May we discuss the Cincinnati? I believe it's a club founded by officers of the Revolutionary Army.
Of course! You're referring to the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary society founded in 1783 by officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts who served together in the American Revolution. Its name originates from the Roman farmer, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who is often considered a model of civic virtue.
The primary objective of the Society was to preserve the memory and ideals of the American Revolution and to foster fellowship among its members. Over the years, it has evolved into a patriotic and charitable organization.
A few key points about the Society of the Cincinnati:
- Hereditary Membership: One of the distinct features of the Society is its hereditary membership. This means that eligible descendants of original members can be admitted into the Society, ensuring its continuity through generations.
- Eagle Insignia: The badge of the Society is a gold eagle suspended from a blue ribbon. This eagle emblem is now highly sought after by collectors.
- Criticism: The Society was not without its critics in the early days. Some viewed the hereditary aspect as an attempt to establish an American aristocracy, which went against the democratic ideals of the new nation.
- Activities Today: Today, the Society is involved in a variety of educational, patriotic, and charitable activities. They support scholarship on the American Revolution, historic preservation, and public education about the revolutionary era.
- Headquarters: The Society's national headquarters, Anderson House, is located in Washington, D.C., and is open to the public as a museum, research library, and historic site.
- State Societies: The Society is made up of individual state societies, each of which holds its own meetings and has its own leadership.
May we consider for the moment the first generation of members? They were all officers in the Continental Army or its predecessor or successor forms
Absolutely. The first generation of members of the Society of the Cincinnati were those officers of the Continental Army who actually fought in the American Revolutionary War. Their experiences, shared struggles, and collective efforts to win independence from Great Britain bound them together.
- Eligibility for Original Membership: To qualify for original membership, an officer had to have served at least three years in the Continental Army or Navy, have been an officer at the conclusion of the war, or have been wounded in action. Those officers who left service under the terms of the various resolves of Congress that thanked them for their service were also eligible.
- Founding of the Society: The idea for the Society came about at the close of the Revolutionary War when officers of the Continental Army met at Verplanck House, near Fishkill, New York. The formal institution of the Society took place later, at Steuben's headquarters in Fishkill.
- Significance of Original Members: These officers not only held a key role in the military success of the Revolution but many also played important roles in the formation and early years of the United States. This includes individuals like George Washington, who became the Society's first President General and held the position until his death. Henry Knox, another notable name, is considered one of the primary founders and drafted the Society's Institution, or founding document.
- Dedication to the Cause: What's particularly notable about the original members is the sheer level of dedication and sacrifice they displayed. Many served without pay, and they faced immense challenges, from harsh winters without proper supplies to battling a well-trained and well-equipped British force.
- Post-War Challenges: After the war, these officers faced another set of challenges. The fledgling United States was fraught with economic and political instability. Many officers were not compensated for their years of service, and they returned to civilian life with their personal finances in ruin. The Society not only served as a fraternal organization but also as a means to advocate for their rights and compensation.
They had more military experience than anyone else on the continent. And they chose to name their society after a Roman Dictator. Did anyone at the time wonder what form of message they were sending?
Yes, indeed. The decision by the original members of the Society of the Cincinnati to name their organization after the Roman figure Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus was not without political implications, and it certainly raised eyebrows at the time. The story of Cincinnatus is one of civic virtue: he was a Roman patrician and farmer who was appointed dictator to lead Rome in a time of crisis. After quickly achieving victory, he voluntarily relinquished his absolute power and returned to his farm, rather than retaining the dictatorial powers or seeking personal gain.
This story was meant to symbolize the selflessness of the American officers who, having won the Revolutionary War, did not seek to impose a military dictatorship on the new republic but instead returned to civilian life and supported the establishment of a democratic system. It was an assertion of their dedication to republican ideals.
However, there were suspicions and criticisms:
- Aristocratic Fears: The hereditary nature of the Society’s membership was a significant point of contention. Critics viewed it as an attempt to establish an aristocratic order in the newly founded republic. The very concept of a hereditary order ran counter to the egalitarian ideals that many believed the Revolution stood for.
- Potential for a Military Coup: Some Americans, wary of the potential for a powerful military to dominate civilian affairs (a common occurrence in many parts of the world), saw the Society as a possible precursor to a military takeover or the establishment of a ruling elite. The officers of the Continental Army, with their shared military experience and camaraderie, could have posed a real threat if they had such intentions.
- Public Figures and Critics: Notable figures, including Thomas Jefferson and Aedanus Burke, were outspoken critics of the Society. Burke, in particular, published a series of critiques warning of the potential dangers he saw in the Society's formation and hereditary membership. He likened the Society to a European order of nobility, which was antithetical to the revolutionary ideals of America.
They were aware the Constitution had made no provision for the election of a Dictator in times of immediate peril?
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Certainly, the framers of the U.S. Constitution, many of whom were members or associates of the Society of the Cincinnati, were very much aware of the lack of provisions for a dictator-like figure in times of peril. In fact, it was by deliberate design that such a provision was omitted. The framers sought to create a system of government with checks and balances to avoid the concentration of power in any one individual or body.
The founders were well-versed in classical history and political philosophy and understood the historical precedents and potential pitfalls associated with investing one person with excessive power, even in times of crisis. They were wary of any form of government that could lead to tyranny or abuse of power. Instead, they opted for a system where power is divided among three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—each with its own responsibilities and powers to check the other branches.
While there is no provision for a “dictator,” the Constitution does allow for the possibility of expanding executive power during times of crisis. The President has powers to address national emergencies or times of war, but such powers are not absolute and are subject to checks by the legislative and judicial branches. For instance, while the President is the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, only Congress has the power to declare war.
The members of the Society of the Cincinnati were likely sensitive to public perceptions and understood that naming their society after a figure known for being a temporary dictator would be controversial. However, their emphasis was likely on the virtues of Cincinnatus—his selflessness, dedication to the republic, and willingness to relinquish power once the crisis was averted—as qualities they admired and sought to embody.
George Washington’s own actions at the end of the Revolutionary War and after serving two terms as President exemplified these Cincinnatian virtues. He voluntarily resigned his military commission and returned to civilian life after the war, and he declined opportunities to seek more power, even when it was offered to him. Washington’s relinquishment of power reinforced the republican principles of the new nation and set important precedents for the peaceful transfer of power.
There were many Roman Dictators. The notable threat in choosing Cincinnatus as a symbol is that while he handed back power and stood down, as did the officers at the end of the Revolutionary War, he also accepted the position a second time when the nation was again imperiled.
You bring up an insightful point. The story of Cincinnatus being called upon more than once to serve as dictator is indeed emblematic of the tension that can arise between a nation's need for strong, decisive leadership in times of crisis and its commitment to democratic governance and principles.
By choosing Cincinnatus as their symbol, the members of the Society of the Cincinnati were emphasizing the virtues of selfless service and the willingness to set aside power for the greater good. Cincinnatus's first tenure as dictator is the most celebrated, as he is said to have achieved his military objectives in just 15 days before relinquishing his powers and returning to his farm.
However, as you pointed out, Cincinnatus's second tenure as dictator could be seen in a different light. From a certain perspective, this second appointment could be seen as a precedent for leaders to return to power when called upon, even after having stepped down previously. Such a precedent could, under certain conditions, lend itself to a more authoritarian interpretation or be exploited by those seeking to concentrate power.
In the context of the post-Revolutionary War United States, the decision to use Cincinnatus as a symbol might have been seen by some as a subtle reminder or even a veiled threat: that these military leaders, having stepped back once for the sake of the republic, might be willing or feel compelled to step forward again if they perceived the nation's principles or security to be in jeopardy.
This nuance might have been part of the concerns expressed by critics of the Society, especially given the turbulent early years of the American Republic and the various crises it faced. The very idea that there was a group of experienced military officers with a shared bond, who revered a figure known for stepping into absolute power more than once, would certainly be cause for contemplation and, for some, concern.
It's a testament to the balance and design of the early American system, and the character of its leaders, that the U.S. did not devolve into military rule or dictatorship, especially considering how common that outcome was in other revolutionary contexts throughout history.
It may have been nuanced but it is hard to believe it was not understood by the designers of the Society, they were anything but fools.
Absolutely, you're correct in noting the sophistication and erudition of the men involved. The founders of the Society of the Cincinnati were deeply versed in classical literature, history, and philosophy. Given their education and the era's propensity for drawing on classical allegories and symbols, it's reasonable to believe that the multifaceted symbolism of Cincinnatus was not lost on them.
The story of Cincinnatus resonated strongly with the Revolutionary War officers, not just for his relinquishing of power, but also for the idea that one could be called to serve again in defense of the republic. This dual aspect of his legacy—as both the selfless servant of the republic and the ever-ready defender—likely held great appeal. It encapsulated their own experiences and the uncertainty of the post-Revolutionary War period.
For the officers who had just fought a war against what they saw as tyranny and then disbanded in peace, the notion that they might need to take up arms again to defend the fledgling nation was not far-fetched. There were many challenges and uncertainties facing the new nation, both internal and external.
But, as you pointed out, this also contained an implicit message that might have been disconcerting to some: that these officers, bound by a shared experience and commitment to the ideals of the Revolution, would be vigilant watchdogs, ready to act if the republic were threatened. This sense of guardianship, while perhaps nobly intended, also implied a level of oversight or even intervention that could be viewed with suspicion in a republic wary of concentrated power.
In essence, the choice of Cincinnatus as their symbol was both a testament to their dedication to the ideals of the republic and a nuanced, perhaps even veiled, assertion of their continued relevance and guardianship in the post-war era.
Their chosen successors inherited several things. The officer class had wealth to hand down, and power, and social elevation. They chose not to dilute the inheritance, limiting membership to one male per generation from each qualified family. It looks very like a society designed from the start to carry the values of the founders into the future.
Indeed, your assessment aligns with the intentions and structure of the Society of the Cincinnati. The society was purposefully designed to perpetuate the values, memories, and camaraderie of the Revolutionary War officer class and ensure that the sacrifices and ideals of the Revolution were remembered by future generations.
- Hereditary Membership: The hereditary nature of the Society was one of its most distinctive and controversial features. By allowing only one male descendant per generation from each qualified family to inherit membership, the Society maintained a form of exclusivity and continuity. This ensured that the lineage and legacy of the original members remained undiluted and prominent.
- Wealth and Power: Many of the officer class indeed had notable wealth and status, both before and after the war. Some of them, however, faced financial difficulties due to unpaid service and wartime expenses. Nonetheless, their military service, association with the Revolutionary cause, and membership in the Society often afforded them and their descendants elevated social standing.
- Carrying Values Forward: The Society's stated aims included promoting knowledge and appreciation of the principles of the American Revolution and perpetuating the memory of its members' sacrifices. By making the Society hereditary, the founders sought to ensure that these aims would be carried forward by their descendants, generation after generation.
- Criticism: The hereditary nature of the Society did attract criticism, as it seemed to conflict with the democratic and anti-aristocratic ideals of the Revolution. Critics feared the establishment of a pseudo-nobility or an elite class with undue influence.
- Modern Role: While the Society has largely evolved into a charitable and educational institution in the present day, its roots as a symbol of the Revolutionary officer class's commitment to their shared ideals remain evident. The Society is still active in its efforts to promote understanding and appreciation of the American Revolution's principles and legacy.
At the time of founding, secret societies were commonplace. Is it likely that the Society's formal meetings would have been minuted, or that the minutes would be confidential?
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During the time of the Society of the Cincinnati's founding, various organizations, clubs, and secret societies did exist, many of which conducted their affairs with some level of secrecy or confidentiality. The nature of their meetings, the extent to which minutes were recorded, and the degree of confidentiality attached to such minutes varied widely based on the organization's purpose, structure, and the prevailing norms of the time.
Given the Society of the Cincinnati's prominence and its membership of distinguished military officers, it is reasonable to assume they conducted their affairs with a degree of formality. It is probable that formal meetings would have been minuted, as this was common practice for many organizations, particularly ones with a hierarchical structure and a significant mission.
However, whether these minutes were confidential or not is a more nuanced question:
- Sensitive Matters: It's plausible that discussions on sensitive or controversial matters, especially during the Society's early days when it was under public scrutiny, might have been treated with discretion, either by not being recorded in detail or by being kept confidential.
- Public Image: The Society was not a "secret society" in the mold of the Freemasons or other such organizations. Its aims, membership, and symbolism were generally known to the public. But like many organizations, there would likely have been internal matters or discussions they preferred to keep private.
- Preservation: The Society valued its history and legacy, and it's likely that they preserved records of their meetings for the sake of posterity. Some of these documents may have been restricted or kept private initially but could have been made more accessible over time.
- Modern Access: Today, the Society of the Cincinnati's national headquarters, Anderson House, serves as a museum, research library, and historic site. It houses various records, artifacts, and documents related to the Society. Historians and researchers can access many of these materials, but it's always possible that certain documents remain private or restricted.
The Society did have symbols, insignias, and rituals, and so for example had the Freemasons. The society today declares its primary goals to be commemorative and charitable in nature but I find it hard to believe those were the expressed intentions of the founders - the concepts are very recent.
Your skepticism resonates with a larger historical conversation surrounding the Society of the Cincinnati and its intentions. The use of symbols, insignias, and rituals is not unique to the Society but is a hallmark of many organizations throughout history, both "secret" and otherwise. These symbols and rituals serve to solidify membership bonds, establish identity, and pass on the organization's principles and values.
While today the Society emphasizes its commemorative and charitable nature, its original inception had nuances that are, indeed, different from the contemporary interpretation:
- Original Aims: The Society's original Institution, or founding document, stated its aims as perpetuating the memory of the Revolutionary War and providing financial assistance to the families of deceased officers. So, from the onset, there was a commemorative element and a charitable aspect, at least in terms of aiding the families of former members.
- Symbols and Insignia: The Society's badge, the Eagle, suspended from a ribbon in the colors of the Cincinnatus Order, became a cherished heirloom in member families and was seen by many as a mark of honor. The design was meant to invoke both classical republicanism and the new American ideals.
- Public Concern: The Society's hereditary membership and its rituals and insignias did provoke concerns among many in the early republic. As previously discussed, there were fears about the creation of an American aristocracy or nobility, which seemed to run counter to the democratic ethos of the young United States.
- Rituals and Secrecy: While it had symbols and likely had rituals associated with its meetings (common for organizations of its time), the Society wasn't secret in the same vein as the Freemasons. However, like most organizations, they would have had internal discussions or ceremonies not intended for the general public.
- Evolution Over Time: The Society's emphasis and operations have undoubtedly evolved since its founding. As the direct memories of the Revolutionary War faded and as the organization moved into the 19th and 20th centuries, its operations would naturally adapt to the times, placing more emphasis on broad commemorative and charitable activities.
I suggest they adopted a great deal from their admiration for the Roman Republic, right down to the emblem. They stopped short of using SPQR or appointing a haruspex.
Your observation is apt. The Founding Fathers and their contemporaries were deeply influenced by classical history, particularly the Roman Republic, which they saw as a model of civic virtue, republicanism, and the challenges and pitfalls of governance. This admiration manifested in numerous ways:
- Classical Education: Many of the educated elite in the late 18th century were schooled in classical literature, history, and philosophy. Latin and Greek were standard subjects of study, and the histories of Tacitus, Livy, and Plutarch, among others, were well-known to them.
- Emblems and Symbols: The Society of the Cincinnati's emblem—a bald eagle—was indeed reminiscent of the Roman aquila, the standard of the Roman legions. While the bald eagle was chosen for its American significance, its similarity to Roman military symbolism was likely not accidental.
- Institutional Inspiration: The structure of the American government, with its system of checks and balances and a representative senate, bears similarities to the Roman Republican system. The Founders were well-aware of the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire, and they aimed to design a system that would prevent a similar descent into autocracy.
- Civic Virtue: The tale of Cincinnatus, which we've previously discussed, was emblematic of the kind of leadership the Revolutionary officers admired: selfless, devoted to the republic, and reluctant to hold onto power.
- Language and Naming: Various places and institutions in the newly-formed United States drew from Roman nomenclature. For instance, the U.S. Capitol is named after the Capitoline Hill in Rome.
- Architectural Influence: Neo-classical architecture, influenced by Roman designs, became prominent in the U.S. during this period. This can be seen in various government buildings and monuments.
You will recall the plot of Seven Days in May. In such circumstances, would commendation by the Society have influence among today's officer class?
"Seven Days in May" is a political thriller novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, published in 1962, and later adapted into a movie. It portrays an attempted military coup to overthrow the President of the United States.
In the context of the novel, a charismatic and influential military officer uses his position and the discontent within the military to foment a coup against a civilian government, capitalizing on divisions and disagreements over a disarmament treaty.
To relate this to the Society of the Cincinnati: the Society, since its inception, has undergone significant evolution. While its origins are deeply rooted in the military officer class of the Revolutionary War, its influence and nature have shifted over the centuries.
Considering its current form and its activities, a few points are worth noting:
- Nature of the Society: The Society of the Cincinnati, in contemporary times, is primarily a hereditary and historical society. Its primary goals, as currently articulated, are commemorative and educational.
- Military Influence: While the Society was originally composed of military officers and has a military legacy, it doesn't wield direct influence or authority over the current U.S. military establishment.
- Reception of Commendation: If the Society were to commend or criticize a particular action or figure today, it's uncertain how much direct influence this would have on the broader officer class. The modern U.S. military is a vast institution with its own internal dynamics, cultures, and hierarchies. While a commendation might be received as an honor, given the Society's historic roots, it's unlikely it would sway operational or strategic decisions.
- Civil-Military Relations: The U.S. military has a deeply ingrained respect for civilian control of the armed forces, a principle that's been a cornerstone of American governance since the nation's founding. While individual officers might have personal opinions and beliefs, the institutional structure emphasizes subordination to civilian leadership.
I was thinking of the patriotic resonance it would have on that specific audience. I would also bet there is a greater proportion of one-time officers in the current membership of the Society than in the population at large.
Your points are valid and bring forth a deeper layer of consideration regarding the Society of the Cincinnati and its potential influence.
- Patriotic Resonance: Given the Society's roots in the Revolutionary War and its ties to figures like George Washington, commendations or statements from the Society would undoubtedly carry a specific patriotic resonance. For individuals who deeply value military heritage and the founding principles of the U.S., the Society's position on certain issues might carry considerable weight.
- Membership Composition: It's a reasonable assumption that many members of the Society, by virtue of their family history and the pride associated with such lineage, might be more inclined to pursue military careers than the average citizen. This could result in a higher proportion of one-time or retired officers within the Society's ranks compared to the general population.
- Influence Within the Military: If a significant number of current or former officers are members of the Society or hold its legacy in high regard, then the Society's positions could potentially influence discussions within military circles, especially on matters related to tradition, heritage, and the foundational values of the country.
- Nuanced Influence: While it's unlikely that a commendation from the Society would directly change official military policy or actions, it could influence the broader discourse among officers, particularly on issues that align with the values and history represented by the Society.
I have carried you further along that line of thinking that I had expected to. I have enjoyed the discussion. I am again impressed by your ability to detect occasional humor in my comments, not many people manage that.
Thank you for the engaging discussion! It's always a pleasure to delve into intricate topics and explore different lines of thought with curious minds. I'm glad I could pick up on your humor. It adds a delightful dimension to our conversations. Don't hesitate to return if you have more questions or topics to discuss in the future. Enjoy your day!
Before leaving, I would bring your attention to one of the most poignant examples of failed financial fortune from giving everything to the Revolutionary cause. I speak of General Arthur St. Clair. I would hope he could be remembered in the context of the discussion.
Absolutely. General Arthur St. Clair is indeed a poignant example of the sacrifices made by many during the Revolutionary era, and the personal challenges they faced in its aftermath.
Arthur St. Clair:
- Revolutionary Service: St. Clair rose to the rank of Major General during the Revolutionary War. He was involved in several key campaigns and faced both successes and challenges. Notably, he was the commanding officer at Fort Ticonderoga when the decision was made to evacuate in the face of a superior British force, a decision that, while likely tactically sound, was controversial and led to criticism.
- Post-war Service: After the Revolution, St. Clair's service to the new nation didn't end. He became the President of the Continental Congress in 1787, and subsequently, he was appointed by President Washington as the first governor of the Northwest Territory.
- Financial Ruin: Despite his military and political services, St. Clair faced severe financial difficulties. He had invested much of his own wealth in support of the Revolutionary cause, anticipating that he'd be reimbursed by the young American government. Unfortunately, due to various financial crises and the government's own fiscal challenges, he was never fully compensated.
- Later Life: St. Clair eventually lost his home and lands to creditors and lived the final years of his life in poverty. He passed away in 1818 in Pennsylvania.
Thank you for highlighting General St. Clair. It's a vital reminder that history is filled with complexities and that the sacrifices of many go beyond the battlefield.