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About   History

Remembering the Revolution,
1800–1854

Despite the Society's reaffirmation of hereditary succession, several constituent societies entered a period of decline after Washington's death, as the original members aged and the Revolutionary War grew ever more remote. The French Society had been abolished in the early stages of the French Revolution, and many of its members had been killed during the Reign of Terror that followed. The North Carolina Society had ceased to function by 1800. The Georgia Society did not meet after 1800, though it did not dissolve; new officers were elected in 1822, but there is no record of activity in the intervening decades. The Delaware Society dissolved in 1802, dividing its assets among its members. The Connecticut Society dissolved in 1804 and presented the residue of its treasury to Yale College.

Other state societies dissolved during the first decades of the nineteenth century. The Virginia Society, despite the reaffirmation of hereditary succession, did not admit any hereditary members, implicitly anticipating that it would not outlast the founding generation. It dissolved in an orderly manner, entrusting the commonwealth with a fund to provide relief for its widows and turning over the balance of its money to Washington College—now Washington and Lee University. The Virginia Society held its last meeting in 1824. The Rhode Island Society continued in operation until July 4, 1835, when it held its last meeting. The New Hampshire Society continued to hold meetings until 1823, although participation waned. It simply faded away, without any formal act of dissolution. In 1842 the son of the last secretary pronounced the New Hampshire Society extinct and sent its records to the state historical society.

The decline of the Society during the early nineteenth century was not at all uniform. The South Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey societies continued to operate with vigor and have functioned continuously since 1783. All of them, with the exception of the New Jersey Society, have been intimately associated with the social life of particular cities—Charleston, Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia—where members have lived in numbers sufficient to maintain the traditions of the organization. The commemoration of the Revolution in those cities, in particular, has often involved, and in many cases has been led by, the Society or its members. Members of the Maryland Society, for example, led the effort to build the distinguished Washington Monument in Baltimore, completed in 1829. The monument was built on land donated by John Eager Howard, a Maryland Society member and hero of the Revolution. The Society of the Cincinnati of Maryland was later instrumental in establishing the Maryland Historical Society.

Lafayette's farewell visit to the United States in 1824-1825 reinvigorated the Society. Each of the surviving state societies welcomed Lafayette on his tour of the country. By then the young officers of the Continental Army were in their seventies and their numbers were dwindling. The surviving officers were themselves objects of veneration in 1826—the fiftieth anniversary of American independence.

The Society capitalized on these commemorations to renew its campaign for half pay for life. Congress finally relented in 1828, granting each surviving Continental officer full pay for the remainder of his life. By the end of that year, some 850 former officers were receiving full pay. After forty-five years, the Society's efforts to secure the compensation promised by the Continental Congress came to a close. By then the Society had fewer than three hundred members—including a large proportion of hereditary members.

The Revolutionary generation was almost extinct by 1844, when William Popham, a ninety-two year old former major in the New York Continental Line, was elected president general. He was the last veteran of the American Revolution to be entrusted with the Diamond Eagle. By then some old officers had begun to suggest that the Society ought to dissolve. "Perish the thought!" Popham replied. "I will never consent to consign to eternal oblivion an Institution which received the sanction of Washington."

Popham lived until 1847 and was the last Continental officer to serve as an officer of the Society. His successor, Henry Alexander Scammell Dearborn, was the first hereditary member to serve as president general. Without a concerted effort to attract more hereditary members, he warned, the Society "will cease to exist within a third of a century."

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The Society's Headquarters

at Anderson House

Choir_Stall_mural

Anderson House, originally the home of Society member Larz Anderson, features the Society Eagle insignia and other reminders of its purpose and ideals throughout the house in murals and other features.

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