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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
Thomas Jefferson, always anxious to lay an “axe to the root of pseudo-aristocracy,” did nothing to ease Washington’s worries. He was all for having members of the society “distribute their funds, renounce their existence,” and “melt up their eagles.” He urged that Washington stand “on ground separated” from the order so that “the head of our revolution may in no instance be compromised in subordinate altercations.” Jefferson’s enmity was dismissed by some defenders of the society as a bad case of sour grapes: he had not fought in the Revolution and was therefore ineligible for membership. Similar diagnoses were made for other critics of the order. But when Washington received a letter from Lafayette that gently but firmly criticized the hereditary clause of the Institution, he was impressed; normally a French nobleman could be expected to accept such things.
Clearly something had to be done to ease popular suspicions and end the divisive conflict. With a general meeting of the society scheduled for May of 1784 in Philadelphia, Washington decided to act. He went over the Institution line by line and wrote out a set of revisions meant, he noted, to “strike out every word, sentence and clause which has a political tendency.” At the same time, he tried to enlist support for the coming convention. In one letter after another he urged Nathanael Greene to attend the meeting and use his prestige on the side of change. But Greene had political ambitions, and perhaps these pushed him toward discretion. He wrote to Washington: “The Doctor thinks my life would be endangered by attempting to cross the Water, and my pain in my stomach increased by riding by land.” This bad news was balanced by word from Henry Knox, who agreed that the Institution would have to be revised. Determined to end the nation’s cause for alarm, Washington left Mount Vernon at the end of April on his first long trip since the war’s end.
Philadelphia welcomed him as a national hero, and his former officers showed themselves ready to accept his leadership. Speaking “warmly and in plain language,” Washington persuaded the delegates to adopt a set of important changes in the Institution. After much debate, the convention voted to abolish both hereditary descent and honorary membership. It also decided to stop the political correspondence among state societies. The delegates agreed to wear society badges only at meetings, funerals of members, or in Europe, where they seemed more appropriate.
These concessions might have put an end to Washington’s worries except for one circumstance. The Institution, modelled on the Articles of Confederation, had no provision for amendments. Before the changes could take effect, all thirteen of the state societies and the one in France as well had to ratify them. Three did so. Three refused. The remaining eight, including the one in France, first voted for revisions and then decided to support the original Institution. The changes were disallowed. According to William S. Thomas, a historian of the Cincinnati, L’Enfant probably helped inspire the members’ intransigence. His designs for a medal and a certificate had been made up in Paris, and he appeared in Philadelphia with some of the finished goods. “The Society was saved,” comments Thomas. “Heartened delegates returned to their State Societies in a different frame of mind….”
Fortunately for the order, the state societies were slow in voting; the rejection was not soon apparent. Washington did not learn that his reforms had been rejected until late in 1785. In December he expressed his irritation about the matter to Alexander Hamilton. His enthusiasm for the Cincinnati was at its lowest point, and he resolved to remain its nominal leader but to withdraw from its workings as much as possible.
Then fate intervened. A second general meeting of the society was set for Philadelphia in 1787—just, it developed, when the Constitutional Convention would be meeting to seek a more workable form of government. Washington had already notified the society that he would not be able to attend, giving rheumatism and pressing private affairs as his excuse. But now Jefferson, Madison, and Edmund Randolph were strongly urging his presence at the Constitutional Convention.
To a man of Washington’s convictions, the overlapping conventions brought an agonizing dilemma. He clearly saw the need for a stronger government. Henry Knox warned him that there were “combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.” He himself feared that the spring of 1787 might bring scenes that would “astonish the world.”
At the same time, the General’s strict code of personal courtesy came into play. Washington was simply not a man who could now show up at the Cincinnati meeting and dismiss his earlier refusal with a wave of the hand. How, then, could he attend the Constitutional Convention without offending the society’s leaders, who were, after all, his old comrades-in-arms? Finally he left for Philadelphia, having decided to attend both meetings.