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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
With Europe busily inspecting America’s washline, three leading American diplomats abroad were quick to react, each in his own way. From Paris, John Jay commented sourly that if the society “took well in the states,” he “would not care if the Revolutionary War had succeeded or not.”
John Adams was at first only a lukewarm objector. Writing to Lafayette from Holland, he said he “disapproved…with as much tranquility and self-recollection, and phlegm, if you will, as I had been a native, full-blooded Dutchman.” And he added that the order might be “the first step taken to deface the beauty of our temple of liberty.” Later, Adams’ mood went from phlegmatic to splenetic. Perhaps put out by the hostile treatment he received at London’s aristocratic Court of St. James’s, he wrote to Elbridge Gerry: “The Cincinnati is the deepest piece of cunning yet attempted. It is sowing the seeds of all that European courts wish to grow up among us, viz. of vanity, ambition, corruption, discord, and sedition.”
The third diplomat was less angry than sardonically amused. Old Ben Franklin, another peace commissioner in Paris, just could not take the order with complete seriousness. As a scientist, he showed how the members’ patriotic blood would be watered down from generation to generation. As a scholar, he criticized the Latin of the society’s motto, Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam .∗ As a naturalist, he regretted that the Cincinnati had chosen for its symbol the eagle, “a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward.” Franklin commented that the founders of the society had been “too struck with the ribbands and crosses they have seen hanging in the button-holes of foreign officers,” but he concluded that “if people can be pleased with small matters, it is a pity that they should not have them.”
∗ The motto, a reference to Cincinnatus, may be translated into modern idiom as “He dropped everything to save the nation.” The motto’s author has never been established, but whoever it was gave Latin buffs something to chew on. Since the motto expressed purpose, it more correctly should have used the imperfect subjunctive, Omnia reliquit ut servaret rempublicam . L’Enfant also added to the confusion. His sketch for the design of the badge showed Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam , adding an “n” to the second word. This spelling was used on the certificate but not on the eagle badge itself, which somehow came out with Omnia relinqt servat rempb . Valuing tradition over the niceties of syntax, the Cincinnati has left everything the way it originally appeared.
Like Franklin, even some of the pillars of the society were able to laugh off the criticism. While sending nervous notes to Washington, Henry Knox was writing to von Steuben: Your Society, monsieur baron, has occasioned great jealousies among the good people of New England, who say it is altogether an outlandish creature, formed by a foreign allegiance.…You see how much you have to answer for by the introduction of your European distinctions.
Von Steuben parodied Cassius in his even jollier reply: A ça, Monsieur le Cincinnatus! your pernicious designs are then unveiled. You wish to introduce dukes and peers into our republic? No, my lord; no, your Grace, that will not do; there is a Cassius more far-sighted than this German baron:…When I shall tell him that the young Marquis Henry Knox is already promised in marriage to a Princess Hyder Ali…and that the King of Spain wishes to accept the place of Treasurer of the Order, then, Blow Ye the Trumpet in Zion!
At Mount Vernon, however, the society’s president general was not in a bantering mood. Seeking peace, Washington had found a furor. He had not formed the Cincinnati and had not asked to become its leader. He had come home to Virginia in hopes, as he wrote to Lafayette, of “retiring within myself…envious of none…determined to be pleased with all.” But Henry Knox was writing him to report that the waves of hostility were sweeping New England, and that the Massachusetts society had not dared to call more attention to itself by appointing honorary members.
Always concerned about his “public image,” as a later age would call it, Washington was highly embarrassed by the general outcry. What reflected on the society, he thought, reflected on him. He was also deeply worried about his nation, which was in danger of flying apart in the loose straps of confederation. He realized that a public battle over the society was just what the country did not need.