In 1783 at their encampment near Newburgh, New York, the officers of the Continental Army formed an association which, despite their stated intentions, they probably did not believe would last for two hundred years. 1983 marks the bicentennial of the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati an organization of male descendants of the men who served as commissioned officers of the Continental Army in the American Revolution. It is considered today to be the senior hereditary and patriotic society in the United States. Founded at a critical period in the history of America, the Society was to be the center of controversy for much of its early history. Its critics believed, primarily because of the provision for the admittance of descendants of original members, that it was a scheme to create a class of hereditary nobility in the Republic. The controversy was so intense in many states. including Connecticut, that some societies were forced to disband and were not re-activated until late in the nineteenth century.
An article on this subject from the pen of Catherine T. Manning appeared in the Winter 1978 issue of MY COUNTRY.
The Society of the Cincinnati was formed in response to several concerns expressed by officers of the Continental Army quartered at the cantonment at New Windsor, New York, in the Spring of 1783. The initiator of the Society was General Henry Knox. chief of artillery for the army. There is some evidence that General Knox had long had in mind the formation of some sort of organization for officers of the Continental Army which would continue after the cessation of the conflict and the disbanding of the armed forces. Thomas Jefferson noted in his diary for March 16, 1788, “Knox in conversation with John Adams as early as 1776 expressed a wish for some ribbon to wear in his hat or button-hole to transmit to his descendants as a badge and a proof that he had fought in defense of their liberties. He spoke of it in terms as showed he had revolved it in his mind before.” If Knox had the germ of an organization of officers in mind it was the action of the Congress which brought it to fruition.
One of the problems facing Congress at the close of the war was the question of half-pay for officers as a sort of pension to be paid to those who had served in the conflict. A measure proposing half-pay was proposed in 1778. but it was a money measure and as it was not ratified by a majority of the states it did not become law. General George Washington remonstrated on behalf of his officers to the Congress and a law providing for half-pay was passed in 1780. but as peace approached some officers became apprehensive of the ability of a Congress functioning under the Articles of Confederation to fulfill their commitment. The situation was very serious, for a majority of officers had joined as young men and had spent sometimes as much as eight years in the Army, when they would have normally been learning a trade or establishing themselves and their families in business. Many had spent their own resources on behalf of the cause of independence and were now penniless except for their military pay. In Washington’s view many of them had nothing to look forward to but debtors’ prison. The uncertainties which they faced on demobilization was the chief impetus in the famous “Newburgh Conspiracy” in which some officers considered marching on Philadelphia, overthrowing the Congress and establishing General Washington as dictator.
Washington himself put a stop to any such proceedings but the problem of care for the veterans after the war was still to be faced. This need for support, especially for the officers incapacitated by injury or the widows and orphans of these who had died in service, coupled with a desire to perpetuate the comradeship which had developed in the army during the war, led to the formation of the Society of the Cincinnati. While General Knox is generally considered to be the prime mover in the founding of the Society others also had similar thoughts prior to 1783. Captain Christopher Richmond of the Maryland Line talked with Dr. William Eustis about “the unhappiness of the coming separation,” and suggested that, “the officers meet in some place and form a society to preserve the friendships which so strongly existed between them.” The first meeting of a group of officers called together to consider the formation of a veterans organization was at the Verplank Mansion (called Mt. Gullian) at Newburgh, New York, on May 10, 1783. The Verplank Mansion was the headquarters of the Inspector General of the Continental Army, Major General, the Baron von Steuben. General von Steuben presided over the assembly, which consisted of Major General Robert Howe, Brigadier General John Patterson, Brigadier General Edward Hand. Brigadier General Jedediah Huntington, Brigadier General Rufus Putnam, Colonel Samuel B. Webb, Lt. Colonel Ebenezer Huntington, Major Joseph Pettingill, Lieutenant John Whitney, Colonel Henry Jackson, Captain Samuel Shaw, Lt. Colonel William Hull, Lt. Colonel Hugh Maxwell and Colonel Philip Van Cortlandt as well as General Knox. A committee consisting of General Knox, General Huntington, General Hand and Captain Shaw were appointed to draw up a constitution for the Society, which was termed the “Institution.” At a second meeting on May 13, 1783, also at the Verplank Mansion, the committee made its report and the “Institution” was adopted almost with no change.
The organization was to be known as the Society of the Cincinnati, named for the Roman general Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to lead the armed forces of the Roman Republic and, when the crisis was over, returned to his civil occupation, refusing all honors. The officers felt that the Roman’s life and example were applicable to their own situation and so chose as their motto “Omnia Reliquit Servare Rempublicam” We left all to serve the Republic. The committee report, which was adopted, began, “It having pleased the Supreme governor of the Universe, in the disposition of human affairs, to cause the separation of the Colonies of North America from the domination of Great Britain. and after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them Free, Independent, Sovereign States, connected by alliances founded on reciprocal advantages with some of the greatest princes and powers of the earth: To perpetuate therefore, as well as the remembrance of this vast event, as the mutual friendships that have been formed under the pressure of common danger and in many instances, cemented by the blood of the parties, the Officers of the American Army, do, hereby, in the most solemn manner, constitute and combine themselves into one Society of Friends to endure as long as they shall endure, or any of their male posterity, and in failure thereof, the collateral branches who may be deemed worthy of becoming its supporters and members. The Officers of the American Army, having been generally taken from the citizens of America, possessing high veneration for the character of the illustrious Roman Lucius Quintius Cincinnatus, and having resolved to follow his example by returning to their citizenship; they think they may with propriety denominate themselves the society of the Cincinnati.
“The following principles shall be immutable and form the basis of the Society of the Cincinnati: 1.) An incessant devotion to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature, for which they have fought and bled, and without which the rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing. 2.) 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 Republic. 3.) To render permanent the cordial affections subsisting among the Officers, and to cultivate brotherly kindness in all things and particularly substantial acts of beneficence towards the Officers and their families, who unfortunately, may be under the necessity of receiving it.”
The Society was to he organized on a federal plan with each of the thirteen states forming its own society, and delegates would he elected who would meet once every three years to oversee the affairs of the General Society and legislate for the Order. The rules of the General Society were to be incumbent upon the constituent State Societies and could only be changed by a majority vote of the state societies. Membership was to be open to all the officers of the Continental Line as of May 13. 1783 as well as “those who have resigned with honor after three years service in the capacity of officers or who have been deranged by the Resolutions of Congress, upon several reforms of the army.” These memberships were hereditary and were to devolve upon the next eldest male in the family upon the death of the current member. Colonel Winthrop Sargeant remarked that, given their impecunious state, “most members will have very little else to leave their children.” A provision was also made for honorary members to be elected by the state societies. In addition it was decided, apparently at the urging of Washington (who was privy to the proceedings and, according to Comte de Rochambeau, had a greater share in the Society’s creation than mere approval) to extend membership to the officers of the French Army and Navy who had participated in the war in America. With the adoption of this proposal the constituent societies numbered fourteen.
In order to implement the benevolent intent of the Society each officer who became a member was asked to contribute one month’s pay to the treasury of his individual state society. The pay contributed ranged from $180.00 for a Major General to $26.60 for a Lieutenant, ensign or cornet. Naval officers were assessed at $60.00 for a captain and $30.00 for a Lieutenant. Washington, as commander-in-chief, contributed $500.00.
The final organizing convention of the Society was on June 19. 1783. General Washington was elected President General; Major General Knox, Secretary General and Major General McDougall, Treasurer General. Also dealt with was the matter of a diploma to indicate membership and a medal to wear at meetings of the society and on other occasions. Major Pierre L’Enfant. an engineering officer with the French Army and who later drew the plans for Washington, D.C., was given the task of designing the diploma and the medal. He modified the medal considerably from the original proposal so that the final result, the famous “Eagle” of the Cincinnati, was quite different from the original concept of Knox and the other officers.
“A Medal,” wrote L’Enfant to Generals Knox and von Steuben, “weather round or oval is considered in the different states of Europe only as a reward to the labourer and to the artist, or as a sign of a manufacturing society: – besides, the abusive Custom prevailing, particularly in Germany and Italy, of sending to France, mountebanks, dancers and musicians, ornamented in this manner renders it necessary to distinguish this Order by a form which shall be peculiar to itself…” The Bald Eagle enameled on gold with the figure of Cincinnati’s with the motto of the order on the eagle’s breast was the spectacular result of L’Enfant’s efforts. The eagle was suspended on a ribbon of blue and white symbolizing the alliance between the United States and France and was to be worn in the button hole or lapel of the member. The medals were manufactured in France as were the copperplates to print the diplomas.
Louis XVI became the patron of the Order in France and the Society was formally sanctioned by the King in Council at Versailles on December 17, 1783. There were seventy-two original members of the French Society and almost all were members of the nobility. Initially French membership was limited to those above the grade of lieutenant colonel. As most of the original members of the French Society lost their lives during the French Revolution the French Society became dormant and was not officially restored until December 31, 1925. The Due de Castries is the current president of the French Society and the Comte de Paris, Bourbon claimant to the French throne, was elected an honorary member in 1953. Following the organizing convention at Newburgh the officers of the several states held organizational meetings for t heir respective societies. The Connecticut officers who were able to attend met at West Point on July 4. 1783. At that meeting Brigadier General Jedediah Huntington was elected president: Colonel Heman Swift, vice president.: Lt. Colonel Jonathan Trumbull. secretary; Lt. Colonel Ebenezer Huntington, treasurer; and Major David Smith, assistant treasurer. At that meeting 106 officers of the Connecticut Continental Line signed the “Institution” and contributed one month’s salary.
The first meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati in the limits of State of Connecticut was in the Senate Chamber of the State Capitol Building in Hartford on March 17, 1784. Sixty members attended the meeting. Captain Simeon Newell was the first to be admitted by action of the state society, as opposed to an original member who signed at West Point. After the initial 106 signed on July 4, 1783 an additional 76 signed while the regiments were still encamped on the Hudson. Also, the first member by hereditary descent. Amos Hall, was admitted. He was the second son of Captain Stephen Hall of the 7th Connecticut Regiment who had died April 25, 1783. He was allowed to join because his elder brother, Stephen Hall. Jr., signed a waiver relinquishing, “for me and my heirs the rights and privileges I am entitled to as a member of the Cincinnati…” Also at this first meeting Governor Trumbull was elected an honorary member of the society for his services to the state and nation during the Revolution. The society also elected a delegation to attend the meeting of the General Society to be held at Philadelphia in May and agreed to assess each member two dollars to defray the expenses of the delegates. Delegates elected were Major General Samuel H. Parsons, Major General Huntington, Brigadier General Swift, Colonel Trumbull and Colonel David Humphreys. In the interests of fairness it was decided to have one meeting each year in Hartford and one in New Haven. The meeting in Hartford was to be on July 4, or, if that fell on a Sunday, the next day and the New Haven meeting in the Spring or Fall of the year. The society still adheres to this schedule.
A typical meeting of the era was that of July 4, 1787 at Hartford. About fifty members together with the officers of the society met in the Senate Chamber of the State House and then went in procession to the North Congregational Church (on some occasions, such as the meetings of 1794 and 1797, they were escorted by the Governor’s Foot and Horse Guards. the Corps of Artillery, the First Company of the Hartford Militia and a “Band of Musik”) were the Reverend M. Strong offered a prayer and the secretary of the society. John Trumbull, read the Declaration of Independence. Joel Barlow, the noted author who later wrote, “The Vision of Columbus.” gave the oration.
“While America,” Barlow said, in part, “enjoys the peculiar felicity of seeing those who have conducted her councils and her battles retire like Cincinnatus to the humble labors of the plough, it must be remembered that she there expects a continuation of their patriotic exertions. The Society of the Cincinnati. established upon the most benevolent principles, will never lose sight of their duty, in rendering every possible aid as citizens, to that community which they have defended as soldiers. They will rejoice, that, although Independence was the result of force, yet Government is the child of reason. As they are themselves an example of the noblest effort of human nature, the conquest of self, in obeying the voice of their country and exchanging the habits, the splendor, and importance of military life, for democratic labor and poverty: they will readily inculcate on others the property of sacrificing private and territorial advantages to the good of the great majority, the salvation of the United States. Slaves to no party. but servants of the whole, they have wielded the sword of every state in the Union and bled by the side of her sons. Their attachments are as extensive as their labors. Friendship and charity and great pillars of their institution will find their proper objects through the extended treasury and seek the happiness of all.”
Following the oration the procession returned to the State House and proceeded to elect the following officers for 1787 – 88: president, Jeremiah Wadsworth; vice president, Samuel Wyllys; secretary, John Trumbull: assistant secretary, Ebenezer Huntington; treasurer, Thomas Grosvenor and assistant treasurer, Benjamin Tallmadge. Colonel David Humphreys and the Reverend M. Strong were asked to prepare orations for the 1788 meeting. and expenses of the delegates to the last general meeting amounting to 30 pounds, 6 shillings and 4 pence were approved. Also approved was a expenditure of $265.00 as Connecticut’s share of money due Major Pierre L’Enfant for designing and executing the Eagles and the copper plate used in printing the diplomas. It was voted that each member pay $1.00 upon receipt of his diploma to help defray expenses and that no diploma be delivered to any member who had not paid the $2.00 assessment of 1784. General Parsons, Colonel Wadsworth and Colonel Wyllys were continued as a committee of correspondence to communicate with other societies. The committee on claims reported that they had examined the pretensions of the following gentlemen: Thomas Lewis, Seth Lewis, Solomon Cowles, Jr., Amasa Keyes. Elijah Hubbard and Peter Colt and found them entitled to membership in the Society. Colonel Tallmadge and Lieutenant Beers were appointed to receive and examine accounts against the Society and delegates were elected to attend the General Meeting of the Society in May of 1788. The delegates chosen were Major General Parsons, Colonel Wadsworth. Colonel Humphreys. Colonel Trumbull and Major Judd. After appointing Colonels Humphrey and Trumbull to “wait on Joel Barlow and return him the thanks of the Society for his oration and obtain a copy so that it could be printed.” President Wadsworth adjourned the meeting.
The problem of caring for distressed members and their wives and families was a very real concern of the society and one which their political opponents tended to ignore. As the years progressed more of the veterans became infirm and applied to the society for aid. Indeed, the calls for assistance became so great that in 1795 two members from each county were appointed to receive applications for aid. In Hartford, for example, Captain Caleb Bull and Captain Erastus Wolcott were the committee and in Litchfield it was Captain Elijah Wadsworth and Captain David Judson who received the requests.
In 1796, for example, Lt. Charles Miller received $20.00; Col. John Johnson, $40.00; the widow of Lt. Benjamin Sutliff, $20.00; the widow of Capt. Edward Els, $24.00: the widow of Lt. Samuel DeForest, $20.00; and Lt. Cornelius Russell (who had broken his leg in a fall from his roof and could not work), $30.00 for a total distribution of $154.00. The following year the claims on the charity on the Society amounted to $234.00 and by 1798 they had risen to $369.00.
A typical application was that of “necessitous member” Lt. Samuel DeForest in 1791, “praying the Society for relief and presenting certificates and proofs of his disability and necessity. Voted that the officers of the society, or any three of them, shall be a committee to take into consideration the case of Lt. DeForest, an unfortunate member, and afford them such relief from the interests of the funds as in their discretion they shall judge proper after the debts of the society shall have been discharged.” Lt. DeForest was given a pension of $4.00 per month and, after his death, his widow continued to receive a subsidy from the Society. Infirmity or marital condition was not the only criteria for calls upon the funds of the Cincinnati. Abigail Hart. the widow of Major Jonathan Hart, received $50.00 toward her son’s education. The Rev. Samuel Mills, who had served as a lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoons under Elisha Sheldon and Benjamin Tallmadge, had entered the ministry of the Congregational Church following the war. His parish in Chester was too small to pay him a stipend sufficient to support him and his wife and thirteen children, so the Society supplemented his income with an annual grant which averaged $30.00 a year.
The funds which the Society used for its benevolent work were obtained from the interest earned on money invested in stocks and other business enterprises. The money came from the one month’s pay which each officer had contributed upon becoming a member and from donations and bequests. In order to protect their funds it was necessary that the Society he incorporated by an act of the state legislature. Attempts to secure the incorporation began in 1794 and continued to 1804 when the act passed in the Assembly but failed in the Senate. Various committees were appointed over the years to press the claim of the Society of incorporation, but in each case they failed. Typical was the attempt in 1802 when General Ebenezer Huntington, Colonel Ephriam Kirby and Colonel John Mix were. “appointed agents to petition the legislature to grant an act of incorporation, so far only, as will he necessary to give security to the funds of the Society.”
The opposition to incorporation was largely political. Most of the members were of the Federalist Party led by Washington and Hamilton while their opponents tended to he Republicans led by Jefferson and Aaron Burr (although Burr was a member of the New York Cincinnati). In the debate in the legislature Ephriam Kirby of Litchfield said that “the objects of the Society are such as contribute to the public good.” but Augustus Collins of Guilford declared his opposition stating that, “it intended to establish an order of nobility directly opposed to the principles of a Republican government.”
On November 2, 1803, in support of the petition to incorporate, David Humphreys made a speech before the Governor and Council in which he remarked, “…we can then have little interest in the object of our request so far as it respects us personally: for, after a few more years shall have revolved not one of us who served through the Revolutionary War will he left alive. But, in the hour of death, it would afford a consolation to hope, that, if we have done some little good in our day, it might be made to survive us.”
The opposition to the Society in Connecticut reflected the attitude of many citizens throughout the nation as a whole. John Jay, though a Federalist, feared that, “The order will divide us into two military factions” and Benjamin Franklin ridiculed the Society as the “Cincinnati Chevaliers.” John Adams wrote from Paris, “The formation of the Society is the first step taken to deface the beauty of our temple of liberty.” One of the most focal opponents was Aedanus Burke, a justice of the Supreme Court of South Carolina. Burke, over the signature of “Cassius” wrote a pamphlet which gained wide circulation and was reprinted nationally. In Hartford the pamphlet was printed and sold by Basil Webster whose shop was “opposite the courthouse” for one shilling. In his pamphlet, entitled “Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati…” Burke urged that the “Institution” created a race of hereditary patricians or nobility and he maintained that the “object of the society was to overthrow the Republic and usurp supreme power” “The Cincinnati,- he wrote, “would soon hold an exclusive right to all officers, honors, and authorities civil and military.”
The reaction to the opposition varied. Washington and some others felt that the hereditary provision should be abolished. but although that resolution passed at a General Society meeting it failed to be ratified by the state societies and so remained as a part of the “Institution.” Rhode Island’s legislature reacted by disenfranchising any person who belonged to the Society. Some members of the Society resigned because of local community pressure or because they had political ambitions and felt their membership to be a liability.
In Connecticut the repeated failure to achieve incorporation led a majority of the members to conclude that they could not continue and should dissolve. At the annual meeting in Hart ford on July 4. 1804. the Society voted to dissolve and, after making the charitable grants for that year (which amounted to $310.00), paying the expenses of the Society and returning their original deposits to any member who wished to have the same, gave the remainder to Yale University for scholarships. The amount given to Yale was $24.511.29, a considerable sum at that time. Yale was selected because many members of the Society were graduates and both Ezra Stiles and Timothy Dwight were honorary members of the Connecticut Society.
At the final meeting Colonel David Humphreys gave an emotional address concluding, “Had we the inclination, how have we the ability to become a privileged Order, dangerous to the liberty of the Republic? To prove we will not is in our power. Perhaps a page is vacant in the annals of America, to review the proceedings of this Society on this anniversary. We may then expect more Justice from posterity than from the present age. This medal of the Society of the Cincinnati — (holding it up) General Washington caused to be procured in France, and gave it to me as a present with his own hand.
For the giver’s sake I will keep it as a precious relic, but from this hour I shall never wear it, not even on the proud day consecrated to Independence. My Friends of the Cincinnati! The most painful part of this solemnity still remains. To bid adieu until the consummation of all things is to pronounce an awful word. Whatever may he our determination as to the continuance or dissolution of our Society, under the circumstances which have been related, my part is decided. I cannot reconcile it to my idea of propriety to attend your more separated meetings. The behavior of one branch of the Legislature (the Senate) has accelerated the separation which must have been inevitable. I shall see your faces no more. May the sunshine of Conscience gild your setting day — and you enjoy every species of felicity which you can desire for yourselves. For the last time — farewell, ye survivors of thousands who died fighting for the glorious cause of Liberty! Ye remnants of yourselves in better days — ye veterans of the Revolutionary Army — farewell! Farewell for ever!” The records of the Society, initially placed in the keeping of Colonel John Mix, were eventually deposited at the Connecticut Historical Society and the Society officially became dormant. Seven of the other state societies also dissolved their operations and the French Society ceased to exist largely as a result of the terror. Six states however remained: Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. Maryland and South Carolina. These Societies continued to constitute the General Society and it was to that Society that Connecticut applied when they sought to reconstitute their Society. During the period from 1804 to 1888 (when the movement began to restore the Connecticut Society) some original members joined other state societies, principally New York and Massachusetts and thus continued their active membership and their descendants also joined those societies.
The Centennial of the United States in 1876 gave an impetus to the creation of a number of hereditary and patriotic societies commemorating the American Revolution such as the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Sons of the American Revolution, and the Sons of the Revolution: Also in existence were such Civil War veterans organizations as the Grand Army of the Republic and the Military Order of the Loyal Legion. The latter, composed of officers of the Union Army, was modeled on the Cincinnati even providing for hereditary succession. In 1888, under the leadership of Brigadier General Dwight Morris and the Reverend Alonzo Norton Lewis, steps were taken to re-activate the Connecticut Society of the Cincinnati. The records were searched in order to locate eligible descendants of original members. After a series of meetings and presentations the Connecticut Society was restored to full membership at a meeting of the General Society in Philadelphia in 1896. Morris Woodruff Seymour and Col. George Bliss Sandford of Litchfield were the leaders of the Society who achieved, on March 12, 1895, the incorporation of the Society by a unanimous vote of the Connecticut Legislature.
The Connecticut Society of the Cincinnati with a membership in 1983 approaching three hundred is one of the largest of the state societies. Since its revival it has been active in the work of the General Society and in historical, educational and patriotic programs in the state. In 1902, 1938 and 1977 the Connecticut Society hosted the Triennial Assemblies of the General Society. From 1938 to 1950 Mr. Bryce Metcalf of the Connecticut Society served as President General. Mr. Metcalf was also the author of Original Members and Other Officers Eligible to the Society of the Cincinnati, one of the major reference works of the Society. At the 1938 meeting at Hartford the gift of Anderson House, now the national headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati and located in Washington, D.C. was announced.
Over the years the Connecticut Society has contributed to many worthwhile historical projects in the state, including the restoration of the old state house, work at the children’s museum in Hartford, and recognition of outstanding military service at the Coast Guard Academy at New London. The Society has also contributed monuments to Captain Nathan Hale and General Rochambeau. The Society has also regularly participated in the annual church service for patriotic societies held at various places throughout the state.
A number of prominent citizens have been hereditary or honorary members of the Connecticut Society including Jonathan Trumbull, John Sherman and Oliver Wendell Holmes.
In 1983. two hundred years after its founding, the Society of the Cincinnati continues as an active force in the State of Connecticut. carrying forward its benevolent and patriotic work and perpetuating the memory of the Continental Army and the War for American Independence.