The District of Columbia Society has been such an integral part of the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution, that it is impossible to consider the history of one without the other. Our Society, however, was not existent at the inception of that organization.
The real beginning of the National Society was an organization formed in California, known as the Sons of the Revolutionary Sires.
The preparations for the celebration of the Centennial of the signing of the Declaration of Independence at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, sparked a wave of patriotic fervor through the whole United States. In the fall of 1875, a half-dozen men met in San Francisco to discuss plans for taking part in a procession scheduled to take place on July 4, the following year. They examined the possibility of forming a society to perpetuate the memory of their ancestors who had fought to make this country free. They voted to call themselves Sons of Revolutionary Sires.
The patriotic society that was to become the Sons of the American Revolution came into existence when forty citizens responded to a news item in a San Francisco newspaper of June 29,1876, requesting descendants of Revolutionary patriots to meet for the purpose of making arrangements for a centennial celebration on July 4,1876. Following a parade and ceremonies, the group met and formally established the Society of Revolutionary Sires.
Through the efforts of these gentlemen, over eighty descendants of Revolutionary Patriots turned out to participate in the parade on July 4, 1876. Ten who participated were actually sons of Revolutionary sires; the rest were grandsons or great grandsons. The organization grew and prospered. It sent circulars and bulletins of the proceedings all over the U.S.A. There were those, however, who felt that patriotic societies based on Revolutionary ancestry should be organized and formed in the East.
The desire of the founders of the new society to extend its work beyond California met with enthusiastic response. Before the end of 1876, Vice Presidents had been appointed in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, Iowa, and the District of Columbia. Delegates from fourteen states met to form a national society in Fraunces Tavern on Pearl Street in lower Manhattan in New York on the one hundredth anniversary of Washington's taking leave of his officers there. The New York Society of the Sons of the Revolution, established formally in 1883, did not participate in the movement, although it was the desire of the other states that New York should take the lead. The California Society, which had maintained its existence since 1876, changed its name in order to participate in the organization of the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution. Under the Constitution then adopted, the several state societies became federated.
A few men in New York had met and formed the Sons of the Revolution in 1883. This organization was conceived with the idea that societies formed in other states would be auxiliary branches of the New York Society. The term "auxiliary" was distasteful to many gentlemen, and chauvinistic pride prevented them from rushing in and forming organizations in other Eastern states.
Six years later, in the spring of 1889, a group in New Jersey had organized a Society of the Sons of the Revolution and took the lead in a movement to organize a National Society and to pressure New York to repeal the Auxiliary article in its Constitution. The New York Sons declined to do so.
At the instigation of the New Jersey group, a convention was called to meet at Fraunces Tavern on April 30,1889, to organize a National Society. Eighteen state societies, including the Sons of Revolutionary Sires, were represented. Although New York and Pennsylvania would not take part in the proceedings, the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution was formed and a Constitution adopted.
In 1890, the New York Society abandoned its plan of auxiliary branches and joined with the Pennsylvania Society to form a General Society, Sons of the Revolution, in which each state society would be a separate sovereignty. Attempts in 1897 and 1926 to merge the S.R. and S.A.R. were unsuccessful, due to differences in corporate structure and membership requirements.
A Society of the Sons of the Revolution was organized in Washington on April 3,1890, under the presidency of the Honorable John Lee Carroll, with a very distinguished membership. The Society subscribed to the Constitution of the Sons of the Revolution prepared by representatives of the New York and Pennsylvania Societies of the Sons of the Revolution.
On April 20, 1890, the District of Columbia Society, Sons of the American Revolution was organized by Mr. William O. McDowell of New Jersey, at that time Vice President General of the National Society, SAR. Principal organizers were Dr. George Brown Goode, a noted scholar and a founder of the National Geographic Society and the American Historical Association; Admiral David D. Porter of Civil War fame; the Arctic explorer General Adolphus W. Greely; General W. S. Rosescrans; and Dr. Francis O. St. Clair. Admiral David D. Porter, the first President of the D.C. Society, was elected a Vice President of the new National Society at this convention. Generals Adolphus W. Greely and Joseph C. Breckinridge followed him. In 1895, Dr. Goode became the fourth President.
This Admiral Porter is sometimes confused with the General Horace Porter who was President General of the National Society from 1892 until 1896. It was General Horace Porter who was appointed Ambassador to France in 1897, and while there was instrumental in locating the body of John Paul Jones and bringing it back to the United States. So it was a West Pointer, rather than an Annapolis man, who is primarily responsible that the body of the Father of the U.S. Navy is now interred at the Naval Academy.
At the first Annual Congress of the National Society, convened on April 20,1890, at Louisville, KY, the National Society set in motion one of the greatest patriotic movements of our time. This was accomplished in a somewhat negative fashion by the decision to limit membership to males exclusively. This exclusion of females so infuriated some of the ladies, including Mrs. Caroline Scott Harrison, the wife of the President of the United States, that they organized the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. The ladies have outdone us in many ways, but we take great pride in our sister organization.
It is of interest to recount the accomplishments of the National Society that General Porter outlined in his report to the National Congress in 1895:
Secured from Congress a law under which the records of the Revolutionary services in various Executive Departments, were indexed and placed in a fireproof building in the Smithsonian Institution;
Secured from Congress a law authorizing officers of the regular Army and Navy who are members of the Society, to wear the Society badge on ceremonial occasions;
Prevailed upon the New Hampshire Legislature to construct and publicly dedicate the statue of that grand Revolutionary hero, General John Stark;
Organized the patriotic custom of Flag Day, designating June 14 as the official anniversary of the adoption of the Stars and Stripes as our National ensign for such celebrations;
Persuaded the New York Legislature to pass a law forbidding the display of foreign flags on public buildings, unless the official representative of a foreign power is a guest of the city or state;
Took the most prominent part in the celebration of the laying of the National Capitol cornerstone on September 18,1893, when William Wirt Henry, the grandson of Patrick Henry, was selected from the Society as the orator of the day;
Stimulated interest in the American Revolution by participating in more than 200 public celebrations of anniversaries of important events;
Initiated a movement, originated by our honored Massachusetts Society, of marking the graves of the Patriots of the American Revolution with bronze and iron markers;
Advocated the passage of a law by Congress forbidding the desecration of the National Flag for advertising purposes;
Advocated a law passed by the New York Legislature saving from desecration the old historic building known as City Hall in downtown Manhattan;
Erected a monument in Dobbs Ferry, New York, to commemorate the spot where Generals Washington and Rochambeau planned the Yorktown Campaign and brought about the preservation of Washington's Headquarters at Dobbs Ferry;
Presented National Flags, portraits of Washington, and prize medals to a large number of schools and academies in different parts of the country; and,
Secured appropriations from the Maryland Legislature and private industries for the erection of a splendid monument in Baltimore to the Men of the American Revolution.
The National Society was only six years old and had less than 8,000 members - they must have been workers!
Under the leadership of Dr. Goode, the D.C. Society had over a hundred members within two years, and soon became one of the largest and strongest of the associations of descendants of patriots of the Revolution. Meetings of the Board of Management were held in Dr. Goode's office at the Smithsonian Institution. He was most active in promoting the new organization, gathering into it many of the most distinguished men in the Capital City. Dr. Goode was also active in the Sons of the Revolution and worked for union of the two societies.
Dr. Goode's death in 1896, at the age of 45, evoked many tributes. The SAR Historian spoke of his eminently attractive personality ... his genial, courteous manner predisposed in his favor all who met him, and as this favorable first impression was confirmed by more intimate acquaintance, respect and confidence inevitably followed. A resolution of sympathy to his widow was drawn up by the SAR, SR, and Society of Colonial Wars, stating that he was Conciliatory in conduct, courteous in conversation, a man whose love of truth, liberty and principle animated him with an intense enthusiasm for the growth and development of American institutions.
It is most important that we keep alive the memory of the achievements and sacrifices of our Revolutionary forefathers, aswell as the ideals that they established and which led them to victory. This has created a challenge that will tax the thoughts, the ingenuity and efforts of every member of our Society. We must actively accept that challenge with vigor and enthusiasm.
Source: Zebina Moses Historical Paper, compiled by James P. Rouleau, Historian, assisted by Francis M. Hoffheins, Past President. Included in the source material from the D.C. Society Library was "Past Presidents General I Have Known" by Frank Bartlett Steele, Secretary General, 1931-50, National Society, SAR.