The War for Independence began in 1775 and ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783. A copy of a historic document called "The Society of Cincinnati" recently has re-appeared in our family and says "1785 is the 10th year of the Independence of the United States." It is signed by "GWashington."
It is all a part of an interesting story worth telling on Independence Day. Is the date of the beginning of our nation 1775 or 1776? The story involves a special relationship between George Washington and his staff of officers through the Revolutionary War years. There is nothing quite so revealing as the "Order of Cincinnati," founded in 1783 by General Henry Knox, as the war drew to a close and the question "What next?" inevitably surfaced.
Imagine you are seated in the second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia and you receive the news of the clash of militia at Lexington and Concord. The formidable British army is gathered in Boston to put down the rebellion. Among the delegates was an aristocrat from Virginia, decked out in the full-dress uniform of a Colonel in the militia, a rank he earned serving with the British in the French and Indian War.
Who will command the rag-tag farmers and shop-keepers gathered at Bunker Hill? The appointment of Washington was obvious. There was no other. In fact, there was no army and only a few experienced officers. Out of this raw material, this imposing middle-aged figure somehow forged an army that lost nearly every battle, yet won a war.
To turn a mob into an army required officers. These came from state commissions. The bonding of state militia and officers into Americans largely was due to the glue provided by Washington. Fraternal relationships developed. For example, Washington and many of his officers were Freemasons, an ancient order dedicated to liberty. There was another bonding.
It is not surprising the classical education provided by William and Mary College, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. created an aura of ancient heroes in the officer corps steeped in the struggles for freedom in Greece and Rome.
One such legendary figure that emerged was Lucius (Titus) Quinctius Cincinnatus, 519-439 BC, a Roman patrician and patriot.
According to tradition, Cincinnatus, who had been a consul in 460 BC, was plowing his fields when messengers arrived to tell him he had been named dictator to defend the city against the Aequi and the Volscians. He took up the supreme command, defeated Rome's enemies, freed the besieged consul Minucius, and returned to his farm, all within 16 days.
Further, he refused the honors that came with his military victories. Legend says he was named dictator a second time in 439, but refused.
George Washington was sometimes called an American Cincinnatus because he held his command only until the defeat of the British, and at a time when he could have exercised great political power, he returned as soon as possible to cultivating his land at Mt. Vernon.
Many of his loyal staff had elected to make their esteemed commander, an emperor, after the well-known pattern of European powers. There is a touching scene in his farewell message in Newburgh, N.Y. where he pulled out his spectacles to read his last address to them, thus indicating his aging. They were in tears as he relinquished power.
As the war ended after the Yorktown surrender of Cornwallis and the Treaty of Paris, the army staff drew upon the ancient figure of Cincinnatus in 1783 to promote union and national honor, maintain their war-born friendship, perpetuate the rights for which they fought and aid widows and orphans of those who fell."
The order adopted the motto "Omnia relinquit servare Republicam" - "He gave up everything to preserve the Republic." The badge is in the shape of an eagle with the image of Cincinnatus on its breast.
The certificate of "The Order of Cincinnati" is highly embossed with romantic figures, the bare-breasted figure of liberty, a flag with 13 red and white bars but no blue field or stars, and scrolled with the name of "Caleb Sweet Esquire, MD, Surgeon of the late 1st New York Regiment - instituted by the Officers of the American Army at the period of its Dissolution, as well as to commemorate the great Event which gave Independence to North America, as for the laudable purpose of inculcating the Duty of laying down in Peace.....for public Defense, and of uniting in Acts of brotherly Affection, and Bonds of perpetual Friendships." Signed Fourth day of December, 1785, GWashington, President.
In 1790, the great Ohio River City of Cincinnati chose to perpetuate the Roman hero's name. The Order of Cincinnatus went dormant in 1835 because heirs lost interest and the purpose was fulfilled. A revival was attempted in late 19th century.
There are several observations to be made on Independence Day that reflect on Cincinnatus and George Washington, the hero who was adulated as "first in war, first in peace" and almost divined by a grateful citizenry. He knew how to exercise power and how to give it up. He refused a crown and a third term and went back to farming until his death in 1799. Thanks George! Amen until next Monday.
* John Wolf is a retired minister who lives in Valparaiso. His wife, Carolyn, is a great, great, great granddaughter of Caleb Sweet.