While there may be some room for discussion, it appears that the Society of the Cincinnati originated as an idea of Major General Henry Knox. Knox together with his aide-de-camp, Capt. Samuel Shaw, Brig. Gen. Jedediah Huntington and Maj. Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben worked to organize a society of officers prior to the formal surrender of the British. On May 13, 1783, these men along with delegates representing the various units of the Continental Army, gathered at the Verplanck House, Stueben’s headquarters, at Fishkill on the Hudson and voted to adopt the revised Institution and formally established the Society of the Cincinnati.
The society’s main goal at the time was to continue to petition the U.S. Congress for back pay and or a pension for officers of the Continental Line. Up to that point the officers had not received any compensation for depredations and rumors of mutiny were rampant. Congress on the other hand had no authority to tax and could not meet any demands from the officers. The formation of an organized group to represent the officers was seen by many as a fortunate compromise.
The Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati dated Tuesday 13th May, Major General William Heath presiding, states that ..on May 10, 1783.
‘ Members shall be officers of the American Army, … MAJOR GENERAL BARON DE STEUBEN, senior officer present, … proposals being read and amendments agreed to, MAJOR GENERAL KNOX, BRIGADIER GENERAL HAND, BRIGADIER GENERAL HUNTINGTON AND CAPTAIN SHAW, were chosen to revise the same, and prepare a copy to be laid before this assembly at their next meeting … at MAJOR GENERAL BARON DE STEUBEN’S quarters on Tuesday the 13th instant. … the officers of the American Army do hereby, in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute and combine themselves into one SOCIETY OF FRIENDS, to long endure as long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and, in failure thereof , the collateral branches who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and Members. …
THE SOCIETY OF THE CINCINNATI
“The following principles shall be immutable and form the basis of the Society of the Cincinnati:
AN INCESSANT ATTENTION TO PRESERVE INVIOLATE THOSE EXHALTED RIGHTS AND LIBERTIES OF HUMAN NATURE, FOR WHICH THEY HAVE FOUGHT AND BLED, AND WITHOUT WHICH THE HIGH RANK OF A RATIONAL BEING IS A CURSE INSTEAD OF A BLESSING.
… PROMOTE AND CHERISH … BETWEEN THE STATES, THAT UNION AND NATIONAL HONOR …
TO RENDER AND PERMINENT THE CORDIAL AFFECTION SUBSISTING AMONG THE OFFICERS…EXTEND THE MOST SUBSTANTIAL ACTS OF BENEFICENCE, … TOWARDS THOSE OFFICERS AND THEIR FAMILIES …WHO MAY BE UNDER THE NECESSITY OF RECEIVING IT.’
Minor Myers, Jr states in his book, Liberty without Anarchy that ” THE SOCIETY OF THE CINCINNATI began as a mutiny moderated into an organization. It offered a constructive alternative to the desperate measures contemplated by some officers of an impoverished army in a week that might have transformed the Revolution into a civil war.” Myers was a member of the society and one of it’s leading historians.
To become a member in the Cincinnati you must replace an existing member. This society is the most difficult and one of the most prestigious of all American hereditary societies. This exclusive nature was the catalyst for formation of next society discussed, The Sons of the Revolution.
Some notable members include: George Washington (1st Society President, serving until his death in 1799); James Monroe; Alexander Hamilton; Robert Morris; Gen. Henry Knox; Gen. Friedrich von Steuben; Gen Jedediah Huntington; Gen. Nathanael Greene; Gen. Edward Hand; Gen. Arthur St.Clair; Gen. Alexander McDougall; Gen. John Sullivan; Gen. Marquis de La Fayette; Gen. Comte de Rochambeau; Adm. Comte de Grasse; Adm. Comte d’Estaing; Col. Thaddeus Kosciuszko; Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant(city planner, Washington D.C. and designer of the SC Eagle Insignia); Lt.Col. Ebenezer Stevens; Lt.Col. Tench Tilghman are among a few.
Successor & honorary members: Franklin Pierce; Zachary Taylor; James Buchanan; William McKinley; Theodore Roosevelt; William H Taft; Woodrow Wilson; Warren G Harding; Civil War Generals – Robert Anderson, George Meade, William T. Sherman, Winfield Scott Hancock.
and later, Marshal Petain; Gen. John J. Pershing; Winston Churchill, King Gustavus Adolphus VI of Sweden; Generals Douglas MacArthur; Omar Bradley George Marshall; Adm William Halsey; French President Valery d’Estaing; Poet Robert Frost; Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan to name a few among many.
National Headquarters: Anderson House, Massachusetts Avenue, Washington, D.C.
For further information see: Liberty Without Anarchy by Minor Myers Jr. (available on Amazon).
A link to the Society of the Cincinnati