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The Secret Society of the Cincinnati

Washington_GeorgeEXETER HISTORY

There are many conspiracy theories about secret societies such as the Freemasons and Skull and Bones, but only one society was founded by officers of the Continental Army and caused concern over who would control the newly formed United States government. (Read the full story below)





The Society of the Cincinnati was the brain child of Major General Henry Knox and Baron von Steuben. Steuben was a Prussian officer who volunteered to help the Americans. The two men believed that there was a need for a fraternal organization for officers of the Continental Army. 

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Their goal was to assist veterans and their families, particularly in securing pensions from the government. In 1783 as the American Revolution ended, Congress had not allocated funds for the half-pay life pensions promised to soldiers at the time they enlisted in the army or navy. Several former officers sent petitions and letters to Congress demanding pay. One officer, General Horatio Gates, even threatened a coup d’état to force the government to give out the promised pensions.  

Gates organized a meeting of former Continental Army officers in Newburg, New York to discuss their grievances and organize for action. George Washington learned of the meeting and was outraged at the threat of action against the new government. He surprised meeting attendees by arriving late and speaking to the crowd. He urged patience and good sense, but getting nowhere, Washington slowly took out his reading glasses to read a letter. “Gentlemen,” he said to the assembled military leaders, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”  

America's first hereditary veteran's organization

Washington’s long service in the Revolution moved the officers and turned the tide of the meeting. Peace was restored. A week later Congress granted five years’ full pay pensions to officers of the Continental Army. Many felt that there was a need to continue lobbying Congress -- and so the Society was born. 

The Society of the Cincinnati was named for Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who left his farm to serve as Magister Populi (a benevolent dictator) of Rome while fighting the Aequians and Sabines tribes in 458 B.C.. When that war was over, Cincinnatus gave up his power and returned to his farm, much as George Washington had done following the Revolution.  

The Society was divided into 13 state groups, plus a chapter for France that had been an American ally during the Revolution. Membership was open to officers who had served for three or more years in the Continental Army or Navy, or in the French Army or Navy. In 1783 there were 5,500 men eligible to join. By 1784 a total of 2,150 had signed on. George Washington was elected the first President General of the Society and remained president until his death in 1799.  

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others were wary that the Society had a hidden purpose. The feared a coup d’état from the organized military leaders. Others did not like the system by which Society members could pass their membership to their eldest sons (a process called “primogeniture”). They also believed that, by excluding enlisted men and militia officers, that the Society was creating hereditary elite of powerful individuals who could someday influence the government. Though many Society members did play an important role in the American government, the purpose of the organization was not to control politicians, but rather to help veterans.  


The Society of the Cincinnati is the nation’s first and oldest hereditary veteran’s society in existence. It was created to assist veterans and was founded on three Immutable Principles – (1) preserving the rights and liberties which were secured through fighting the Revolution; (2) promoting the continued union among the states; (3) fostering the spirit of brotherhood between officers of the Revolution while assisting members in need. Today, the purpose of the Society is to increase the understanding about the men who fought in the American Revolution and to educate the public about American history. 


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