- Historic Sites
George Washington And “the Guilty, Dangerous & Vulgar Honor”
In an age of ersatz heroes, a fresh look at the real thing
February/March 1980 | Volume 31, Issue 2
Cornwallis, angered at this treatment, sent out a subordinate to surrender, with orders to yield his sword to a French officer. But no Frenchman would accept it; they gestured the man toward Washington—who gestured him toward General Lincoln. The man humiliated at Charleston received the great surrender.
His men were fiercely loyal to Washington. It is easy to see why the sentimental Henry Knox formed the Society of the Cincinnati as an expression of that loyalty. Knox, the genial Boston bookseller who wrestled British guns through forests down from Canada to found the American artillery corps, proposed the society in 1783 as a charitable organization to care for the widows and orphans of fallen officers. But his real aim was emotional, to preserve the camaraderie he had enjoyed. There is, after all, a remarkable fulfillment in the society of Henry Vs vision as Shakespeare presents it. Substitute different names for “Bedford and Exeter . . ."—names like Laurens and Hamilton, Monroe and Knox, Lincoln, Lafayette—and the familiar lines become vividly applicable. What Shakespeare only dreamed, Henry Knox accomplished:
He that shall live this day, and see old age, Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors, And say, “Tomorrow is Saint Crispian” Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars, And say, “These wounds I had on Crispins day.” Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot, But he’ll remember with advantages What feats he did that day. Then shall our names, Familiar in his mouth as household words, Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red. This story shall the good man teach his son; And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by, From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered . . .
Gouverneur Morris, in his speech on Washington, compared Valley Forge to the eve of Agincourt. Once again the drama’s words fit history eerily well. The leader’s men,
Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires Sit patiently and inly ruminate The morning’s danger, and their gesture sad, Investing lank-lean cheeks and war- worn coats, Presented them unto the gazing moon So many horrid ghosts. O now, who will behold The royal captain of this ruin’d band Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent. . .
Inspiring as this vision might be, and flattering to him, Washington would not let the union of his colleagues work against the larger union of the nation. In the war he had made it a point of honor to show no favoritism to Virginians. In peace- he would not favor his fellow officers in a way that could menace civil order. He urged the Cincinnati to remove the hereditary feature from their membership ("This story shall the good man tell his son"). The national meeting agreed, but the state units—as independent as the states themselves in this era of the Articles—refused. Washington made his Presidency nominal, discharging minimum business without enthusiasm. He did not wear the eagle that so many others display in their portraits. Edward Savage put the medal on one of his portraits of Washington, but it had not been worn at the sitting. In 1787 Washington alleged illness as an excuse for absence from the triennial meeting in Philadelphia (see, he could too tell a lie). Then, when plans were made to hold the Constitutional Convention in that city, at the very time when the society was assembling, Washington said he could not go because of his earlier story. Only after repeated urging by Governor Randolph and James Madison, who said the whole cause of national union might depend on his representing Virginia, did he give in. (He dined with members of the society but did not attend its meetings.)
Washington’s cool attitude toward the Cincinnati rescued the society from those excesses its enemies feared. The group survived only as Knox had wished, as a sentimental bond among the heirs of heroes. The ties forged during the Revolution helped along the cause of union rather than hindering it. Washington escaped the accusations of partisanship that might have obstructed passage of the Constitution.
Though Washington could not, in conscience, join Lafayette in the revolutionary stirrings of France, French and American officers, fellow Cincinnati, fought in World Wars I and II and celebrated their solidarity across the centuries—no doubt in “flowing cups” and “with advantages.”
Lafayette Park in front of the White House has at each of its four corners the statue of a foreign officer who fought in the Revolution—the Comte de Rochambeau, “Baron” von Steuben, General Kosciusko, and Lafayette himself. All, of course, were Cincinnati. Lafayette is shown pleading with the French to aid America, and four French officers who responded stand at the base of his statue. All five of them wear sculpted eagles of the society.