The Society of the Cincinnati took its name from the Roman citizen-soldier Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who lived in the fifth century B.C. Cincinnatus was twice called to lead Roman armies in defense of the republic. After serving, he refused rewards for his services, preferring to return to his farm as an ordinary citizen. Like Cincinnatus, Brother George Washington wanted only to serve his country and be allowed to retire to his agricultural life.
The commissioned officers who had served in the U.S. War of Independence, in either the Continental or French Army or Navy were much taken with the patriotic idealism of Cincinnatus. As a result, they founded the first veterans' organization on May 10, 1783 in Fishkill, New York. Their objectives were to maintain their wartime friendships, the rights for which they had fought, the honor of their new nation, and to aid members and their families in need. Branches were immediately formed in each of the thirteen States and in France. Brother Henry Knox (1750-1806), a close friend of Brother Washington, drafted the Society's constitution. They adopted the motto Omnia relinquit servare republicam "He gave up everything to serve the republic." Brother Washington was elected its first President-General, presumably in absentia. From his letters, it is clear that he was very actively involved, as soon as possible after the Revolutionary War was over: requesting Brother Knox (in a letter of September 23, 1783) to let him know "in precise terms what is expected from the President of the Cincinnati previous to the general Meeting... As I was never present at any of your Meetings, and have never seen the proceedings...I may, by being deficient in information of the part I am to act, neglect some essential duty; which might not only be injurious to the Society, but Mortifying to myself, as it would discover a want of Knowledge, or want of attention in the President."
Publicly, he asked members to let him know the progress of the formation of the state societies. Four days after he arrived at Mt. Vernon, to begin anew his hoped-for private life, having resigned his Commission as General in December 1783, Brother Washington wrote to the presidents of the state societies, announcing the first general meeting in Philadelphia for the next May. He was adamant about the importance of attendance to determine the direction of the Society.
Knowing there might be opposition to such a society, Brother Washington did everything to counter possible objections. Assuming Brother Washington had read the proposed constitution, he recommended the following:
"Strike out every word, sentence, and clause which has a political tendency.
Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions (!), absolutely, without any substitution...for this would, in my opinion, encrease (!), rather than allay suspicions.
Admit no more honorary Members into the Society.
Reject subscriptions, or donations from every person who is not a citizen of the United States." [The foreign members would form their own branches, though some French officers, it appears, remained in the American Society; and Americans living abroad would apply to their home state].
Brother Washington also thought general and district meetings unnecessary, and suggested they be abolished. Paraphrasing Jefferson, he wrote: "Nothing loosens the bands of private friendship than for friends to pit themselves against each other in public debate where every one is free to speak and to act." These recommendations, for the most part adopted by the Society, put it on a firm footing, free from public dissent, that it still appears to enjoy.
After a decline at the end of the 19th century, the Society thrives today in both the United States and France. Like Freemasonry, it fosters educational, cultural, and literary endeavors promoting the ideals of liberty and constitutional government.
The original Insignia of the Society was designed in 1784 by Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who also executed the initial design for the city of Washington, D.C. Made in the form of a jewel (the eagle-insignia hanging from a ribbon) and given to George Washington by French naval officers, it has been worn by each succeeding President-General.
Like many Masonic organizations, the Society of the Cincinnati commissioned porcelain to be produced for its members. The original 300-plus-piece set of porcelain purchased by Brother Washington was made in Nanking (Nanjing), China.
In a letter to Brother Henry ("Lighthorse Harry") Lee in October 1786, Brother Washington acknowledged its arrival: "The China came to hand without much damage; and I thank you for your attention in procuring and forwarding of it to me." Every piece was decorated with Fame as an angel, blowing a horn held in its right hand, and holding the Insignia in its left. Director Kenneth W. McCarty recently purchased for the Masonic Library and Museum of Pennsylvania's collection five 21st century reproductions of the original set.