Newburgh to Cincinnati

Newburgh to Cincinnati

By James Terry Honan
President of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Georgia – (2019 to 2022)

Presented to the Eufaula, AL Colloquium – April 13, 2017
Presented to the Alabama Association – Society of the Cincinnati – March 10, 2018
Presented to Tri-States AL Chapter – Sons of the American Revolution – May 15, 2018
Presented to the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Georgia – February 21, 2020

General George Washington’s Diamond Eagle

My topic tonight: “Newburgh to Cincinnati” is not a travelogue, but rather it is a story of treachery, intrigue and patriotism. 

If I told you that an event occurred at the end of the American Revolution that might have had such a profound effect on this country that it could have significantly changed the history of America and even our form of government I am sure you would be surprised. You would think, like I did, that if that were true surely we all would have studied about it in school. I am sure most of us didn’t. But that event did occur. It was called the “Newburg Conspiracy” or the “Newburg Addresses.” 

It was March 10, 1783. General George Washington knew that something was afoot, and now the details were beginning to take shape at the continental army’s winter quarters at Newburgh, New York. 

Anonymous papers, known as the “Newburgh Addresses”, had just been distributed the officers. The “Newburgh Addresses” proposed desperate measures to an impoverished army, many of whose officers had not been paid for four years.  It was a week that might have been transformed into a mutiny, a coup d’état or a civil war but instead a constructive alternative was offered to the desperate measures being contemplated. 

How did we get to this point?

The Newburgh Addresses found a ready audience in the long unpaid Continental Army’s officer corps. The papers said: “The army has its alternative.” What did that mean? Was a successful revolution now to be transformed into a military coup? Washington, his generals and his staff all studied the papers which were perhaps all too persuasive.

The papers went on to say about the soldiers: “He has felt the cold hand of poverty without a murmur.” Many officers could have said that about themselves. They had left their homes, farms and businesses and devoted themselves to the cause of independence in hopes, that when the war ended, they would receive the gratitude of a grateful nation. The papers, very convincingly,  went on say “To be tame and unprovoked when injuries press hard on you, is more than weakness: but to look for kinder usage, without one manly effort on your own, would fix your character, and show the world how richly you deserve those chains you broke.”

Washington realized that full-fledged mutiny was a real possibility. There had been several small mutinies due to a lack of pay and supplies over the prior seven years. 

Congress and the states were perpetually slow in paying the troops and when the army was paid, it was usually in near worthless paper money. To the troops, being paid in worthless paper money and being forced to accept it at par value was worse than not being paid at all. 

This issue of pay and pensions had been a severe problem for the army since the early days of the war. In December 1777, Washington wrote congress proposing that each Continental Line officer that served to the end of the war would receive half pay for life. This would give the poorly paid officer corps a strong incentive to serve until the end of the war. A congressional committee supported the plan, but to many the half pay scheme seemed to advocate what the Revolution was trying to defeat: a political system taxing its people to support a vast hoard of pensioners and officeholders. Even if Congress had supported the plan, with no power to tax, the government had no means to pay for the program. Congress therefore did nothing. 

In March 1778 Washington reported to Congress another rash of resignations: “Since the month of August last, three hundred officers have resigned their commissions and many others were, with great difficulty, dissuaded from it.”

In August 1779, Congress finally voted half pay for life. The vote was then immediately rescinded and Congress voted the states the burden of funding half pay for life or any other formula to provide the officers “Adequate Compensation” for the dangers they had endured.

In May 1780, Pennsylvania voted to provided its troops half pay for life, but the other states were unwilling, to do the same. A national policy was needed. By October 1780, Samuel Huntington, the President of Congress, had the facts he needed to support the army. Continental officers were resigning in significant numbers, but in the five months since Pennsylvania’s decision to pay half pay for life, only one Pennsylvania officer had resigned. However, in spite of that, Huntington was unable to convince Congress to change its earlier decision. 

Later that year General Benedict Arnold’s treason, switching sides in October 1780 and going to fight for the British, might have been the thing that finally convinced Congress that large numbers of the officers might really resign or worse, go over to the British. That same month, with no prospect of funding the measure, Congress voted half pay for officers who continued in service to the end of the war. 

In early 1781 Congress sought to fund the half pay for life through a 5% duty on imports. Unanimous approval of all the states would be required to give the national government the power to tax. This change was what the officers and a coalition of nationalists in congress wanted and what those opposed to a strong central government feared. 

In October of 1781, General Cornwallis, the British Commander of the southern British Army, surrendered to George Washington and General Rochambeau at Yorktown. 

Many people think that Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown was the end of the war, but that was far from it. It was merely the end of the southern campaign of 1781. The British still held New York City, Charleston and Savannah, three of the six largest cities in the United States. The overall British commander, General Henry Clinton, remained at his headquarters in New York City with an army larger than General Washington’s. 

After the Battle of Yorktown, in order to defend against General Clinton moving his army out of New York City, Washington moved the Continental Army from Virginia into winter quarters at Newburgh on the River in New York where it stayed encamped until the Treaty of Paris was signed a year and a half later. Through most of 1782, Washington feared that the British would mount a new campaign.

By the end of the summer of 1782 only Rhode Island had not approved the new congressional power to impose a tax to fund the army’s half pay for life. Pressed by Congress, the Rhode Island legislature vote unanimously against the tax and in December 1782 Virginia rescinded its approval.  With the duty dead, Congress’s ability to make good on its promise and the army’s hope of being paid seemed at an end.

Washington’s letters are a revealing barometer of the level of discontent existing in the army. In October 1782, Washington wrote that he “must stay in camp at Newburgh all winter to try, like a careful physician, to prevent, if possible, the disorders getting to an incurable height.” 

On November 24, 1782, Major General Henry Knox, Washington’s second in command, the continental Army’s Chief of Artillery and George Washington’s future Secretary of War, met with a committee comprised of representatives from the whole Continental Army to draft a partition to Congress. The officers presented a new option for consideration, commutation. For men with no cash, and many with substantial debts, the prospect of commutation, as it was called, (one lump sum payment) was more appealing than a lifetime of smaller payments. An ominous undercurrent pervaded the document, suggesting that dire consequences might follow if Congress did not make good on its promises. 

A committee of three officers, led by Major General Alexander McDougall of New York, met with a congressional committee in Philadelphia to present the plea. James Madison recorded the sometimes stormy, emotional session. The officers said they did not want to return to the army if they were sent back with bad news. What would happen they were asked? One of the committee answered that “at least a mutiny would ensue”, and he was unable to assure Congress that the officers would struggle very hard to put it down. 

Three times in January and February Congress tried to pass a motion for commutation, but the New England delegates blocked it. 

In February 1783 General McDougall wrote a letter to General Knox asking for help. The letter was reinforced by a second letter written by General McDougall in a disguised handwriting and signed with the pseudonyms “Brutus”. To force Congress to comply with demands, Brutus wrote, “The army should mutiny and declare that it would not disband until paid.” 

Knox was disgusted with congressional inaction, but he was not the man to lead a mutiny. He responded strongly stating that the army’s reputation was still “immaculate” and the army should endure wrongs to the “utmost verge of toleration.” 

Rebuffed by General Knox, the plotters turned to General Horatio Gates. Gates could be counted on to play the role Knox had spurned for General Gates was an old hand at intrigues. On March 8 General Gates, his staff and a group of like-minded officers met, and with Gates full approval, decided to issue as series anonymous papers subsequently known as the “Newburgh Addresses.” The Addresses were written by General Gates’ aide, Major John Armstrong, Jr., a 27 year old Princeton dropout who had been Gates aide since 1777. 

How far Armstrong and Gates were willing to go is still being debated by historians. The consensus of opinion is that Armstrong anticipated a full fledge coup, possibly replacing Congress and establishing a military dictatorship but that Gates probably would not have supported a full coup. Needless to say, the participants in the Newburgh Addresses, in later years, were not eager to give a full public accounting of their roles and intentions in the matter. 

Well warned, Washington dealt with the conspiracy firmly once the Newburgh Addresses appeared. Washington issued a call for a meeting on Saturday, March 15 with his Generals, field officers and one representative from each company to hear the report of General McDougall’s committee and their recent meetings in Philadelphia with the members of congress. 

The tensions were high when the officers gathered on March 15th. Everyone present had read the Newburgh Addresses. Washington told the officers that the anonymous call for a meeting by the authors of the Newburgh Addresses was “unmilitary” and “subversive of all order and discipline”. Neither abandoning the country nor turning military power against Congress would be as effective as maintaining loyalty to Congress. He closed his address with the promise to “pledge myself in the most unequivocal manner to exert whatever ability I am possessed of in your favor”

In spite of his impassioned words, the grumbling continued. The consensus of those in attendance was, at this point, Washington had not been effective in convincing his men to remain loyal to the country. The Newburgh Addresses had had a more powerful effect on the long unappreciated army officers. 

His prepared remarks finished, and perhaps sensing that his message had not gotten through to his officers, Washington sought to buttress his own thoughts by reading a supportive letter from a member of Congress. He began reading haltingly, paused, and reached into his pocket for his spectacles, adding “gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.”

The officers were stunned. None of his men had ever seen Washington wearing spectacles. They could not imagine him getting old. This was General Washington. The greatest horseman in the country, a magnificent physical specimen and athlete. After Washington’s years of battles, where he often lead from the very front of his lines and survived unscathed, many of his men felt that he enjoyed God’s special protection. They stood with tears in their eyes. Washington’s simple comment delivered the group into his hands. 

Washington finished reading the letter, and with the instincts of the great leader he was, left the meeting without saying another word. General Knox took control of the meeting and thanked Washington for his address. 

The officers then passes several resolution praising Washington and affirmed that the army would take no conduct that would sully its reputation. They also rejected the Newburgh Addresses with disdain. 

Shocked by the near mutiny, Congress adopted commutation a week later. There would be five years pay for those previously entitled to half pay for life. However, the future of the pay still lay with the states for the states had to unanimously approve the tax to pay for it. 

General Knox knew that, although the crisis had been temporarily averted, the feelings that Washington had generated with the officers would soon wear off if other steps were not taken. 

General Know had an idea of what was needed. He had been thinking, for several years, about forming a national organization of continental line officers that could maintain the political momentum required to protect the officers’ interests. The “Newburgh Addresses” had brought the need for such an organization to the forefront. 

General Knox began meeting with his staff on the matter and quickly laid out his proposal for formation of an organization of the continental line officers which would become known as, the Society of the Cincinnati. Exactly on month later, on April 15th, Knox produced an eight-page draft constitution or “Institution” as it would be called for his proposed organization. 

He characterized the organization as “One Society of Friends” which had been formed under the pressure of common danger. Although Knox proposed a society to continue the struggle for commutation after the army disbanded, the Institution emphasized a society that grew from a desire of the officers to perpetuate their friendship rather than promoting their monetary interests.  (This was clearly more of a lofty goal, than a reality.)

Knox proposed a hereditary society in which the officers would be succeeded by their oldest male heir, perhaps thinking that more than one generation might be needed to settle the monetary claims of the officers. 

There was another purpose, charity for those who needed it. The Society would collect funds, one month’s pay from each member, to support the widows and orphans of officers. If Congress would not provide for the officers, they would do it themselves. 

The name came of the society came naturally. Educated men in the eighteen century had grown up reading the Roman classics. They all would have known Cincinnatus, the model of the selfless patriot. In 458 BC the Roman general, Cincinnatus, was retired living on his farm when he was called by the senate to return to the army and save Rome from attack. The senate gave him absolute power to lead the country. Victory came quickly and in days Cincinnatus was back at his plow having resigned his powers as soon as the war was won. The image of this citizen soldier fit the officers well as they contemplated returning to their own homes and plows after the war. 

Knox proposed that the society would have, as a badge, a gold eagle depicting, on one side, Cincinnatus leaving his plow and on the other side Cincinnatus being crowned emperor to be worn with a blue and white ribbon.

The day after Knox laid out his plan for the Cincinnati, word arrived from Paris of the successful completion of the year and a half long negotiations with the British. Peace was at hand. The army would soon be disbanded and the soldiers would return to their homes. As the army feared and as Congress hoped, a disbanded army would have little power to exert political pressure. 

During the next month the Institution was copied onto parchment and a copy was sent to the Continental Line of each of the thirteen states which were being organized into state societies. To join the Society, in addition to paying a month’s pay, the original members were required to sign their names to the Institution, thus pledging their allegiance to the Immutable Principles upon which the Society was founded. George Washington was given the honor to place his name at the head of it.  

The French Colonels, Generals and Admirals that had fought in the American campaign were extended an invitation to join with the thirteen state societies and form a fourteenth society.  

On June 19th, with the organization structure established and the state societies busy signing up members, (2,160 Continental Line officers, approximately half of those eligible, would join the Society) delegates representing the fourteen societies met and elected national officers. George Washington was elected President General, a position he held for the rest of his life. Upon his death, Washington was succeeded by Alexander Hamilton. 

The group accepted the ideas of the design for the badge, the Cincinnati Eagle, presented by Major Pierre L’Enfant (who we know later designed the city of Washington DC). L’Enfant was then given the task of designing the diplomas for the Society. The Society requested that he return to France and have the badges and diplomas produced.

In early 1784, just as the Society was making excellent progress in building a strong organization, all hell broke loose. The Society found itself under attack from one end of the country to the other. 

With the prominent founding fathers like Washington and Alexander Hamilton leading the Society and the rest of the members being Revolutionary War officers, is should have come as little surprise that the society was both powerful and controversial. The main themes of those opposed to the Society were:

  • the provision of hereditary membership which was seen as creating a hereditary aristocracy, 
  • the wearing of the badge, the Cincinnati eagle, reinforced the ideas of the Society being an American order of knighthood, 
  • some saw the Society as a political threat since it was the only organized political group in the country and being made up of some of the most powerful men in the new nation it might come to dominate and even supplant the weak Congress
  • the membership of non-American officers had the potential for foreign influence. 

Pamphlets were produced and numerous newspaper articles were written in opposition to the Society deeming it the new nobility of the country that the Revolution had fought for eight long years to rid itself of. 

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were adamantly opposed to the Society. Jefferson urged Washington to disassociate himself completely from the organization. 

In May 1784, a year after its founding, the Society held its first national meeting. Washington was shocked by the backlash to the Society and he came to the meeting with the idea of calling for the dissolving of the Society. 

But it quickly became obvious to Washington that the Society, now a year old, was not to be easily undone. After several days of meetings, Washington finally took the floor and proposed that, in order to appease the critics, hereditary membership be discontinued and that any words in the Institution that could be construed to have a political tendency be struck. If the Society could not be reconciled to the nation then Washington was determined to withdraw his name from it. 

During the meeting, Major Pierre L’Enfant arrived from Paris with a box of the dazzling, new gold Cincinnati eagles. There was also a splendid present for Washington, a Cincinnati eagle set in diamonds. The diamond eagle was sent to Washington by Admiral d’Estaing in the name of the French navy. (The Washington Eagle, as it is known, is on the cover of the program.) It is still worn today by the President General of the Society at formal Society functions. 

L’Enfant advised the delegates that the King of France had made an exception to French policy of forbidding his officers wearing foreign decorations. The French officers would now be permitted to wear their Cincinnati Eagles on their uniforms and the King had even agreed to serve as patron of the French Society. It would be an understatement to say that the French had accepted their membership in the Society with great enthusiasm. 

The timely arrival of the Cincinnati eagles changed the entire mood of the meeting. There was no further talk of the Society ceasing political involvement or dissolving. But, General Washington was still able to convince the delegates to propose changes to the Institution. The delegates were encouraged to return to their respective states and have the changes to the Institution ratified. 

The proposed changes to the Institution were well publicized. The news of them largely calmed the critics of the Society.

The proposed changes had been made at the meeting under the personal and persistent influence of the former commander in chief. It was quite another thing, however, for the officers, back in their home states, who still had little prospects that commutation would occur, to ratify the changes which would have weakened their influence with Congress. 

A few state societies ratified the changes but the majority did not and therefore the Institution was never amended. By that point it did not matter since the nation’s attention had turned elsewhere as the next two years found the country in serious crisis. 

By the fall of 1786, many came to see the Articles of Confederation as a formula for anarchy rather than a government. States were increasingly calling for a convention to revise the weak form of government that existed under the Articles. Shays’s Rebellion, where Shays and his supporters put an army of over 4,000 troops into the field in open rebellion against the government and the fact that Congress had no national army to respond, shocked the country. 

1787 turned out to be the turning point. Shays’s Rebellion was crushed by troops under the command of Cincinnati members and the Constitution Convention of 1787, with 23 Cincinnati members among the 55 delegates, produced a new form of government. In 1789 Washington became the first president of the United States. From the Cincinnati’s point of view, the fruits of the revolution were finally at hand. 

When we look back at the Newburgh Addresses, most of us fine it shocking that there was serious talk of a coup, replacing Congress and establishing a military dictatorship with George Washington as King.  But the historians react in exactly the opposite way. They say that the only thing that is shocking is the fact that it did not happen. Never in history up to that point had a country had a successful revolution and not installed the head of the military as its king or emperor. Washington willingly chose not to become a dictator. King George III, upon hearing of Washington’s decision to step down, called Washington “the greatest character of the age” for making that decision. 

What is the status of the Society of the Cincinnati today?

Now in its third century, the Institution remains the guiding principle of the Society.

We have 14 societies, with 3,100 members. Members belong to the society that their propositus belonged to. Only one Hereditary Member can represent each of the original members. But we do now allow Hereditary Members to designate their oldest son to be a Successor Member so we will not have a membership made up only of old guys like me. 

The Society is the oldest hereditary organization in the United States and many consider it to be the most prestigious. 

Financially the organization is very healthy and has an endowment well in excess of $50 million. 

We own a 55,000 square foot mansion, Anderson House, on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, DC which is our headquarters. It is the grandest mansion in Washington. Each of the state societies has a suite at Anderson House and members and their families can stay there for free anytime they are in Washington. The Society’s library at Anderson House houses the finest collection of books and documents of the American Revolution in existence.

My propositus was an original member of the Massachusetts Society and after moving to Georgia became an original member and officer of the Georgia Society. I could belong to either society since he belonged to both, but since Savannah is much closer than Boston, I am a member of the Georgia Society where I serve as President. I am also a member of our national board of directors. 

Six of my ancestors were original members of the Society. All six of those spots are currently held by relatives of mine, including two by my nephews, my sister Natalie’s two sons. My son Mathew, is a Successor Member on the line of my propositus. 

The Georgia Society owns a beautiful mansion in Savannah, the Harper Fowlkes House, which takes up an entire city block and fronts on Orleans Square.

The Society promotes public interest in the American Revolution through its library and museum collections, exhibitions, educational programs, endow professorships, lecture series, awards, scholarships, educational materials publications and other activities. 

However, all work and no play makes for a dull Society. So as “One Society of Friends” we carry out the serious business of the Society but we also make sure that we and our spouses have fun too. 

We have four meeting a year, two in Savannah and two in Washington, DC.  In addition to our business meetings we have weekends filled with educational lectures, tours, a white tie dinner-dance and an oyster roast.

I am very proud to be a member of this great organization that my family has been a part of for the last 234 years.

Comments & Questions

I am often asked if the Society took its name from the city of Cincinnati. In fact, it is just the opposite. After the Revolution, many of the Society members began to settle in the Northwest Territory.  The first governor of the territory was a member of the Society. He renamed a small settlement on the Ohio River “Cincinnati” to honor the Society and to encourage settlement there by Society members. 

If you ever visit Arlington Cemetery and go to the Lee-Custis house you will find the grave of Pierre L’Enfant just outside the front door of the house overlooking Washington, the city he designed. A large Cincinnati eagle is carved on his tombstone, the eagle that he also designed. 

My propositus in the Society is my great-4th grandfather, Lt. Edward White. He had a remarkable career during the Revolution. He was from the Boston suburb of Brookline. As a 16 year old member of the Brookline militia, he fought in the battle of Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, the first battle of the war. Later that summer he fought in the battle of Bunker Hill and shortly thereafter received his commission in the Massachusetts Continental Line. He went on to fight in most of the major battles of the war. He spent the winter of 1777 at Valley Forge, his company was in the very center of the American lines at the battle of Saratoga and was recognized for its outstanding performance there. His company went on to become a part of Lafayette’s Light Infantry, the crack shock troops of the Continental Army. In 1780 George Washington recognized his company under the command of Captain Burnham as the best company in the Continental army. At Yorktown, when the Americans were getting ready to make their final assault on redoubt #10, Washington selected Colonel Alexander Hamilton of Lafayette’s Light Infantry and his best 400 troops, including Lt. White’s company, to lead the night attack with was made with unloaded weapons to gain the element of surprise. After Yorktown, Edward and his company went to Newburgh where he remained until the end of the war and where he signed Massachusetts Societies copy of the Institution. Edward had the experience of fighting in the first battle of the war, Lexington-Concord and the last major battle, Yorktown and most of the major battles in between. After the war he moved to Savannah and became the U. S. Inspector of Customs. A job that his second cousin President John Adams recommended him for.

Works Cited

Doyle, William. Aristocracy and Its Enemies in the Age of Revolution. Oxford University Press, 2009.

Hume, Edgar Erskine. George Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1941.

Hume, Edgar Erskine. La Fayette and the Society of the Cincinnati. The Johns Hopkins Press, 1934

Hunemorder, Markus. The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America. Berghahn Books, 2006.

Myers, Minor. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati. University of Virginia Press.

Smith, Gordon Burns. Morningstars of Liberty: Volume One: The Revolutionary War in Georgia 1775-1783. Boyd Publishing, 2006.

Willis, Garry. Cincinnatus: George Washington and the Enlightenment. Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1984.

The Society of the Cincinnati: The History of the Hereditary Group Established by the Founding Fathers After the Revolutionary War. Charles River Editors.