Cincinnati, Society of the

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Cincinnati, Society of the

CINCINNATI, SOCIETY OF THE. In May 1783, when the Continental army was about to be disbanded, General Henry Knox obtained Washington's approval for a plan to form a society of officers. At a meeting on 10 May in Newburgh, New York, with General Friedrich von Steuben presiding, Knox, Edward Hand, Jedediah Huntington, and Samuel Shaw were selected to draw up final plans for the organization, and three days later their constitution was adopted at a meeting of officers held at Steuben's headquarters. "To perpetuate … as well the remembrance of this vast event [the Revolution], as the mutual friendships … formed," read the second paragraph:

the officers of the American army do hereby, in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute and combine themselves into one Society of Friends, to endure so long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and in failure thereof, the collateral branches, who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and members.

Initially, the organization was limited to army officers, though naval officers were soon included. The founders named themselves after "that illustrious Roman, Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus," who twice was called from his farm to save Rome (in 458 and 439 b.c.) and who twice returned to his plow when the crisis was past. The society's stated purposes were "to preserve … those exalted rights and liberties of human nature," to promote national unity and honor, to perpetuate the brotherhood of American officers, to help those officers and their families who might need assistance, and to seek pensions from Congress. Other paragraphs of the constitution dealt with the establishment of state societies, election of officers, and frequency of meetings and prescribed that each officer would contribute one month's pay for a welfare fund.

The constitution also dealt with the creation of a badge. The "order" of the Cincinnati, designed by Pierre L'Enfant, was the size of a silver dollar, emblazoned with a bald eagle, suspended by a dark blue ribbon edged with white to symbolize the alliance with France.

Washington was not an organizer of the society, but on 19 June 1783 he agreed to become its president. He was succeeded on his death by Alexander Hamilton, after whom the following original members held the office until their death: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, Aaron Ogden, Morgan Lewis, and William Popham. The latter was followed by Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, son of Henry Dearborn, who served from 1848 until his death in 1851. Hamilton Fish, son of Nicholas Fish, was president from 1854 to 1893. At about this time most of the state societies died out for lack of heirs, but the general organization was revived in 1902. In 1960 there were about 2,000 members in the United States and 150 in France.

There was a good deal of opposition to the society's formation, particularly to the wearing of a distinctive badge. Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Sam Adams, and many other Patriot leaders charged the Cincinnati with attempting to create an aristocratic order that would eventually threaten republican values. They believed that by excluding enlisted men, the officers perpetuated class antagonism in the ranks of the Revolutionary veterans. Although the Cincinnati turned out to be a fairly innocuous fraternal organization, hostility to it increased over the next twenty years. Rhode Island disfranchised its members, a committee of the Massachusetts legislature investigated it, and Supreme Court justice Aedanus Burke of South Carolina attacked the order in a pamphlet that was translated and published by Count Mirabeau under his own name. The Tammany societies of New York City, Philadelphia, and other major urban centers were founded partly in opposition to the Cincinnati.

The French branch was extremely vigorous, Mirabeau's pirated pamphlet in no way slowing the rush of army and naval applicants. The eagle and blue ribbon are said to have been the only "foreign decoration" permitted to be worn by French subjects in the court of Louis XVI. But the republicanism of the French Revolution led to the disbanding of the French Cincinnati in 1792.

SEE ALSO Adams, John; Adams, Samuel; Dearborn, Henry; Franklin, Benjamin; Hamilton, Alexander; Hand, Edward; Huntington, Jedediah; Jefferson, Thomas; Knox, Henry; L'Enfant, Pierre Charles; Lewis, Morgan; Ogden, Aaron; Pinckney, Charles Cotesworth; Pinckney, Thomas; Shaw, Samuel; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von.


Myers, Minor, Jr. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.

                              revised by Michael Bellesiles

Society of the Cincinnati

views updated May 17 2018

Society of the Cincinnati. In 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War and before the Continental army disbanded, Gen. Henry Knox and other officers founded the Society of the Cincinnati at Newburgh, New York, to continue the ties of comradeship among the officer corps in peacetime and to press their pension claims before the national government. Named after Cincinnatus, venerated statesmen in the ancient Roman Republic, the society excluded enlisted men, and membership could be passed to the eldest male descendant. In the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson and other civilian leaders feared that the nationalistic fraternal organization represented an attempt to establish an aristocratic order posing a potential threat to republican values.

With chapters in all thirteen states, the Cincinnati was one of the young republic's earliest national institutions. Most state chapters met annually on the Fourth of July, holding banquets for members and sponsoring public orations. After the death of the Revolutionary generation by the 1830s, many state chapters lapsed into inactivity. The Centennial of 1876 and renewed public interest in the Revolution led to the revival of several dormant state chapters in the East and the founding of new chapters in the West. The society continued to restrict membership to the eldest male descendants of Continental army officers, contributing to the founding of the Sons of the American Revolution in 1877 by the descendants of enlisted personnel and the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1890 by female descendants of those who served in the War for Independence.
[See also Veterans: Revolutionary War.]


Minor Myers, Jr. , Liberty Without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati, 1983.

G. Kurt Piehler

Cincinnati, Society of the

views updated May 23 2018


CINCINNATI, SOCIETY OF THE. Organized in May 1783, the Society of the Cincinnati was established by disbanding officers of the American Continental Army. Moved by the bonds of friendship forged during the war years and concerned by the financial plight of many whose pay was in arrears, the officers enthusiastically adopted the suggestion of General Henry Knox for a permanent association. The organization first met at the headquarters of General Friedrich von Steuben at Fishkill, New York, with George Washington as the first president general. The name alluded to Cincinnatus, the Roman general who retired quietly to his farmstead after leading his army to victory. The society established a fund for widows and the indigent and provided for the perpetuation of the organization by making membership hereditary in the eldest male line. There were thirteen state societies and an association in France for the French officers, comprising a union known as the General Society.

The society aroused antagonism, particularly in republican circles, because of its hereditary provisions, its large permanent funds, and its establishment of commit-tees of correspondence for the mutual exchange of information between the member societies. Due to popular suspicion of elitist organizations, the group grew dormant after the French Revolution. About 1900 a revival of interest began that reestablished the dormant societies, enlarged the membership, and procured a headquarters and public museum, Anderson House, in Washington, D.C. In the early 1970s membership numbered about 2,500.


Resch, John Phillips. Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.

Wills, Garry. Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984.

John D.Kilbourne/h. s.

See alsoRevolution, American: Military History ; Veterans' Organizations .

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