The Virginia Society of the Cincinnati’s Gift to Washington College
Edgar Erskine Hume
(Part 2)

Note: The following is taken from the July 1934 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 42), pp. 198–210.

(Continued from [part one])


A more potent cause of the desire of the Society to present its fund to an educational institution, lay in the opposition which had been aroused among men of influence, against the Society. Objection was to be found chiefly amongst those who had not rendered military service and were therefore not eligible for membership.

The Adamses were particularly hostile. To Samuel Adams’s watchful and suspicious mind, the association was “a plan disgustful to the American feeling”. John Adams considered it “the first step taken to deface the beauty of our Temple of Liberty”, “the deepest piece of cunning yet attempted; it is sowing the seeds of all that European Courts wish to grow up among us, viz., of vanity, ambition, corruption, discord and sedition”, though he later spoke of the Cincinnati as “enjoying the sweetest of rewards in the grateful affection of their fellow-citizens”, and when the Cincinnati “pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors, I believe no man will doubt their integrity”. John Quincy Adams wrote to his father that Samuel Adams “had been much opposed to General Lincoln, and had sufficient influence to prevent his being chosen even a councillor, because he is a member of the Society of Cincinnati”. The Cincinnati, he added, “is daily acquiring strength, and will infallibly become a body dangerous, if not fatal to the Constitution”. John Adams even sought to show that Cincinnati himself had been somewhat overrated.

Doctor Franklin indulged in some ridicule of the Institution and condemned the members as “forming an order of Hereditary Knights”, and said that their Eagle resembled a turkey— for which he was glad since the turkey is an honest bird while the eagle is not. But he subsequently accepted honorary membership in the Society. John Jay thought that the “Order will eventually divide us into two mighty factions”, and Elbridge Gerry was likewise opposed.

The Massachusetts Legislature declared the Cincinnati “dangerous to the peace, liberty and safety of the United States”, while Rhode Island threatened such of her citizens with disfranchisement as were members of the Society. The Governor of South Carolina spoke vehemently against the Order to the Legislature.

Judge Ædanus Burke of South Carolina was the Society’s most violent critic. He saw visions of a “race of hereditary patricians and nobility”, and his pamphlet was the basis of Mirabeau’s Considérations sur l’Ordre de Cincinnatus (1784), perhaps the most extreme of the writings against the Order. Burke’s tract was widely circulated and had not a little to do with keeping alive the active opposition of politicians.

But the most influential of the Society’s opponents, not alone in his native Virginia, was Thomas Jefferson. He felt that it was contrary to the “letter of some of our Constitutions and to the spirit of all of them”, and in opposition to “the natural equality of man”. He declared himself to be “an enemy of the Institution from the first moment of its conception”, considered “their meetings objectionable”, and “the charitable part of the Institution still more likely to do mischief”, and advised the members to “distribute their funds, renounce their existence”, and “melt up their eagles”.

Mr. Jefferson’s attacks on the Society of the Cincinnati were answered in Major Henry Lee’s book: Observations on the Writings of Thomas Jefferson, a work written in defense of Major Lee’s father, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, from certain aspersions cast by Jefferson, who is said to have disliked the intimacy which existed between General Washington and General Lee.

Major Henry Lee was born at Stratford in 1787 and died in Paris on January 30, 1837. He served as Major in the 36th United States Infantry in the War of 1812, and was afterwards Consul General to the Barbary States, holding also other public offices of importance. He was the half brother of General Robert E. Lee, and as he was a graduate of Washington Academy in the class of 1807, his memory forms another bond in the mystical tie connecting the names of Washington and of Lee to that institution of learning which honors their memory by seeking to perpetuate their ideals.


But Jefferson’s influence in Virginia was very great and his constant warnings and bitter criticisms had their effect. Even General Washington began to feel that the Cincinnati had better drop the hereditary feature, since this was what caused most of the criticism. Accordingly in a circular letter to the several State Societies, dated May 15, 1784, he, in his capacity as President General, said:

Notwithstanding we are thus conscious for ourselves of the rectitude of our intentions in instituting and becoming members of this Fraternity; and notwithstanding we are confident the highest evidence can be produced from your past, and will be given by your future behavior, that you could not have been influenced by any other motives than those of friendship, patriotism, and benevolence; yet, as our designs in some respects have been misapprehended, . . .; as the original institution appeared, in the opinion of many respectable characters, to have comprehended objects incompatible with the genius and spirit of the confederation; and as in this case it would eventually frustrate our purposes and be productive of consequences which we had not foreseen. Therefore, to remove every cause of inquietude, to annihilate every source of jealousy, to designate explicitly the ground on which we wish to stand, and give one more proof that the late officers of the American Army have a claim to be reckoned among the most faithful citizens, we have agreed that the following material alterations and amendments should take place: . . .

He then sets forth the abolition of the hereditary succession and goes into further detail as to the unfortunate misunder standing of the pure motives which inspired him and his officers in instituting the Cincinnati. This decision to abolish the hereditary feature of the Cincinnati was made at the first general meeting of the Society after its institution, and held at Philadelphia from May 4 to 18, 1784. The Virginia Society’s representatives were: Brigadier-General George Weedon (President), Colonel William Heth, Colonel Henry Lee (“Light Horse Harry”), and Colonel James Wood. The meeting adopted what is known as the “Altered and Amended Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati”, and it is to this instrument that Washington refers in his circular letter.

General Washington’s letter was read to the meeting of the Virginia Society held at the Town House in Fredericksburg on October 5, 1784. On motion it was:

Resolved Unanimously, That the institution as Altered and Amended by the General Society at their first Meeting, be adopted.

Similar action was taken by North Carolina, Massachusetts and some of the other States, but New Hampshire and others were opposed, and as the Institution required the ratification of the changes by each of the thirteen State Societies, the alterations were not effective, so that the Cincinnati has come down to us unchanged, hereditary succession and all.

The Virginia Society, however, never changed its decision, and no hereditary members were ever admitted until the Society was revived in 1889. On December 11, 1785, Washington wrote to Hamilton regretting that the changes in the Institution had not been adopted, saying that he felt that such were necessary “if the Society of the Cincinnati mean to live in peace with the rest of their fellow citizens”. But by the end of the century feeling against the Society had about died down, and no more fears were expressed by the President General. He at all times took the greatest interest in the activities of the Society and guided it with his council. In a letter to Knox of October 16, 1783, he speaks of his gift to the Cincinnati of five hundred dollars. He continued to sign all official documents, notably the diplomas of membership, as long as he lived, and some of these parchments signed by him at Mount Vernon were among the last officiai acts of his life.

The Virginia Society, adhering to its resolution to admit no hereditary members, held its last meeting in Richmond on May 14, 1824. Thereafter the Cincinnati did not exist as an organization for 65 years. During this interval, however, not a few descendants of original Virginia members were admitted to other State Societies, notably those of Maryland and South Carolina which have had a continuous existence. On July 26, 1889, the Society was revived by a group of descendants of original members, and a provisional organization formed. At the meeting of the General Society on May 10, 1899, the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia was formally readmitted to full standing as a State Society, and has flourished since that time. Today, as contemplated by the Institution, there are the fourteen State Societies of the Cincinnati, one in each of the original thirteen States and one in France. Membership depends not on the residence of the present members, but on that of the Revolutionary officers whom they represent.


The Amended Institution of the General Society of the Cincinnati, adopted at the Triennial Meeting of 1784, contains the following paragraph:

Section 12—The funds of each State meeting shall be loaned to the State by permission of the legislature, and the interest only annually to be applied for the purposes of the Society, and if, in process of time, difficulties should occur in executing the intentions of the Society, the legislatures of the several states shall be requested to make such equitable dispositions as may be most correspondent with the original design of the Institution.

This is the provision often cited in the several court cases anent the Virginia Cincinnati fund as “Section 12 of the Constitution of the Cincinnati Society”.

While the funds of the Virginia Cincinnati were never loaned to the State, the members realized that they must make provision for the disposition of this money. By their own vote they had declined to admit any hereditary members, and they saw that the income required for pensions to needy members and their families would represent a comparatively small part of their endowment. It is stated that Brigadier-General Daniel Morgan was the member who first suggested that the fund be used for educational purposes, especially for Washington Academy.


News of the possibility of the gift to an educational institution spread rapidly, and the Trustees of Washington Academy addressed the following petition to the Society of the Cincinnati:

To the President and members of the
Cincinnati Society


There is a general expectation in the public mind that your Society will at its next meeting apply its funds to some public purpose, and most probably to some seminary of learning; on this account you will undoubtedly receive a number of applications.—

The Trustees of Washington Academy supposing that none can come forward with better pretensions than themselves, have appointed the undersigned committee to address you on the subject and to lay before you a correct statement of its affairs.—

The importance of forming a Seminary in the Western part of Virginia of sufficient respectability to attract the attention of our citizens must be obvious to every one; from the want of such an institution numbers of our youth are annually sent to distant parts of the Union and educated at a very considerable expense: we apprehend it w’d appear from the most moderate calculation that in this way Virginia pays to the other states a tax of at least 20,000 Dollars a year.—

So much money annually drawn from the circulating medium of our country must be a serious inconvenience and one which could easily be removed by erecting a respectable Seminary in some healthy part of our own state which might be competent to all the purposes of liberal education, and it is the opinion of many of our citizens that this point would be gained by bestowing your funds on Washington Academy: To enable you to judge of this matter we here present you with a statement of the property belonging to the Seminary.

The principal fund is a donation from the late General Washington of 100 shares in the James’s River Company—independent of this there are lands buildins. library & some mathematical and philisophical apparatus which could not be estimated at less than 6 or 7 thousand dollars, literary men will easily percieve that it is not adequate to the establishment of such a seminary as the oldest and largest state in the union ought to possess. It will be found necessary to enlarge our buildings—, to increase our Library & apparatus and to employ various professors in the different branches of Science; so that however productive the shares in James’s River company may hereafter become We cannot for a length of time assume that respectable & useful ground which we have so long and so earnestly contemplated without some additional aid.—

And will you permit us, Gentlemen, to suggest that if you bestow your property on an Institution destitute of funds however laudable your intentions may be, it appears to us that the public interest will not be greatly promoted.—A great share of the donation must be sunk in erecting buildings &c. and but little left to give it permanent respectability; perhaps not sufficient to perpetuate its existance; And is it not evident that in our state Literature has been materially injured by establishing a great many petty seminaries which have distracted the attention of the public whilst no one has been of sufficient importance to attract general notice.—

It might not here be improper to say something of the local advantages of Washington Academy. It is situated in Rockbridge county in that fine tract of country formerly known by the name of Wood’s-creek lands in the forks of James’s River one mile from the navigation of its north branch and on an eminence three fourths of a mile from Lexington so that whilst it enjoys an extensive prospect of the circumjacent country and a view of the town, it has, after the manner of the ancients & conforably to the great design of its institution, an uninterrupted retirement for study.—

By referrence to the map of Virginia it will be seen that Lexington is about the centre of the State; its situation is sufficiently convenient to those large and fertile tracts of country which ly on the branches of the Potomac & James’s River and also to those extensive tho’ infant settlements on the waters of the Holstein Kenhawa & various other streams which fall into the Ohio—and we apprehend the time is not far distant when the healthiness of our climate will recommend Washington Academy to young Gentlemen from Eastern Virginia; sickly students could not choose a more favorable spot for repairing a constitution debilitated by those diseases which are incident to many parts of our country; we are warranted from actual observation to say that in many cases a summer session’s residence at this place will produce as good an effect as a season spent at the mineral waters.—As the adjacent country is fertile and considerably remote from the tidewater-navigation all kinds of provision will forever continue cheap—the whole necessary expenses of a student at this time does not exceed (his clothes excepted) 100 Dollars a year.—The vicinity has always been noted for industry and sobriety of manners so that perhaps no place would present fewer inducements to dissipation or any kind of extravagance.—

As our funds have not been productive until very lately the Academy has been conducted something after the manner of a grammar school: There have been no regular classes & not a sufficient number of professors. But the Board have determined to reduce the Students during the ensuing winter to classes and to direct their attention to the following course of Study, Viz,—

Students beginning the Latin & Greek languages to be placed in a grammar school connected with the Academy until they shall have made such progress in those languages as to be able to finish them in one year.—The first year after they enter the regular classes will be spent in completing their knowledge of those languages—The second in the study of mathematics including arithmetic Algebra Euclids elements and their application to Trigonometry surveying navigation together with conic sections?Students of the third year will study natural philosophy including Electricity & Chymistry. Astronomy—the use of the Globes & Geography. A greater proportion of the Fourth year than any of the preceding will be devoted to original composition: but during this year they will study Belles Lettres English grammar Logic & the Law of Nature & Nations.—

As Agents have been appointed who will attend the meeting of your Society and who are furnished with a copy of our Laws for the government of the Students, it is deemed unnecessary to say much on that subject; It will be seen from the Laws themselves that whilst the Board exercise no religious or political intolerance they are nevertheless solicitous to prevent every species of immorality & dissipation.—Believing that it is painful for Parents to send their children from under their own immediate inspection for a number of years at a time of life when their principles are just forming and that it is never done but with a view to acquire some substantial advantage which cannot be acquired at home, it has ever been the policy in this place as much as possible to fix the attention of the Students on those solid attainments—those important branches of Science which must form the basis of their future greatness.—

We have no doubt the Cincinnati Society will appropriate
their funds in such a manner as appears calculated to produce
the greatest public benefit, we have therefore taken the liberty
of submitting this statement of facts with a few comments that
you might have an opportunity of judging whether it w’d not
be more for the interest of Virginia to bestow them on Washington
Academy than to apply them in any other way—

G. A. Baxter
S. L. Campbell
/ Committee


At the same time the friends of Hampden-Sydney College were active. The following petition signed by four of the Trustees, the first three of whom were members of the Cincinnati, though likewise undated, was probably presented at this time:

The undersigned Trustees of Hampden-Sidney College for themselves and the rest of their body, beg leave to state That they have been informed that your body have convened for the very honorable purpose of contributing your aid to the encouragement of learning in this State. That it is your intention either to lay the foundation of an original institution for that purpose, or to add your funds to those of some one already founded, in order to make the funds more adequate to the object intended.

The undersigned Trustees hope that if the above stated information be correct, it will not be deemed improper in them to make a statement to your body of the condition of the College of which they are members, and to express their hopes that if you should determine on consideration to bestow your funds on any institution already established, that the College of Hampden-Sidney may be the object on which your bounty will be placed.

The College of Hampden-Sidney was founded originally on private donations, since its establishment the Commonwealth has made two donations of lands, that had escheated to the State; The property of all kinds which belongs to that institution, it is supposed may be estimated at Ten Thousand dollars; Its situation is remarkable for health fulness, and its position very convenient to all the middle Country of this State, and to the upper parts of North and South Carolina, which is verifyed by the numbers that have been educated there from both those States, altho much good has been done by this institution, and, as we believe more young men educated at that place than any other in the State which had no greater means. The efforts of the Trustees have been unceasing to increase their funds, yet we much fear these means will not be sufficient to answer the ends intended, and to make this such an institution as is absolutely necessary in the middle parts of this State, especially as it is doubted whether their present funds will enble them to retain the respectable gentleman who at present presides over the School and such professors as are necessary. The donation now proposed by your body to be made to some school or other, would be sufficiently ample when added to the funds of that College to render it one of the most respectable and useful institutions in this State or in the United States.

John B. Scott
C. Scott
Clement Carrington
Abm. V. Venable


At a meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati of Virginia at the Capitol in Richmond on the 13th to 15th of December, 1802, on motion it was

1st. Resolved, That a Committee be appointed, of thirteen, to make an appropriation of the funds of the Society to such object as may be agreed upon by the present meeting—subject, however, to a confirmation by a majority of the whole number composing the Society at the next general meeting, in person or by proxy appointed in writing or by letter to the President, and of which due notice shall be given in the public papers and by letter from the President.

2nd. Resolved, That the object of appropriation of the funds of this Society be the Seminary of learning in the county of Rockbridge, denominated the Washington Academy (to which the shares of James’s river company heretofore vested in our late illustrious Leader and Hero General Washington, have by him been appropriated) subject to such charges of a charitable nature as have been or may be adopted by the Society.

3rd. Resolved, That the mode of appropriation of the funds of this Society by the Committee appointed for that purpose, if confirmed as provided by the first resolution, shall be the purchase of shares in the James River Company and lands within the State of Virginia, as may in their opinion be most beneficial, and the conveyance thereof to the Trustees of the Washington Academy, to be held unalienable for the use of the said academy, provided, however, that the said committee shall retain a control over the product of the property purchased so long, and to such amount, as may be sufficient to meet the objects of Charity referred to it in the second resolution.

4th. Resolved, That the next General meeting shall be on the second Monday in December next at the Capitol in the City of Richmond.

Committee appointed in pursuance of the first resolution, viz:—


James Wood,          Churchill Jones,
Edward Carrington,          William Mosely,
William Heth,          Robert Porterfield,
Samuel Coleman,          Robert Gamble,
Larkin Smith,          Marks Vandevale,
William Bentley,          Jno. Pryor,
Jno. White.

The Minutes of the Board of Trustees of Washington Academy, January 31, 1803, state:

From his [Blackburn’s] Report it appeared that the Cincinnati Society had determined by a vote of the majority of the members present to appropriate their Funds to the benefit of this Institution. On motion the following Resolution was adopted, that A. Moore, S. L. Campbell, Wm Lyle, James McDowell or any three of them shall be a Comtee whose duty shall be toi write to the Members of the Cincinnati Society Resident in Kentucky and elsewhere soliciting their approbation in the Donation made at the meeting of a Board of that Society in Richmond in Decem. 1802.

In accordance with the above resolution, a circular was sent on March 9, 1803, and a second circular, evidently of the same import, was sent out a few months later. It reads:

Washington Academy, October 25, 1803


SOMETIME ago the undersigned had the honor of addressing a circular letter to the members of the Cincinnati Society—we then stated that your Society at its last meeting, had appropriated its funds to the use of Washington Academy ; with such reservation as would answer those charitable purposes contemplated at its formation—but the meeting not being as full as could have been wished, the members then present were unwilling to make their decision final; and determined that the appropriation should not be carried into effect until the absent members might have an opportunity of voting.

In this state of affairs we bring to your notice the pretensions of Washington Academy, hoping that you would be forward to patronize a Seminary which is denominated from your immortal and beloved Leader—which is endebted to his generosity for a handsome donation—and which, with the addition of your funds, would possess an establishment sufficient to render it extensively and permanently useful—and from many letters which we have received on this subject we are encouraged to believe that the members of the Cincinnati are pretty generally disposed to what the illustrious Washington had begun—to amplify that Institution which his liberality had brought into public notice; and which now looks up to them as the only patrons who are likely to place it on that respectable ground which it desires to occupy.

But it has been suggested by some of our friends, who are members of your honorable Society, that we ought to give further information as to the mode of voting.—Here we beg leave to state, that if you are disposed to favor Washington Academy, and cannot conveniently attend the next meeting yourself, it will be necessary for you to appoint by writing some person, who can be present, to act as your proxy—or that you communicate your vote by letter to the President of the Society.

For your fuller satisfaction on this point, permit us to subjoin a resolution of the last meeting of the Cincinnati, which respects the mode of voting—

“On motion, it was unanimously resolved, that a Committee of 13 be appointed to make an appropriation of the funds of the society to such objects as may be agreed upon by the present meeting, subject however to confirmation by a majority of the whole members composing the society at the next general meeting, in person or by proxy, appointed in writing, or by letter to the President; and of which due notice shall be given in the public papers, and by letter from the President”

The meeting at which this business is to be finally determined, will be held at Richmond, on the 2d Monday in December next. With much respect, we are, Sir, Your humble servants,

S. Blackburn
G. A. Baxter
A Committee of the Board of
Washington Academy.

The Minutes of the Board of Trustees of Washington Academy for November 3, 1803, state:

. . . It being represented to the Board that a meeting of the Cincinnati Society of this State will take place on the 2d Monday in Decem. next and that it is probable that at that meeting the Funds of said Society may be appropriated to some public literary institution—On motion it was ordered that Samuel Blackburn and Andrew Alexander be appointed Agents on behalf of this institution, for said Donation should any be made. And that the Rev. G. A. Baxter, Saml. L. Campbell and Andrew Moore be a Com’tee who or any two of them are to unite with the aforesaid Agents in drafting an address to the said Society representing the situation and pretensions of this Institution and also in writing to any of the Members of the said Society individually what they may think proper. . . .

More letters to the members of the Society of the Cincinnati were the result of this resolution, some of the replies being preserved in the records of Washington and Lee University.

(To be continued)