In the spring of 1783, after enduring eight long years of war, the main part of America’s Revolutionary army was camped along the Hudson River in New York waiting for word that a peace treaty had been signed. The soldiers—officers and enlisted men alike—had not been paid in months, in some cases longer, and feared being sent home without their pay. Rumors spread that the soldiers would march on Philadelphia to force Congress to pay them or would even try to establish a military dictatorship.

Instead, the officers banded together to form an organization that would honor their fight for American independence while providing support for their common struggles. On May 13, 1783, the group was founded and named the Society of the Cincinnati, after the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. More than 2,200 officers joined the Society and pledged themselves to its principles: commemorating the achievement of American independence, preserving the union of states that resulted, and maintaining the bonds of friendship forged in war. George Washington became the Society’s first president general, leading his officers from war to peace.

The Society of the Cincinnati embodies one of the most important legacies of the Revolutionary War—that Americans who had left their homes to fight for their country were willing to abandon their swords and support the subordination of military power to civilian rule. Theirs is the story of how the war ended, what happened next, and how an armed revolution gave way to a civilian republic.

The Secret History of the Society of the Cincinnati told these stories—as the Society turned 225 years old—through more than thirty works of art, artifacts, manuscripts, and pamphlets. The highlight of the exhibition was the Society’s founding document, known as the Institution, which had never before been on public display. It was joined by important objects lent by other institutions, including Henry Knox’s manuscript draft of the Institution written in April 1783 (The Gilder Lehrman Collection, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History) and Ralph Earl’s full-length oil portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge, wearing his Society insignia, and his young son William (Litchfield Historical Society).