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George Washington and “The Guilty, Dangerous & Vulgar Honor”

July 2024
11min read

In an age of ersatz heroes, a fresh look at the real thing

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.

The argument strayed into very strange channels. While most people were attacking the society as a nascent aristocracy, Elbridge Gerry feared demagogy. He used the society as an argument against popular election of a President: “The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men, dispersed through the Union and acting in concert, to delude them into any appointment.” He observed that such a society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They were respectable, united, and influential. They would in fact elect the chief magistrate in every instance if the election were referred to the people. His respect for the characters composing this society could not blind him to the danger and impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.

Washington weighed these criticisms carefully. He asked Jefferson to put his objections to the society in writing. He read the Burke pamphlet and a translation of Mirabeau. Since none dared attack Washington directly, they tried to flatter him away from his followers: “Was it possible,” wrote Mirabeau, “he should not feel how much his name was superior to all distinction? The hero of the Revolution which broke the chains of half the world—was it possible that he should not scorn the guilty, dangerous, and vulgar honor of being the hero of a party?” Jefferson struck the same note, hoping that “the character which will be handed to future ages at the head of our Revolution may in no instance be compromitted by subordinate altercations.”

Still, veterans were anxious to join the society. Washington had been hailed around the world as the modern Cincinnatus when he resigned his commission at the end of the war. Any tie to him was welcomed. Desmoulins would suggest that French revolutionaries adopt a blue cockade to associate themselves with the first successful revolution of the modern world. The society’s medal was the only foreign order that could be worn at the French court. When, at first, French naval officers were not invited to join, they petitioned for admission. When this was granted, they sent Washington an eagle formed of diamonds and emeralds to express their gratitude.

Late in his life, Trumbull pointed at a wounded American sprawled behind the standing Hessian in his painting of Washington at Trenton and said, “But for that he would never have been President.” The young lieutenant with the wound was James Monroe. Trumbull exaggerated; but it was certainly no political liability to have served with Washington. There was a special glamor thrown, all the rest of their lives, around the men who rode with him.

Enemies of the Cincinnati had good reason to fear the awesome power Washington exerted over and through the Revolutionary officers—the men who would boast on their tombstones they were friends of Washington. He did forge a high level of military pride in an army endangered by rancorous divisions, interstate rivalries, and demoralizing recruitment procedures. The achievement of this spirit contributed significantly to the acceptance of the federal union. Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick point out that the young men of the Revolution took the lead at the Constitutional Convention, men formed by experience in the Continental Army or the Continental Congresses. Edmund Randolph, arguing for Virginia’s ratification of the Constitution, said, “I am a child of the Revolution.” (Randolph felt a special affection for Washington, since the general had stood warrant for his patriotism when Randolph’s Tory father fled to England.)

“The hero of the Revolution which broke the chains of half the world …”

It is easy to forget how extraordinary was Washington’s achievement in creating this solidarity among officers bred to colonial prerogative and to the pride of local militias. When he first arrived at Boston, some camps would not even admit this stranger from the South. He had to win the respect of men who had every regional cause to resent him. So spectacularly did he succeed that service on his staff or in his guard became a highly desired prize.

We mistake the impact of Washington when we think of his peers as fellow “founders” like Franklin or Madison. He stood as clearly above them in the popular regard as he did above fellow officers like Gates or Putnam. His contemporaries very soon ranked him in stature (though not in character, where he was their superior) with the charismatic nation builders, with Alexander, Caesar, Cromwell. He differed from them—and later on, from Napoleon—by not overreaching himself. There would be no doomed romance of failure around him. He accomplished everything he set out to do, went home, and died prosaically in bed. He 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 there was nothing inevitable about the task when he took it up. Then it looked impossible. His firmness and resolve, which looked stolid at a distance, gave heartening defiance to panic for those around him. Part of his sway over others was precisely the quiet strength that his whole physique conveyed. He was a giant for his day, linked to the legendary size of his French ally, the Comte de Grasse. The doctors who measured him on his deathbed probably made a mistake when they said he was six feet three inches tall; but even at six-two, in military boots he would have towered over most eighteenth-century men. Despite his size, and despite a rather clumsily shaped body, he was extraordinarily graceful in all his movements. Quick reflexes made him a model horseman, dancer, and athlete. At his favorite recreation of throwing weights, no one could equal him. Charles Willson Peale, at Mount Vernon to do his first portrait of the forty-year-old Washington, wrote that the plantation owner came out while the young men were throwing weights in their shirtsleeves and, without removing his coat, threw it far beyond their best mark. Travelers noted that, when water got rough in raft passages, the athletic Washington took the steering pole himself.

Washington had great stamina, and an immunity to smallpox (after a mild case in Barbados) that let him move freely among his men, even the quarantined. In eighteenth-century war, it was the custom for senior officers to go home while the army was in winter camp. But Washington did not see Mount Vernon in six years, and then only because the route to Yorktown took him past his estate. Other generals were constantly going to Philadelphia, dabbling in the politics of command and appointments; Washington went only when summoned. His presence was often the only thing holding the army together. That is why he could not be tempted away from Valley Forge or Morristown toward the milder winters of Virginia.

Though he did not indulge in empty theatrics, Washington knew that armies live on pride as well as on earthier provisions. At the retreat from Harlem Heights, a contemptuous British trumpeter sounded the hunt signal for “defeat” of a fox, not the military recall. Washington, who had hunted on the Fairfax estate, and whose horn still hangs at Mount Vernon, sent a cavalry detachment to strike at those guilty of the insult.

Like most military leaders, Washington was acutely aware of psychological advantage and knew how to use the grand gesture. The Marquis de Chastellux, French academician and generous supporter of the war, was irrevocably won to Washington by the farewell gesture when he left his camp: “The weather being fair on the 26th, I got on horseback after breakfasting with the General. He was so attentive as to give me the horse he rode on the day of my arrival, which I had greatly commended. I found him as good as he is handsome, but above all perfectly well broke and well trained, having a good mouth, easy in hand, and stopping short in a gallop without bearing the bit. I mention these minute particulars because it is the General himself who breaks all his own horses, and he is a very excellent and bold horseman, leaping the highest fences and going extremely quick without standing upon his stirrups, bearing on the bridle, or letting his horse run wild.”

The British, practicing their own form of psychological warfare, constantly denigrated Americans, treating only the French officers as belonging to a real army. The Americans, it was thought, could be demoralized if they were handled as mere riotous subjects of the king, a rabble on the run. Thus General Howe at first refused Washington any military title, sending his first missive to “George Washington, Esq.” Washington, after consultation with his staff, refused to accept the message. The story was later embellished by his staff, in ways that show their feeling for the leader. A newly arrived French officer heard the story this way: “One of the company (if I remember rightly, it was, I think, Colonel Hamilton, who was afterwards so unfortunately and prematurely snatched from the hopes of his country) related the manner in which the General had received a dispatch from Sir Henry Clinton [sic], addressed to ‘Mr. Washington.’ Seeing the address, ‘This letter,’ said he, ‘is directed to a planter of the state of Virginia. I shall have it delivered to him, after the end of the war; till that time it shall not be opened.’ A second dispatch was addressed to His Excellency General Washington.”


These were not empty matters of etiquette. Unless the rules of war were established, American captives could not count on proper treatment. Washington had to live like the leader of an outlaw band at times but command respect even from his foes. His welluniformed guard, chosen (among other things) for height and looks, attended him at the grand linen marquee that can only be displayed half-open at the Smithsonian. These were meant to impress arriving recruits as well as enemy emissaries. What was at stake was illustrated when Charleston fell to the British. General Benjamin Lincoln was denied the honors of war, sent out with veiled colors in humiliation. At the fall of Yorktown, Washington insisted on the same conditions for Cornwallis (he did not know this was the last major battle of the war—no one knew at the time).

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.


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