opening salvo of criticism, fired in the autumn of 1783, was a fifteen-page pamphlet entitled Considerations on the Order or Society of Cincinnati . The author, deciding to counter one name from antiquity with another, had signed himself “Cassius”; his real name was Aedanus Burke, of South Carolina. Born in County Galway to a family accustomed to fighting British rule, Burke had come to America as a youth and then studied law. He served during the early part of the Revolution (not long enough to make him eligible for the Cincinnati) and later became a member of the bench of South Carolina. He helped form the state’s democratic rules of government, rejoicing over the end of “unnatural distinctions of noblemen and commons.” In later years, he would oppose ratification of the Constitution and would attack idolatry of Washington as a first step toward monarchy. As self-appointed watchdog to keep “our liberties from being fooled away,” he never hesitated to speak his mind.
On the title page of his pamphlet, Burke put the Biblical admonition “Blow ye the trumpet in Zion.” And blow he did. He charged that the members of the Cincinnati had no intention of imitating the society’s namesake by returning to obscure citizenship. He predicted that they would develop a hereditary peerage, eventually seizing control of all civil and military offices and destroying all hope of putting democratic theory into practice. “The Order is planted in a fiery, hot ambition, and thirst for power,” cried Burke, “and its branches will end in tyranny.” Never one to understate an argument, he put the society’s membership at 10,000, more than quadrupling its size. But his arguments, no matter how overblown, found a ready audience. Cassius’ ideas spread quickly and made the society, as Thomas Jefferson would wryly note, “the subject of general conversation.”
Criticism crackled through the colonies. Northerner Elbridge Gerry and southerner James Madison both predicted that the society would be able to control elections. Fiery old Sam Adams accused it of being “as rapid a Strike towards an hereditary Military Nobility as was ever made in so short a time.” A less prominent but pun-loving critic said in the Virginia Gazette , “I dislike [the society] more particularly for having two ‘Cins’ in it.”
To some, the Institution raised a number of dangerous questions. Hadn’t the war been fought partly to end such abuses of privilege as primogeniture? Why hadn’t the officers made express provision to look after the army’s rank and file? Why should honorary membership be limited to citizens “whose views may be directed to the same laudable objects with those of the Cincinnati”? Wasn’t this an attempt to attract influential men with the carrot of membership? Finally, why was it suggested that letters circulated among state societies concern themselves not only with Cincinnati affairs but also with “the general union of the States”? Critics remembered how they themselves had used committees of correspondence to foment a revolution. And what about those French members? The Massachusetts legislature warned that they were “strongly attached to a government essentially different in principles from the republican constituents of the United States.”
In money-conscious New England, the prospect of military influence in financial affairs touched off a display of Yankee fireworks. Some citizens stoutly defended the idea of government aid to officers. Others were vehemently opposed. Citizens using such pseudonyms as “An Officer,” “An Impartial Farmer,” “A Continentalist,” and “Cives” had at each other in the press. Signing himself “Honorius,” young Noah Webster took time off from his words to support government subsidies for Continental officers, but the town meeting of Killingworth, Connecticut, pointed out cantankerously that the first Cincinnatus had not felt compelled to retire on government funds. A statewide convention at Middletown—called expressly to consider the Cincinnati problem and keep watch on this “new and strange order of men”—commended Burke’s pamphlet “to the notice and perusal of the people at large.”
In Rhode Island things were not much better. Nathanael Greene, president of the state society, conceded that his order was “thought to contain dangerous designs, pregnant with mischief, and…ruinous to the people.” In fact, rumor soon spread that Rhode Island’s legislature had disenfranchised society members and had banned them from “holding any post of honour and trust” in its government. Although archives of the state record no such law, the rumor was widely accepted as fact.
With matters at this pitch, controversy quickly leaped the Atlantic. The Comte de Mirabeau, a French nobleman who had turned against the old order and who later became a leader in the early stages of the French Revolution, showed his radical sympathies by translating the Cassius pamphlet into French, adding some jabs of his own. And liberal spirits in France and Germany, who had hailed America’s victory as a blow for democratic principles, bemoaned what they considered an aristocratic aberration on the part of their heroes.