The Society of the Cincinnati is an historical, hereditary lineage organization with branches in the United States and France, founded in 1783 to preserve the ideals and fellowship of the American Revolutionary War officers and the French officers who fought alongside them. Now in its third century, the Society promotes public interest in the American Revolution through its library and museum collections, exhibitions, programs, publications, and other activities. The city of Cincinnati, Ohio, a small village at the time the Society was formed, was named after the Society, rather than the other way 'round.
The concept of the Society of the Cincinnati was that of Major General Henry Knox. The first meeting of the Society was held in May 1783 at a dinner at Mount Gulian (Verplanck House) in Fishkill, New York, before the British evacuation from New York City. The meeting was chaired by Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, and the participants agreed to stay in contact with each other after the war. Membership was generally limited to officers who had served at least three years in the Continental Army or Navy; it included officers of the French Army and Navy above certain ranks.
Later, through a system of primogeniture, membership was passed down to the eldest son after the death of the original member. Present-day hereditary members generally must be descended from an officer who served in the Continental Army or Navy for at least three years, from an officer who died or was killed in service, or from an officer serving at the close of the Revolution. Each officer may be represented by only one descendant at any given time, following the rules of primogeniture. (The rules of eligibility and admission are controlled by each of the 14 Constituent Societies to which members are admitted. They differ slightly in each society, and some allow more than one descendant of an eligible officer.) The requirement for primogeniture made the society controversial in its early years, as the new states quickly did away with laws supporting primogeniture and others associated with the English feudal system.
The Society is named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to accept a term as Roman Consul and served as Magister Populi (with temporary powers similar to that of a modern-era dictator). He assumed lawful dictatorial control of Rome to meet a war emergency. When the battle was won, he returned power to the Senate and went back to plowing his fields. The Society's motto reflects that ethic of selfless service: "Omnia reliquit servare rempublicam" ("He relinquished everything to save the Republic").
The Society has had three goals: "To preserve the rights so dearly won; to promote the continuing union of the states; and to assist members in need, their widows, and their orphans."
Within 12 months of the founding, a constituent Society had been organized in each of the 13 states and in France. Of about 5,500 men originally eligible for membership, 2,150 had joined within a year. King Louis XVI ordained the French Society of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784 (Independence Day). Up to that time, the King of France had not allowed his officers to wear any foreign decorations, but he made an exception in favor of the badge of the Cincinnati.
George Washington was elected the first President General of the Society. He served from December 1783 until his death in 1799. The second President General was Alexander Hamilton. Upon Hamilton's death due to his duel with Aaron Burr, the third President General of the Society was Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. In 1808, he ran unsuccessfully for President of the United States against James Madison.
The Society's members have included notable military and political leaders, including 23 signers of the United States Constitution. The Cincinnati is the oldest military society in continuous existence in North America.