Lafayette Letter on the French Society of the Cincinnati

One-page Lafayette letter written in English probably to Benjamin Franklin in late January 1784.

The Institute has acquired a previously unknown  Lafayette  letter discussing the early organization of the French branch of the Society of the Cincinnati. Purchased at auction in January 2023 for the Robert Charles Lawrence Fergusson Collection, the letter (which is written in English) is addressed to “My Dear Sir” and dated simply “Paris, tuesday morning.” An analysis of its contents has led us to conclude that the letter was most probably written in late January 1784 to Benjamin Franklin, the United States minister to France.

Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, the best-known French volunteer to the American cause, was commissioned a major general in the Continental Army in July 1777 and served with great distinction through the Yorktown campaign. He returned to France in early 1782, but he remained closely attuned to events in America through his correspondence with George Washington and other friends and officials in the United States and France.

As the war in America drew to a close, a group of Continental Army officers in cantonment in and around Newburgh, New York, established the Society of the Cincinnati to commemorate the achievement of American independence and to cement their bonds of friendship and pledge of mutual support as they prepared to return to civilian life. Their founding document, the Institution, adopted on May 13, 1783, opened membership to officers of the Continental forces who had served during the war, which would include the European volunteers who had received commissions from Congress. In recognition of “the friendships which have been formed and so happily subsisted between the Officers of the Allied Forces in the prosecution of the war,” the Institution also named as members of the Society several senior French officials and high-ranking officers of the king’s army and navy and directed that the president general transmit “a medal containing the order of the Society” to each of them.[1]

The Society’s emblems of membership, including its Eagle insignia, were designed by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant, a major in the Continental Army Corps of Engineers. In the fall of 1783, L’Enfant volunteered to travel to France to oversee the production of the first issue of the Eagle, as well as the engraving of a copperplate for the Society’s diploma. Bearing credentials authorizing him to conduct business on behalf of the Society, L’Enfant sailed from Philadelphia in late November, arriving in Paris around December 14. He also carried letters from George Washington, as president general of the Society, addressed to General Rochambeau; admirals d’Estaing, de Grasse, Barras and Destouche; and Lafayette enclosing copies of the Institution and informing them of their election to membership. The French officers in turn sought the permission of Louis XVI to proceed with organizing a French branch of the Society, which the king enthusiastically granted on December 18, 1783.

Washington specifically charged Lafayette with organizing membership for the French or other European officers who had served for at least three years in the Continental Army.[2] Lafayette published an announcement of the Society’s formation in the December 23, 1783, issue of La Gazette de France. Seeking applications from “officers of the American Army at present in Europe,” Lafayette described in detail the “distinctive Order of the Society…the Bald Eagle, the American eagle peculiar to that county,” which would also be awarded to the generals, colonels and admirals of the French forces who served in America.[3]

The response from eligible officers in France was immediate, and by early January both Rochambeau and Lafayette held organizational meetings of their respective groups. On January 16, 1784, L’Enfant delivered the newly made Eagles to Admiral d’Estaing, General Rochambeau and Lafayette for distribution to their officers to mark their official induction into la Société des Cincinnati de France.

In the Institute’s newly acquired letter, Lafayette writes, “In Consequence of the directions I Had from the Society of the Cincinnati, I Have delivered its Badge to such American officers as were in Paris, and it Has been delivered to Comte de Rochambeau and his officers,” which suggests it was written shortly after this event [possibly on Tuesday, January 20, 1784] to someone who had an interest in and knowledge of the organization of the Society.

More compelling evidence of the recipient’s identity may be found in two subsequent lines: “…I shall also answer the letter you have Honoured me with Respecting those officers who portend to the Badge of the Cincinnati. M. du Buysson has got in.”

Following Lafayette’s announcement in La Gazette de France, a number of French officers wrote to Benjamin Franklin, the United States minister in France, to inquire about their eligibility to membership in the Society, mistakenly assuming that the privately founded organization fell under the authority of the U.S. Congress. One of those petitioners was Charles-François, vicomte du Buysson des Aix, a former lieutenant colonel in the Continental Army and aide de camp to General Johann de Kalb. Du Buysson had written to Franklin on December 31, 1783, asking for his papers relative to Society membership to be forwarded to Lafayette.[4] Although we do not have specific evidence that Franklin followed up, Lafayette’s formal and respectful tone and brief mention of du Buysson suggests he was writing to someone of importance about a topic already under discussion. (Du Buysson was, in fact, among the “American officers,” as Lafayette called his fellow French volunteers in the Continental Army, who received their Eagles on January 16th.)

Continuing his discussion of who would be eligible for Society membership, Lafayette brought up the name of “General [Thomas] Conway,” whose controversial background may well have been a matter of concern to the diplomat Franklin. The Irish-born Conway emigrated to France and rose to the rank of colonel in the French army. Volunteering his services to Congress, he was commissioned a brigadier general in the Continental Army in May 1777. Before the end of the year he was appointed inspector general with the rank of major general, a promotion Washington opposed. (Lafayette had also refused to accept Conway as his second in command.) In an episode known as the Conway Cabal, Conway criticized Washington, calling him a “weak general” in a letter to Horatio Gates, and was implicated in a scheme to replace Washington with Gates as commander in chief. The letter was intercepted and Conway was relieved of his command. He resigned his commission in March 1778 and returned to France to serve again in the French army, where many felt he had been treated unfairly in America. Lafayette, who remained a bitter critic of Conway, revealed his motivation for considering Conway’s membership in a confidential letter to Washington dated March 9, 1784: “…the man is Not Worth troubling our Heads about Him—But as He will Become a Pretence to a sett who Have not Hitherto found Any Against me, it May Be Better either to Give Him the Badge, or if Refused to do it With that Secrecy and delicacy which will not Subject me to the Reproach of Having proposed him, in order that He May Be Humiliated.”[5] Conway was finally made a honorary member of the French Society in 1786.

Another clue pointing to Franklin as the letter’s recipient may be found in Lafayette’s reference to the French controller general of finance, Charles-Alexandre de Calonne: “Some things Have past between M. de Calonne and Myself which I Beg leave to submit to You.” Lafayette took an active interest in the ongoing negotiations about free ports and American trade through the winter and spring of 1784 and facilitated discussions on the matter between Calonne and Franklin. On January 9, 1784, Calonne wrote to Lafayette about the naming of four French free ports and promised measures to address other American demands, mentioning “the complaints the Americans may address to you, or that Mr. Franklin and other American ministers (whom I shall be very pleased to see) may have to transmit to me on their behalf.”[6] Although we do not have direct evidence that Lafayette shared this information, Franklin was well versed on the subject when he wrote to Henry Laurens about the trade issues on February 12, 1784. Several months later, on May 20, 1784, Lafayette returned to the subject, writing to Franklin: “I…Will do my self the Honor to Call Upon You to Morrow Morning, There I Will lay Before You a letter I have Received from Mr. de Calonne.”[7]

A final hint that the recipient was Franklin may be found in Lafayette’s first line: “I intended doing myself the Honour to wait upon you this Morning but the weather being so severe, I will postpone it until to morrow when I will do myself the pleasure to Call on your House.” In reviewing our case for a Franklin attribution, the editors of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin added one more note: “The fact that the severe weather forced Lafayette to postpone his visit could suggest that he had a somewhat longer distance to travel, which would be consistent with Franklin’s residence in Passy [a village about three miles outside of Paris]. There exist several dinner invitations from Lafayette to Franklin from this period, but Franklin was no longer going out after December 1783, due to his affliction with bladder stones, which made riding in a carriage exceedingly painful.”[8]

Even without an attribution of the recipient, Lafayette’s letter provides new insights into his interests and concerns relating to the Society of the Cincinnati and politics in France in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolutionary War. But the possible—even probable—identification of Benjamin Franklin as Lafayette’s correspondent raises our acquisition to a new level of significance as a primary source documenting the relationship between two essential leaders of the cause of American independence.

The text of the letter is published here in full:

Paris, tuesday morning

My Dear Sir:

I intended doing myself the Honour to wait upon you this Morning but the weather being so severe, I will postpone it until to morrow when I will do myself the pleasure to Call on your House. In Consequence of the directions I Had from the Society of the Cincinnati, I Have delivered its Badge to such American officers as were in Paris, and it Has been delivered to Comte de Rochambeau and his officers. Some things Have past between M. de Calonne and Myself which I Beg leave to submit to You, and I shall also answer the letter you have Honoured me with Respecting those officers who portend to the Badge of the Cincinnati. M. du Buysson has got in. M. de Mori Being a french officer does not come within my limits. As to General Conway I have written to His family that his Rights may be ascertained By the time He Has Been in our Army.

With the most Affectionate Regards I have the Honour to be, dear Sir

Your obedient Humble servant



  1. The Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati, May 13, 1783, The Society of the Cincinnati archives. The text specified that the Society “does itself the honor to consider” as members the following officials and officers: “His Excellency The Chevalier De la Luzerne, Minister Plenipotentiary; His Excellency The Sieur Gerard, late Minister Plenipotentiary; Their Excellencies, The Count D’Estaing, The Count De Grasse, The Count De Barras, The Chevalier Des Touches, Admirals and Commanders in the Navy; His Excellency The Count De Rochambeau, Commander in Chief – and The Generals and Colonels in his Army.”
  2. George Washington to Lafayette, October 20, 1783, The Society of the Cincinnati archives.
  3. Official French Announcement of the Institution of the Society of the Cincinnati, La Gazette de France, Paris, December 23, 1783, in Edgar Erskine Hume, ed., General Washington’s Correspondence Concerning the Society of the Cincinnati (Baltimore: The John Hopkins Press, 1941), 34-35.
  4. Chevalier Dubuysson [du Buysson] to Benjamin Franklin, December 31, 1783. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 41 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2014), 377.
  5. Lafayette to Washington, March 9, 1784. The Papers of George Washington, Confederation series, vol. 1 (Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 1992), 184-189.
  6. Charles Alexandre de Calonne to Lafayette, January 9, 1784. Stanley J. Idzerda and Robert R, Crout, eds. Lafayette in the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, vol. 4 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1983), 189.
  7. Lafayette to Benjamin Franklin, May 20, 1784. Ibid, 220-222.
  8. Philipp Ziesche, associate editor of The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, email message to Ellen McCallister Clark, former library director of the Society of the Cincinnati, April 11, 2023.