Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from George Washington, 8 April 1784

From George Washington

Mount Vernon April 8th. 1784.

Dear Sir

If with frankness, and the fullest latitude of a friend, you will give me your opinion of the Institution of the Society of Cincinnati, it would confer an acceptable favor upon me. If to this opinion, you would be so obliging as to add the sentiments, or what you suppose to be the Sentiments of Congress respecting it, I would thank you.

That you may have the best Materials on which to form a judgment, I send you a copy of the proceedings of the Society. Consequent of their choice of Me for President Pro. Tem. and the direction therein, I sent the Institution to the French land and Naval Commanders, and to the Marqs. de la Fayette, as the Senior French Officer in the American Army, whose proceedings thereon I also enclose to you.

These Papers you will please to retain (for fear of accidents) ’till I shall have the pleasure (the Week after next) of seeing you in Annapolis on my way to Philadelphia; whither this, and other business, will take me; but the sooner I could receive your Sentiments on this Subject the more pleasing they would be to me.

The Pamphlet ascribed to Mr. Burke has I am told had its effect. People are alarmed, especially in the Eastern States. How justly, or how contrary to the avowed principles of the Society and the purity of their Motives, I will not declare, least it should appear that I wanted to biass you[r] judgment rather than to obtain an opinion, which, if you please, might be accompanied with sentiments (under the information here given) respecting the most eligable measures to be pursued by the Society at their next meeting.

You may be assured Sir, that to the good opinion, alone, which I entertain of your abilities and candor, this liberty is to be attributed; and I can truly add, that with very great esteem & regard I am Dr Sir Yr. Most Obt. Hble Servt,

Go: Washington

P.S. I was on the point of closing this Letter, when Mr. Hogendorff put your favor of the 6th. into my hands.

RC (DLC); endorsed by TJ: “Genl. Washington to Th: J. 84. Apr. 8.” FC (DLC: Washington Papers); lacks postscript; in hand of clerk. Entry in SJL for 11 Apr. reads: “received Gen Wash’s on confidential subject.” Enclosures (missing): (1) Ædanus Burke’s Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati; lately instituted by the Major-Generals, Brigadier-Generals, and other Officers of the American Army. Proving that it creates a Race of Hereditary Patricians, or Nobility. Interspersed with remarks on its Consequences to the Freedom and Happiness of the Republic, by Cassius (Philadelphia, 1783); there is a copy in DLC: Washington Papers which may be the identical one sent with this letter. (2) A copy of the minutes of “a meeting of the General officers, and the gentlemen delegated by their respective regiments, as a convention for establishing the Society of the Cincinnati,” held on 19 June 1783; at this meeting it was voted that “his Excellency the Commander-in-Chief be requested to officiate as President General, until the first general meeting, to be held in May next.” The minutes of the meeting of 19 June 1783 are incorporated in “The Institution” of the Society of the Cincinnati of 10 and 13 May 1783 containing the proposals and the objects of the Society; this record of all three meetings, signed by Steuben, who presided as senior officer, is preserved and known by the Society of the Cincinnati as the “Parchment Roll,” being signed by Washington and thirty-five other officers (E. E. Hume, General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati, Baltimore, 1941, p. 1–15). Baron Steuben, whose love of hereditary orders and their insignia led him far beyond the bounds of veracity in respect to his own claims, was a prime mover in the establishment of the Society of the Cincinnati. “Your society monsieur Baron,” wrote Henry Knox, “has occasioned great jealousies among the good people of New England, who say it is altogether an outlandish creature formed by foreign influence. It is still heightened by a letter from one of our ministers abroad, who intimates that it was formed in Europe to overturn our happy constitution. Burke’s pamphlet has also had its full operation. You see how much you have to answer for by the introduction of your European distinctions. I contend to the utmost of my power that you only had your share in the matter and no more, but it will have no effect. Burke’s allusion has fixed it, and you must support the credit of having created a race of hereditary nobility. Our friend Heath says, ‘I forewarned you of all that would happen.’ <He left us in the lurch and did not attend the meeting having prudently caught cold>. He did not attend the meeting. The Legislature of this state are however decided that the scheme shall not be carried into execution in this commonwealth. And in order to frustrate the measure the assembly have chosen a joint committee of both houses ‘To enquire into any associations, or combinations, to introduce undue distinctions into the community, which may have a tendency to create a race of hereditary nobility contrary to the confederation of the United States, and to the Spirit of the Constitution of this commonwealth’” (Knox to Steuben, Boston, 21 Feb. 1784, Dft, Knox Papers, MHi: RC, NHi). A few months later, however, Knox evidently felt differently. Steuben’s former aide-de-camp, William North, wrote to his old commander from Boston in Oct.: “Knox and Jackson and their like avoid the badge of the Cincinnati as they would the Devil. They smile—and smile and smile are——. Knox has been made agent for his Wife’s Father’s estate by the Assembly. To keep in with His brother Officers and the Citizens he must trim sharp. It’s hard work to keep in with such opposition” (North to Steuben, Boston, 19 Oct. 1784, NHi). Washington accepted the office of President General of the Society, but as the time approached for the meeting in Philadelphia in May, he became much troubled by popular hostility engendered by Burke’s pamphlet and by threatened moves in various states to legislate against such an order. In addition to the present letter, he wrote former officers such as Greene, Knox, St. Clair, Humphreys, Benjamin Walker, and Jonathan Trumbull, Jr., urging attendance at the Philadelphia meeting and inquiring into the state of feeling toward the Society in different parts of the country (Hume, same, p. 95ff.). For TJ’s answer and an estimate of its effect in tempering Washington’s attitude toward the Society, see TJ to Washington, 16 Apr. 1784. In Europe John Adams gave voice to similar opinions, declaring that the “Order of Cincinnatus … is the first step taken to deface the Beauty of our Temple of Liberty” (Adams to Charles Spener, 24 Mch. 1784; to Lafayette, 28 Mch. 1784; MHi: Adams Manuscript Trust).

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