Society of the Cincinnati: Wikis


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Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate [1]
Society of the Cincinnati eagle of Tadeusz Kościuszko

The Society of the Cincinnati is an historic organization with branches in the United States and France founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the Revolutionary War officers and to pressure the government to honor pledges it had made to officers who fought for American independence.[2] Now in its third century, the Society is a nonprofit historical and educational organization that promotes public interest in the American Revolution through its library and museum collections, exhibitions, programs, publications, and other activities.



The concept of the Society of the Cincinnati was originated from Major General Henry Knox. The first meeting of the Society was held in May 1783 at a dinner at Mount Gulian (Verplanck House) in Fishkill, New York, before the British evacuation from New York City. The meeting was chaired by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and the participants agreed to stay in contact with each other after the war. Membership was generally limited to officers who had served at least three years in the Continental Army or Navy but included officers of the French Army and Navy above certain ranks.

Later, membership was passed down to the eldest son after the death of the original member. Present-day hereditary members generally must be descended from an officer who served in the Continental Army or Navy for at least three years, from an officer who died or was killed in service, or from an officer serving at the close of the Revolution. Each officer may be represented by only one descendant at any given time, following the rules of primogeniture. (It was this aspect, that of primogeniture, which caused the society initially to be controversial, as primogeniture was associated with the rules governing European nobilities.)

The Society is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman Consul and then served as Magister Populi (with temporary powers similar to that of a modern era dictator), thereby assuming lawful dictatorial control of Rome to meet a war emergency. When the battle was won, he returned power to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society's motto reflects that ethic of selfless service: Omnia relinquit servare republicam ("He relinquished everything to save the Republic"). The Society has from the beginning had three objectives, referred to as the "Immutable Principles": "To preserve the rights so dearly won; to promote the continuing union of the states; and to assist members in need, their widows, and their orphans."

Within 12 months of the founding, a constituent Society had been organized in each of the 13 states and in France. Of about 5,500 men originally eligible for membership, 2,150 had joined within a year. King Louis XVI ordained the French Society of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784 (Independence Day). Up to that time, the King of France had not allowed his officers to wear any foreign decorations; but he made an exception in favor of the badge of the Cincinnati, and membership in the Society was so eagerly sought that it soon became as coveted as membership of certain orders of French nobility.

George Washington was elected the first President General of the Society. He served from December 1783, until his death in 1799. The second President General was Alexander Hamilton. Upon Hamilton's death due to his duel with Aaron Burr, the third President General of the Society was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney who, in 1808, ran for President of the United States against James Madison.

Its members have included many distinguished military and political leaders in the history of the country, beginning with 23 signers of the United States Constitution. The Cincinnati is the oldest military society in continuous existence in North America.


Society of the Cincinnati eagle, drawing from B.J. Lossing's Pictoral Field Book of the Revolution

On June 19, 1783, the General Society of the Cincinnati adopted the Bald Eagle as its insigna. It is one of America's first post-revolution symbols and an important piece of American iconography. It is the second official emblem to represent America as the Bald Eagle, following the Great Seal of the United States by 364 days. It was likely derived from the same discourse that produced the Seal.

The suggestion of the Bald Eagle as the Cincinnati insignia was made by Major Pierre L'Enfant, a French officer who joined the American Army in 1777, served in the Corps of Engineers and later become a member of the Society. He noted, in making his suggestion: "The Bald Eagle, which is peculiar to this continent, and is distinguished from those of other climates by its white head and tail, appears to me to deserve attention." In 1783, L'Enfant was commissioned to travel to France to have the first Eagle badges made, based on his design. (L'Enfant later planned and partially laid out the city of Washington, D.C.)

The medallions at the center of the Cincinnati American Eagle depict, on the obverse, Cincinnatus receiving his sword from the Roman Senators and, on the reverse, Cincinnatus at his plow being crowned by the figure of Pheme (personification of fame). The Society's colors, light blue and white, symbolize the fraternal bond between the United States and France.

A specially commissioned "Eagle" worn by President General George Washington was presented to Lafayette in 1824 during his grand tour of the United States. This medallion had remained in possession of the Lafayette family, [1] until sold at auction on December 11, 2007, for 5.3 million USD by Lafayette's great-great granddaughter. It was purchased by the Josée and René de Chambrun Foundation and will be displayed at Chateau La Grange, Lafayette's home 30 miles east of Paris. The medal, believed to have its original ribbon and red leather box, will be displayed in Lafayette's bedroom. It also might be displayed at Mount Vernon, Washington's former home in Virginia.[2] This was one of three eagles known to have been owned by Washington. Washington most commonly wore the "diamond eagle," a diamond-encrusted design that was given to him by the French matelots (sailors). This diamond eagle continues to be passed down to each President General of the Society of the Cincinnati as part of his induction into office.

The Cincinnati Eagle is displayed in various places of public importance, including the city center of Cincinnati, Ohio (named for the Society) at Fountain Square, alongside the U.S. flag and the city flag. The flag of the Society displays blue and white stripes and a dark blue canton (containing a circle of 14 stars around the Cincinnati Eagle) in the upper corner next to the hoist. Refer to the section below on "The Later Society" for the city's historical connection to the Cincinnati.

Reaction to the Society

Baron von Steuben
John Barry
Horatio Gates

In the years soon after the revolution, membership continued to expand. Members have served in all the major offices of the United States and many state governments. Some, including Thomas Jefferson, were alarmed at the apparent creation of a hereditary elite; membership eligibility is inherited through primogeniture, and excludes enlisted men and in most cases militia officers, unless they were placed under "State Line" or "Continental Line" forces for a substantial time period. Benjamin Franklin was among the Society's earliest critics, though he would later accept its role in the Republic and join the Society under honorary membership after the country stabilized. He voiced concerns not only about the apparent creation of a noble order, but also the Society's use of the eagle in its emblem as evoking the traditions of heraldry. It was in his writings on the Cincinnati Eagle that he also safely attacked its brother symbol, the Great Seal of the United States, without having to do so directly.

On January 26, 1784, in a letter to his only daughter, Sarah Bache, Franklin commented at length on the ramifications of the Cincinnati and the eagle's image for national character. Because the image was to appear on the medallions of the Cincinnati, he wrote:

The Gentleman who made the Voyage to France to provide the Ribbands & Medals has executed his Commission. To me they seem tolerably done, but all such Things are criticised... For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen as the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral character. He does not get his living honestly... [The eagle] is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country, tho' exactly fit that Order of Knights which the French call Chevalieres d'Industrie.

Influence of the Cincinnati was another cause for concern. When delegates to the Constitutional Convention were debating the method of choosing a president, James Madison (the secretary of the Convention) reported the following speech of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts:

A popular election in this case is radically vicious. The ignorance of the people would put it in the power of some one set of men dispersed through the Union & acting in Concert to delude them into any appointment. He observed that such a Society of men existed in the Order of the Cincinnati. They are respectable, United, and influential. They will in fact elect the chief Magistrate in every instance, if the election be referred to the people. [Gerry's] respect for the characters composing this Society could not blind him to the danger & impropriety of throwing such a power into their hands.[3]
Thomas Truxtun
David Ziegler
Rufus Putnam

As the international firestorm during the Society's early years subsided, the Cincinnati emerged in the 19th century as a pool of educated civil servants that would push America westward, while helping to build unity in Washington.

Members of the Society included Count Axel von Fersen the Younger (rumoured lover of Queen Marie Antoinette), Tadeusz Kościuszko, John Brooks, William Eustis, Christian Febiger, Alexander Hamilton, Marquis de La Fayette, Charles McKnight, Baron Von Steuben, Josiah Harmar, Thomas Posey, Richard Butler, John Trumbull, Rufus Putnam, William Stacy, James Mitchell Varnum, David Ziegler, Ebenezer Denny, Richard Varick, John Paul Jones, John Barry, Thomas Truxtun, Nathanael Greene, Anthony Wayne, Peter Gansevoort, Horatio Gates, Benjamin Lincoln, Charles C. Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, the Piatt brothers Daniel, William and Jacob, John Sullivan, Thomas Truxton, Nathaniel Ramsey, Aaron Burr, Isaac Huger, William Stephens Smith, James Lingan, Henry Lee III, Lachlan McIntosh, William Jackson (secretary) and several of the first U.S. Marshals, including Robert Forsyth and Allan Maclane.

(In the portraits left and right, note the different versions of the Society of the Cincinnati Eagle medal)

The later Society

Arthur St. Clair
General Lachlan McIntosh
Richard Varick.

The Cincinnati were integral in establishing many of America's first and largest cities to the west of the Appalachians, most notably Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The first governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, was a member of the Society. He renamed a small settlement "Cincinnati" to honor the Society and to encourage Society members to settle there such as Captain Jacob Piatt who served on Washington's staff and settled across the river from Cincinnati in northern Kentucky on land granted to him for his service during the War. Captain David Ziegler was the first Mayor of Cincinnati. Lt. Ebenezer Denny (1761-1822), an original Pennsylvanian Cincinnatus, was elected the first mayor of the incorporated city of Pittsburgh in 1816. Pittsburgh grew from Fort Pitt, which was commanded from 1777-1783 by four men who became original members of the Cincinnati.

The Civil War was a great trial to the Society as it was for all of the United States. Robert E. Lee would have been eligible for membership, and many other Confederate and Union officers were members of the Society. Nevertheless the Society recovered after the war and remains active into the twenty-first century.

Today's Society supports efforts to increase public awareness and memory of the ideals and actions of the men who created the American Revolution and an understanding of American History, with an emphasis on the period from the outset of the Revolution to the War of 1812. The Society of the Cincinnati, through its headquarters at Anderson House in Washington, DC, maintains one of the largest manuscript, textual, portrait, and model collections pertaining to events of and military science during this period. Members of the Society voluntarily contribute to endow professorships, lecture series, awards, and educational materials in order to educate their fellow Americans about the importance of the United States' representative democracy in the context of a republican governance structure. The definition and acceptance of membership, has remained with the constituent societies rather than with the General Society in Washington. Interestingly, and consistent with the virtues of serving the greater good, each member of the Society of the Cincinnati holds a federal civil rank equivalent to a warrant officer pursuant to Congressional Order of Thursday, January 29, 1885. The Society's President General has the rank equivalent to that of a federal territorial lieutenant governor.

Many of the Society's goals have already become reality. The Society of The Cincinnati was instrumental in ensuring that the Federal government provided pensions for veterans of the Revolutionary War. The concept of military retirement pay, health care and benefits for disabled veterans and retired and former military personnel, and compensation for war widows and orphans were also primary goals of The Society. It took many years to bring these visions and goals to fruition. As an example, it was not until 1834 that Revolutionary War Veterans received pensions, and 1865 before service-connected disability and survivors' compensation programs came into existence. It was not until 1930, with the inception of the federal Veterans' Administration, that the United States began to have a comprehensive, consolidated system for caring, compensating, and memorializing those who served in the uniformed services; and not until 1989, with the creation of the federal Department of Veterans' Affairs, were these concerns elevated to separate cabinet-level status. The Society's goals have served to benefit both enlisted and officers, their families, and people of all races, ethnicities, and creeds. With the veterans' agenda of the Society of the Cincinnati largely achieved, the Society today is a "Society of Friends" whose purpose has shifted to educating the public about the history, principles and values that served as the foundation for the inception of the United States of America.

Over the years, membership rules have remained essentially intact. There is a provision for approving the application of a collateral heir if the direct male line dies out. Membership has been expanded in the state societies to include descendants of those who died during the war but remains highly restrictive. While no official record has been made public, it is estimated that membership is roughly 3,700 worldwide today, including a former President of the United States, cabinet members, and their eldest sons. Broader-based organizations have been created, including the Sons of the American Revolution (SAR) and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Unlike the SAR and DAR, an officer of the Continental army during the Revolutionary War can generally be represented in the Society of The Cincinnati by only one descendant at a time with some exceptions. The only U.S. President who was a true hereditary member was Franklin Pierce (George Washington and James Monroe were original members) and Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. President to be granted non-hereditary, honorary membership as a sitting President by the Society of The Cincinnati's General Society. George Herbert Walker Bush was elected an honorary member after leaving office. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor were honorary members before becoming presidents. James Buchanan, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Harry S Truman became honorary members while in office, and Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and Herbert Hoover became honorary members after leaving office.

Each of the fourteen constituent societies also has honorary members, often men with outstanding military service (e.g., a recipient of the Medal of Honor, or a high-ranking general or admiral) or outstanding public service (e.g., as an ambassador or federal senator). An honorary member has the same rights and responsibilities of membership as an hereditary member but cannot designate an heir (referred to as a successor member) to become a member when he dies.

The Society maintains its strong tradition of service in American government, especially in the federal executive branch. Beyond the presidency itself, the Cincinnati have a long record of service in the State Department and other presidential appointments. A prototypical example is that of Larz Anderson III, who hailed from a distinguished Cincinnati, OH family and was a great-grandson of Richard Clough Anderson of the Virginia Society. Larz Anderson's distinguished career included service as Second Secretary of the American Legation and Embassy in London, First Secretary of the American Embassy and Chargé d'Affaires in Rome, and Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Tokyo. He built a palatial winter residence (now called Anderson House) in Washington, D.C., which his widow presented to the General Society following the ambassador's death in 1937, along with much of the building's original art and furnishings.

Anderson House, National Headquarters

Anderson House
U.S. National Register of Historic Places
U.S. National Historic Landmark
Exterior view of the Anderson House
Location: 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C.
Coordinates: 38°54′38.7″N 77°2′52.6″W / 38.91075°N 77.047944°W / 38.91075; -77.047944Coordinates: 38°54′38.7″N 77°2′52.6″W / 38.91075°N 77.047944°W / 38.91075; -77.047944
Built/Founded: 1902-1905
Architect: Little & Browne
Architectural style(s): Beaux-Arts
Governing body: Private
Added to NRHP: April 7, 1971
Designated NHL: June 19, 1996[5]
NRHP Reference#: 71000993[4]

Anderson House, also known as Larz Anderson House, located at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., houses the Society's national headquarters, historic house museum, and research library on Embassy Row -- the most fashionable avenue in turn-of-the-century Washington—and across the street from the famed academic social circle, the Cosmos Club. Anderson House was built between 1902 and 1905 as the winter residence of Larz Anderson, an American diplomat, and his wife, Isabel Weld Perkins, an author and American Red Cross volunteer. Architects Arthur Little and Herbert Browne of Boston, Massachusetts designed Anderson House in the Beaux-Arts style.

The Society makes Anderson House available for private events, such as this one held in its impressive ballroom.

The Andersons used the house to entertain the social and political elite of America and abroad, as well as to showcase their collection of fine art and historic artifacts that the couple acquired in their extensive travels. The Andersons had no children. Following Larz Anderson's death in 1937, his widow donated the Anderson House and its contents to the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Larz Anderson had been a devoted member for more than forty years. The Society opened Anderson House as a museum in 1939. Anderson House was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971 and was further designated a National Historic Landmark in 1996.[5][4]

Today, Anderson House continues to serve its members and the public as a headquarters, museum, and library. Visitors to the museum at Anderson House can tour the first two floors of the house, decorated with the Andersons' collection and interpreted to illuminate the world of entertaining and collecting in Washington, and can also view changing exhibitions devoted to the history of the American Revolution, the Society of the Cincinnati, and Anderson House and its occupants. In addition to the Andersons' original collection, the Society's museum collections include portraits, armaments, and personal artifacts of Revolutionary War soldiers; commemorative objects made to remember the war and its participants; objects associated with the history of the Society and its members, including Society of the Cincinnati china and insignia; portraits and personal artifacts of members of the Anderson family; and artifacts related to the history of the house, including the U.S. Navy's occupation of it during World War II. Anderson House has been featured on the A&E television series, America's Castles, as well as C-SPAN.


The library of the Society of the Cincinnati collects, preserves, and makes available for research printed and manuscript materials relating to the military and naval history of the eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, with a particular concentration on the people and events of the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The collection includes a variety of modern and rare materials including official military documents, contemporary accounts and discourses, manuscripts, maps, graphic arts, literature, and many works on naval art and science. In addition, the library is the home to the archives of the Society of the Cincinnati as well as a collection of material relating to Larz and Isabel Anderson. The library is open to researchers by appointment.

Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire

The New Hampshire Society of the Cincinnati owns and operates through a board of governors the American Independence Museum in Exeter, New Hampshire. The American Independence Museum is a private, not-for-profit institution whose mission is to provide a place for the study, research, education and interpretation of the American Revolution and of the role that New Hampshire, Exeter, and the Gilman family played in the founding of the new republic. Museum collections include two rare drafts of the U.S. Constitution, an original Dunlap Broadside of the United States Declaration of Independence, as well as an original Badge of Military Merit, awarded by George Washington to soldiers demonstrating extraordinary bravery. Exhibits highlight the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation’s oldest veterans’ society, and its first president, George Washington. Permanent collections include American furnishings, ceramics, silver, textiles and military ephemera. See below for a link to the museum.


  • American Philosophical Society (many Cincinnati were among its first board members and contributors; modern societies maintain informal, collegial relationships only)


  1. ^ Text: "Be it known that — is a Member of the Society of the Cincinnati, instituted by the Officers of the American Army, at the Period of its Dissolution, as well as to commemorate the great Event which gave Independence to North America, as for the laudable Purpose of inculcating the Duty of laying down in Peace Arms assumed for public Defence, and of uniting in Acts of brotherly Affection, and Bonds of perpetual Friendship the Members constituting the same. In Testimony whereof I, the President of the said Society, have hereunto set my Hand at — in the State of — this — Day of — Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and — and in the Year of the Independence of the United States. By order, — Secretary."
  2. ^ The Changing Role of America’s Veterans
  3. ^ "The Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787, reported by James Madison." 25 July 1787.
  4. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2007-01-23. 
  5. ^ a b "Anderson House". National Historic Landmark summary listing. National Park Service. Retrieved 2009-02-22. 


  • Olson, Lester C. Benjamin Franklin's Vision of American Community: A Study in Rhetorical Iconology. University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
  • Lossing, B.J. Pictoral Fieldbook of the Revolution. Volume I. 1850.
  • Metcalf, Bryce. "Original Members and Other Officers Eligible to the Society of the Cincinnati." Shenandoah Publishing House, Inc., 1938.
  • Myers, Minor. "Liberty Without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati." University of Virginia Press, 1983.
  • Hunemorder, Markus. "The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America." Berghahn Books, 2006.
  • Hoey, Edwin. "A New and Strange Order of Men" in American Heritage. (v. 19, issue 5) August, 1968.
  • Warren, Winslow. "The Society of the Cincinnati: A History of the General Society of the Cincinnati with the Institution of the Order", Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati, 1929.

External links

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