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The Society of the Cincinnati was a fraternal and charitable association of Continental Army officers that sparked widespread conspiracy theories and tested Washington's efforts to carefully manage his legacy. Largely the brainchild of General Henry Knox, the Society was founded in May 1783, in response to Congress's dissolution of the Continental Army.
The Society took its name from the ancient Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who was appointed dictator in time of crisis and returned to his farm, giving up all political and military power, after defeating the enemies of the Roman Republic.
Seeking to maintain a connection to their fellow officers, the Society listed the defense of liberty, the promotion of union, and the preservation of friendships forged in war as the basic principles of the organization. Under this last principle, the Society collected membership dues and donations to establish a fund benefiting indigent members and their families. The Society also made membership hereditary, passing to the veteran's oldest son or collateral descendent, and authorized a gold medal to be worn by members like that of European orders of knights.
Mirroring the structure of American federal-state relations, the society was divided into a national organization with state societies. The bulk of the organization's work took place at the local level and general coordinating occurred at the national level. While George Washington was not directly involved in the creation of the Society, he joined the organization shortly thereafter and was quickly chosen its President General.
Although members admitted no ulterior motives, critics found the Society to be anti-egalitarian and, at worst, a nefarious shadow government seeking to overthrow the Confederation. In the Society's hereditary membership, European-styled medal, and growing popularity among officers of the French armed forces, critics also saw the foundation of an American nobility. In light of these accusations, Washington consulted Thomas Jefferson who advised modifying the organization "to render it unobjectionable."1
To that end, Washington offered a series of changes at the Society's May 1784 general meeting, including the abolition of hereditary membership, the transfer of funds to the administration of state legislatures, and the elimination of national meetings. The suggestions won the approval of the general meeting and were passed on to state Societies for their adoption.
Publication of the reforms quieted some public criticism, although many of the state societies either refused to adopt or reversed earlier resolutions altering the Society. Antifederalists revived strong criticism of the Society in 1787 when they proclaimed the new Federal Constitution as the fruition of the Society's plans to overthrow the national government. Although he remained a member until his death, Washington himself claimed critics of both the Society and the Constitution charged him with "wanting in patriotism" and desiring to "subvert the principles of a republican government."2 Ratification of the Constitution and the political debates of the new republic gradually silenced criticism of the Society, allowing Washington to distance himself from those earlier charges.
Patrick Allan Pospisek
1. "Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 16 April 1784," The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series, Vol. 1, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992), 287-91.
2. "George Washington to William Barton, 7 September 1788," The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series, Vol. 1, ed. W.W. Abbot (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992), 501-3.
Hünemörder, Markus. The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America. New York: Berghahn Books, 2006.
"Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati," in General Washington's Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati, ed. Edgar Erskine Hume. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1941, 1-8.
Myers, Jr., Minor. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983.
"Observations on the Institution of the Society, 4 May 1784," The Papers of George Washington: Confederation Series Vol. 1, ed. W.W. Abbot. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1992, 330-2.