The Society of the Cincinnati was an organization that was very dear to Alexander Hamilton. Founded at the end of the Revolutionary War by officers of the Continental Army and their counterparts in the French Army, the Society’s goal was to preserve the memory of their victory and the achievement of American independence - “that vast event”, as they called it. You can read more about the Society and its creation in my earlier blog post here.
For Hamilton, the Society represented not only the bravery and honor of his fellow officers in the war, but also the sense of camaraderie and brotherhood that they’d shared, and that he never forgot. Hamilton was one of the founding members of the Society, and took his membership seriously. After George Washington died in 1799, Hamilton was elected the second President General of the Society, a post he occupied until his own death in 1804.
The Society’s gold and enamel eagle insignia and silk ribbon shown above belonged to Hamilton. The loop-and-toggle clasp is also original, intended to be slipped through the wide decorative buttonholes in men’s coats in the late 18thc. While membership in the Society was based on military service, in the years following the war the insignia was most often worn with civilian dress.
There are no surviving portraits of Hamilton wearing his insignia. However, this detail, right, from a 1790 portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge (who, like Hamilton, had achieved the rank of lieutenant-colonel during the Revolution) shows how proudly the insignia was worn as a patriotic symbol. From the fraying, fading, and mending shown in Hamilton’s ribbon, it’s likely that he often wore his emblem in his role as an important statesman and later as a general in the new American government.
Now a bit of novel-writer’s imagining, with the disclaimer that I have zero proof for any of this. I keep coming back to that mended tear. As anyone who deals with old silk will tell you, silk grows brittle over time and under stress, and “shatters” (that’s the official term). It literally disintegrates. Most of the other surviving Cincinnati insignias have long ago had their ribbons replaced for this reason, yet this one hasn’t. But if preserving the original ribbon connected to Hamilton was so important, no matter its condition, then why was the mending so clumsily done?
Elizabeth Hamilton outlived her husband by half a century. Throughout her long widowhood, she revered his memory. with an almost fanatical devotion. Towards the end of her long life, her eyesight began to fail, and with it her once-excellent needlework skills faltered as well. I can easily imagine her not only refusing to replace the worn ribbon, but also insisting on repairing it herself, no matter her diminished skill with a needle.
Hamilton’s Society of the Cincinnati emblem is currently on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, PA. On loan from Douglas Hamilton, the fifth great-grandson of Alexander and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, the emblem appears as part of the “Year of Hamilton” exhibitions and programming at the Museum. See here for more information.
Top left: Photo ©2019 Susan Holloway Scott.
Lower right: Detail, Portrait of Benjamin Tallmadge and His Son William Tallmadge by Ralph Earl, 1790, Litchfield Historical Society.
Lower left: Photo courtesy Museum of the American Revolution.