SeacoastNH Home

Seacoast New Hampshire
& South Coast Maine

facebook logo

facebook logo

SEE ALL SIGNED BOOKS by J. Dennis Robinson click here
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. 

VISIT the American Independence Museum Web site

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. 


Society of the Cincinnati
America's First Hereditary Veteran's Organization (Continued)


The Society of the Cincinnati honored the selflessness of Cincinnatus by adopting the motto “Omni reliquit servare republicam,” that means “He relinquished everything to save the republic.” In addition, the Society insignia also honors Cincinnatus.         

On June 19, 1783 the Bald Eagle was adopted and the Society allowed Major Pierre L’Enfant, a French officer who joined the Continental Army in 1777, to design a medal to be worn by members. L’Enfant believed that the Society insignia should be similar to European orders like the Order of St. Louis or the Order of Military Merit. He designed a medallion with the bald eagle as the main symbol. In the center is a scene of Cincinnatus. One side shows Cincinnatus receiving a sword from the Roman Senate and the reverse shows him plowing his fields. The ribbon on the medal is white and light blue to symbolize the friendship between the United States and France. The Society flag is similar to the medal, but contains fourteen stars around the Cincinnati Eagle to represent each of the thirteen states and France


Society_of_CincinnatuiThe Society of the Cincinnati was an active organization until the early 1800s when it became dormant for many years. The original rules for passing Society membership to the eldest son eventually forced a change. The Colonial Revival period brought about its rebirth because Americans who had a hereditary connection to members of the Revolutionary generation were creating organizations such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Sons of the American Revolution to reconnect to their ancestral past.  

Today’s members must be a descendants of an officer who served three or more years in the Continental Army or Navy , an officer who was killed in service, or an officer who was serving at the end of the war. Membership can be passed to a collateral heir if no direct male heir exists. A collateral heir would include a cousin or nephew. Membership today is approximately 3,700 worldwide.          

The state of New Hampshire’s Society of the Cincinnati has four membership categories that include: (1) Hereditary members who are direct or collateral descendants of an eligible New Hampshire officer; (2) Successor members who are descendants of a current New Hampshire hereditary member; (3) Life members who are a collateral descendant of an eligible officer from another state whose membership will return to the other state upon the member’s death; (4) and finally Honorary members who are selected by the state society in recognition of a position of national distinction or public service. Many U.S. presidents have been honorary members, but the only president who was a hereditary member was President Franklin Pierce.  

The Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Hampshire  

The New Hampshire chapter of the Society of the Cincinnati was founded on November 18, 1783 at the Folsom Tavern in Exeter. The chapter elected Major General John Sullivan the first state president. The chapter went dormant in 1823 and was reorganized on July 4, 1896 in Concord, and has remained an active organization since. On November 1, 1902 the chapter purchased the Ladd-Gilman house in Exeter to use as their club house and for annual meetings. In the 1920s the Society took ownership of the Folsom Tavern and now holds their annual meeting in the same room in the Tavern where they were founded 227 years ago.  

The New Hampshire Society supports the American Independence Museum and maintains ownership of the Ladd-Gilman house and Folsom Tavern, which are used by the museum. The New Hampshire Society continues to collect important objects, paintings and documents of the Revolutionary period to assist the museum in educating the public. Those interested in learning more about Society membership should visit the Society’s Web site  

The Society Today  

The National Society is headquartered at Anderson House in Washington D.C. that holds a large manuscript, portrait and military ephemera collection. The National Society maintains a museum in the Anderson House which is open to the public, as well as a library which is open to researchers. The Society is now a society of friends that aims to educate the public about American history and the principles on which the nation was founded.  

For more information on the Society of the Cincinnati please visit the American Independence Museum in Exeter, NH. The Museum is open from mid-May to the end of October from Wednesday to Saturday from 10am to 4pm. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Wendy Bergeron is the curator at the American Independence Museum and teaches United States history at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, NH.


Please visit these ad partners.

News about Portsmouth from

Thursday, December 14, 2017 
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Please update your Flash Player to view content.
Please update your Flash Player to view content.

Copyright ® 1996-2016 All rights reserved. Privacy Statement
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Site maintained by ad-cetera graphics