Sunday, January 5, 2020

Blast From the Past: Society of the Cincinnati

The ultra-exclusive society that merged the Old and New Worlds, much to the latter's dismay. 
[Named for those] having left the plow, like Cincinnatus, for their country's service, and returning to it when the need was over .... a memorial society organized by the officers of the American Revolutionary army, 13 May 1783, just before their final dispersion, from the camp on the Hudson near Fishkill. The first meeting was in the Verplanck House, Steuben's headquarters. A society was organized for each State, besides the general society of which Washington was elected president. 
Membership was confined to officers of the Continental army who had served with honor three years, or been honorably discharged for disability, whether native or foreign, and to their direct male descendants in order of birth, through females in default of males, and then to collaterals if judged acceptable to the Society. Partly as including several European nobles (Lafayette, Steuben, etc.), this was considered the beginning of an aristocratic order on European models, obnoxious to popular liberties. 
Of course it could only become such by government recognition, but the principle of heredity is per se un-American. With more show of reason, it was regarded as a military conspiracy to appropriate all the offices under the new government; a sign that the officers did not intend to be Cincinnatuses if they could help it. It was regarded by high and low as a grave public danger; and all the Revolutionary chiefs who had not been in the army, and were ineligible—Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, etc.—distrusted its possibilities if not its motives. 
The legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania adopted resolutions censuring it as dangerous to the liberty and safety of the country; the governor of South Carolina denounced it in his message to the legislature; and the Irish chief justice of the same State, Ædanus Burke, wrote a pamphlet signed “Cassius,” proving that it would subvert everything gained by the Revolution. This pamphlet was translated into French, and used by Mirabeau some years later. At the first general meeting, 7 May 1784, Washington persuaded them, in view of this public excitement, to abolish this hereditary feature. 
This, however, did not wholly conciliate popular feeling; and in 1789 the Tammany Society was founded in New York in avowed opposition, as a body where true equality should govern, and private advantage should not prevail over disinterested public spirit.
In 1787 Washington was elected president-general, and re-elected till his death; Alexander Hamilton succeeded him. Most of the State societies soon died, and the general society languished. When Lafayette visited this country in 1824 he was the only surviving major-general. The old hero's reappearance galvanized it into new life for a short time, but it sank out of sight again, and for many years was virtually dead, its chief function being an annual dinner in New York. 
Even a nominal organization was retained only in three or four States. The last survivor of the original association was Robert Burnet of New York, who died in 1854. In 1893 the general society began a successful effort to induce the States to revive or re-form their branches, and Connecticut first (1893) and Georgia last (1902) fill up the roll of the 13. Some of them issue publications.
The president-generals of the Society have been George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, Aaron Ogden, Morgan Lewis, William Popham, H. A. S. Dearborn, Hamilton Fish, William Wayne and Winslow Warren.
The emblem of the Society, adopted at the outset, was a bald eagle suspended by a dark-blue ribbon with white borders, symbolizing the union of France and America. On the eagle's breast is Cincinnatus receiving a sword and other military insignia from the Senate; in the background, his wife stands at the door of their cottage, with the plow and other agricultural implements near; round the whole are the words, Omnia reliquit servare rem publicam (“He left all to serve the commonwealth”). 
On the reverse, Fame is crowning Cincinnatus with a breath, inscribed Virtutis Præmium; in the background is a seaport city with gates opened and vessels entering; below are joined hands supporting a heart inscribed Esto Perpetua (“Be thou perpetual”). The living hereditary members number about 980.
Encyclopedia Americana, 1920