The Battle of Yorktown had been won two years earlier. With the Treaty of Paris still unsigned, however, and with British garrisons holding New York City and other key territories, General Washington insisted on keeping most of the Continental Army ready for action.
The officers of the army, stationed at Newburgh NY with Washington, and having only garrison duty to partially occupy their time, began to glance toward Philadelphia with growing anger. Everyone, including members of the scrutinized body itself, knew what these warriors were watching – Congress.
The Continental Congress had promised the officers pensions of half-pay for life in 1781; however, Congress had failed to pass legislation to fund the pensions. What made a possible coup even more unsettling was the fact that the driving force behind the movement was General Henry Knox, commander of all Continental artillery regiments. Knox was also a longtime Washington loyalist.
From this aborted coup came The Society of the Cincinnati. The name derives from Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left retirement to command armies against Rome’s enemies in the 5th century BCE. Having won his battles, Cincinnatus returned to the Roman Senate, relinquished the dictatorial powers with which he had been invested, and returned to his farm.
Although he forestalled a likely overthrow of Congress, His Excellency agreed completely and ferociously with his officers on the issue of the as yet-nonexistent pensions. As for the issue of half-pay for life for the officers, Washington was even more emphatic. He stressed that it: “was a part of their hire. I may be allowed to say, it was the price of their blood, and of your independency; it is therefore more than a common debt, it is a debt of honor; it can never be considered as a pension or gratuity …..”
Exclusive and Hereditary
The elitist, hereditary military cast of the Cincinnati is what made many of the Founding Fathers nervous. Having just risked all to free the colonies from a monarch and his aristocracy, the last thing the Founders wanted was a new type of hereditary elite within the United States. The Society was widely denounced for its aristocratic and monarchist leanings …. But it was the fact of its existence … that the Society’s critics found most troubling. They feared the power of such “self-created” associations to corrupt and destroy the democratic process.
John Adams wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette [himself a founding member!] that the Society … might be … “the first step taken to deface the beauty of our temple of liberty.” Certainly no thoughtful civilian founder thought it wise to have a secretive, military society so close to a nascent democracy.
… France’s Cincinnati, formed almost exclusively of nobility, did not survive the Terror. Many members died on the guillotine, including the society’s president, Comte d’Estaing.
American Heritage allowed its writer a significant error here. While many aristocratic officers did die during the Terror, a good many survived. Most prominent here were the Marquis de Lafayette and the Comte de Rochambeau (last Marshal of France to be created by the old Bourbon dynasty).
Today, the Society lists one Raynald, duc de Choiseul Praslin as vice president general and head of the French branch. He is a descendant of one César-Gabriel de Choiseul, duc de Praslin, cousin and friend of the Comte de Vergennes, foreign minister to King Louis XVI César-Gabriel’s son was of an age to have been an officer during the American Revolution.
Technically, the founders of The Society of the Cincinnati could be said to be the officers who rallied at the Verplanck House to hear Major General Henry Knox. The bulk of those officers, however, had come only to hear Knox speak, and to vote on visiting Congress. The figures who planned the Newburgh Conspiracy, and who developed the Society, were among others, Henry Knox, Friedrich Wilhelm Baron von Steuben, General Nathanial Greene, and members of Washington’s own staff, such as Colonel Alexander Hamilton.
There still are conspiracy theories and mistrust for the Cincinnati. There is also the dramatic history of heroism and hatred during the Society’s split in the Civil War. There are the courage of hereditary members in all American wars since the Revolution, the Society’s generous philanthropic endeavors, and patriotism. All of that will easily and interestingly fill out a second article on the Society of the Cincinnati.