George Washington And “the Guilty, Dangerous & Vulgar Honor”

PrintPrintEmailEmail

George Washington, writes Carry Wills, “succeeded so well that he almost succeeds himself out of the hero business. He made his accomplishments look, in retrospect, almost inevitable. Heroism so quietly efficient dwindles to managerial skill.”

But if Washington today strikes some as a remote figure who merely had the good fortune to be there when history was ready for him, he was an object of extraordinary reverence to his contemporaries. Their adoration gave rise to a society which, many believed, threatened the very existence of the new republic. In this perceptive essay, Wills shows how Washington’s essential greatness allowed him to cope with veneration just as, a few years earlier, it had helped him stave off despair, calumny, and defeat.

Charles Willson Peale’s loving portrait of his brother James shows the brother wearing the blue ribbon and gold eagle of the order of the Cincinnati, a medal displayed with great pride by officers of the Revolution. Gilbert Stuart painted veterans by the dozen who wanted to be immortalized with that emblem. In France, Lafayette wore it proudly at court, and Rochambeau petitioned for membership in the society. John Trumbull, the painter who boasted on his tombstone that he was THE FRIEND OF WASHINGTON , had himself sculpted by John Ball Hughes wearing the medal. He was not only Washington’s friend; he had fought beside him. The eagle was designed by Pierre L’Enfant, who would later plan the federal city. His striking use of the American eagle’s white plumes helped fix the national symbol as, precisely, a bald eagle.

But if this was a coveted honor, it was also a resented privilege. Only those who were officers at the end of the Revolution, or had served three years at officer’s rank, could join. Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Madison’s classmate at Princeton, mocked the society in his 1786 Hudibrastics . He said the first Cincinnatus returned to his plow

Without a goose-resembling bauble Or other bird or beast could gabble A word of Latin or Greek.

Benjamin Franklin too had questioned the Latinity of the medal’s legend ( Omnia Relinquit Servare Rempublicam ). But even with his misgivings about eagles, Franklin knew how to get on both sides of any issue: he joked about the society but accepted honorary membership in it.

 

Brackenridge makes noncommissioned soldiers grumble in rhyme:

Because we have not at our bosum That thing of yours, a rosy cruzum; Are not embellish’d with a broach At heart, or neck, or breast, or crotch.

The Connecticut Wits, themselves Cincinnati, counterattacked in verse. David Humphreys mocked Aedanus Burke, the pamphleteer against the society:

Scar’d at the shape of Cincinnatus’ name, The envious Burke denied that road to fame, Stars, ribbands, mantles crowding on his brain.

Since Mirabeau translated Burke into French, to attack Lafayette and others for wearing the order of the society, Humphreys wrote of Burke:

From him shall Gallic scribblers learn their lore And write (like him) as man ne’er wrote before.

Beneath all this raillery there was a serious struggle. Some tried to outlaw the Society of the Cincinnati, to prevent its spread, to disfranchise its members. On the other side, members of the society defied their own leader to keep the company alive. Brother served against brother in Shays’ rebellion; and conflict over the Cincinnati almost prevented (with incalculable results) General Washington’s attendance at the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

The struggle around the little eagle involved, in time, all the problems of the country’s difficult transition from the Revolution to the Constitution. A false step by Washington could have destroyed the moral authority he brought to bear for adoption of The Philadelphia document. Historian Charles Beard, at his most conspiratorial, saw the Cincinnati as (in part) a scheme to redeem bonds held by Revolutionary officers at the expense of rank-and-file veterans.

The Cincinnati were, after the disbanding of the Continental Army, the one organization that could muster support for the Constitution among recognized leaders in all thirteen states. Their enemies made this an argument against adoption of the Constitution. They felt that the society would control any government it brought into being.