August 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 5
Just what moved those Revolutionary War officers to form the Society of the Cincinnati, America’s first veterans’ organization? Some said it was treason
On the morning of May 13, 1783, a group of officers of the Continental Army gathered at Verplanck House near the Hudson River village of Fishkill, New York. The house, built of stone in the Dutch style, was headquarters for General Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, the Prussian professional who had done so much to train and reorganize Washington’s Revolutionary army. As the senior officer present, Baron von Steuben presided.
The meeting’s moving force, however, was Major General Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery for the Continental Army. For some years Knox had been thinking about a ribbon that veterans might wear to show they had fought for the liberty of their nation. He envisaged a badge or memento that could be passed proudly from generation to generation.
Now Knox’s dream was nearing fulfillment. In April he had sketched out an organization and made a rough draft of its rules; then he had checked his ideas with other officers of the Army, which was camped for the winter around Newburgh, New York. Encouraged by their reactions, he arranged for meetings in May to shape his proposed society. Now, at Verplanck House, a charter was discussed and unanimously approved by all present. America’s first veterans’ group had been formed.
The Society of the Cincinnati, as the new organization was called, was not destined for obscurity. Before the end of the critical period between 1783 and 1790, it would touch off an international furor and shake the wobbly foundations of the new American republic. Along the way it would embarrass George Washington, distress John Adams, alarm Thomas Jefferson, amuse Benjamin Franklin, and in some way stir the lives of nearly all leading Americans.
None of the officers assembled at Verplanck House could foresee any of this, of course. They had more immediate concerns, and one was the disbanding of their army. Cornwallis had surrendered at Yorktown nearly two years before, and American ministers in Europe had been negotiating the peace settlement. With the day of separation coming on, Washington’s officers wished simply to preserve the camaraderie established by the war and to help ensure that the ideals for which they had fought would be realized.
And there were other considerations. To put it baldly, many officers had financial worries. The Continental Congress had been lax about its soldiers’ pay, and the future for many was uncertain. Some, like George Washington, could rely on private resources; others were in straits. Von Steuben himself was a case in point. After the surrender at Yorktown, highranking officers of the American, French, and British forces competed at entertaining each other—except for von Steuben. He had already given up his watch to pay the doctor’s bill of his aide-de-camp. Humiliated because he could not be even a moderate host, he tried selling his favorite horse. “We are, God knows, miserably poor,” the Baron complained. “We are constantly feasted by the French without giving them even a bit of bratwurst.” Telling his aide to “take my silver spoons and forks and sell them,” he declared: “I will give one grand dinner to our allies, should I eat my soup with a wooden spoon forever after.”
Finding themselves in similar trouble, many officers were in a lean and dangerous mood. In the winter of 1782–83 they had circulated two “addresses” protesting the “coldness and severity” of their treatment by Congress. Mutiny had hovered over the Newburgh encampment, and Washington had been compelled to warn Congress that “the patriotism and long suffering of this army are well-nigh exhausted.” In the end, only the General’s powerful personality, together with an eloquent appeal to his men’s sense of duty, had calmed the winds of discontent.
But the basic matter of money—and the inability or reluctance of Congress to provide it—remained. It was natural, then, for officers to band together to protect their common interests. If Congress had been remiss on salaries, it could now at least be gracious enough to provide pensions or other financial security for America’s out-of-work soldiers. And what Congress did not provide could be made up by an organization that would help those in need.
Were social ties and mutual worries the only considerations at Verplanck House? It is impossible not to assign mundane motives to most of those present, but they were idealistic, too, and this came through at least in the name they chose for their new society.
In the fifth century B.C., Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus left his farm to lead his fellow Romans in victorious battle against invading enemies. Then Cincinnatus set a precedent for future civilian-soldiers by rejecting the Senate’s offer of civil power and returning to furrow and family. To men imbued with the neoclassic spirit of the late eighteenth century, Cincinnatus must have had a special appeal. The Revolutionary officers honored his name and example by calling their organization the Society of the Cincinnati.
In view of the simple virtues that the name implied, it is perhaps unfortunate that Henry Knox played an important role in drawing up the Cincinnati’s charter. Timothy Pickering, Quartermaster General and himself a member of the society, would later remark that Knox’s language “bore the marks of his pomposity.” Even the charter’s title had a solemn ring; it was called the “Institution.”
Nevertheless, a true patriot could hardly quibble about the three principles—financial, fraternal, and patriotic—to which the society proposed to devote itself: An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature, for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing.
An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor, so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American Empire.
To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the Officers. This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularfy extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence…towards those Officers and their Families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it.
It was not these goals but the rules set up to carry them out that almost brought down the Cincinnati.
The General Society was divided into state societies, each completely autonomous, which collected funds from members and kept in touch with the others by circular letters and periodic general meetings. Membership was limited to those officers of the Army (later the Navy would be included) who had served to the end of the war, had resigned with honor after three years’ service, or had been “deranged” (the term meant honorably retired) by act of Congress. When a charter member died, succession would pass to his “eldest male posterity” or to another branch of his family “who may be judged worthy.” In other words, only one member of each family, usually the oldest son, could belong at any one time. To acknowledge America’s debt to France, her ally in the Revolution, provision was made for a French society. The Cincinnati eventually decided to include all foreign officers who could meet the general requirements.
Recognizing that there were men other than officers who might be “eminent for their abilities and patriotism,” the Institution set up honorary memberships. These were good only for the lifetime of the person concerned and could not be inherited.
Knox had dreamed of a distinguishing insignia for veterans, and the Institution provided for one. A medal, or badge, of gold would be struck. It would hang from a blue ribbon edged with white, thus uniting the colors of America and France. On one side the medal would show Cincinnatus being presented with a sword by three senators, his wife and plow waiting discreetly in the background. The other side would depict the farmer-hero being crowned with a wreath by Fame. Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, lately of the Continental Corps of Engineers, won the commission to design the society’s certificate of membership and badge. L’Enfant chose the American bald eagle for the basic design of the medal.
With the groundwork laid, the founders now needed a president general, as their leader was to be called. The choice was obvious: George Washington was unanimously elected at the Verplanck meeting. Generals Knox, von Steuben, and William Heath were asked to call on Washington and request his acceptance. They did so, and at Newburgh on May 20 the General agreed to serve.
Once the Commanding General had signed on, other officers were quick to follow. During the summer of 1783, societies were founded in all thirteen states, the original membership eventually totalling some 2,400 men out of the nearly 6,000 who were eligible. Among the joiners were such luminaries as Alexander Hamilton, Nathanael Greene, John Paul Jones, Thaddeus Kosciusko, Horatio Gates, James Monroe, William Moultrie, “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, and William Clark. The distinguished roster in itself aided recruitment. The order’s reception in France was even more enthusiastic. Louis XVI relaxed a rule which forbade his officers to wear foreign decorations. Major L’Enfant, with forgivable partiality, observed that the badge had become more popular than the traditional Order of St. Louis. In all, 356 men, the cream of the ancien régime , joined the French society. Lafayette, de Grasse, and Rochambeau tried to outdo one another in the interest they could show. Denis-Jean Dubouchet, who had fought for America but not long enough to meet society requirements, crossed the Atlantic to plead his case. He succeeded, getting an appointment from Washington himself, and returned to France feeling well rewarded for his pains.
Unhappily for the order, such enthusiasm was not typical at home. Watchful eyes in America were viewing the fraternal developments with alarm. The opening salvo of criticism, fired in the autumn of 1783, was a fifteen-page pamphlet entitled Considerations on the Order or Society of Cincinnati . The author, deciding to counter one name from antiquity with another, had signed himself “Cassius”; his real name was Aedanus Burke, of South Carolina. Born in County Galway to a family accustomed to fighting British rule, Burke had come to America as a youth and then studied law. He served during the early part of the Revolution (not long enough to make him eligible for the Cincinnati) and later became a member of the bench of South Carolina. He helped form the state’s democratic rules of government, rejoicing over the end of “unnatural distinctions of noblemen and commons.” In later years, he would oppose ratification of the Constitution and would attack idolatry of Washington as a first step toward monarchy. As self-appointed watchdog to keep “our liberties from being fooled away,” he never hesitated to speak his mind.
On the title page of his pamphlet, Burke put the Biblical admonition “Blow ye the trumpet in Zion.” And blow he did. He charged that the members of the Cincinnati had no intention of imitating the society’s namesake by returning to obscure citizenship. He predicted that they would develop a hereditary peerage, eventually seizing control of all civil and military offices and destroying all hope of putting democratic theory into practice. “The Order is planted in a fiery, hot ambition, and thirst for power,” cried Burke, “and its branches will end in tyranny.” Never one to understate an argument, he put the society’s membership at 10,000, more than quadrupling its size. But his arguments, no matter how overblown, found a ready audience. Cassius’ ideas spread quickly and made the society, as Thomas Jefferson would wryly note, “the subject of general conversation.”
Criticism crackled through the colonies. Northerner Elbridge Gerry and southerner James Madison both predicted that the society would be able to control elections. Fiery old Sam Adams accused it of being “as rapid a Strike towards an hereditary Military Nobility as was ever made in so short a time.” A less prominent but pun-loving critic said in the Virginia Gazette , “I dislike [the society] more particularly for having two ‘Cins’ in it.”
To some, the Institution raised a number of dangerous questions. Hadn’t the war been fought partly to end such abuses of privilege as primogeniture? Why hadn’t the officers made express provision to look after the army’s rank and file? Why should honorary membership be limited to citizens “whose views may be directed to the same laudable objects with those of the Cincinnati”? Wasn’t this an attempt to attract influential men with the carrot of membership? Finally, why was it suggested that letters circulated among state societies concern themselves not only with Cincinnati affairs but also with “the general union of the States”? Critics remembered how they themselves had used committees of correspondence to foment a revolution. And what about those French members? The Massachusetts legislature warned that they were “strongly attached to a government essentially different in principles from the republican constituents of the United States.”
In money-conscious New England, the prospect of military influence in financial affairs touched off a display of Yankee fireworks. Some citizens stoutly defended the idea of government aid to officers. Others were vehemently opposed. Citizens using such pseudonyms as “An Officer,” “An Impartial Farmer,” “A Continentalist,” and “Cives” had at each other in the press. Signing himself “Honorius,” young Noah Webster took time off from his words to support government subsidies for Continental officers, but the town meeting of Killingworth, Connecticut, pointed out cantankerously that the first Cincinnatus had not felt compelled to retire on government funds. A statewide convention at Middletown—called expressly to consider the Cincinnati problem and keep watch on this “new and strange order of men”—commended Burke’s pamphlet “to the notice and perusal of the people at large.”
In Rhode Island things were not much better. Nathanael Greene, president of the state society, conceded that his order was “thought to contain dangerous designs, pregnant with mischief, and…ruinous to the people.” In fact, rumor soon spread that Rhode Island’s legislature had disenfranchised society members and had banned them from “holding any post of honour and trust” in its government. Although archives of the state record no such law, the rumor was widely accepted as fact.
With matters at this pitch, controversy quickly leaped the Atlantic. The Comte de Mirabeau, a French nobleman who had turned against the old order and who later became a leader in the early stages of the French Revolution, showed his radical sympathies by translating the Cassius pamphlet into French, adding some jabs of his own. And liberal spirits in France and Germany, who had hailed America’s victory as a blow for democratic principles, bemoaned what they considered an aristocratic aberration on the part of their heroes.
With Europe busily inspecting America’s washline, three leading American diplomats abroad were quick to react, each in his own way. From Paris, John Jay commented sourly that if the society “took well in the states,” he “would not care if the Revolutionary War had succeeded or not.”
John Adams was at first only a lukewarm objector. Writing to Lafayette from Holland, he said he “disapproved…with as much tranquility and self-recollection, and phlegm, if you will, as I had been a native, full-blooded Dutchman.” And he added that the order might be “the first step taken to deface the beauty of our temple of liberty.” Later, Adams’ mood went from phlegmatic to splenetic. Perhaps put out by the hostile treatment he received at London’s aristocratic Court of St. James’s, he wrote to Elbridge Gerry: “The Cincinnati is the deepest piece of cunning yet attempted. It is sowing the seeds of all that European courts wish to grow up among us, viz. of vanity, ambition, corruption, discord, and sedition.”
The third diplomat was less angry than sardonically amused. Old Ben Franklin, another peace commissioner in Paris, just could not take the order with complete seriousness. As a scientist, he showed how the members’ patriotic blood would be watered down from generation to generation. As a scholar, he criticized the Latin of the society’s motto, Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam .∗ As a naturalist, he regretted that the Cincinnati had chosen for its symbol the eagle, “a bird of bad moral character” and “a rank coward.” Franklin commented that the founders of the society had been “too struck with the ribbands and crosses they have seen hanging in the button-holes of foreign officers,” but he concluded that “if people can be pleased with small matters, it is a pity that they should not have them.”
∗ The motto, a reference to Cincinnatus, may be translated into modern idiom as “He dropped everything to save the nation.” The motto’s author has never been established, but whoever it was gave Latin buffs something to chew on. Since the motto expressed purpose, it more correctly should have used the imperfect subjunctive, Omnia reliquit ut servaret rempublicam . L’Enfant also added to the confusion. His sketch for the design of the badge showed Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam , adding an “n” to the second word. This spelling was used on the certificate but not on the eagle badge itself, which somehow came out with Omnia relinqt servat rempb . Valuing tradition over the niceties of syntax, the Cincinnati has left everything the way it originally appeared.
Like Franklin, even some of the pillars of the society were able to laugh off the criticism. While sending nervous notes to Washington, Henry Knox was writing to von Steuben: Your Society, monsieur baron, has occasioned great jealousies among the good people of New England, who say it is altogether an outlandish creature, formed by a foreign allegiance.…You see how much you have to answer for by the introduction of your European distinctions.
Von Steuben parodied Cassius in his even jollier reply: A ça, Monsieur le Cincinnatus! your pernicious designs are then unveiled. You wish to introduce dukes and peers into our republic? No, my lord; no, your Grace, that will not do; there is a Cassius more far-sighted than this German baron:…When I shall tell him that the young Marquis Henry Knox is already promised in marriage to a Princess Hyder Ali…and that the King of Spain wishes to accept the place of Treasurer of the Order, then, Blow Ye the Trumpet in Zion!
At Mount Vernon, however, the society’s president general was not in a bantering mood. Seeking peace, Washington had found a furor. He had not formed the Cincinnati and had not asked to become its leader. He had come home to Virginia in hopes, as he wrote to Lafayette, of “retiring within myself…envious of none…determined to be pleased with all.” But Henry Knox was writing him to report that the waves of hostility were sweeping New England, and that the Massachusetts society had not dared to call more attention to itself by appointing honorary members.
Always concerned about his “public image,” as a later age would call it, Washington was highly embarrassed by the general outcry. What reflected on the society, he thought, reflected on him. He was also deeply worried about his nation, which was in danger of flying apart in the loose straps of confederation. He realized that a public battle over the society was just what the country did not need.
Thomas Jefferson, always anxious to lay an “axe to the root of pseudo-aristocracy,” did nothing to ease Washington’s worries. He was all for having members of the society “distribute their funds, renounce their existence,” and “melt up their eagles.” He urged that Washington stand “on ground separated” from the order so that “the head of our revolution may in no instance be compromised in subordinate altercations.” Jefferson’s enmity was dismissed by some defenders of the society as a bad case of sour grapes: he had not fought in the Revolution and was therefore ineligible for membership. Similar diagnoses were made for other critics of the order. But when Washington received a letter from Lafayette that gently but firmly criticized the hereditary clause of the Institution, he was impressed; normally a French nobleman could be expected to accept such things.
Clearly something had to be done to ease popular suspicions and end the divisive conflict. With a general meeting of the society scheduled for May of 1784 in Philadelphia, Washington decided to act. He went over the Institution line by line and wrote out a set of revisions meant, he noted, to “strike out every word, sentence and clause which has a political tendency.” At the same time, he tried to enlist support for the coming convention. In one letter after another he urged Nathanael Greene to attend the meeting and use his prestige on the side of change. But Greene had political ambitions, and perhaps these pushed him toward discretion. He wrote to Washington: “The Doctor thinks my life would be endangered by attempting to cross the Water, and my pain in my stomach increased by riding by land.” This bad news was balanced by word from Henry Knox, who agreed that the Institution would have to be revised. Determined to end the nation’s cause for alarm, Washington left Mount Vernon at the end of April on his first long trip since the war’s end.
Philadelphia welcomed him as a national hero, and his former officers showed themselves ready to accept his leadership. Speaking “warmly and in plain language,” Washington persuaded the delegates to adopt a set of important changes in the Institution. After much debate, the convention voted to abolish both hereditary descent and honorary membership. It also decided to stop the political correspondence among state societies. The delegates agreed to wear society badges only at meetings, funerals of members, or in Europe, where they seemed more appropriate.
These concessions might have put an end to Washington’s worries except for one circumstance. The Institution, modelled on the Articles of Confederation, had no provision for amendments. Before the changes could take effect, all thirteen of the state societies and the one in France as well had to ratify them. Three did so. Three refused. The remaining eight, including the one in France, first voted for revisions and then decided to support the original Institution. The changes were disallowed. According to William S. Thomas, a historian of the Cincinnati, L’Enfant probably helped inspire the members’ intransigence. His designs for a medal and a certificate had been made up in Paris, and he appeared in Philadelphia with some of the finished goods. “The Society was saved,” comments Thomas. “Heartened delegates returned to their State Societies in a different frame of mind….”
Fortunately for the order, the state societies were slow in voting; the rejection was not soon apparent. Washington did not learn that his reforms had been rejected until late in 1785. In December he expressed his irritation about the matter to Alexander Hamilton. His enthusiasm for the Cincinnati was at its lowest point, and he resolved to remain its nominal leader but to withdraw from its workings as much as possible.
Then fate intervened. A second general meeting of the society was set for Philadelphia in 1787—just, it developed, when the Constitutional Convention would be meeting to seek a more workable form of government. Washington had already notified the society that he would not be able to attend, giving rheumatism and pressing private affairs as his excuse. But now Jefferson, Madison, and Edmund Randolph were strongly urging his presence at the Constitutional Convention.
To a man of Washington’s convictions, the overlapping conventions brought an agonizing dilemma. He clearly saw the need for a stronger government. Henry Knox warned him that there were “combustibles in every State, which a spark might set fire to.” He himself feared that the spring of 1787 might bring scenes that would “astonish the world.”
At the same time, the General’s strict code of personal courtesy came into play. Washington was simply not a man who could now show up at the Cincinnati meeting and dismiss his earlier refusal with a wave of the hand. How, then, could he attend the Constitutional Convention without offending the society’s leaders, who were, after all, his old comrades-in-arms? Finally he left for Philadelphia, having decided to attend both meetings.
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.”
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 :
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.