Henry Knox drafted the Institution in April 1783 and discussed his ideas with a group of like-minded officers, including his aide Capt. Samuel Shaw, Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, and Brig. Gen. Jedediah Huntington. Plans for the Society were discussed at a meeting of officers on May 10. The Institution was formally adopted by a meeting held at Steuben's headquarters on May 13, 1783, which is recognized as the day the Society was officially created. Copies of the Institution were thereafter made and sent to the Continental Line of each state to encourage their officers to organize state societies. The formal, engrossed copy of the Institution, written on parchment, was signed at a meeting in June.
The Institution outlined an organization with several purposes. The first was to perpetuate the memory of the War for Independence. It was an axiom of the Revolutionary generation that the citizens of a republic must remain ever vigilant in the defense of their liberties and must keep alive the memory of the virtuous sacrifices that had secured those liberties—or else they might lose them. Keeping alive the memory of the War for Independence remains the Society's most important public purpose.
The second purpose was to maintain the fraternal bonds formed in the war by giving the departing officers reason to gather in their home states, and at least once every three years at the national level. These two purposes were described first in the Institution and were, by implication, the reason for the provision that followed, making membership in the Society hereditary. The sons, grandsons, and nephews of the original members had not endured the privations and challenges of the war and had no fraternal bonds to maintain, but they were charged with perpetuating "the remembrance of that vast event"—the achievement of American independence in a "bloody conflict of eight years." The Institution constituted them all—original members and their hereditary successors, as "one Society of Friends."
The third purpose of the Society was to preserve the liberties for which the officers had fought and to encourage "union and national honor" between the respective states. Concern for liberty, union, and national honor was not a political platform, except in the broadest possible sense. These were concomitants of independence and the consequences of a war effort that had created a new nation out of thirteen distinctively different British colonies. "Incessant attention" to their preservation, to which the Institution pledged the Society's members, was tied up in perpetuating the memory of the war that had established American liberty, union, and national honor.
The fourth purpose of the Society was charitable, or, in the language of the eighteenth century, "benevolent." As a consequence of their fraternal attachment, members were to demonstrate "brotherly kindness in all things," including providing financial support to members in distress and their widows and orphans in times of need. To provide the funds needed for what the Institution termed "the most substantial acts of beneficence," all original members of the Society were required to subscribe the equivalent of one month's pay to establish common funds managed by the individual state societies.
The fifth purpose of the Society—nowhere explicitly stated in the Institution but implied by the name, form, and nature of the organization—was to distinguish its members as men of honor, whose civic virtue had been clearly demonstrated by their dedication to the cause of American independence at the risk of their lives and the sacrifice of their private interests. The limitation of membership to officers serving at the end of the war or who had served for at least three years and "resigned with honor," as well as those displaced involuntarily in the various reorganizations of the army, indicates that the founders did not intend to create a simple organization of veteran officers. Instead, they intended to create an organization of men distinguished by the kind of service that bestowed genuine honor.
The provision of the Institution that makes this purpose most apparent is the one calling for the Society "to have an Order, by which its members shall be known and distinguished." The order was to be a gold medal bearing images of the Roman republican hero Cincinnatus: on the front, an image of Cincinnatus accepting command and leaving his plow, with a Latin motto, "He gave all to serve the republic," celebrating his virtuous sacrifice. On the back was to be an image of Cincinnatus returning home, with a winged figure of Fame flying above, blowing her trumpet, with the Latin motto indicating that fame was "the reward of virtue."
Knox imagined these devices on a round gold medal suspended from a neck ribbon. Pierre L'Enfant, a Continental Army engineer, persuaded him that a badge worn on the lapel, similar to the French Order of Saint Louis, would be more appropriate. L'Enfant designed an elegant badge, consisting of a gold eagle with its wings spread, bearing a cartouche on its breast with the image of Cincinnatus and the motto prescribed in the Institution. This badge or insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati, known informally as the "Eagle," has been the most important and widely recognized symbol of the organization since 1784, when L'Enfant returned from France, where he went to have the first group of Eagles made. The Eagle was prized by members of the Society, not simply as a symbol of membership, but as proof of their virtuous conduct. It was a badge of honor.
The sixth purpose of the Society was to advocate on behalf of the officers to secure arrears in pay and the half pay for life that had been promised to them. By disbanding the army and returning home without having secured this compensation, the officers acknowledged the subordination of the military to civilian rule. Unlike the military leaders of other successful rebellions, before and since, they would not use the army to impose their will on the government. In this sense, their return to civilian life reenacted the return of Cincinnatus to his farm without claiming or accepting political power.
Unlike Cincinnatus, however, they expected to be paid and created the Society to advocate for their interests. The Institution is nowhere explicit about this purpose of the Society. It did not need to be. During the winter and spring of 1783 the unresolved grievances of the army about pay had pushed enlisted men to the verge of mutiny and some officers to consider how the army might be used to compel Congress to do them justice.
In March the dissident officers, led by Maj. John Armstrong, Jr., an aide to Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, published placards charging that Congress would allow veterans to "grow old in poverty, wretchedness and contempt." They called a mass meeting held on March 15. To the surprise of the hundreds of officers present, Washington appeared and made an impassioned speech, advising them to be patient and urging them to oppose anyone "who wickedly attempts to open the floodgates of civil discord and deluge our rising empire in blood." At the climax of his remarks, Washington pulled a new pair of reading glasses from his pocket in order to read his officers a letter from a congressman. "Gentlemen," he said, "you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country." This moment of quiet drama touched the hearts of all but the most hardened officers and extinguished any possibility of an army coup.
These events were fresh in the minds of the officers who formed the Society of the Cincinnati two months later, and they clearly expected the Society would carry on the effort to secure just compensation. They could not have known that this effort would continue for decades.
George Washington had taken no part in organizing the Society, but he agreed to serve as its first president general. A meeting on June 19, 1783, elected Henry Knox secretary general and Maj. Gen. Alexander McDougall of New York as treasurer general. The other offices—vice president general, assistant secretary general, and assistant treasurer general—were left vacant, pending the Society's first general meeting, to be convened in 1784.
The thirteen American state societies were formally organized over the following five months. The officers of each state held meetings to organize their society. The Institution defined broad parameters within which these constituent societies were expected to operate, but otherwise afforded them a great deal of autonomy. Knox and the framers of the Institution could not have done otherwise. The new nation was vast and communication slow. Centralization would have been impossible. The Society was one of the first institutions in the new nation organized on a national scale, but the circumstances dictated that it be composed of state societies capable of managing their own affairs.
A French Society soon joined the thirteen American state societies. The Institution provided for the admission of two French diplomats—La Luzerne and Gerard—as well as Admirals d'Estaing, de Grasse, Barras, and des Touches, in addition to General Rochambeau and the generals and colonels of his army. When L'Enfant left for France to commission the Eagles, he had instructions to acquaint these gentlemen with the honor done them and present each with one of the Society's new badges.
The French officers greeted the honor with great enthusiasm and obtained the king's permission to accept and wear the order—an unusual privilege at a time when foreign decorations were generally forbidden at court. Under the king's patronage, French officers held a meeting to create a French branch of the Society in January 1784. French army officers of the rank of colonel and above were deemed eligible for membership, as were all Frenchmen bearing Continental commissions. The admirals were upset that naval captains were not mentioned in the Institution, but L'Enfant advised them that the founders in America intended to include them. From the start, the French Society had a special mission within the Society—to perpetuate the trans-Atlantic fraternity built up during the war and to promote understanding and friendship between France and the United States. This remains a large part of the purpose of the French Society in the twenty-first century.