The Society of the Cincinnati's founding document—called the Institution—which bears the signatures of George Washington and thirty-five other Continental Army officers, was displayed to the public for the first time in 2008 as part of the Society's 225th anniversary exhibition, The Secret History of the Society of the Cincinnati. In preparation for its display, the large parchment document was painstakingly cleaned and mended by Christine A. Smith, a leading specialist in animal-skin documents. Because of the Institution's priceless value, Ms. Smith conducted the work at Anderson House so the document did not leave the Society's custody. The conservation treatment of the Institution and the construction of a special archival box for its housing were generously funded by Capers Walter McDonald. In addition, a custom exhibition case was designed and constructed for secure display of the Institution.
On May 13, 1783, a group of Continental officers gathered at Mount Gulian—Gen. Friedrich Wilhelm Steuben's headquarters near Newburgh, New York—adopted the Institution, which laid out the principles and organizational structure of the newly established Society of the Cincinnati. Within a week of their meeting, a copy of the text of the Institution was engrossed on a large sheet of parchment and a committee of three officers—Generals William Heath, Steuben, and Henry Knox—was appointed to deliver the Institution to their commander in chief, George Washington, and "request him to honor the Society by placing his name at the head of it." Washington signed the Institution first, and his signature is followed by those of the several officers in and around Newburgh who were involved in the Society's founding. At least one signature was added later—that of Nathanael Greene, who was still in command in the South at the time of the Society's founding, appears in the left margin. Read More<
The Institution has been the Society's property since the time of its creation in May 1783. Physical evidence (such as patterns of accumulated dirt on the verso of the parchment) indicates that the document was kept folded for a period of time. In the early years the Institution was housed with the Society's other early papers in a document box made by Thomas George and Daniel King, Jr., in 1787. Through its first century, the Institution was part of the archives that were in the custody of the Society's succession of secretaries general, who would have probably kept the documents in their homes or offices. At the Society's Triennial Meeting of 1911, a member raised concerns about putting "such responsibility" on individual officers for the safekeeping of these valuable papers. A special committee was appointed to look into the matter and subsequently made arrangements to inventory the archival collection and transfer it to the Lincoln Safe Deposit and Storage Company in New York City.
The Institution and other early Society papers remained in storage in New York until 1930, when they were transferred to the Division of Manuscripts of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. At that time, the receipts indicate that the Institution was housed in a cylindrical metal container. The collection remained on deposit at the Library of Congress, with access to researchers granted by special permission of the Society, until November 1973, when Secretary General Stephen Caldwell Millett arranged for its return to the Society's custody at Anderson House. At that time, the Institution was flattened and placed in a large archival portfolio for storage. Its recent conservation and new housing assure the survival of this landmark document for generations to come.