Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati


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(REVOLUTION) (BURKE, Aedanus) Cassius. Considerations on the Society or Order of Cincinnati; Lately Instituted by the Major-Generals, Brigadiers, and other Officers of the American Army. Proving that It Creates, a Race of Hereditary Patricians, or Nobility. Interspersed with Remarks On its Consequences to the Freedom and Happiness of the Republic. Addressed to the People of South-Carolina, and their Representatives. Philadelphia: Robert Bell, 1783. Slim octavo, disbound; pp. (1-2), 3-16. Housed in a custom chemise and clamshell box.

First Philadelphia edition, swiftly issued following the same year's virtually unobtainable South Carolina first edition, containing Burke's anonymous, highly controversial attack on the Society of Cincinnati, printed and sold by Philadelphia printer Robert Bell who notably issued the same year's first edition of Observations on a Late Pamphlet, Entituled, Considerations, the latter widely attributed to Stephen Moylan in a defiant rebuke of Burke's assault and in support of the Society.

The Society of Cincinnati was formed by officers of the Continental Army in May 1783. General Knox desired a form of insignia which would identify veterans of the Revolutionary War, and which could be passed on to their heirs as a memory of their service. The Society also sought to provide aid to families of soldiers killed in the war and to veterans who were in dire need, and it sought to foster greater cooperation between the states, in hopes of creating a stronger Union. The Society was open to all officers who had served at least three years in the Continental Army, and was to be continued by the members' eldest male sons. In December 1783 Washington was elected its first president, serving until 1799, when he was succeeded by Alexander Hamilton. Despite the society's seemingly benign aims, however, its policy of hereditary membership provoked widespread criticism and fears that its members intended to forge an American dynasty.

In Considerations Burke points to a great danger that the Society would lead to a new ruling class, one that would dominate America and subvert its revolutionary ideals. He warns that "however pious or patriotic the pretense… any political combination of military commanders is, in a Republican government, extremely hazardous, and highly censurable." His worst fears about the Society were never realized—in no small part because of publication of Considerations—yet it sparked a meaningful, fiercely divisive controversy. "Burke's spear ignited a full-dress debate, and his Considerations became its centerpiece" (Meleney, Public Life, 88-89). While his protests did not end the Society, Considerations was powerful indictment of the status quo of political rule. He was concerned not only with potential dangers, but with the already visible rule of a political elite. "The government of this country, as formed by the Constitution of 1778, was supposed to be a democracy. If this was the case, which I shall not dispute, it naturally ran into an aristocracy. The nature of the climate and fertility of the soil: The unequal distribution of property: The gentry below holding the government of the State through the war: and particularly, the want in the interior settlements, of men of knowledge and capacity for business: All this combined to establish the dominion and authority of a few below. But whatever [the form of government] before the reduction of Charleston, it is this moment a pure, simple aristocracy."

To Burke, the Society fueled this inequality. One of the leading actors in South Carolina politics during the Revolution, he had emigrated from Ireland by 1769 before settling in Charleston. He was a officer in the state militia until 1778, when he was elected a circuit court judge. On returning to the field in 1780, he fought in the Continental Army for two years. Burke was in the state legislature (1781-82, 1784-89) and after the war continued to serve on the bench before becoming a delegate to the 1788 state ratifying convention for the Federal constitution. There he acted as the voice of the South Caroline back-country and opposed ratification. He was elected to the First U.S. Congress (1789-91), and was still serving in courts of equity when he died in 1802. First Philadelphia edition: precedes the New York and Hartford editions. Publisher's advertisement to lower half of rear text leaf. Sabin 9279. Howes B993. Evans 17863. (South Carolina) See Evans 17862; Turnbull I:238; Howes B973; Sabin 13118. Small early owner signature above title page.

Text fresh with tiny closed tear at gutter edge of title page not affecting text, trace of marginal toning. A rare about-fine copy.

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