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A fraternity of revolutionary officers—or a monarchist conspiracy?

In May 1782, seven months after the British army’s surrender at Yorktown, Va., General George Washington was at his headquarters in a fieldstone farmhouse near Newburgh, N.Y. Peace talks were beginning in Paris, and thousands of soldiers encamped at Newburgh were awaiting the orders that would disband the Continental Army. Many of them had joined short-lived mutinies during the war, raging at Congress for failing to clothe and feed them. Now, as the war’s end seemed near, Congress again was not giving the troops back pay or promised pensions. The soldiers were angry, as were their officers.

One of them, Colonel Lewis Nicola, wrote a long letter to Washington in response to “several conversations I have had with officers, & some I have overheard among soldiers.” The rambling letter finally came to the point: “This war must have shown to all, but to military men in particular, the weakness of republicks [sic].…I believe strong argument might be produced for admitting the title of king, which I conceive would be attended with some material advantages.”

Nicola shared another idea: Congress should procure “a sufficient tract in some of the best of those fruitful & extensive countries to the west of our frontiers.” These lands could be “formed into a distinct State under such mode of government as those military who choose to remove to it may agree on.” Presumably, the mode would be a monarchy.

Washington’s reaction was immediate: “Be assured, Sir, no occurrence in the course of the War has given me more painful sensations than your information of there being such ideas existing in the Army. …Banish these thoughts from your Mind and never communicate, as from yourself or any one else, a sentiment of the like Nature.”

The chastised Nicola seems to have obeyed Washington. But the mutterings about monarchy continued. Little more than a month after getting the letter from Nicola, Washington received one from Maj. Gen. James Mitchell Varnum of the Rhode Island militia. Because “Avarice, Jealously & Luxury” control the people of the failing republic, Varnum argued, “absolute Monarchy, or a military State, can alone rescue them.” In responding to Varnum, Washington did not express outrage. Wearily he conceded that “destructive passions…too generally pervade all Ranks,” and he hoped those in time “shall give place to that love of Freedom which first animated us in this Contest.”

Frustrated, fuming and uncertain about their postwar world, officers like Nicola and Varnum would be among the founding members of America’s first veterans’ organization, the Society of the Cincinnati. How the society was formed, how its members flirted with monarchy and how some of them got possession of large swaths of that western land is a story that tracks through the crucial time between the end of the Revolutionary War and the creation of a new nation. The Society of the Cincinnati was born at Newburgh, and its members fanned out from there to enter history—drafting the Constitution, openly or covertly engaging in postwar politics, and bestowing upon America its first conspiracy theory.

At Newburgh the months dragged by, as they did in New York City, where the British army also awaited news of peace. More and more men of the Continental Army were drifting away from Newburgh. Washington realized that if his Army dissolved, the British would react with an attack, and the war would suddenly resume. In October 1782 he wrote to Secretary of War Benjamin Lincoln, who had served as a distinguished major general. “The patience and long sufferance of this Army are almost exhausted,” Washington wrote. “There never was so great a spirit of Discontent as at this instant.”

That month Washington ordered the Army to a set up a winter cantonment in a forested area at the edge of the Hudson Highlands, about five miles southwest of Newburgh. By then the Northern Department of the Continental Army numbered some 7,000 troops. Accompanying them were about 500 women and children. Although Washington wanted to take leave and spend time at Mount Vernon, he was concerned about the sullen mood of his troops and felt obliged, as he wrote wartime aide James McHenry, “to stick very close to my flock this winter & try like a careful physician to prevent, if possible, the disorders getting to an incurable height.”

To keep his grumbling troops busy, Washington put them to work chopping down trees and building nearly 600 log huts of uniform size and shape, neatly arrayed regiment by regiment. At the suggestion of a chaplain, the soldiers also erected the centerpiece of the cantonment, a 110-by-30-foot log building with a vaulted ceiling, windows and plaster walls. It was dubbed the Temple of Virtue.

In December 1782 several officers, including some facing debtors’ prison, sent a chilling warning to Congress: “Any further experiments on their patience may have fatal effects.” Then, in March 1783, Washington received one of the copies of an anonymous letter circulating among the officers. The writer, calling himself a “fellow soldier,” asked whom peace would bless —“A country willing to redress your wrongs?…Or is it rather a country that tramples upon your rights, disdains your cries and insults your distresses?” The 1,200-word letter urged the officers to meet and “come to some final opinion” about what to do next.

The Newburgh letters—Nicola’s, Varnum’s and now this one—were the first stirrings of what Thomas Jefferson later described as “a cabal of the officers of the Army who proposed to establish a monarchy and to propose it to General Washington.”

Washington responded to the anonymous letter by ordering the officers to postpone their meeting for a few days and assemble at the Temple of Virtue on March 15. He was enough of a scholar of the classics to realize this was the Ides of March, the day of Julius Caesar’s 44 BC assassination.

Surprising the officers, Washington himself strode into the temple and stood on its raised platform. He denounced the anonymous letter and asked the officers “to express your utmost horror and detestation of the Man who… wickedly attempts to open the flood Gates of Civil discord and deluge our rising Empire in Blood.”

After he finished his speech, Washington started to read a letter from a congressman regarding strained finances. He faltered and then reached into a pocket for spectacles the officers had never seen him wear. “Gentlemen,” he said, “you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” Many men began to weep. Washington finished reading the letter and walked out. The officers then adopted resolutions rejecting “the infamous propositions” in the anonymous letter and reaffirming their confidence in Congress. It was a moment that endures into our time. The U.S. Army’s Field Manual 1 cites Washington’s action at Newburgh, when “the future of the Republic was in doubt,” as a lesson to instill in American soldiers the indisputable fact that the military is under civilian control.

The month after Washington’s speech, on the eighth anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, an officer stood at the door of the temple and read a proclamation of Congress declaring a cessation of hostilities. The Revolutionary War was over, but a political war had already begun over whether the nation should have a strong central government or continue to give most power to the states. Also in dispute was the existence of a peacetime army—a suspicious source of military power and an echo of the “standing armies” listed as a grievance against King George III in the Declaration of Independence.

During the crisis at Newburgh, several members of Congress, led by former Lt. Col. Alexander Hamilton, believed the mere threat of a military coup d’état would accelerate the creation of a strong central government. But Washington, seeing the perils of a political-military alliance, warned Hamilton, “The Army…is a dangerous instrument to play with.” As Washington well knew, Maj. Gen. Horatio Gates, commander of the cantonment, had plotted with members of Congress in 1777 to replace Washington as head of the Continental Army. Gates still had congressional allies. And the anonymous letter eventually was traced to Major John Armstrong Jr., Gates’ aide-de-camp.

West Point, the Army citadel 13 miles down the Hudson River from the tense Newburgh cantonment, was under the command of Maj. Gen. Henry Knox, a hero of the Revolution and a close comrade of Washington. Knox, wishing to preserve the officers’ wartime comradeship, decided to organize the Society of the Cincinnati. He also saw the society as an advocacy group and a source for officers in need. There was no thought of including enlisted men. The Continental Army, modeled on the British army, prohibited fraternization between officers and men.

Knox discussed the idea with other officers, including Maj. Gen. Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben of Prussia, who as drillmaster at Valley Forge, Pa., had transformed the Continental Army. The society formally convened at Steuben’s headquarters on May 13, 1783, and quickly added to its membership more than 2,000 officers— among them Nicola, Varnum, Gates, Armstrong and Hamilton. Washington agreed to be the society’s founding president general. The society extended membership to many French officers who had served in the war, including Maj. Gen. Gilbert du Motier, Lt. Gen. Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Lt. Gen. François-Joseph Paul de Grasse and Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

L’Enfant, who would later survey and lay out the District of Columbia, designed the society’s bald eagle insignia. He went to France, commissioned a jeweler to create the society’s badge and asked King Louis XVI to approve the order, as the society was known in France. The king made himself patron of the order and the judge of whether a French officer could be admitted. He continued as patron until 1793, when revolutionaries convicted him of high treason and sent him to the guillotine. The order itself soon went dormant. In America the society’s badge became a target of critics, who denounced the decoration as an aristocratic and monarchist symbol.

The society itself takes its name from citizen-soldier Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, whom the Roman Senate had summoned from forced retirement on his farm in 460 BC when enemy armies threatened Rome. Later made dictator by the Senate, Cincinnatus led his troops to a swift, victorious defense of the city. His duty done, he refused any rewards and returned to his farm.

When word of the society began to spread, rumors of a military conspiracy quickly arose, primarily because under society rules, at death, membership passed to the eldest male descendant. This inflamed suspicions the society had “noble” ambitions. A widely circulated pamphlet, reprinted in many newspapers, spread the alarm to every state. In a world ruled by kings and emperors, the vision of an American republic was novel and hard for many to see. Proponents of a republic perceived the society of military officers as a dangerous group, believing with Jefferson that Army officers were “trained to monarchy by military habits.”

Knox personified the dilemma. The former Boston bookseller, in a letter to a fellow Cincinnatian, wrote, “I confess I hate the office of Kings.” But he added, “Perhaps of all kinds of monarchs an absolute one is best…[as] he feels no rising of the black passions produced by opposition to his Will.” In the same letter Knox expressed his belief that “a republican Government, formed upon national principles …propagated and perpetuated by habits, may exist a great length of time.”

Jefferson, railing against “the establishment of an [sic] hereditary order,” saw Knox and Steuben as “the leading agents” in a plot to make Washington a king. On his way to Philadelphia in May 1784 for the first general meeting of the society, Washington called on Jefferson and confided his fear of a monarchy. Washington agreed the hereditary rule had to be abolished. At the meeting, perhaps expecting a public critique, delegates agreed to keep the deliberations secret. But Massachusetts delegate Winthrop Sargent kept a journal and encrypted Washington’s words. When the delegate’s grandson—a hereditary member—cracked the code in the mid-19th century, the journal revealed that Washington had suggested the abolition of the society and had brought with him a letter from Gilbert du Motier urging the same.

Washington’s own written recollection of the meeting shows he was aware of rumors that the society was the hotbed of a potential military coup: “Strike out every word, sentence and clause which has a political tendency. Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions [sic], absolutely, without any substitution which can be construed into concealment.” The society later sent Washington’s proposed changes to its state chapters, several of which tabled or refused to ratify them. Upon Washington’s death in 1799, delegates met to select Hamilton as president general. They also reinstated the hereditary rule.

Jefferson was not the only political leader who distrusted the society. John Adams called its formation “the first step taken to deface the beauty of our Temple of Liberty” and “the deepest Piece of Cunning yet attempted.” Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams and John Jay all denounced the society, each foreseeing an American nobility that could create an America ruled by a man on a throne.

Suspicions of an Army-society conspiracy continued to crop up as proponents of a republic  sought ways to replace the Articles of Confederation, the wartime agreement that enabled the coalition of states to function without a central government. Visionaries like James Madison of Virginia conceived the architecture of such a republic. In December 1786 Madison wrote to Washington, inviting him to a meeting in Philadelphia in May 1787, at which Madison hoped to bring forth his plan. That meeting would evolve into the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.

Washington, however, turned down Madison’s invitation. Incredibly, by a coincidence that added to suspicions of a conspiracy, the society was to have its national meeting in the same place at the same time. And Washington, having already told the society he would not be able to attend, felt he could not go to Philadelphia for the meeting Madison was organizing. Washington even seems to have fibbed when he had his secretary write to Knox, saying he would not be able to attend the society’s meeting because “his Mother & only Sister lay dangerously ill.” (His mother lived until 1789, his sister until 1797.)

Finally, after uncharacteristic dithering, Washington did go to Philadelphia. He was made president of the convention and imposed secrecy over the proceedings. He watched over the creation of the Constitution and began his journey to the presidency of the United States.

The final version of the Constitution envisioned a strong central government and gave extraordinary power to the chief executive—“leaning too much towards Monarchy,” one delegate complained. But the majority believed such power would be safe in the hands of George Washington, the model for all presidents to come.

When inaugurated on April 30, 1789, Washington remained president general of the Society of the Cincinnati, and fears of a monarchy still haunted the republic. “You are now a king, under a different name,” said former aide James McHenry, a founding member of the society and Washington’s future secretary of war.

Suspicions about the society persisted into John Adams’ presidency. But the society’s members clearly accepted the new republic. Many became politicians, and early foes of the society, such as Benjamin Franklin, accepted honorary memberships. Of the 40 signers of the Constitution, 23 were original or honorary members of the society. James Monroe, an early member, became president. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor were among several other presidents made honorary members.

Washington never gave up his membership. And when he became president, he did not forget Nicola’s idea about giving officers grants to “those fruitful & extensive countries to the west of our frontiers.” Some society members, as shareholders in a company that began development of the Northwest Territory, campaigned to make Ohio a state. Early in Washington’s first term, Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, a society member, became the first governor of the Northwest Territory. When he arrived at Fort Washington, he changed the name of the settlement to Cincinnati.

During the early 19th century state chapters began disbanding, but the society went on. Today it comprises more than 3,800 members, most descendants of the original officers. Since 1938 the headquarters of the society [www.societyofthe] has been Anderson House in Washington, D.C., a magnificent late Renaissance Revival mansion. The house contains a small museum and an outstanding library devoted to the military and naval history of the 18th century.

One of the library’s recent acquisitions is a calf-bound Continental Army orderly book kept by a captain at Newburgh in 1783. Besides noting regimental orders and the “stipulated price for Taylors [sic], Shoemakers, Barbers & Wash Women,” the captain wrote down in his firm handwriting the words Washington spoke on that fateful day at the Temple of Virtue.


For further reading Thomas Allen [www] recommends “Lewis Nicola, George Washington and American Military Discontent During the Revolutionary War,” by Robert F. Haggard, assistant editor of The Papers of George Washington; accessible online at the American Philosophical Society [ files/201.pdf]. Also see Washington: The Indispensable Man, by James T. Flexner.

Originally published in the January 2013 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.