Society of the Cincinnati

Society of the Cincinnati
4th of july decorations
Image by dbking
Society of the Cincinnati Headquarters

The General Society of the Cincinnati is a historic association in the United States and France with limited and strict membership requirements. The society was organized at the end of the American Revolution by officers who were soon to return home, and it continues to exist today.

The first meeting was held at a dinner in Fishkill (near Newburgh), New York in May of 1783, as the British had not yet withdrawn from New York City. It was chaired by General Von Steuben and they agreed to stay in contact with each other after the war. Membership was limited to officers who served in the Continental Army and also included officers of the French Army who met the same requirements. Membership was passed down to the eldest son, after the death of the original member. The criteria were to have been an officer in the Continental Army for a period of three years, or an officer serving until the close of the war.

The Society is named after Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman dictator, thereby assuming near-total control of Rome to meet a war emergency. When the battle was won, he returned control to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society’s motto reflects that ethic: "Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam" – He gave up everything to serve the Republic. They set the three purposes of the Society:

To preserve the right so dearly won;
To promote continuing union between the states;
To assist members in need, or their widows and orphans.

Within twelve months a constituent Society had been organized in each state and in France. There were about 5,500 originally eligible members, and 2,150 had already joined. King Louis XVI himself approved the French Order of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784. Up to that time, the King of France had not allowed his officers to wear any foreign decorations. He immediately, however, made an exception in favor of the emblem of the Society of the Cincinnati. Membership in the Order was so eagerly sought that it soon became one of the most coveted in Europe.

Washington was elected the first President General of the Society. He served from December 1783 until he died in 1799. The second President General was Alexander Hamilton.

The Society of the Cincinnati has always been considered the premiere lineage society in the United States. Its members include many of the most distinguished military leaders and civil servants in the history of the country, beginning with twenty-three of the fifty-four signers of the U.S. Constitution.

On June 19, 1783, the General Society of the Cincinnati adopted the Bald Eagle as its insignia. Cherished by past and current Cincinnati, it is one of America’s first post-revolution symbols and an important piece of America’s rich iconographic tradition. 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 distinquished from those of other climes by its white head and tail, appears to me to deserve attention." In 1783, Major L’Enfant was commissioned to travel to France to have the first Eagle badges made, based on his design. Major L’Enfant later planned and partially laid out the city of Washington, DC.

The medallions at the center of the Cincinnati 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 Fame. The Society’s colors, light blue and white, symbolize the fraternal bond between the United States and France.

A specially commissioned "Eagle", encrusted with diamonds, was presented to George Washington by the French Navy, and has been worn by each succeeding President General. This "Eagle" is now at the National Headquarters of the Society of the Cincinnati at Anderson House on Massachusetts Avenue (Dupont Cirlce) in Washington, D.C.

The Cincinnati Eagle is quietly displayed in various places of public importance, including the city center of Cincinnati, Ohio (named for the Society) at Fountain Square, alongside the Stars and Stripes and the official City of Cincinnati flag. The flag has blue and white stripes and a dark blue square in the upper left corner, with a circle of 13 stars around the Cincinnati Eagle. Refer to the section below on "The Later Society" for the city’s historical connection to the Cincinnati.

Reaction to the Society
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. The Society has remained true to its founding purpose. But 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.

Benjamin Franklin was among the Society’s preeminent critics. He voiced concerns not only about the apparent creation of a noble order, but as a studied rhetorician he criticized 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 began, "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, Madison reports 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 influencial. 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."

The neutrality of this section is disputed.
As the international firestorm during the Society’s early years subsided, the Cincinnati emerged in the 19th century as an invaluable pool of honest, dedicated, and noble civil servants that would push America westward, while helping to build unity in Washington. History would no longer paint the organization as a threat to the Republic, but rather, as a crutch it could fall back on when its leaders were lost. This tradition continues today. As the Pennsylvania Society proclaims, the Cincinnati is the Republic’s "living link to the men who created the American Revolution."

The Later Society
The neutrality of this section is disputed.
The Cincinnati were integral in establishing many of America’s first and largest cities to the west of the Appalachians, most notably Cincinnati, OH and Pittsburgh, PA. The first governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, was a member of the Society. He named Cincinnati to honor the Society, and to encourage Society members to settle there. Lt. Ebenezer Denny (1761-1822), an original Pennsylvania Cincinnatus, was the first mayor of the incorporated city of Pittsburgh (elected 1816). Pittsburgh grew from Fort Pitt, which was commanded from 1777-1783 by four original Cincinnati.

The Civil War was a great trial to the Society as it was for all of the United States. Robert E. Lee was an eligible member, and many 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. Unlike centers of political power in the United States today, most of the Society’s decision-making authority, including membership requirements, has remained with the state societies rather than with the General Society in Washington.

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 some state societies to include descendants of those killed during the war and Naval Officers, but remains highly restrictive. While no official record has been made public, it is estimated that membership remains under 3,500 worldwide today, including many living former Presidents of the United States, cabinet members, and their eldest sons. Broader-based organizations have been created, including the Sons of the American Revolution and the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR).

The Society continues 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 Larz Anderson III, hailing from distinguished Cincinnati, OH family and a great grandson of Richard Clough Anderson of the Virginia Society. Larz served a distinguished career as Second Secretary of the American Legation and Embassy in London, First Secretary of the American Embassy and Charge d’Affaires in Rome, and Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Tokyo. Ambassador Anderson maintained a palatial winter residence called the Anderson House in Washington, DC, 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, at 2118 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C., houses the Society’s national headquarters, historic house museum, and research library on Embassy Row–the most fashionable neighborhood 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 Red Cross volunteer. Architects Arthur Little and Herbert Browne of Boston designed Anderson House in the Beaux Arts, or Academic Classical, style. It is widely regarded as their best work. 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 and decorative 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 oversaw the gift of 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 is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been designated a National Historic Landmark.

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 Gilded Age 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 is closed to the public for federal holidays and some Society meetings.

The Library
The library collects, preserves, and makes available for research printed and manuscript materials relating to the military and naval history of the eighteenth century, with a particular concentration on the people and events of the American Revolution. 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.

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

Freemasons (only by dual membership of notable founders and figures, construction of officer "temples" during the war, and other temples constructed through history in the name of Cincinnati leadership.)

Phi Beta Delta (sponsors a PBD professor in this honor society for international service and education)