- 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
Social impeccability, however, did not always guarantee current acceptability. Cleveland Amory reports in Who Killed Society that Life magazine sent a photographer-reporter team to cover the 1956 triennial meeting of the society at Newport, Rhode Island. Finding no one of marketable interest—that is, no one “who talked at cocktails while a group of proper-looking people gathered around and hung on every word”—the Life men departed.
With or without Life ’s approval, the Cincinnati today is flourishing. All fourteen of its societies are active. The total membership has reached 2,400 and is still growing. Verplanck House burned down in 1931, but the society maintains Anderson House in Washington, D.C., as a combination headquarters and museum. The order’s most recent triennial meeting was held at Princeton, New Jersey, last May.
Unlike some other patriotic societies, the order works quietly in its dealings with the outside world. The French society having been restored in 1925, the Cincinnati now finances a trip to America for a young Frenchman—preferably a member of the order or the descendant of a member—to study American civilization at Harvard Summer School and to take a non-academic tour of inspection around the country. In 1959 the Cincinnati held its triennial meeting in France and had a reception at Louis XIV’s old pomping grounds, the palace of Versailles. Some members even met with General Charles de Gaulle, a modern sun king who did not choose to follow the example of Cincinnatus. Down through the years the society has taken an active interest in American history. It helped transfer the remains of Nathanael Greene, John Paul Jones, and George Clinton to suitable resting places. In 1804 it paid for John Trumbull’s painting of George Washington. It led the fight to preserve the U.S.S. Constellation. It built and maintains a monument at New Windsor, New York, where preliminary plans for the order were thrashed out and made final.
Today the society has many activities. Its invaluable collection of Revolutionary documents and papers is kept in the Library of Congress, and Anderson House is an interesting museum in its own right. In keeping with one of its original aims, the society still gives financial help to needy members. In addition, the state societies have their own programs. Virginia’s gives fellowships to several colleges and universities within the state. Connecticut’s presents a sword to an outstanding graduate of the Coast Guard Academy at New London. Others mark historical sites and help maintain library rooms devoted to U.S. history.
Who could object to such activities? It is hard to imagine that Jefferson would find much to rail against now. Probably his fears were not justified in the first place, for as Franklin realized, the Cincinnati might well have gone unnoticed if it had not been for the hereditary clause and the badges of membership. A weakness for pomp and a certain naïveté about public reactions is not unknown among military men. But by assuming an aristocratic air, no matter how innocent, the founders tweaked a tender nerve in the young nation and got a violent twitch in return.
Nowadays the military influence in American life assumes guises that would have astonished the men at Verplanck House. If Cincinnatus had lived in this age, he doubtless would have retired from the battlefield and slipped into the board chairmanship of some leading firm in the defense industry. Grateful senators could then have rewarded him not with a wreath but with a contract.