The Society of the Cincinnati was founded by officers at the Continental Army encampment at Newburgh, New York, in May 1783. The organization took its name from the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, an embodiment of civic virtue. Its founding document, the Institution, outlined the aims of the new organization: to perpetuate the memory of the War for Independence, maintain the fraternal bonds between the officers, promote the ideals of the Revolution, support members and their families in need, distinguish its members as men of honor, and advocate for the compensation promised to the officers by Congress.
To achieve these aims, the Society called on its members to contribute a month’s pay. In order to perpetuate their fellowship, the founders made membership hereditary. George Washington was the first president general of the Society. The army’s chief of artillery, Henry Knox, was the chief author of the Institution.
Within months of its formation, critics charged that the Society’s real purpose was to impose a hereditary aristocracy on the new republic. Members and non-members rushed to the defense of the Society, which experience proved was not a threat to liberty. The Society’s first decade was a period of energy and growth, and 2,270 officers joined the new organization. Constituent societies were organized in each of the original thirteen states and in France. The state societies met annually, typically around the Fourth of July, and most established traditions for these occasions—banquets, formal addresses, processions, and other ceremonies.
Membership in the Society declined in the early nineteenth century, and several constituent societies dissolved. The South Carolina, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania societies continued to operate, though their membership declined. By the middle of the nineteenth century the Society had fewer than three hundred members.
A period of reform and renewal began in 1854, when the Society adopted a new standard providing for the admission of descendants of all qualified officers, even if those officers had not joined the Society at its founding. This Rule of 1854, as it is known, doubled the number of lines for membership and provided the basis for the subsequent growth of the organization. It reflected the determination of Society leaders to perpetuate the organization and revive all of the original constituent societies.
The Civil War delayed the realization of their vision, but the national celebration of the centennial of American independence encouraged interest in membership and the reestablishment of the original state societies. By 1904 all of the American state societies were in operation again. The revival was completed in 1925 with the admission of the reconstituted French Society to the fellowship of the General Society.
The establishment of the Society’s international headquarters at Anderson House in Washington, D.C., in 1938 reflected the ambition of the Society’s leaders to increase the organization’s stature and influence. In recent decades, the Society has focused its energy on a wide range of educational activities that fulfill the founders’ vision of perpetuating the memory of the American Revolution. In 2012, the organization created the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati, a division of the Society devoted to renewing popular appreciation and understanding of the history and legacy of the American Revolution.