Henry Knox introduced his proposal to form the Society of the Cincinnati, a military society whose membership would be open to the whole officer corps, including the officers of foreign allies serving in America. Knox’s words, the Society would “erect some lone shelter for the unfortunate, against the storms and tempests of poverty.” The founders of the Society of the Cincinnati hoped that a national organization of former officers would be able to exert leverage in favor of their own interests on a recalcitrant Congress. It was named after Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. Cincinnatus was forced to live in humble circumstances, working on his own small farm, until an invasion caused him to be called to serve Rome as dictator, an office which he immediately resigned after completing his task of defeating the rivaling tribes of the Aequians, Sabines, and Volscians. His immediate resignation of his absolute authority with the end of the crisis has often been cited as an example of outstanding leadership, service to the greater good, civic virtue, lack of personal ambition and modesty.
George Washington was elected the first President General of the Society. He served from December 1783 until his death in 1799. Its members have included notable military and political leaders, including 23 signers of the United States Constitution. Within 12 months of the founding, a constituent Society had been organized in each of the 13 states and in France. Of about 5,500 men originally eligible for membership, 2,150 had joined within a year. Andrew Jackson and Zachary Taylor were honorary members before becoming presidents. Other presidents became honorary members while in office, and after leaving office. King Louis XVI ordained the French Society of the Cincinnati, which was organized on July 4, 1784 (Independence Day). Up to that time, the King of France had not allowed his officers to wear any foreign decorations, but he made an exception in favor of the badge of the Cincinnati.
The members of the Cincinnati were among those developing many of America’s first and largest cities to the west of the Appalachians, most notably Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The Society’s colors, light blue and white, symbolize the fraternal bond between the United States and France.
The flag of the Society displays blue and white stripes and a dark blue canton (containing a circle of 14 stars around the Cincinnati Eagle to designate the thirteen colonies and France) in the upper corner next to the hoist.