The Society of the Cincinnati China

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The origin of the Society of the Cincinnati lies with Major General Henry Knox. He proposed an organization for veteran French and American officers to perpetuate friendships made during the American Revolution. The society was established in 1783 and the name derives from the fifth century BC Roman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a farmer who, after commanding a formidable army in defense of Rome, returned to his farm when his duty was done. The motto of the society reflects Cincinnatus’ patriotism: Omnia Relinquit Servare Rempublicam (“He relinquished everything to preserve the republic”). Cincinnatus did not take advantage of his military supremacy after his victory in defense of his country and attempt to usurp power; rather, he magnanimously gave up his command and returned to the rustic life of a farmer. For many of the American officers, Washington was the modern day Cincinnatus. At least one Society of the Cincinnati porcelain piece is known to have a portrait of Washington included in it.


This tea set belonged to Hannah Dane Sargent's great-grandfather, Major General Benjamin Lincoln. Hannah Dane Sargent married Bishop Frederic Dan Huntington. The set can be found in the 1771 Kitchen at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Museum. 

The manifold French influences in the insignia result from the fact that it was designed by Frenchman Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Despite the French design, the bald eagle, quintessentially American, is central to the emblem. Shortly after the society was formed, Knox’s former aide-de-camp, Samuel Shaw, became interested in putting the insignia on Chinese export porcelain. He went to China himself and had a Chinese painter copy his Cincinnati emblem onto a piece of porcelain. This emblem that L’Enfant designed was not reproduced with as great a precision on the porcelain as it was on the badge. Nevertheless, the emblems were executed with a great eye for detail, and these painted emblems on early Chinese export porcelain became popular for the most elite members of the society.

Hannah Dane Sargent, a great-granddaughter of Major General Benjamin Lincoln, married Frederic Dan Huntington, the fourth generation to own the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house. She inherited three pieces of Lincoln’s Society of the Cincinnati porcelain set – a cup, saucer, and small plate. Lincoln was born in Hingham, MA, and had a very distinguished career. He served as Washington’s aide for part of the American Revolution, receiving Cornwallis’s sword on behalf of the Commander-in-Chief at the surrender at Yorktown in 1781. He was the first Secretary of War for the new American republic, led the government militia that put down Shay’s Rebellion in Springfield in the winter of 1787, became the first collector of the Port of Boston after the ratification of the Constitution in 1787, and served as a Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts.

Lincoln’s Society of the Cincinnati porcelain set was one of the earliest shipments of Chinese export porcelain to the new American republic. Through the 1780s shipments of Cincinnati porcelain came to America, and twelve of the officers in the Society purchased large sets. Washington bought a set of more than three hundred pieces. Lincoln, the first president of the Massachusetts branch of the society, purchased a dinner service with the Cincinnati emblem. As with all the sets, it was hand-painted in China. Lincoln’s pieces include his monogram, BL, painted on each piece in gold lettering.

  • Mudge, Jean McClure. Chinese Export Porcelain for the American Trade 1785-1835. (New York: University of Delaware Press, 1962).