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WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799). George Washington Society of the Cincinnati Membership Certificate. Mount Vernon, Virginia: [after 1783]

WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799). George Washington Society of the Cincinnati Membership Certificate. Mount Vernon, Virginia: [after 1783]


WASHINGTON, George (1732-1799). George Washington Society of the Cincinnati Membership Certificate. Signed "G. Washington"; countersigned by Henry Knox ("H Knox") as secretary of the society. Mount Vernon, Virginia: [after 1783].

Single leaf vellum, fine engraved certificate (15 x 22 inches; 13 4/8 x 20 2/8 inches to the neat line, full margins showing the plate-mark), elaborately decorated with allegorical vignettes by Jean-Jacques-Andre Le Veau (1729-1786) from Augustin-Louis La Belle's (1757-1841) drawing, based on Pierre Charles L'Enfant's (1754-1825) original design, and including American Liberty with a Union Flag and eagle tromping on broken British emblems and Britannia herself fleeing America. The Society's emblem of an eagle shines through the clouds above, while a herald bears the founding seal to the right. The text reads as follows: "Be it known that [BLANK] is a member of the Society of the Cincinnati; instituted by the Officers of the American Army, at the Period of its Dissolution, as well to commemorate the great Event which gave Independence to North America, as for the laudable Purpose of inculcating the Duty of laying down in Peace Arms assumed for public Defence, and of uniting in Acts of brotherly Affection, and Bonds of perpetual Friendships - the Members constituting the same. In Testimony whereof I, the President of the said Society, have hereunto set my Hand at Mount Vernon in the state of Virginia this [BLANK] of [BLANK] in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Seven Hundred and [BLANK] and in the [BLANK] Year of the Independence of the United States. By order, H Knox Secretary. G Washington President" (old folds).

Provenance: Accompanied by an early 20th-century note explaining the blank portions: "signed in blank by George Washington. This certificate was sent by Knox to William Eustis, Gov. of Mass. and head of the Mass. Soc. of the Cin. to be given to some ware member as required. This was regular practice. Washington, of course was President-General of the Society".

Founded in May, 1783, The Society of the Cincinnati is the oldest military hereditary society in the United States, and has a special place in American history. The Society began as the brainchild of Major General Henry Knox. Supported by George Washington, Knox initiated the Society and helped draft the Institution upon which it is based. The basis for the creation of the Society of the Cincinnati was to provide a means of ongoing fellowship for the officers of the Continental Army, and to develop charitable funds to assist the families of original members. The Society also acted on behalf of the Army's officers in an effort to secure military pensions for surviving Revolutionary War veterans.  

The Society of the Cincinnati "was a fraternal and charitable association of Continental Army officers that sparked widespread conspiracy theories and tested Washington's efforts to carefully manage his legacy. Largely the brainchild of General Henry Knox, the Society was founded in May 1783, in response to Congress's dissolution of the Continental Army.

"The Society took its name from the ancient Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus, who was appointed dictator in time of crisis and returned to his farm, giving up all political and military power, after defeating the enemies of the Roman Republic.

"Seeking to maintain a connection to their fellow officers, the Society listed the defense of liberty, the promotion of union, and the preservation of friendships forged in war as the basic principles of the organization. Under this last principle, the Society collected membership dues and donations to establish a fund benefiting indigent members and their families. The Society also made membership hereditary, passing to the veteran's oldest son or collateral descendent, and authorized a gold medal to be worn by members like that of European orders of knights.

"Mirroring the structure of American federal-state relations, the society was divided into a national organization with state societies. The bulk of the organization's work took place at the local level and general coordinating occurred at the national level. While George Washington was not directly involved in the creation of the Society, he joined the organization shortly thereafter and was quickly chosen its President General.

"Although members admitted no ulterior motives, critics found the Society to be anti-egalitarian and, at worst, a nefarious shadow government seeking to overthrow the Confederation. In the Society's hereditary membership, European-styled medal, and growing popularity among officers of the French armed forces, critics also saw the foundation of an American nobility. In light of these accusations, Washington consulted Thomas Jefferson who advised modifying the organization "to render it unobjectionable."

"To that end, Washington offered a series of changes at the Society's May 1784 general meeting, including the abolition of hereditary membership, the transfer of funds to the administration of state legislatures, and the elimination of national meetings. The suggestions won the approval of the general meeting and were passed on to state Societies for their adoption.

"Publication of the reforms quieted some public criticism, although many of the state societies either refused to adopt or reversed earlier resolutions altering the Society. Antifederalists revived strong criticism of the Society in 1787 when they proclaimed the new Federal Constitution as the fruition of the Society's plans to overthrow the national government. Although he remained a member until his death, Washington himself claimed critics of both the Society and the Constitution charged him with "wanting in patriotism" and desiring to "subvert the principles of a republican government." Ratification of the Constitution and the political debates of the new republic gradually silenced criticism of the Society, allowing Washington to distance himself from those earlier charges" (Patrick Allan Pospisek, Purdue University, for Mount Vernon online). Catalogued by Kate Hunter


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