Society of the Cincinnati

Society of the Cincinnati
Society of the Cincinnati

The Society of the Cincinnati was founded in May 1783 as an association of veteran Revolutionary War officers; it quickly became the focus of a conspiracy theory in which the society was accused of trying to establish a hereditary aristocracy in the United States.

In spring 1783, the last months of the existence of the Continental Army, a group of officers surrounding Major General Henry Knox and Major General Friedrich von Steuben planned a way to continue the friendship and solidarity of Revolutionary War commanders in peacetime.

The aim was twofold: first of all, Knox and the others envisioned a mutual aid and benefit association, which could help impoverished members as well as the widows and orphans of deceased comrades.

Second, the officer corps had important political interests in common: Congress had promised to convert officers’ pensions into a lump sum equal to five years’ pay, a policy known as commutation. However, the precarious financial situation of the United States made the payment of commutation dubious, a problem that had already figured prominently in the so-called Newburgh conspiracy.

Many officers supported the formation of a stronger national government that was more likely to be able to honor its obligations. As a result, the planned association of veteran officers could also function as a political pressure group.

Knox and the others chose as their patron Cincinnatus, a Roman general who had briefly assumed dictatorial power only to return to his plow as quickly as possible. They planned a Society of the Cincinnati on the federal level as well as state societies, annual meetings, a badge of honor, the possibility of admitting foreign and honorary members, and the continuation of membership through the oldest male descendant.

In its early months, the society was virtually unknown to the general populace, but officers joined in large numbers and state societies were founded, including a French society. George Washington, although uninvolved with the organization of the society, was elected its president.

On the state level, typically the highest-ranking officer from the state line became the society’s leader. On the whole, the Cincinnati were quite successful at organizing veteran officers from the various states, making the society one of the very few associations existing in the entire United States.

Both the political and the organizational aspects of the society came under attack throughout the 1780s. American tradition, especially in the wake of the Revolution, included a deep distrust of standing armies, special privilege, and aristocracy; the Cincinnati seemed to include elements of all three. In New England, extralegal conventions protested commutation as a policy designed to privilege a specific class of citizens over others; the society became the focal point of these accusations.

In South Carolina, Judge Aedanus Burke published a widely read pamphlet that described the society as a nascent nobility. While Burke acknowledged the heroism of the veteran officers, he feared that their descendants would be less virtuous and eventually constitute an aristocracy that would doom republican government.

A conspiracy theory emerged that saw the Cincinnati as a group bent on gaining special financial privileges through commutation; forming an aristocracy through the rule of descent, connected to the nobility of Europe through the membership of foreign officers like Steuben and the French society; meeting annually to make political decisions, and then enforcing those decisions through political influence and implicit military power. In short, the Cincinnati were seen as the nucleus of a secret government, operating outside republican rules, to the benefit of the few and the detriment of the many.

The Cincinnati and the Constitution

To combat these allegations, Washington—spurred on by criticism from Thomas Jefferson and John Adams—convinced the society to drop the hereditary clause and honorary memberships, and put their funds under the control of the state legislatures in 1784.

This measure temporarily quieted criticism, but the topic soon flared up again. In 1787, the Cincinnati were suspected of fomenting Shays’ Rebellion only to put it down, in order to impress upon the populace the need for a stronger national government.

That same year, the annual meeting of the society took place in Philadelphia, at the same time and city as the Federal Convention that drafted the Constitution. Given Washington’s position as president of the Cincinnati and chairman of the Federal Convention, and the fact that several delegates were also members of the society, there was ample room for suspicions.

During the debates about the ratification of the Constitution, radical Anti-Federalists repeatedly charged that the new political system was the work of the Cincinnati, a new attempt to establish an aristocracy in the United States, with the presidency as a transitional institution that would eventually lead to monarchy.

Similar accusations were voiced when members of the society became involved in settling the Ohio territory (and the subsequent founding of the settlement Cincinnati); critics saw this as the genesis of a new nation ruled by the society.

On the whole, the accusations against the Cincinnati were largely unfounded. During the tempestuous 1780s, radical members might well have wished for a monarchy, possibly with Washington as king, to impose political order.

However, the society never pursued any such policies, especially as Washington himself was adamantly opposed to anything that might threaten civilian, republican government. While most Cincinnati strongly supported the new Constitution, there were also members among AntiFederalist leaders, most notably governor George Clinton of New York.

Similarly, during the first party system, most Cincinnati tended toward the Federalists, but there were also many among the Jeffersonian Republicans. If the society furnished the largest part of the new national army’s officer corps, this was only to be expected and had little political effect.

Even when Congress debated the fate of commutation certificates in 1790, the society did not make a strong lobbying effort on behalf of its members. Consequently, the accusations against the society largely faded away at the beginning of the nineteenth century, even though by that time most state societies had reverted to the formerly controversial succession by heredity.

The Society of the Cincinnati nearly faded during the first half of the nineteenth century, but experienced a revival after 1854 and exists to the present. The conspiracy theory can still be encountered, but usually as a bit of conspiracy trivia rather than a full-fledged theory.