Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 16 April 1784

To George Washington

Annapolis April. 16. 1784.

Dear Sir

I received your favor of the 8th. inst. by Colo. Harrison. The subject of it is interesting, and, so far as you have stood connected with it, has been matter of anxiety to me: because whatever may be the ultimate fate of the institution of the Cincinnati, as in it’s course it draws to it some degree of disapprobation, I have wished to see you stand on ground separated from it; and that the character which will be handed to future ages at the head of our revolution may in no instance be compromitted in subordinate altercations. The subject has been at the point of my pen in every letter I have written to you; but has been still restrained by a reflection that you had among your friends more able counsellors, and in yourself one abler than them all. Your letter has now rendered a duty what was before a desire, and I cannot better merit your confidence than by a full and free communication of facts and sentiments as far as they have come within my observation.

When the army was about to be disbanded, and the officers to take final leave, perhaps never again to meet, it was natural for men who had accompanied each other through so many scenes of hardship, of difficulty and danger, who in a variety of instances must have been rendered mutually dear by those aids and good offices to which their situations had given occasion, it was natural I say for these to seize with fondness any propositions which promised to bring them together again at certain and regular periods. And this I take for granted was the origin and object of this institution: and I have no suspicion that they foresaw, much less intended those mischeifs which exist perhaps in the forebodings of politicians only. I doubt however whether in it’s execution it would be found to answer the wishes of those who framed it, and to foster those friendships it was intended to preserve. The members would be brought together at their annual assemblies no longer to encounter a common enemy, but to encounter one another in debate and sentiment. Something I suppose is to be done at those meetings, and however unimportant, it will suffice to produce difference of opinion, contradiction and irritation. The way to make friends quarrel is to pit them in disputation under the public eye. An experience of near twenty years has taught me that few friendships stand this test; and that public assemblies where every one is free to speak and to act, are the most powerful looseners of the bands of private friendship. I think therefore that this institution would fail of it’s principal object, the perpetuation of the personal friendships contracted thro’ the war.

The objections of those opposed to the institution shall be briefly sketched; you will readily fill them up. They urge that it is against the Confederation; against the letter of some of our constitutions; against the spirit of them all, that the foundation, on which all these are built, is the natural equality of man, the denial of every preeminence but that annexed to legal office, and particularly the denial of a preeminence by birth;—that however, in their present dispositions, citizens might decline accepting honorary instalments into the order, a time may come when a change of dispositions would render these flattering; when a well directed distribution of them might draw into the order all the men of talents, of office and wealth; and in this case would probably procure an ingraftment into the government; that in this they will be supported by their foreign members, and the wishes and influence of foreign courts; that experience has shewn that the hereditary branches of modern governments are the patrons of privilege and prerogative, and not of the natural rights of the people, whose oppressors they generally are; that besides these evils which are remote, others may take place more immediately; that a distinction is kept up between the civil and military which it is for the happiness of both to obliterate; that when the members assemble they will be proposing to do something, and what that something may be will depend on actual circumstances; that being an organized body, under habits of subordination, the first obstructions to enterprize will be already surmounted; that the moderation and virtue of a single character has probably prevented this revolution from being closed as most others have been by a subversion of that liberty it was intended to establish; that he is not immortal, and his successor or some one of his successors at the head of this institution may adopt a more mistaken road to glory.1

What are the sentiments of Congress on this subject, and what line they will pursue can only be stated conjecturally. Congress as a body, if left to themselves, will in my opinion say nothing on the subject. They may however be forced into a declaration by instructions from some of the states or by other incidents. Their sentiments, if forced from them, will be unfriendly to the institution. If permitted to pursue their own tract, they will check it by side blows whenever it comes in their way, and in competitions for office on equal or nearly equal ground will give silent preferences to those who are not of the fraternity. My reasons for thinking this are: 1. The grounds on which they lately declined the foreign order proposed to be conferred on some of our citizens. 2. The fourth of the fundamental articles of constitution for the new states. I inclose you the report. It has been considered by Congress, recommitted and reformed by a Committee according to the sentiments expressed on other parts of it, but the principle referred to having not been controverted at all, stands in this as in the original report. It is not yet confirmed by Congress. 3. Private conversations on this subject with the members. Since the receipt of your letter I have taken occasion to extend these; not indeed to the military members, because being of the order delicacy forbade it; but to the others pretty generally; and among these I have found2 but one who is not opposed to the institution, and that with an anguish of mind, tho’ covered under a guarded silence, which I have not seen produced by any circumstance before. I arrived at Philadelphia before the separation of the last Congress, and saw there and at Princeton some3 of it’s members not now in delegation. Burke’s peice happened to come out at that time which occasioned this institution to be the subject of conversation. I found the same impression made on them which their successors have received. I hear from other quarters that it is disagreeable generally to such citizens as have attended to it, and therefore will probably be so to all when any circumstance shall present it to the notice of all.

This Sir is as faithful an account of sentiments and facts as I am able to give you. You know the extent of the circle within which my observations are at present circumscribed; and can estimate how far, as forming a part of the general opinion, it may merit notice, or ought to influence your particular conduct. It remains now to pay obedience to that part of your letter which requests sentiments on the most eligible measures to be pursued by the society at their next meeting. I must be far from pretending to be a judge of what would in fact be the most eligible measures for the society. I can only give you the opinions of those with whom I have conversed, and who, as I have before observed, are unfriendly to it. They lead to these conclusions. 1. If the society proceeds according to it’s institution, it will be better to make no applications to Congress on that subject, or on any other in their associated character. 2. If they should propose to modify it so as to render it unobjectionable, I think this would not be effected without such a modification as would amount almost to annihilation; for such would it be to part with it’s inheritability, it’s organisation and it’s assemblies. 3. If they should be disposed to discontinue the whole it would remain with them to determine whether they would chuse it to be done by their own act only, or by a reference of the matter to Congress, which would infallibly produce a recommendation of total discontinuance.

You will be sensible, Sir, that these communications are without all reserve. I supposed such to be your wish, and mean them but as materials, with such others as you may collect, for your better judgment to work on. I consider the whole matter as between ourselves alone, having determined to take no active part in this or any thing else which may lead to altercation, or disturb that quiet and tranquillity of mind to which I consign the remaining portion of my life. I have been thrown back by events on a stage where I had never more thought to appear. It is but for a time however, and as a day labourer, free to withdraw or be withdrawn at will. While I remain I shall pursue in silence the path of right; but in every situation public or private shall be gratified by all occasions of rendering you service and of convincing you there is no one to whom your reputation and happiness are dearer than to, Sir, Your most obedient & most humble servt,

Th: Jefferson

RC (PHi); detached leaf from RC (DLC: Washington Papers) bears the following endorsement in Washington’s hand: “From The Hon: T: Jefferson 16th Apl. 1784 Cincinnati”; with notes in the hand of Jared Sparks and John C. Fitzpatrick. FC (DLC: TJ Papers); TJ must have made a careful draft of this letter, but the FC is clearly a fair copy, being free of deletions, interlineations, &c. Enclosure: See plan of government for the western territory, Vol. 6: 605, 609, note.

The fourth of the fundamental articles of constitution for the new states: The clause forbidding citizenship in governments of the western territory to anyone holding a hereditary title or order of nobility was struck out by Congress four days after the present letter was written (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xxvi, 250–1; Vol. 6: 611, note 19). The foreign order proposed to be conferred on some of our citizens: In 1783 the Chevalier Jean de Heintz, secretary of the Polish Order of Knights of Divine Providence, wrote to Washington about the recently instituted order and proposed that Congress nominate a number “of American Characters as Members” (Washington to the President of Congress, 28 Aug. 1783, Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxvii 119–20). With Heintz’ letter was a pamphlet listing the members, and both were immediately transmitted by the commander-in-chief to Congress. On 5 Jan. 1784 Congress resolved that, though “sensible of the attention of that Order” [the words “entertain a high sense of the honour done them by” were struck out of the committee report], they could not “consistently with the principles of the Confederation, accept of their obliging proposal” (JCC description begins Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, ed. W. C. Ford and others, Washington, 1904–1937 description ends , xxvi, 7).

Washington’s draft of suggested changes in the Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati is published in Writings, ed. Fitzpatrick, xxvii, 393–6, and in it the hand of TJ is discernible. Among other things Washington counselled: “Strike out every word, sentence, and clause which has a political tendency. Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions, absolutely, without any substitution which can be construed into concealment, or a change of ground only; for this would, in my opinion, encrease, rather than allay suspicions. Admit no more honorary Members into the Society. Reject subscriptions, or donations from every person who is not a Citizen of the United States. Place the funds upon such a footing as to remove the jealousies which are entertained on that score‥‥ Abolish the General Meetings altogether, as unnecessary; the Constitution being given, a continuance of them would be expensive, and very probably from a diversity of Sentiment, and tenacity of opinion might be productive of more dissention than harmony; for it has been well observed ‘that nothing loosens the bans of private friendship more, than for friends to pit themselves agst. each other in public debate, where every one is free to speak and to act.’ … No alteration short of what is here enumerated will, in my opinion, reconcile the Society to the Community; whether these will do it, is questionable ‥‥ Without being possessed of the reasons which induce many Gentlemen to retain the order or badge of the Society, it will be conceived by the public that this order (which except in its perpetuity still appears in the same terrific array as at first) is a feather we cannot consent to pluck from ourselves, tho’ we have taken it from our descendants. If we assign the reasons, we might I presume as well discontinue the order” (same). The words quoted by Washington were, of course, taken from TJ’s letter. Washington’s draft of proposed changes was therefore drawn up after he received the present letter, and very likely additional suggestions made by TJ in conversation were incorporated at the time of the discussion that took place when Washington passed through Annapolis on his way to the Philadelphia meeting. At that meeting, David Humphreys, Henry Knox, Anthony Walton White, and others reported on the opposition to the Society in various states. Washington thereupon “in confidence introduced a report of a Committee of Congress, that no persons holding an hereditary title or order of nobility should be eligible to citizenship in the new State [sic] they are about to establish, and declared he knew this to be levelled at our Institution—that our friends had prevented its passing into resolution, till the result of this meeting should be known; but if we do not make it conformable to their sense of republican principles, we might expect every discouragement and even persecution from them and the States severally.” The report that Washington introduced in confidence on 4 May 1784 was, of course, the one that TJ enclosed in this letter; it had already been published without authorization in the 27 Apr. 1784 issue of Claypoole’s Pennsylvania Packet. Delegates from New York and New Jersey opposed the abolition of the hereditary principle, whereupon Washington delivered an impassioned ultimatum that carried all before it: “General Washington arose, and again opposed this part as particularly obnoxious to the people. In a very long speech, and with much warmth and agitation, he expressed himself on all the Parts of the Institution deemed exceptionable, and reiterated his determination to vacate his place in the Society, if it could not be accomodated to the feeling and pleasure of the several States” (Winthrop Sargent, ed., “A Journal of the General Meeting of the Cincinnati, in 1784” [kept by Major Winthrop Sargent of Massachusetts], Memoirs Hist. Soc. Penna., Vol. vi, 1858, p. 26–28). The general meeting thereupon adopted “The Altered and Amended Institution” and ratification by the state organizations followed a chequered course—New Hampshire refused to ratify; Massachusetts did so, but reversed its position in 1786; Rhode Island followed suit; Connecticut ratified in 1795; New York, under the chairmanship of Alexander Hamilton, approved the motives which dictated the alterations but thought it “inexpedient to adopt them”; New Jersey and Pennsylvania ratified, though the latter in 1789 voted to follow the original Institution until all of the state societies adopted the new revision; Delaware declined to ratify; Maryland ratified; “The Virginia Society not only ratified the Altered and Amended Institution but never returned to the principle of hereditary succession. No hereditary members were admitted in Virginia during the lives of the original members. Such was Mr. Jefferson’s power in his native State” (E. E. Hume, General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning The Society of the Cincinnati, Baltimore, 1941, p. 160; Hume gives TJ perhaps too much credit for this achievement); the two Carolinas and Georgia also ratified. Most of the state societies disintegrated during the 19th century, but in the present century the general organization was revived along with the hereditary principle. For an account of the popular opposition to the Society in its early years, see McMaster, History of the People of the United States, i, 167–76, and Wallace E. Davies, “The Society of the Cincinnati in New England,” WMQ description begins William and Mary Quarterly description ends , 3rd ser., v (1948), p. 3–25.

1FC reads: “his successor, or some of his successors may be lead by false calculation into a less certain road to glory.”

2FC reads: “I have as yet found,” &c.

3This word interlined in substitution for “many,” which is deleted in RC. FC reads “some,” showing that TJ made this fair copy for his files after RC had been written.

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