Major General Henry Knox developed the idea of the Society of the Cincinnati. The first meeting of the Society was held in May 1783 at a dinner in Newburgh, New York. The meeting was chaired by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and the participants agreed to stay in contact with each other after the war. Membership was generally limited to officers who had served at least three years in the Continental Army or Navy; it included officers of the French Army and Navy above certain ranks. Officers in the Continental Line who died during the War were also entitled to be recorded as members, and membership would pass to their eldest male heir. Members of the Colonial Militias and Minutemenwere not entitled to join the Society.
The Continental officers had little more than their honor and the satisfaction that they had carried out their duty. Congress had made promises to give them half pay for the remainder of their lives, but, as the army prepared to disband, most of them had not received their regular pay for many months, and few of them had any confidence in Congress. The establishment “began as a mutiny (but) moderated into an organization.” (The Fabric of Liberty, Alexander Moore, p.31)
“The following principles shall be immutable, and form the basis of the Society of the Cincinnati:
An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted 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.
An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective States, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness, and the future dignity of the American empire.
To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the officers. This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularly extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence, according to the ability of the Society, towards those officers and their families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it. “ (Constitution of the Society of the Cincinnati)
The Society's rules adopted a system of primogeniture wherein membership was passed down to the eldest son after the death of the original member. Present-day hereditary members generally must be descended from an officer who served in the Continental Army or Navy for at least three years, from an officer who died or was killed in service, or from an officer serving at the close of the Revolution. (The rules of eligibility and admission are controlled by each of the 14 Constituent Societies to which members are admitted. They differ slightly in each society, and some allow more than one descendant of an eligible officer)
The Society is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman Consul and served as Magister Populi . He assumed lawful dictatorial control of Rome to meet a war emergency. When the battle was won, he returned power to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society's motto reflects that ethic of selfless service: Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam ("He relinquished everything to save the Republic").
George Washington was elected the first President General of the Society. He served from December 1783 until his death in 1799. The second President General was Alexander Hamilton and the third was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina.
The Society of Cincinnati in South Carolina was founded by General William Moultrie in the summer and fall of 1783 at the City Tavern on the northeast corner of Church and Broad Streets, Charleston. The General rules of the South Carolina Organization were signed by all 116 original members (representing 9 states.) Among the members were: Thomas Gadsden, Isaac Huger, Francis Marion, John Middleton, William Moultrie, Charles Pinckney, Thomas Pinckney, Chaplain Robert Smith, and William Washington.
On July 4, 1784, exactly eight years after America declared its independence, the French Society was established at a meeting at the Paris residence of Charles Hector, Comte d'Estaing. The French Society was the fourteenth and last constituent society to organize.
The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, took its name from Cincinnatus and the Society. In 1790 Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory (which included present-day Ohio) and president of the State Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, gave the town its current name.
Membership in the Society declined in the early nineteenth century, and several constituent societies dissolved. The South Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey societies continued to operate, though their membership declined. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Society had fewer than three hundred members. (All 14 Societies are currently active.)
The South Carolina delegation did not attend the National Meeting in 1860, and neither South Carolina nor Maryland was represented at the meeting in 1863, but the fraternal spirit of the northern members was reflected in a toast offered on that occasion: "Our sister societies of the Cincinnati. Dear to us, every one of them, in the memories of the Past, in the Hope of the Future." The fraternal bond between North and South was renewed in 1869 when South Carolina delegates took their place at a Meeting. The election of a South Carolina Society member as vice president general in 1872 demonstrated that the estrangement of the war was only temporary.
The South Carolina Society of Cincinnati was the only active Society in the South during the Civil War. Many members served in the Confederate Army. National meetings were held in Charleston in 1881 and 1908.
The national Headquarters’ of the Society of Cincinnati is at Anderson House, Washington, DC. The house was donated to the Society by Larz and Isabell Anderson in 1937. Larz Anderson's great grandfather was an original member of the Society of the Cincinnati.