The 1986 Hereditary Register of the United States lists 109 hereditary associations, the oldest one founded in 1637 and the most recent one in 1976. Of course, some are more dynamic than others. They are normally described as cultural, historical, preservationist, and the like.
From a certain point of view, the most important of these hereditary associations is the Society of the Cincinnati. Members must be descendants of officers who fought at least three years in the War of Independence or who remained in the army to the end of the war. Moreover, in many states only one member from each qualifying family can belong to the society.
The society, composed of officers of the Continental Army, was organized in 1783. Major General Henry Knox was its principal founder, and Major General Baron von Steuben presided at early organizational meetings. The society was named after the illustrious Roman Quinctius Cincinnatus, who left his farm to assume temporary leadership of the Roman army to save Rome when it was threatened by its enemies; after the victory, he relinquished his post and returned to his lands. George Washington was voted the first president general of this society, which had King Louis XVI as its patron in France.
In the early years of Independence, the society was known for the monarchical sympathies of some of its founders and members. According to various authors, they wanted to establish a military nobility in the country.(1)
Its membership represented distinguished families of the period. Myers relates that “several members came from the top ranks of wealth and social prominence…. Whether they saw themselves as a nascent or established aristocracy, there was a quality of grandeur—their critics thought pomposity—about many Cincinnati.”(2)
At its very inception, the society was furiously opposed by liberals like Jefferson, Samuel Adams, and Franklin. The French revolutionary Mirabeau wrote to caution the American liberals against the society’s aristocratic tone. According to Wood,
“The ferocious attacks on the Order of the Cincinnati in the 1780’s actually represented only the most notable expression of…egalitarian resentments. Because this ‘Barefaced and Arrogant’ attempt by former Revolutionary army officers to perpetuate their honor was considered by men like Aedanus Burke, James Warren, and Samuel Adams to be ‘as rapid a Stride towards an hereditary Military Nobility as was ever made in so short a Time.’”(3)
Thomas Jefferson repeatedly denounced the monarchical tendencies of the Cincinnati. The ultimate purpose of the Society of the Cincinnati, Jefferson contended, was “to ‘ingraft’ onto ‘the future frame of government’ a ‘hereditary order.’” Historian Daniel Sisson comments, “Jefferson, it seemed, always feared the latent monarchical tendencies in America.”(4)
Lacking official recognition of the republican government, the society retreated to the private sphere. As a rule, members only wore the badge of the society in public when they traveled abroad.(5)
“In the postwar years the Cincinnati served as a model for many other hereditary societies,” writes Myers. “By the end of the nineteenth century there were dozens of them, commemorating ancestors from all periods of America’s history. All were a distant reflection of the Cincinnati, and high society…moved discreetly, to find spots in the ‘right’ societies.”(6)
One of the associations inspired by the Cincinnati in our century is the Military Order of the Stars and Bars. Candidates to membership must be male descendants of a commissioned officer of the armed forces of the Confederate States honorably separated from the service. They must be members in good standing of the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
Other associations gather descendants from families who participated in the founding events of their respective states. Few states are without their exclusive hereditary associations to celebrate their “first families.”
One of the most notable of these associations is the Order of First Families of Virginia. This society was instituted in 1912 with the specific purpose of commemorating and preserving the singular distinction of descendants of Virginians of “dignity and consequence.” In addition to sponsoring social functions, the group studies the genealogies of these families and published their findings. Admission is restricted to persons who are direct descendants of settlers of Virginia.(7)
Another group with special significance is the Order of Colonial Lords of Manors in America, founded in 1911 by John Henry Livingston, a descendant of one of the most eminent American lineages of lords of manors who played an important role in the history of the United States. Writing the history of his renowned family, Edwin Livingston has harsh words for those members who “through a false idea of modesty, or through ignorance, repudiate that nobility to which [they] are fully and legally entitled.”(8)
These are but a few examples of the many patriotic and hereditary associations existing in the United States.
(1) Cf. Minor Myers, Jr., Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati (Charlottesville, N.C.: The University Press of Virginia, 1983), p. 94.
(2) Ibid., p. 128.
(3) Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787 (New York: Harper & Row, 1957), pp. 399-400.
(4) Daniel Sisson, The American Revolution of 1800 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974), pp. 127-128.
(5) “It is likely no Englishmen feels a greater sense of pride in being a Knight of the Garter, or Scotsman, a Knight of the Thistle, than an American feels in being a member of the Society of the Cincinnati” (The Hereditary Register of the United States of America [Phoenix: The Hereditary Register Publications, 1981], p. 21). As the title suggests, this work is a directory of associations such as those discussed here. Unless otherwise noted, our descriptions of each of these associations are based largely on their respective entries in the Register.
(6) Myers, Liberty without Anarchy, p. 229.
(7) Cf. The Hereditary Register, p. 181.
(8) Quoted in Clare Brandt, An American Aristocracy: The Livingstons (New York: Doubleday & Co. 1986), p. 210.
Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nobility and Analogous Traditional Elites in the Allocutions of Pius XII: A Theme Illuminating American Social History (York, Penn.: The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property, 1993), Appendix I, pp. 321-324.