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About   History

The Society and its Critics,
1784–1800

The Society was not greeted so warmly in the United States. Within months of the adoption of the Institution, critics began to charge that the members planned to use the Society to impose a hereditary aristocracy on the new American republic. The leading critic was a South Carolina judge, Aedanus Burke. In a pamphlet titled Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati, published in Charleston in late 1783 and soon republished all over the country, Burke charged that the Cincinnati would form an American aristocracy, dominating the government and extinguishing the liberties of the people. Dozens of other critics soon joined Burke, and resolutions denouncing the Cincinnati were introduced into several state legislatures. At a moment when Americans were deeply anxious about the future of their untried experiment in republican government, the Society of the Cincinnati stirred fears of a conspiracy to seize power and create a new aristocracy as the first step toward re-establishing a monarchy over America.

The Society had many defenders. Members rushed to publish refutations of Burke's charges, and non-members commented that an organization to which former lieutenants contributed a month's wages to help widows and orphans did not seem like a threat to the republic. Society leaders were nonetheless shaken by the unexpected criticism. When the first general meeting of the Society convened in Philadelphia in May 1784, George Washington proposed a series of changes to the Institution, including giving up the idea of hereditary membership—the one aspect of the Society that had excited the most controversy. The meeting approved a revised Institution, eliminating the hereditary provision, but since the original Institution did not outline a procedure for amendment, the delegates decided it would be prudent to submit the revised Institution to the constituent societies for their ratification. Critics were mollified, and the public controversy over the Society subsided.

The May 1784 general meeting was not entirely consumed by the controversy. Just as the delegates discussed the future of the Society, Pierre L'Enfant arrived from Paris with the first group of gold Eagle badges, which were distributed to members. Among them was a special Eagle George Washington had ordered for himself, with a different design than the others, and another quite unexpected one. Officers of the French navy, led by Admiral d'Estaing, had commissioned a unique Eagle to present to Washington, encrusted with diamonds and precious gems. L'Enfant delivered the Diamond Eagle to Washington, who thereafter wore it as his badge of office. At his death, Washington directed the Diamond Eagle be delivered to his successor, Alexander Hamilton. The Diamond Eagle became the official badge of the president general and has been entrusted to each successive president general ever since.

The Society's first decade was a period of energy and growth, and 2,270 officers joined the new organization. All of the constituent societies began meeting annually, typically around the Fourth of July, and most established traditions for these occasions—banquets, formal addresses, processions, and other ceremonies. States societies often took a leading role in public commemorations of the Fourth of July. The New York Society, led by General Steuben, developed an elaborate ritual to initiate new members. Members of all constituent societies could acquire engraved membership certificates, designed by L'Enfant and signed by Washington and Knox—modern members can acquire the same certificate, signed by the current president general and secretary general. The state societies accumulated charitable funds and began disbursing them to assist members in need and more generally to the widows of Continental officers.

Members of the Society were actively involved in public life during these years, but their political activities were coincidental to their membership. The Society took no political positions and assiduously avoided political partisanship—a stance it has maintained for more than two centuries. The majority of the Society's members, to the extent their political views can be discerned, favored strengthening the government established by the Articles of Confederation. As military officers, they had commanded men who were unpaid, poorly clothed, badly armed, and frequently hungry because Congress could not provide for the needs of its army. This experience inclined most former Continental officers toward nationalism.

Twenty-one of the fifty-five delegates to the Philadelphia convention that framed the federal Constitution were members of the Society, as were many members of the First Federal Congress and the Washington administration. Secretary General Henry Knox was Washington's first secretary of war, and Alexander Hamilton, later president general, was Washington's first secretary of the treasury.

Public anxiety about the Society had long since subsided by the time Washington died in 1799. Delegates from eight state societies met the next year and chose Alexander Hamilton as Washington's successor. They also decided that the amended Institution proposed in 1784 had been rejected by the constituent societies. They resolved "that the institution of the Society of the Cincinnati remains as it was originally proposed and adopted by the officers of the American army." This resolution ensured that hereditary succession would be preserved.

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The Society's Headquarters

at Anderson House

Choir_Stall_mural

Anderson House, originally the home of Society member Larz Anderson, features the Society Eagle insignia and other reminders of its purpose and ideals throughout the house in murals and other features.

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