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About   History

Reform and Revival,1854–1925

The last surviving Continental officer, Robert Burnet, Jr., a member of the New York Society, died on November 29, 1854. That same year, the Society elected a new president general—Hamilton Fish of New York—and revised the terms of membership. Since its first years, the Society had only admitted descendants of original members as hereditary members. The descendants of qualified officers who did not join the Society at its beginning were deemed ineligible. The 1854 general meeting adopted a new standard, providing for the admission of descendants of all qualified officers, even if those officers had not joined the Society.

The "Rule of 1854," as it is known, doubled the number of lines for membership, to more than four thousand. Five of the six active state societies embraced the new standard. The Pennsylvania Society, after being the first constituent society to adopt the new rule, subsequently discovered that their incorporating documents contained the original Institution and could not be changed without an act of the Pennsylvania Legislature. That position still holds today.

The adoption of the Rule of 1854 reflected the determination of Hamilton Fish and other Society leaders to perpetuate the Society and revive all of the original constituent societies. The Society had passed into the hands of a new generation of leaders—mostly sons and grandsons of original members—who were dedicated to renewing the organization and its prominence in American life.

The Civil War delayed the realization of their vision. The South Carolina delegation did not attend the Triennial Meeting in 1860, and neither South Carolina nor Maryland was represented at the Triennial 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 Triennial 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. As it emerged from disunion and civil war, in fact, the Society was on the verge of a major period of renewal.

The national celebration of the centennial of American independence encouraged interest in membership in the Society of the Cincinnati and the reestablishment of the dissolved state societies. The Rhode Island Society was reconstituted in 1877 and readmitted to the fellowship of the General Society in 1881. The Connecticut and Virginia societies were readmitted in 1896; New Hampshire, Delaware, and North Carolina in 1902; and Georgia in 1904.

The late nineteenth century was a period of steady growth and creative accomplishment for the Society, which took a leading role in the many commemorations of the period. The Society sent delegates to the dedication of the Washington Monument in the nation's capital in 1885 and to events commemorating the centennial of the Constitution in 1887 and the inauguration of Washington in 1889. The Society was actively involved in the erection of plaques and statues memorializing the heroes of the Revolution, including the statues of Rochambeau and Lafayette in Washington's Lafayette Square. Both of those heroes are depicted wearing Eagles. The Rhode Island and South Carolina societies combined their efforts to locate the remains of Nathanael Greene and move them to the Greene Monument in Savannah. The grandest memorial effort was in Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Society took the lead in erecting a monumental equestrian statue of George Washington, dedicated by President William McKinley in 1897.

The revival of the Society was completed with the reconstitution of the French Society. The idea was discussed as early as 1881, when the Society commemorated the centennial of the victory at Yorktown, but did not take hold until the First World War. The Society signaled its support for American intervention in the war with a formal resolution recalling the decisive support of France in our War of Independence: "Remembering that it was the aid of France that made the United States a nation, we welcome the opportunity to repay the debt which was then incurred and to help a people whom we love and admire." The French Society—dormant since the French Revolution—was reorganized after the war and formally readmitted to the fellowship of the General Society in 1925.

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The Society's Headquarters

at Anderson House


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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