Washington and Lee University

The Virginia Society of the Cincinnati's Gift to Washington College
Edgar Erskine Hume
(Part 1)

Note: The following is taken from the April 1934 issue of The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography (volume 42), pp. 103–15.


President of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of
Virginia and Assistant Secretary General.

To understand the circumstances surrounding the gift, a century and a quarter ago, of the entire fund of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia to the institution now known as Washington and Lee University, it is necessary to consider briefly the history of both institutions, and, particularly, General Washington's connection with each.


It was Major-General Knox, Washington's Chief of Artillery, who conceived the idea of forming a society to be composed of officers who had served their country through the years of the Revolution, for the purpose of keeping alive their friendships and transmitting their ideals to their posterity. It appears from an entry in Jefferson's diary (March 16, 1788) that Knox in a conversation with Adams as early as 1776, expressed “a wish for some ribbon to wear in his hat or in his button-hole, to be transmitted to his descendants as a badge and proof that he had fought in defense of their liberties. He spoke in such precise terms as showed that he had revolved it in his mind before”.

Proposals for the creation of “a society to be formed by the American officers and to be called the Cincinnati”, were drawn up in Knox's handwriting and dated “Westpoint, 15 April 1783”. These “proposals” having been communicated to the several regiments, they appointed an officer from each, who in conjunction with the general officers, met at the “Cantonment of the American army on Hudson's river”, on May 10, 1783, to consider them. This gathering was held in the “Temple”, the large structure officially known as the “Public Building”, which had been built as a place of worship and other gatherings of the soldiers. On the 13th, the committee which had been appointed to revise the “proposals” met in the Verplanck Mansion, General Steuben's headquarters, at Fishkill, and accepted the “Institution”, as it was called.

The name of the Society was taken from that of the illustrious Roman general, Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus,* who at the call of country left his farm and led the armies of Rome to victory, and when that victory had been achieved, returned again to his plough, refusing the honors proffered him by a grateful Senate—the ideal of Roman simplicity and a model to his countrymen.

The Institution of the Cincinnati begins with these words:

It having pleased the Supreme Governor of the Universe, in the disposition of human affairs, to cause the separation of the colonies of North America from domination of Great Britain, and, after a bloody conflict of eight years, to establish them free, independent, and sovereign states, connected, by alliances founded on reciprocaal advantage, with some of the greatest princes and powers of the earth;

To perpetuate, therefore, as well the remembrance of this vast event, as the mutual friendships which have been formed under the pressure of common danger, and, in many instances, cemented by the blood of the parties, the officers of the American army do, hereby, in the most solemn manner, associate, constitute, and combine themselves into one society of friends, to endure as long as they shall endure, or any of their eldest male posterity, and, in failure thereof, the collateral branches who may be judged worthy of becoming its supporters and members.

The following extract from the Institution clearly shows the objects of the Cincinnati, and is read at every meeting:

The following principles shall be immutable, and form the basis of the Society of the Cincinnati:—

An incessant attention to preserve inviolate those exalted rights and liberties of human nature for which they have fought and bled, and without which the high rank of a rational being is a curse instead of a blessing.

An unalterable determination to promote and cherish, between the respective states, that union and national honor so essentially necessary to their happiness and the future dignity of the American empire.

To render permanent the cordial affection subsisting among the officers: This spirit will dictate brotherly kindness in all things, and particularly extend to the most substantial acts of beneficence, according to the ability of the society, towards those officers and their families who unfortunately may be under the necessity of receiving it.

The Society of the Cincinnati thus came into being without reference to political questions, four years before the meeting of the Convention to frame the Constitution of the United States, and before political parties existed. At the meeting on May 13th it was unanimously resolved to ask General Washington to become the President General and a committee consisting of Generals Heath, Steuben and Knox, was appointed formally to notify General Washington of his election. The Commander-in-Chief, who in his own conduct had so strikingly resembled Cincinnatus of old, immediately accepted the honor.

It was further voted to recognize as members, the officers of the French Navy and Army who had served in America, giving them the right to organize a branch of the Society in France. All officers were required, upon signing its rolls, to contribute one month's pay to maintain the society and aid members in need. To be eligible for membership, one must have served for three years in the Continental Army or to have been in service to the end of the war. Later the officers of the Navy were also admitted.

At the May 13th meeting the design for the Society's insignia was approved, and on June 19th the meeting charged Major Pierre L'Enfant, the distinguished French engineer who later planned the city of Washington near which he sleeps at Arlington, with the duty of having them made in Paris. The badge consists of a bald eagle, “a bird peculiar to the American continent”. Grasped in the eagle's talons are golden olive branches and above its head, an olive wreath by which it is suspended from a ribbon of sky blue and white, “descriptive of the union of France with America”. On the breast of the eagle is a medallion with “the figure of Cincinnatus being presented with a sword by three Senators, and in the background his wife standing at the door of their cottage, near it a plough and other instruments of husbandry”. Round the whole the legend: Omnia Reliquit Servare Rempublicam (He left all to serve the Republic). On the reverse “a sun rising; a city with open gates, and vessels entering the port; Fame crowning Cincinnatus with a wreath inscribed Virtutis Præmium, and below, hands joined, supporting a heart with the motto: Esto Perpetua, and round the whole Soietas Cincinnatorum Instituta A.D. 1783.

Washington ordered not only one of the Eagles for himself but six others which he presented to his principal military Aides-de-Camp.

On February 24, 1784, the officers of the French Navy who had been admitted to the Order of the Cincinnati, as it was always known in France, presented General Washington, through His Excellency the Count d'Estaing, the ranking Naval officer, with the Eagle of the Cincinnati richly set in diamonds.

Washington wore this Eagle at official gatherings of the Cincinnati, and after his death it was transmitted by his heirs to Major General Alexander Hamilton, his successor as President General, and after Hamilton's untimely death, it was delivered to the third President General, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and since that time has been held by the Society “as appurtenant to the office of President General,” and has been worn by each of the other nine men who have occupied that high office. It is not too much to say that this Eagle is the most valuable relic of Washington in existence. In the inventory of Mount Vernon made after Washington's death, there are mentioned “three gold Cincinnati Eagles” valued at $30, and “one diamond Eagle” valued at $387.

It was the plan of the Cincinnati that officers of the continental Line returning to their homes would found branches in each of the States. Accordingly we find the first entry in the records of the Virginia Society:

Fredericksburg, Monday, October 6th, 1783.

Agreeably to the order of Brigadier General Muhlenberg, a number of officers of the Virginia Line on continental establishment assembled at the Town House, for the purpose of taking into their consideration, the principles upon which the society of the Cincinnati is founded; and after electing Brigadier General Weedon their president, the Meeting not being so full as was expected, a Member moved to adjourn, whereupon, the Board adjourned till to-morrow morning 6 o'clock.

The Society held all of its early meetings in Fredericksburg in the Town House, dining afterwards in the Rising Sun Tavern, which had been built in 1760 by General Washington's brother Charles, and was later conducted by General Weedon himself, who, as postmaster, had his office in this old building. The first meeting held in Richmond was on November 16, 1788, permission being given for the members to use the Hall of Delegates of the Capitol. This room has many Cincinnati connections, for here in 1807 a member of the New York Cincinnati, Aaron Burr, Vice-President of the United States, was tried and acquitted of treason. Here Robert E. Lee, son of an original member of the Virginia Cincinnati, accepted command of Virginia's armed forces on April 23, 1861. Here on October 20, 1931, following the Yorktown Sesquicentennial, the Society conferred honorary memberships on M. Claudel, the French Ambassador, and Marshal Pétain, Commander-in-Chief of the French Army in the World War—a man who like Washington himself had commanded Americans and Frenchmen allied in the cause of liberty.

There were about two thousand original members of the Cincinnati, there being today about thirteen hundred. Virginia had over three hundred original members, being second in size only to Massachusetts which had 340.

Among the great leaders of our Revolution who were members of the Cincinnati, there may be mentioned, besides Washington himself, Hamilton, Lafayette, Knox, Greene, Steuben, Benjamin Lincoln, the two Pinckneys, John Paul Jones, McDougall, Putnam, Schuyler, Gates, President Monroe, Moultrie, Kosciuszko, Anthony Wayne, Sullivan, Muhlenberg, Weedon, “Light Horse Harry” Lee, and St. Clair. President Pierce was an hereditary member.

The French members included, as Baron de Contenson says, “the very élite of the French nobility,” and a few words as to them may not be amiss. Among them were: Marshal of France the Count de Rochambeau, Commander of the French Auxiliary Army in America; Admiral the Count de Grasse, Naval Commander without whom there would have been no victory at Yorktown; Lieutenant General the Count d'Estaing, Commander of the French Coöperating Army in America, first President of the French Cincinnati, who perished on the guillotine; General the Count d'Aboville, commandant of artillery in the French Expeditionary Force, who died in the Restoration; Count d'Autichamp, father of one of the principal chiefs of the Vendée; Vice-Admiral Count de Bougainville, the celebrated navigator; Prince Victor de Broglie, Deputy of Alsace to the States General, who perished on the guillotine; the Duke de Castres, son of the Minister of Marine; Berthier, one of Napoleon's generals, and the future Prince de Wagram; the Marquis de Chastellux, one of the celebrated philosophers of the eighteenth century and one of the “Immortals” of the French Academy; the Marquis du Châtelet who during the French Revolution poisoned himself in prison as did also his friend Condorcet; the Count de Custine, general in Chief during the French Revolution, who perished on the guillotine; the Duke de Damas; five members of the great Irish family of Dillon; General Aubert du Bayer, later Ambassador; the Count de Fersen of Sweden, who made such heroic efforts to rescue Marie Antoinette; the navigator Fleuriot de Langle; the Duke de Lauzun, later the Duke de Biron, General in Chief of the Armies of the Republic; the three brothers de Lameth; Colonel the Viscount de Mirabeau, brother of the arch enemy of the Cincinnati; Admiral the Count de Kersaint, Deputy to the Convention, who perished on the guillotine; the Duke de Montmorency, the future Academician and Minister of Foreign Affairs under the Restoration; the Marquis de la Tour du Pin, Prefect of the Empire; Captain the Viscount des Cars who was killed at the battle of Les Saintes; the Marquis de MacMahon; Lieutenant-General the Baron de Montesquieu, grandson of one of France's greatest thinkers; the great La Motte-Picquet; the Viscount de Noailles, brother-in-law of Lafayette and Deputy to the Assembly and later hero of a famous naval engagement; the Count de Ségur, later Ambassador and Grand Master of Ceremonies of Napoleon; the Bailli de Suffren, one of the greatest sailors of the eighteenth century; the Marquis and the Count de Saint-Simon; Colonel the Marquis de Pange, who fell in the Vendée; General the Count de Talleyrand-Périgord; Lieutenant General the Marquis de Bouillé, Governor of the Antilles; the Count de Vioménil, Marshal of France under the Restoration, and many more. One of the first hereditary members admitted was the son of Major General the Baron de Kalb who had been mortally wounded at the battle of Camden in 1780.

The Institution provided for the admission of a limited number of honorary members, men whose services and ideals were similar to those of the Cincinnati. Under this provision some of the most noted men of this and other countries have been elected to honorary membership, including: Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, Paca, Perry, Bainbridge, Winfield Scott, Decatur, Zachary Taylor,[note 1] Webster, Grant, Sherman, Farragut, Cleveland, Dewey, Jusserand, Schofield, Benjamin Harrison, McKinley, President Loubet of France, Charlee, Theodore Roosevelt, Taft, Woodrow Wilson, His Majesty Albert King of the Belgians, Foch, Joffre, Pétain, Newton Baker, Leonard Wood, Pershing, and March. The most recent addition to this illustrious roll is the name of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the fifteenth President of the United States to wear the Eagle.


Augusta Academy, as it was first called, originated in a grammar-school begun in 1749 by Robert Alexander, a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin. Founded in the Valley of Virginia, the school was conducted for the benefit of the hardy Scottish settlers, those who had removed to the colony from the North of Ireland, and who in America are often called “Scotch-Irish”. These simple folk, with all the spirit of the Covenanters of an earlier day, were small farmers and resembled but little the Cavaliers of the plantations of the lower James. John Brown (Princeton 1749) had entered the Valley as a Presbyterian minister and school-teacher. He may be called the father of Augusta Academy. His views on education were thus expressed in a letter to a friend: “A private school and the College of New Jersey will pollish (sic) a young man and fit him for usefulness better than any seminary that we can expect in Virginia”. Unlike the usual eighteenth century school with doors closed to all except youths of fortune and station, the Academy was a free school. Managed by Presbyterian clergymen, it was under the care of the Presbytery of Hanover.

When the news of the beginnings of the American Revolution reached Virginia, the village in which the Academy was located was named Lexington, in honor of the Lexington of the North, and the name of the Academy was changed to Liberty Hall. The guiding hand of the Academy at this period was the Rev. William Graham (Princeton 1773) who in 1782 secured a charter from the Legislature of Virginia which took control from the Presbytery of Hanover and placed it in a self-perpetuating board, thus making the school legally nonsectarian.

It was during the administration of William Graham that the institution received the substantial gift from General Washington which led to its becoming financially independent. Washington's gift consisted of one hundred shares of the James River Company, valued at $20,000.


The James River Company was chartered in 1785 for the purpose of “clearing and extending the navigation of the James river from tidewater upwards to the highest point practicable on the main branch1thereof“. The capital stock was fixed at 500 shares, with a par value of $200 each, 100 shares or a fifth of the total being reserved for State subscription. It was designed to remove obstructions from the course of the river and to construct canals with locks. This was a partial realization of Washington's idea, and the legislature in gratitude, and also no doubt realizing that his connection would popularize the venture, decided to present him with some of the stock. The State Treasurer was directed to subscribe for one hundred shares to be “vested in George Washington, esq., his heirs and assigns forever . . .”. These shares, worth $20,000 at par, were accordingly subscribed for Washington, along with fifty shares in the Potomac Company, provided for in the same act.

The offer was embarrassing to General Washington. He was already one of the wealthiest men in the United States and was also opposed to gratuities. In his reply to Governor Harrison, when informed of the gift, he said that no circumstances more embarrassing had arisen since he “left the walks of public life”; that he would be hurt if his refusal “should be construed into disrespect or the smallest slight upon the generous intention of the country, or it should be thought that an ostentatious display of . . . public virtue was the source of his refusal”. He had “in all this navigation business, acted upon the clearest conviction of the political importance of the meas ure”, and desired only the advantage which would come by cementing the East and the West. He asked: “How would this matter be viewed . . . when it comes to be related, that George Washington had received twenty thousand dollars and five thousand pounds Stirling of the public money as an interest therein? Would not this . . . deprive me of the principal thing which is laudable in my conduct? Would it not in some respects be considered in the light of a pension?” On the other hand he feared that an outright refusal would tend to weaken confidence in the venture.

Washington's position was well understood by his friends. In a letter written from Orange, April 27, 1785, Madison wrote to Jefferson:

I have not heard with certainty whether Genl Washington will accept or decline the shares voted him by the Assembly in the Companies for opening our rivers. If he does not chuse to take to himself any benefit from the donation, he has I think a fine opportunity at once of testifying his disinterested purposes, of shewing his respect for the Assembly, and of rendering a service to his Country. He may accept the gift as far as to apply it to the scheme of opening the rivers & may then appropriate the revenue which it is hereafter to produce to some patriotic establishment. I lately dropped a hint of this sort to one of his friends & was told that such an idea had been suggested to him. The private subscriptions for Potowmac I head amount to £10,000 Sterling. I cannot discover that those for James River deserve mention, or that the undertaking is pushed with any spirit . . . (Writings of James Madison II, 136).

In his letter to Governor Patrick Henry declining the gift, Washington wrote that when he had accepted command of the Continental Army he had resolved to refuse “every pecuniary recompense”, and did not now feel at liberty to depart from his resolution. He intimated, however, that he would accept the shares on condition that the Legislature permit him to hold them in trust for some public purpose. On September 26, 1785, he had written to Jefferson that his inclination was to apply the shares “to the establishment of two charity schools, one on each river, for the education and support of poor children”, especially descendants of those who had fallen in defense of their country. The Legislature accepted the suggestion and the shares of the James River Company, also the Potomac Company shares, remained in Washington's possession until toward the close of his Presidency.

When Washington began to consider making his will, he studied the public purpose to which he should devote the shares in the two river companies. He decided that the Potomac shares should be used to endow a national university, since they originated in a joint enterprise of Maryland and Virginia. In a letter to Governor Brooke of Virginia he said:

Presuming it to be more agreeable to the General Assembly of Virginia that the shares of the James River Company should be reserved for a similar object in some part of that State, I intend to allot them for a seminary to be erected at such place as they shall deem most proper. I am disposed to believe, that a seminary of learning upon an enlarged plan, but yet not coming up to the full idea of a university is an institution to be preferred.

He concluded by requesting the Legislature to “appropriate the James River shares to the place which they prefer”.

So great was the spirit of rivalry among the various parts of the State that the Legislature referred the matter back to Washington, requesting him “to appropriate the aforesaid shares in the James River Company to a seminary at such place in the upper country as he may deem most convenient to a majority of the inhabitants thereof”. Governor Henry Lee advised Washington to be in no hurry about the matter, but considered that “the college . . . ought to be placed at Staunton; there or Lexington certainly”. Thus did “Light Horse Harry”, a member of the Virginia Cincinnati, strengthen “that mystical alliance” as Prof. Helderman so happily calls it, between Washington and Lee, the alliance to culminate under the leadership of “Light Horse Harry's” mighty son.

No less than seven places in the “upper country” were suggested: New London, Fincastle (advocated by Col. Breckinridge), Lynchburg (Judge Lynch offered 420 acres of land and a subscription of several thousand dollars was raised), Hampden-Sydney (the college there was the only one on the south side of the James and below the mountains which was incorporated), Staunton, and Lexington. But, as Governor Lee had suggested, the choice was mainly between Staunton and Lexington.

The active William Graham of Liberty Hall Academy and his board petitioned Washington in favor of that institution, and so eloquently urged its claim that Washington wrote to Governor Brooke: “I have, upon the fullest consideration of all circumstances, destined those shares to the use of Liberty Hall Academy in Rockbridge county”.

To the Academy Washington wrote from Mount Vernon on June 17, 1798:

. . . To promote literature in this rising empire and to encourage the arts have ever been amongst the warmest wishes of my heart, and if the donation which the generosity of the Legislature of the Commonwealth of Virginia has enabled me to bestow on Liberty Hall—now by your politeness called Washington Academy—is likely to prove a means to accomplish these ends, it will contribute to the gratification of my desires. . . .

As the letter indicates, the name of the “seminary of learning” had been changed with Washington's permission to Washington College, but the Legislature in 1797 had changed the name to Washington Academy. In 1812 they again authorized the name Washington College. Washington confirmed the gift in his will in the following paragraph:

. . . Item—Two hundred shares which I held in the James River Company I have given and now confirm in perpetuity to and for the use and benefit of Liberty Hall Academy in the County of Rockbridge, in the commonwealth of Virga.

The close of the eighteen century found Washington Academy in debt, and all efforts to obtain a permanent loan failed. The James River fund was unproductive. It was only in 1802 that the first dividend of 3 per cent, or $600, was received from this stock. The same amount was received in 1803, but no more until about 1811 or 1812. A fire had destroyed the old stone Academy on December 24, 1802, or early in January, 1803—accounts do not agree as to the exact date, but only “a few books and some philosophical instruments” were saved. The panic of 1819 interrupted the prosperity of the James River Company, and in 1823 the State took over the operation of the company, guaranteeing the payment of the dividends. It was only in 1928 that the certificate of indebtedness was retired by a cash payment from the State of Virginia to Washington and Lee University.

Thus we have the background of the gift of the fund of the Society of the Cincinnati in the State of Virginia. While the example set the Cincinnati by Washington, their President General, was the chief influence, there were other factors. The members were rapidly becoming scattered and they had voted that the Society should not admit hereditary members. Many members had gone to the District of Kentucky, which in 1792 had been created a separate state. Others had removed even farther to the West, where the grants of land for military service in the Revolution were being taken up. The Virginia Cincinnati, realizing the great size of the Old Dominion, had early contemplated the division of the State Society into three District Societies, as may be seen in the Minutes of the meeting of October 9, 1783.

(To be continued)


* Major-General Arthur St. Clair, President of the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, was governor of the Northwest Territory. Here a large number of members of the Cincinnati took up lands granted them for Revolutionary service. Virginia having ceded this vast domain to the nation, and Connecticut having relinquished her claims to the territory, Continental officers of the Revolution to the number of 288 signed a petition to Congress, dated June 16, 1783, praying that lands be granted them in that quarter. Col. Timothy Pickering, Continental Quartermaster General, “considered this a new plan in contemplation no less than the forming of a new State west of the Ohio”. General St. Clair changed the name of the chief town, Losantiville, to Cincinnati, in honor of the Society. This is the origin of the name of the city of Cincinnati, Ohio.

[1] Had not the Virginia society of the Cincinnati been dormant, General Zachary Taylor would probably have been an hereditary instead of an honorary member, as he was the son of Lieutenant-Colonel Richard Taylor, of the Second Virginia Regiment, Continental Line, an original member of the Cincinnati.