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So how would Washington’s anti-familial convictions have fared, decades before Boneparte became a household name, had he been able to experience the joys of actual fatherhood, as opposed to making due with the mythical variety?
ANOTHER INCIDENT EARLY IN the country’s history could shed some light on the subject. In 1776, some of Washington’s officers were preparing to form an organization called the Society of the Cincinnati, which they hoped would become primarily a benevolent society for the care of officers, their widows, orphans, and other family members affected by the war.
The name was chosen in honor of Cincinnatus, the general who in 458 B.C. abandoned his idyllic life as a farmer to lead Roman armies against the Aequi. Many officers serving in the Continental army left their own agricultural livelihoods and families behind in order to defend their homes, as did Washington himself. After the war, again emulating Cincinnatus, he willingly resigned his commission and return to private life. The officers chose as the Society’s motto: Omnia relinquit servare rempublicam — “He abandons everything to serve his country.” Washington was named president by its organizers, and Lord Byron would one day refer to him as the “Cincinnatus of the West.”
But Thomas Jefferson, after studying the society’s founding document, voiced his displeasure to Washington, attacking especially the hereditary clause on the ground that it was not aligned with “the natural rights of the people” but with the branches of “privilege & prerogative.”
After attending to such objections from Jefferson and others, Washington abruptly changed his position on the matter, writing in 1784 that he would, “Discontinue the hereditary part in all its connexions, absolutely…” as it pertained to the society. Washington, unwilling to stand up to hostile reactions such as Jefferson’s, was doubtful at this point that the Society could be saved.
But at the very moment he was presenting to the delegates his argument that they consider disbanding their society, an extraordinary thing happened — the French came to the rescue. Pierre L’Enfant arrived from France with eagle badges he himself had designed for the society and with the news that the French officers had eagerly formed a parallel French society, with the blessings of Louis XVI. And as the pièce de résistance, L’Enfant presented Washington with a golden eagle studded with diamonds, in the name of the French navy. He also brought news that the French members had pledged substantial financial support to the Society of the Cincinnati.
It was now impossible to abolish the Society without insulting America’s indispensable ally. And aware that his reputation was on the line, Washington could no longer use the threat of withdrawing his membership to gain the passage of the amendments he wanted. In the end, he was forced to compromise, but the hereditary aspect was removed after much debate. However, before the year was out, some of the state societies were proposing to reintroduce the hereditary principle, and eventually the entire society would adopt it.
Today, the society’s 3,600 members are all direct descendants of Washington’s officers, just as those men intended, with membership passed on generally to the oldest surviving son in each generation. And such family loyalties seem not to have harmed the republic which their ancestors created and defended.