Sunday, November 10, 2013

First Patriots, First Veterans

In the Beginning

Society of the Cincinnati Crest
Before  the Veterans of Foreign Wars, before the American Legion, and even before there was Grand Army of the Republic, there was... the Society of the Cincinnati. The Society of the Cincinnati is America's oldest patriotic organization, founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts who served together in the American Revolution. Its mission is to promote knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of American independence and to foster fellowship among its members. During the 18th century, Republican Rome was often used as the model for an ideal society. So not surprisingly, The Society was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman Consul and served as Magister Populi (with temporary powers similar to that of a modern-era dictator). He assumed 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.

A Band of Brothers

Henry Knox
The Society's Founder
The idea of a society of officers came from Major General Henry Knox, the Continental Army's chief of Artillery. He saw it as a means of maintaining the bonds among the army's officers, the "band of brothers," many of whom suffered eight years of privation during a struggle that was often deemed hopeless. As  the commissioners in Paris were meeting to establish the terms of the peace treaty, Washington's main army hovered north of New York as insurance against a last minute surprise British thrust. The Continental Army
was still woefully equipped, fed and paid, and much unrest among the men and officers festered. So the idea of the Society was a means to bind the officers to each other and the new nation.

A Society Formed

The first meeting of the Society was held in May 1783 at a dinner at the Verplanck House in Fishkill, New York and was was chaired by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, perhaps his age's most organized man! 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; it included officers of the French Army and Navy above certain membership would devolve to their eldest male heir. Significantly, members of the considerably larger fighting forces comprising the state militias  were not entitled to join the Society. This caused great tension and opposition to the Society later on.
Officers in the Continental Line who died during the War were also entitled to be recorded as members.

First Patriot Controversy 

During the time of and immediately after its founding, the Society was distrusted by many Americans, especially those who formed the faction that eventually became Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party.  It was viewed as the progenitor of an aristocratic class aimed at establishing George Washington as King or dictator. The fact that members had to be direct male heirs of the Continental Army officers did not impress most Americans. George Washington himself was sensitive to this and pushed back on taking an active role in the organization that named him its president.  So Henry Knox often filled in as a substitute. But Washington served as the first President General of the Society of the Cincinnati from December 1783, until his death in 1799.  His advocacy of the Society's interests, as well as the sheer strength of his reputation helped establish the Society of the Cincinnati during its formative years. His support and counsel against aristocratic appearances was crucial when wide spread opposition to the Society existed. Washington's leadership stabilized and guided the Society of the Cincinnati as President General for the first sixteen years of its existence.

The Society Today

Today the society is a non-profit with the mission of education on our nation founding and fostering an appreciation of the principles of the American Revolution.  Headquartered at the the (very impressive) Anderson House in Washington, DC, the Society maintains a small museum and library. It hosts a variety of  educational events that are open to the public, including lectures and book signings, concerts, themed wine tastings, and children's programs. Exploring aspects of the American Revolution, the Society's history, and Anderson House, these events are an important part of the Society's educational mission.

The Anderson House


  1. Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene was the first President of the Rhode Island Society of the Cincinnati. His Eagle insignia was sold out of his family just over a year ago.
    -David M. Procaccini, President
    Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead Association

  2. Thanks for the update. As you know, many of us consider him one of the most important First Patriots.

  3. Scott, very nice piece. Haven't seen you since we worked together at CIFA. Have a book suggestion for you. Can be reached at regards ken daigler

  4. Our northwestern-most town in South Carolina, Greenville, is named in honor of General Greene.

    1. Spencer, visit Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene Homestead on Facebook, there are a bunch of posts about places named after Gen. Greene