The Society of the Cincinnati: Conspiracy and Distrust in Early America
Berghahn Books, 2006 - 212
In 1783, the officers of the Continental Army created the Society of the Cincinnati. This veterans' organization was founded in order to preserve the memory of the revolutionary struggle and pursue the officers' common interest in outstanding pay and pensions. Henry Knox and Frederick Steuben were the society's chief organizers; George Washington himself served as president. Soon, however, a widely distributed pamphlet by Aedanus Burke of South Carolina accused the Society of conspiracy. According to Burke, the Society of the Cincinnati was nothing less than a hereditary nobility which would subvert American republicanism into aristocracy. Soon, more critics including John Adams and Elbridge Gerry joined the fray, claiming among other things that the Society was a secret government for the United States or a puppet of the French monarchy. While these accusations were unjustified, they played an important role in the difficult political debates of the 1780s, including the efforts to revise the Articles of Confederation. This books explores why a part of the revolutionary leadership accused another of subversion in the "critical period," and how the political culture of the times predisposed many leading Americans to think of the Cincinnati as a conspiracy.