Toasts of the New Jersey Society of the Cincinnati
Held at: University of Delaware Library Special Collections [Contact Us]181 South College Avenue, Newark, DE 19717-5267
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The Society of the Cincinnati was created in May of 1783 when a number of officers in the Continental Army organized to express their discontent at not having been paid. By that time, some men had not received pay for as long as four years, while others had been given paper money that was practically worthless. For George Washington, the devastating effects of officer mutiny in response to lack of pay was evident early in the war: during the bitterly cold winter of Valley Forge many unpaid officers simply resigned and went home. Washington, desperate to maintain discipline and to find a way to bind the officers to the army, began to urge the Continental Congress to make some definite provision for them, and even to consider lifelong pensions. Congress debated the issue, but, having no power to tax, did not feel able to take any such action. Periodic outbreaks of mutiny continued to occur throughout the war.
Although textbooks designate the surrender at Yorktown in 1781 as the end of the revolution, British forces still held several major cities. Consequently, Washington and the other generals could not be certain the war was over and kept the Continental Army in readiness. During the winter of 1782-83 at Washington's headquarters in Newburgh, New York, unpaid officers once again threatened their commander with mutiny and agitated for lump sum payments as the best they could hope for. Washington feared civil unrest if the pay question were not settled. He was able to stave off mutiny at a protest meeting and Congress did adopt some provisions for pay. However, Major General Henry Knox believed once peace was declared and the army disbanded, the officers would lose ground. Knox then planned a national organization of officers to exert political pressure to protect their interests. Knox and several fellow generals drafted the outlines of a society. On May 13, 1783, delegates met at Verplanck House, General Steuben's headquarters at Fishkill-on-Hudson, and adopted the resolutions. Immediately, leaders began working to organize a corresponding society in each state before the men were disbanded. Since the Articles of Confederation reserved the power to tax to the states, the state societies were deemed necessary to the welfare of the officers and have always been perceived as playing the major role in the society. The Society of the Cincinnati in the state of New Jersey was organized by officers of the New Jersey Continental Line at Elizabethtown on June 11, 1783. In recognition of the invaluable help of the French, a French Society was also created.
The majority of men who served as officers in the Continental Army had received a classical education, so, as was customary at the time, they looked to classical history for an appropriate symbol of their endeavors and chose Cincinnatus, the Roman model of the selfless patriot. Cincinnatus was living in poverty in 458 B.C. when he was called to lead a war against the Aequi. As soon as the war ended, Cincinnatus returned to his plow and his poverty.
The society extended membership rights to officers who had remained in the army or navy until the end of the war, who had served honorably for at least three years, and those who had died during service. Membership rights were hereditary, so that when the revolutionary officer died, a male descendant (preferably through the male line) could take his place in the society with full benefits. However, each revolutionary officer may be represented by only one membership in the society. Members receive a silver medal keepsake and an eagle-shaped badge. The society also offers honorary memberships to men eminent for their patriotism or friendship to the United States. From the creation of the society, the army membership has overwhelmingly dominated representation from the revolutionary navy.
In its early years, The Society of the Cincinnati was the subject of nationwide controversy. When American citizens became aware that such a society existed, many leaders (notably John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson) expressed their belief that a society with hereditary membership was unrepublican and thus antithetical to all the values for which the colonists fought the Revolution. Some Americans looked with disfavor on the society's close ties with France and believed that such a connection would foster monarchical practices in the United States. The society badge, which had been modelled on British and French orders, was regarded as the first step toward establishing an aristocracy in this country.
Today, The Society of the Cincinnati is headquartered in Washington, D.C., where the society maintains Anderson House, the site of an archive on the society and a library with collections on the Revolution, the art of war, and the decorative arts. The national organization meets triennially; at each meeting the society awards The Society of the Cincinnati Prize to an author of a distinguished work on any aspect of American history from the Revolution through Washington's presidency. Historic preservation and commemoration are primary tasks for many of the thirteen state societies, especially the discovery and preservation of documents from the revolutionary period. Several of the state societies also award prizes for academic excellence, usually connected with history or military studies. The New Jersey Society offers a Cincinnati History Prize of $1,000 for the best work on United States History published each year.
The Society sponsors a number a publications, including theCincinnati Fourteen, a semiannual newsletter; George Rogers Clark Lectures on the Revolutionary War and Early National History, an annual book of collected talks; and the proceedings from the triennial meetings. Numerous books and articles have been written on the history of the national organization as well as on the individual fourteen societies. Several books recount the history of the society in New Jersey: John Schuyler, Institution; The Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey (Trenton: Murray, 1898); Irving C. Hanners, The Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey (Bethlehem, Pa.: Times Publishing, 1949); and Two Hundred Years of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey (Washington, D.C.: Society of the Cincinnati in the State of New Jersey, 1981).
Most state societies continue to meet annually, although most have abandoned the traditional Fourth of July meeting date.
Hume, Edgar Erskine (Compiler). Society of the Cincinnati Rules of the State Societies of Admission to Membership. Washington, D.C.: Society of the Cincinnati. 1934.Myers, Jr., Minor. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of The Society of the Cincinnati. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1983.
The Toasts of the New Jersey Society of the Cincinnati collection contains holograph manuscripts of eight lists of toasts for the traditional Fourth of July meetings for eight years from 1782 through 1804. Only the last three are dated, although internal evidence provides a clear chronological order for the lists. The first list poses a problem. The Society was not formed until May 1783 and the New Jersey society a month later in June of that year. However, the first list contains a toast to the diplomats who were negotiating the peace treaty, signed on January 20, 1783. This does call into question whether the earliest list is, in fact, attributable to The Society of the Cincinnati. However, the sentiments of the toasts, even the order in which they appear, strongly connect the first to the later seven lists.
Spanning the Confederation, Federal, and Jeffersonian periods, the subjects and language of the toasts reflect the republican ideals of the era. They also provide some clues as to where the society's members stood on contemporary political issues: pro-Constitution and strongly Hamiltonian.
Box X: Shelved in SPEC MSS 0099 manuscript boxes
Gift of Mrs. Esther Schwartz, 1968
Processed by Anne E. Krulikowski, February 1999. Encoded by Jaime Margalotti, July 2020.
- University of Delaware Library Special Collections
- Finding Aid Author
- University of Delaware Library, Special Collections
- Finding Aid Date
- 2020 July 20
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The collection is open for research.
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Use of materials from this collection beyond the exceptions provided for in the Fair Use and Educational Use clauses of the U.S. Copyright Law may violate federal law. Permission to publish or reproduce is required from the copyright holder. Please contact Special Collections Department, University of Delaware Library, https://library.udel.edu/static/purl.php?askspec