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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
Given their financial outlook and inherent conservatism, it is not surprising that many society members found themselves allied with the Federalists. In fact, the society could hardly have been better represented in the constitutional government during its early years. George Washington, of course, was both President of the United States and president general of the society. Henry Knox was his Secretary of War, Alexander Hamilton his Secretary of the Treasury. Timothy Pickering served terms as Postmaster General, Secretary of War, and Secretary of State.
Hamilton, with his sound-money views, seems to have attracted an especially warm following in the society. During the 1790’s, Antifederalists even accused the Cincinnati of being a “machine” to push Hamilton’s political ambitions. These fears were not eased when in 1800 Hamilton became president general to fill the place created by Washington’s death. Four years later, however, all such worries were ended by the pistol of another Cincinnati member, Aaron Burr.
But the order in itself was never a potent political force. In the early years of the nineteenth century it supported a plan that would have given half-pay for life to officers of Washington’s army. The Cincinnati’s secretary general, William Jackson, acted as official lobbyist for the drive and developed some of the pressure techniques that perhaps inspired later veterans’ groups. In 1826 Congress finally granted full pay for life to all officers still around to collect it. However, the society could not claim full credit for this action.
Indeed, at this time the order was in tatters. Public hostility had scared off some members. Death or indifference had taken many others. Only six of the state societies were active, and the branch in France had long since been sawed off by the French Revolution.∗ Moreover, the Cincinnati had helped its own decline by refusing to admit any state society outside the first thirteen. With former officers and their descendants moving westward, and with means of communication at a rudimentary level, many people simply could not maintain their ties.
∗ At first, radical Frenchmen considered the Cincinnati a symbol of liberty. On July 12, 1789, two days before the storming of the Bastille, a rebel named Camille Desmoulins mounted a table in Paris and proposed that a cockade be chosen to represent the popular movement. Casting about among suitable colors, he cried, “What shall it be? Shall it be green, the color of hope, or shall it be blue, the color of the Cincinnati?” Voices in the excited crowd shouted back, “Let it be green, the color of hope.”
When green was later discovered to be the color of Louis XVI’s brother, red and blue, the colors of Paris, were substituted. Then Lafayette suggested that a strip of the old national white be added—and thus helped create the famous tricolor.
Lafayette’s prestige was so high at this point that he was able to send a key of the fallen Bastille to George Washington. However, France’s Cincinnati, formed almost exclusively of nobility, did not survive the Terror. Many members died on the guillotine, including the society’s president, Comte d’Estaing. After one slaughter, the horse of a terrorist was decorated with Cincinnati badges taken from executed owners.
Dust settled and cobwebs formed. In November, 1854, the last original member of the society died. His name was Robert Burnett and, fittingly or ironically, he breathed his last in Newburgh, New York, where Washington had faced his restive officers and where he had agreed to lead the Cincinnati. By this time, things were so low that the order voted to take in descendants of Continental officers who had been eligible for membership in 1783 but had not joined up.
Like a retired campaigner in the doze of his late years, the order slumbered. Then it was reawakened—by the rising tide of immigration. As wave upon wave of hopeful foreigners rolled into the country, people began climbing their family trees to escape the plebeian flood. The past became fashionable, especially if one’s own family was involved. Up sprang such organizations as the Sons of the American Revolution and its awesome counterpart, the Daughters.
With its aristocratic beginnings and hereditary rules, membership in the Cincinnati carried with it a set of impeccable social credentials. Grandsons and greatgrandsons found themselves nudging the society’s comatose body. During the 1880’s and 1890’s it was revived and fitted out in a handsome new uniform. The old boy was back in business.
The society became a kind of first of the first families of America. Great attention was paid to ceremony, and meeting after meeting concerned itself with such problems as the wearing of the badge (around the neck for entertainments, and over the left breast for business, decided the general meeting at Richmond in 1905). News of these concerns was bound to get about, and the society inspired men to poetry. Wrote Arthur Guiterman in a 1936 issue of The New Yorker :