Samuel Adams on George Washington's chairing the inaugural general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati: "it is impossible for me not to think [it] a great Misfortune to these States that he is a Member."
Opposition to the Society of Cincinnati was centered in Massachusetts, with Elbridge Gerry perhaps the most persistent critic among a group that included John Adams, Samuel Adams, and Stephen Higginson. Here Sam Adams writes to Gerry, who was serving in the Continental Congress in Annapolis. After some preliminary comments and questions about congressional matters, Adams gets to the main burden of his letter.
"I Observe by the inclosed News Paper that the Cincinnati in Congress assembled are to meet at Philadelphia on the 5th of May and that General Washington is to preside. That Gentleman has an Idea of the Nature & Tendency of the Order very different from mine; otherwise I am certain he would never have given it his sanction. I look upon it as rapid a Stride towards an hereditary military Nobility as ever was made in so short a Time. My Fears may be ill grounded; but if they are not, it is impossible for me not to think [it] a great Misfortune to these States that he is a Member; for the Reputation he has justly acquired by his Conduct while Commander in Chief of our Armies, & the Gratitude & warm affection which his Countrymen do & ought to feel towards him, will probably give Weight to any thing he patronizes, & Lustre to all who may be connected with him. It is a Tribute due to the Man who serves his Country well to esteem him highly and confide in him. We ought not however to think any Man incapable of Error. But so it is with the Bulk of Mankind, & even in a free Country—they reprobate the Idea of implicit Faith, and at the same Time, while the Imperfection of Gratitude is deep in their Minds, they will not admit that of a Benefactor which must be said of every man aliquando dormitat."
Adams warns that "there is a Degree of Watchfulness over all Men possessed of Power or Influence, upon which the Liberties of Mankind much depend. It is necessary to guard against the Infirmities of the best as well as the Wickedness of the worst of Men. Such is the Weakness of human Nature, that Tyranny has perhaps oftener sprung from that than any other source. It is this that unravels the Mystery of Millions being enslav'd by a few."
Much of the Massachusetts hostility to the Cincinnati was principally based on its perceived susceptibility to foreign influence because of its many French members. In a letter to Higginson, 4 March 1784, Gerry described the American and French forms of government as incompatible and antagonistic: "It is well known that Despotic Governments & every Subject thereof have a natural Hatred to republican Governments & all who support them." Gerry's concerns were shared, if not encouraged, by Adams:
"What was it that induced the Cincinnati Gentlemen, who have undertaken to deliberate and act upon Matters which may especially concern 'the Happiness & future Dignity of the American Empire' to admit foreign Military Subjects into their Society? Was there not Danger before that a foreign Influence might prevail in America? Do not Foreigners wish to have Weight in our Councils? ... Are we sure that those two Nations will never have separate Views and very national & interested ones too, because once united in the same object & it was accidentally their mutual Interest to fight Side by Side? If we could admit that the Cincinnati had a Right to erect themselves into an order for the national Purposes of their Institution, had they a Right to call in foreign Aid for these Purposes? It appears to me as impolitick preposterous & dangerous as it would be for the United States to invite and admit a Delegation from that Foreign Power into their Congress."
In closing, Adams manages to link his objections to the Society of the Cincinnati back to his original topic of matters before the Congress: "I take notice that the Committee of the Congress propose that the Governments of the ten new States to be formed shall be in Republican Form, and shall admit no Person to be a Citizen who holds any hereditary Title. I hope Congress will not fail to make this an indispensible Condition."
Although Adams could not have known it, George Washington shared many of his concerns about the Society of the Cincinnati. Indeed, Washington hoped to use his inflence to abolish the Society completely, but when that proved impossible he insisted on several changes to the Cincinnati's Institution (or, constitution) in order to "reconcile the Society to the Community." Washington's proposed alterations included "Strike out every word, sentence, and clause which has a political tendency"; "Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions"; and "Reject subscriptions, or donations from every person who is not a Citizen of the United States" ("Observations on the Institution of the Society," The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series, ed. Abbot, 1:330).
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