Among the many treasures in the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library's collection is this Society of the Cincinnati certificate, issued to Samuel Newman. It is dated May 5, 1784 and is signed by both George Washington (1732-1799) in his capacity as President of the Society of the Cincinnati and by Henry Knox (1750-1806) in his capacity as Secretary.
At first glance, the document seems to tell a straightforward story - one where the Society of the Cincinnati issued this certificate to Samuel Newman on May 5, 1784. But, as further research reveals, this seems not to be the case. Intriguingly, the date of Newman's certificate coincides with the first general meeting of the Society of the Cincinnati, which had been founded by officers of the Continental Army a year earlier, on May 13, 1783. Major General Henry Knox is credited with the idea of founding the Society, which was originally open to "commissioned officers in the Continental and French service who had served to the end of the [American Revolutionary] war and those who had resigned with honor after a minimum of three years' service as a commissioned officer."
Although dated May 5, 1784, it is unclear when this certificate was actually issued or when it was signed by Washington and Knox. Ellen McCallister Clark's article "The Diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati," provides well-researched information about the creation of early Society of the Cincinnati certificates. Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825) was responsible for designing the certificate. L'Enfant's design, which did not include the printed text, was approved on May 17, 1784, at the Society's first general meeting in Philadelphia. However, it was not until November 1784 that the first certificates, with L'Enfant's design and including the printed text, were printed. Close readers will note something strange here. It does not seem possible that Newman's certificate could have been signed or dated on the actual date shown on the certificate, since the first certificates were printed six months later.
Clark's article clears up much of this confusion by noting the process by which these certificates were issued. She notes that both Washington and Knox signed many blank certificates and then had them distributed to the state secretaries who would fill out the rest of the document. Clark also observes that the date on the document does not always correspond with the membership date of the individual it was issued to. She writes, "the dating of the diplomas also varied from state to state...the Pennsylvania and New York diplomas are marked uniformly with the date Washington signed, regardless of when they were actually issued to the members. Several surviving diplomas issued to members of the Rhode Island Society, on the other hand, bear the date 1 January 1784—predating L'Enfant's arrival from France with the copperplate [etched with his design]." The Samuel Newman certificate, dated May 5, 1784, also falls into this category of those certificates carrying a date earlier than the actual printing of the certificate.
Samuel Newman (d. November 4, 1791) served two years and seven months as a lieutenant in Crafts' Artillery Regiment, beginning in May 1776. He later served in the navy under Captain S. Nicholson until 1783. On March 4, 1791, he was appointed lieutenant in the 2nd U.S. Infantry Regiment upon its founding. On November 4, 1791, Newman, serving under General Arthur St. Clair was killed at the Battle of Wabash, one of the worst defeats suffered by the U.S. Army. Newman's journal, kept in the months before his death in 1791 is in the collection of the Wisconsin Historical Society. A transcription of the journal was published in 1918 and is available online.
So just when did Newman become of a member of the Society of the Cincinnati? The minutes of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati indicate that he first applied for membership in 1786. Because he had not served a full three years as an officer, the Society deliberated over his membership application. Two years later, he was admitted as a member in July 1788, with the minutes noting that "his service in the State Regiments may be considered & allowed to supply the place of one year in the Continental service, which by the institution [i.e. Society of the Cincinnati] is required to qualify him to become a member...."
It may be unsurprising to learn that Newman, like many members of the Society of the Cincinnati, was also a Mason. He was raised a Master Mason in Massachusetts Lodge on January 4, 1781. In this way, Newman was like many of his fellow Cincinnati members. As Minor Myers, Jr. writes in Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati, "In many instances the Cincinnati were the Masons. In Connecticut, 40 percent of the Cincinnati were Freemasons, in Pennsylvania 36 percent. In many instances individuals joined the Masons after joining the society."
Society of the Cincinnati membership certificate for Samuel Newman, ca. 1788, Probably Boston, Massachusetts, Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library Collection, Lexington, Massachusetts, Gift of Mrs. Gordon W. McKey, A1997/025.
Bugbee, James M., ed. Memorials of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati (Boston: Printed for the Society, 1890)
Clark, Ellen McCallister, "The Diploma of the Society of the Cincinnati," Cincinnati Fourteen: Newsletter of the Society of the Cincinnati, Fall 2000 (37:1), 8-14. http://www.societyofthecincinnati.org/pdf/reading_lists/scholarship_lists_Cincinnati_Diplomas.pdf.
Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati. Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati: Minutes of all Meetings of the Society up to and Including the Meeting of October 1, 1825. (Boston: Privately printed, 1964)
Myers, Minor, Jr. Liberty without Anarchy: A History of the Society of the Cincinnati (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1983)