The Society of the Cincinnati: The Nation's Oldest Patriotic Organization
When we study George Washington, particularly his leadership during the American Revolution, we often come to the conclusion, with the help of hundreds of writers and scholars, that what drove him more than anything was the idea of behaving with virtue. Of his most extraordinary talents, it is the lifelong pursuit of virtue that defined him more than anything. Why it matters beyond the battlefields of old has a lot to do with his image becoming folklore in and after the days of the war. The heroism of Washington cemented his legacy as the “Father” of his country, but it was his resignation as commander in chief at war’s end that perhaps best defined his legacy of virtue, and propelled his to be labeled the “American Cincinnatus.”
This is important to understand as we discuss the Society of the Cincinnati, a fraternal organization created by the officers of the Continental Army as a way of celebrating their victory over the British, and establishing an organization that would champion and embody the goals of the American Revolution. None of this sounds particularly controversial, and the organization remains a thriving philanthropic group to this day. At its founding, however, it was shrouded in controversy, and its first president, George Washington, regretted his appointment. Why was this the case?
History generally records the American Revolution winding down after the British defeat at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781. This is inaccurate and glosses over too many moving parts in 1782-83 that almost undid the gains made to secure American independence. For years, the Continental Congress had been unable to pay the army for its services. Under the Articles of Confederation, the individual states had the power to override any request by Congress for monetary donations. Members of Congress could only suggest what funds were needed. Most states either sent far too little money or simply ignored the requests. As a result, both officers and regular soldiers were often given small portions of what they were owed and then were prescribed “I-owe-yous” in the forms of paper endorsements. Others were given American printed paper money. As the economy cratered because of the war, inflation rendered these paper currency as worthless. The phrase, “not worth a Continental,” was common to mock its existence. A majority of the time, soldiers were not paid anything. The promises of officers in the Continental Army were used to subvert mutinies among the ranks, but they were not always successful. On New Year’s Day 1781, a detachment of the Pennsylvania Line grew fed up with the conditions of the camp and with not being paid, and decided to leave the American encampment underarms. Though this mutiny was quelled, and the regiments were split up to curry future insurrections, the situation presented a very real threat to Washington and the Continental Army.
In 1782, Washington had established his headquarters in Newburgh, New York, along the Hudson River. From there, he managed to the intricacies of winding down the war effort as peace negotiations were underway in Paris between British, French, and American diplomats. Though fighting remained sporadic and, in some cases, deadly, the war would not see another major field engagement. As these events were occurring, the Continental Army remained in a tenuous situation. As the incident with the Pennsylvania Line had shown, there were soldiers within the army who were prepared to mutiny, especially given the support from other soldiers. Now, at Newburgh, came the chatter of discontent among officers in the higher ranks of the army. Many of these men had financed their positions out of their own pockets, and some had gone the entire war without being compensated. Washington, notably, was not paid for his command during the war but reimbursed for his expenses after. Nonetheless, officers were becoming fed up of receiving virtually nothing from Congress as the war seemed to be drawing to a close. In the winter of 1783, several of Washington’s top generals and officers began to secretly correspond with members of Congress to warn of a plot amongst the officer corps of the army. Essentially, unless they were paid, the officers threatened to march the army on Philadelphia at wars end and make demands. Such an act would have dire consequences on why they had fought the war in the first place. Washington got wind of the plot and appeared at a scheduled meeting of the disgruntled men on March 15, 1783. As the meeting was underway, Washington arrived to the surprise of everyone in the room. In the next few minutes, he proceeded to speak compassionately about their sacrifices, and his very own, all under the subtle guise of genuine sincerity and mild theatrics ̶ which included him donning his spectacles in public. The effect had worked, and the officers immediately called off their plans and wrote to Congress that they intended to await their payments when they could be delivered. A serious mutiny, one that would have destroyed the principles of the American Revolution, had been narrowly averted.
Despite the avoidance of the calamity that might have ensued, the officers who were very much involved in the Newburgh Conspiracy pressed their wishes for some sort of military fraternity in the weeks after. It appears both Maj. Gens. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben and Henry Knox were among those top-ranking officers in favor of creating a group that would honor the bonds of their military ties. Other attempts to form a group had failed to materialize, but it seems the officers were successful in proposing a group that emulated Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who saved the republic twice and each time gave up power to return to his farm. This tale of heroism was the very thing of virtue that many of the officers looked up to as a role model; Washington, in particular, modeled himself after Cincinnatus to the point of literally copying him in December 1783 at Annapolis, Maryland.
A meeting was held at Fishkill, New York, the site of their encampment, and the presiding officers voted to form the organization that would instill their reasons for fighting for American independence. The original three principles the society would found itself upon were:
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 particularly extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence, according to the ability of the Society, towards those officers and their families, who unfortunately may be under the necessary of receiving it.
The main problem with such a group, at the time, was it founded itself on hereditary lines: only direct male decedents of the officers would be eligible to join in future generations. This immediately struck many, particularly conscious of what the American Revolution had removed from the colonies, as dangerous. Recall, one of the main charges against the British monarch - and monarchy in general - was that it was a hereditary claim, not one held or achieved through democratic elections. The thought of a new heredity-based group, one founded by some of the most powerful men in North America, angered many within the American non-military leadership. To better understand the perceived threat such an organization was considered by some, look no further than the number of leading politicians of the day who feared factions. Before the rise of political parties in the 1790s, factions were viewed with widespread contempt as being corrosive to public institutions and the perception that elected officials should conduct business with virtue. It can be argued that members of the Society were creating their organization on precisely these merits. Leaders who were not military officers, such as Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, were highly suspicious of the organizations’ true motives. Was it about seizing power for themselves?
Naturally, the society nominated Washington to be its first president. Accepting it to please his officers, he did not consider the backlash among those who questioned why there needed to be such an organization to begin with. Charges of creating a new aristocracy and threatening the legitimacy of Congress were hurled at the members. Washington himself questioned the merits of a heredity-based organization. Though he remained committed to the Society’s true intentions of preserving what the war had been fought for, and remained affectionately attached to the men who served under him during the war, he ultimately agreed with those who warned that his presence at the top of such an organization would likely damage his reputation: something he carefully cultivated throughout his life. As a result, Washington attended a meeting in May 1784, offering his resignation while giving instructions on what the group could do to appease the public accusations. The men, however, disagreed, and promises to do away with the heredity-based clause were shelved, but not amended. It would later be reinstituted and remains the way for eligibility into the Society to this day.
The Society would commence in the years after the war with establishing a charter group within each of the original thirteen states, along with a foreign charter group in France, ordered personally by King Louis XVI, to honor French officers who were eligible. As the 1790s created the first political parties of the United States, and the decades that followed saw no attempt by the Society to wedge itself into national affairs, public outcry faded. Today, the charitable group remains a leading presence in Washington, DC for bringing awareness to the ideals of the American Revolution and supporting history education.
His Excellency: George Washington By: Joseph J. Ellis
American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 By: William M. Fowler
The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America By: Markus Hünemörder
Liberty Without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati By: Minor Myers, Jr.
Swords in Their Hands: George Washington and the Newburgh Conspiracy By: Dave Richards