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L'Enfant's breathtaking diploma created for the Society of the Cincinnati

Pictured: a parchment diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati signed by George Washington and Henry Knox. Author's collection.

The Society of the Cincinnati, an order named after Roman Consul Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, was founded in 1783 by Henry Knox and others to preserve the ideals and fellowship of officers of the Continental Army who served in the Revolutionary War. George Washington served as the society's first president and early members of the organization were invited to acquire a membership certificate or diploma signed by Washington, as president, and Knox, as secretary. These beautiful diplomas were designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant (who famously "designed" Washington, D.C.) and engraved by Jacque LeVeau on parchment.

In our offices at the New England Historic Genealogical Society in Boston, hangs just such a diploma signed by Washington and Knox. From our historic collections, it is a treasure inscribed in the name of Robert Rogers, a Revolutionary War officer and early member of the Cincinnati from Virginia.

I never expected to find an original diploma or certificate in the name of my "propositus" (Lieut.-Col. Samuel Whiting, Second Regiment, Continental Artillery, Connecticut), when I was elected to the Society more than twenty years ago. And indeed, I have not! But I was recently pleased to acquire a "blank" diploma signed by George Washington and Henry Knox, and, most of all, be able to now study its fascinating design elements more closely. In the 19th century, Benson J. Lossing described its magnificent imagery as follows:

"The design represents American Liberty as a strong man armed, bearing in one hand the Union Flag, and in the other, a naked sword. Beneath his feet are British flags, and a broken spear, shield and chain. Hovering by his side is the eagle, our national emblem, from whose talon the lightning of destruction is flashing upon the British lion. Britannia, with the crown falling from her head, is hastening toward a boat to a fleet, which denotes the departure of British power from our shores."

For more information, a detailed history of the Cincinnati diploma was published by Ellen McCallister Clark in"Cincinnati Fourteen," Fall 2000, pp. 8-14.

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