- Historic Sites
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
As it turned out, his soul-searching was unnecessary. Once again the Cincinnati greeted him with great affection and respect, and things went well. He was reelected president general with the understanding that Vice President Thomas Mifflin would handle all the active chores. And this time there was no testy public to contend with. Newspapers had widely publicized the revisions in the Institution proposed by the 1784 convention; but, unable to keep track of each state society’s protracted voting, they happily had failed to report that the changes had not been adopted. For all the public knew, whatever dangers the Cincinnati presented had been eliminated three years before.
And in truth, even critics who knew that no changes had been made would have been hard put to build a serious case against the society. Its members were playing a prominent and positive role in the Constitutional Convention. Of the fifty-five original delegates, sixteen belonged to the order, and ten more became honorary members. Although Washington was distressed, as he wrote to a friend in 1788, to hear charges that “the proposed government [is] the wicked and traitorous fabrication of the Cincinnati,” there was nothing to equal the outcry of 1783-84.
As time passed, the situation grew even calmer. When in 1790 General St. Clair named a town on the Ohio River in honor of the Cincinnati, no one objected strongly. Two years later Hugh Henry Brackenridge published a novel called Modern Chivalry in which he poked a satiric thumb in the society’s eye, but he concluded that “it is a thing which can do little harm.” The order itself at its 1790 meeting was glad to note: “It gives us inexpressible pleasure to find that the unreasonable and illogical clamor, which at one moment had been excited against our Institution, has totally subsided.”
Even some of the more illustrious critics mellowed. Benjamin Franklin may have become an honorary member, although this point is not clear.∗ After the Cincinnati of South Carolina wrote to John Adams pledging its support during his Presidency, he commented: “When the Cincinnati of South Carolina pledge their lives, their fortunes, their sacred honor, I believe that no man will doubt their integrity.”
∗ The records of the Pennsylvania society say that Franklin was elected an honorary member on July 7, 1789, and there is an authentic certificate, dated July 11, 1789, bearing his name. However, another person’s name had been erased from the diploma and Franklin’s written in; thus the doubt about his membership.
Washington relaxed his wariness, and in time even the most severe critic of the Cincinnati found himself writing to the Virginia society to request funds for Central College, later to become the University of Virginia. But Thomas Jefferson’s attacks had cut too deeply for quick healing; his request was rejected.
As for the order itself, any conspiratorial sparks smouldering in the membership were being doused in conviviality. In some state societies serious thoughts of preserving “union and national honor” gave ground to thoughts of meetings and picnics, usually held on the Fourth of July. On these occasions, noble sentiments were limited to a speech or two, and most of the energy went into shared reminiscences. In 1789, officers of the Massachusetts society met at the Bunch of Grapes tavern in Boston to plan for the statewide meeting; the refreshment list would include “the best Madeira wine at fourteen shillings…per gallon, and the best claret wine at two shillings per bottle.”
Not all state societies were so inclined to festiveness. At a typical Connecticut gathering in Hartford, members of the society marched soberly to a meetinghouse, where they first heard a prayer, then a reading of the Declaration of Independence. This was followed by an oration from one of the members, “sundry select pieces of sacred music…performed by the ladies and gentlemen of the City,” and “a very elegant dinner composed of all the varieties of the season.”
Neither type of meeting—wet or dry—seemed to pose a clear threat to the Union. Nor did the society’s everyday activities. As Revolutionary survivors grew old or ill, Cincinnati funds were provided for the support of widows, children, and other dependents. In time, the main business of meetings was passing on such cases. Certainly this was harmless. When the general convention of 1800 declared that the original Institution of 1783 was still in force, public reaction was nil. The society had become an accepted part of American life. Had it deserved all the condemnation? Had it really played a sinister role in the Republic’s first fratrile days?
Apparently not. During the critical 1780’s it was, to be sure, a force for conservatism. Since many members held public bonds, they supported Alexander Hamilton’s idea that a government must not renege on its obligations. The society opposed Shays’ Rebellion; indeed, the uprising was finally crushed by soldiers under Benjamin Lincoln, president of the Massachusetts society, and Henry Knox proudly reported to Washington that “the few wretched officers who were against the government were not of the Cincinnati.”