The Society of the Cincinnati was founded at the Continental Army encampment at Newburgh, New York, in May 1783. Henry Knox, who was to distinguish himself as the commander of Washington's artillery, first suggested the idea of a fraternal organization for officers of the Continental Army in 1775, when the Revolutionary War had barely begun. He returned to the idea in the spring of 1783, when the Continental Army, having prevailed in a war lasting eight years, was preparing to disband.
The war had lasted much longer than Knox or anyone else would have predicted. During the course of the war, tens of thousands of men had served in the Continental Army and several thousand had served as commissioned officers. Most of the officers were young men. They had risked their lives and sacrificed their private interests to secure the independence of the United States. Having lived and fought together for so long, many of them had formed fraternal bonds they expected would endure for the rest of the their lives.
They were justifiably proud of what they had accomplished. They had won a long and difficult struggle. With the aid of their French allies, they had defeated one of the great powers of the eighteenth century and had made it possible for their countrymen to establish the first great republic since the fall of the Roman republic nearly two thousand years in the past.
They would take home with them little more than their honor and the satisfaction that they had carried out their duty faithfully and well. 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 that Congress, which had been unable to supply the basic needs of the army, would be able to make good on its promises anytime soon. Those who had families to provide for worried about returning home with nothing more than those promises.
The weakness of the Confederation and the impotence of its government was a great concern to them. As the Confederation Congress faded into insignificance, the Continental Army was the only truly national organization. With its dissolution, one of the only institutions binding together Americans from Georgia to New Hampshire would vanish. They worried that the Union, which had been forged in the pressure of war, would weaken and dissolve as soon as that pressure was removed. They also worried that the people of the United States, returning to the pursuits of peace, would forget what the officers of the Continental Army had accomplished and would ultimately forget that American liberty had been established by men who bore arms in its defense.
All these thoughts and emotions—fraternal affection, pride in their accomplishments, frustration with the impotence of the government and its inability to pay the officers and enlisted men, and concern for the fate of the new republic—played a part in the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati and shaped its founding document, the Institution.