Most SAR members are familiar with the insignia found on the membership badge of the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. Few perhaps are familiar with its underlying history and significance. The insignia is not only one of the most beautiful of American hereditary societies; it is also one of the most steeped with history and replete with significance. The insignia was designed in the very early days of the Society by Major Goldsmith Bernard West, Vice-President of the Alabama SAR. The insignia consists of a cross of eight points suspended by an eagle. The cross is of white enamel and has four arms and eight points, each point being decorated with a gold head. Its source is the cross of the ancient chivalric Order of St. Louis, founded by Luis XIV in 1693.
Why the Order of St. Louis?
The cross of the Order of St. Louis is identical to the SAR cross except in three details. The central medallion of the SAR symbol bears the image of Washington rather than that of St. Louis; the medallion is surrounded by the SAR Latin motto “Libertas et Patria” or “Liberty and Country,” rather than the military order’s motto “Bellicae Virtutis Praemium” or “The Reward for Virtue is War;” and the angles between the arms of the cross lack the French fleur de lis. Instead, the SAR surrounds the cross with the laurel wreath of republican victory.
French Aid Influential
Several reasons made the St. Louis cross an appropriate pattern for the SAR insignia. The Grand Master of the Order of St. Louis, Louis XVI, lent the American rebels material and diplomatic aid which was indispensable for the defeat of the British. Moreover, a great many of the French officers who fought for the American patriot cause were chevaliers of the Order. Beyond that, the Order of St. Louis had had a significant presence in North America. During the French Colonial period, somewhere around three hundred chevaliers of St. Louis saw service in on the North American continent. Hence, it was in recognition of France’s decisive aid and the Order’s significant presence in North America that the SAR chose the St. Louis cross as a model for its own.
But the adoption of the cross of St. Louis was appropriate for other reasons as well. The Order of St. Louis was the first order of military merit. Earlier orders, like the Order of St. John of Jerusalem and the Order of the Garter, were crusading or chivalric orders.
They were open to members of the nobility ready to undertake deeds of religion or chivalry. But those deeds were international in scope: all Christendom was to be the beneficiary of the knight’s good deeds. By contrast, the Order of St. Louis was established to reward military service to one’s own country and it was the first to do so. Since the SAR has as its purpose the remembrance and recognition of the military service of their Revolutionary War ancestors to their country, the adoption of the St. Louis cross seemed most apropos.
Legion of Honour Influence
The laurel wreath is significant, for it is derived from another French order, the Legion of Honour. Instituted by Napoleon shortly after his advent to power, the Legion of Honour was intended to fill a vacuum left by the disappearance of the old royal orders during the Revolution. Napoleon, like Louis XIV before him, recognized the importance of rewarding faithful public service and recognizing merit.
Hence, he instituted the Legion of Honour, which to this day remains one of the most prestigious orders of merit in the world. Napoleon’s order however differed from the old royal orders. Those either presupposed or conferred nobility. They were inextricably linked to the caste system. But with the Legion of Honour came a new basis for reward: personal merit rather than birth. Thus, it will not be surprising that the SAR insignia is also consciously modeled on the Legion of Honour badge. The laurel wreath is borrowed from the Legion of Honour.
Even the size of the SAR badge is designed to be exactly the same as the Legion of Honour’s badge. But the SAR refused to follow the Legion of Honour in all respects. Unlike the five-armed Legion of Honour cross, the SAR cross resolutely retains the four arms of the cross of Christ. This is as if to declare that the excesses of deism and atheism of the French Revolution are to be eschewed by an American patriotic society; American is a nation under God.
The Eagle Denotes Patriotism
Also distinctly American is the eagle which suspends from the cross. Badges and insignias of European orders had used a trophy (a war helmet), a wreath, or a gold loop to symbolize their chivalric purposes. But the purpose of the SAR was not chivalry, but patriotism.
Hence, the SAR appropriately adopted the eagle which the Society of the Cincinnati had previous selected for their insignia. The SAR was conceived to mirror the Society of the Cincinnati, though open to all sons of Revolutionary sires without regard to primogeniture. All of these choices and historical influences produced a uniquely American symbol.
Fauteux, A. (1940). Les chevaliers de Saint-Louis en Canada. Montreal, Canada: Les Éditions des Dix Publishers.
Gourdon de Genouillac, H. (1891). Nouveau dictionnaire des ordres de chevalerie. Paris, France: E. Dentu Publishers.
Hanson, L. (1803). Accurate historical account of all the orders of knighthood at present existing in Europe. London, United Kingdom.Hieronymussen, P. O. (1967). Orders and decorations of Europe. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
The National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. (1890). Historical notes of the organization of societies of Sons of the American Revolution. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons Publishers. Pp. 39-40.
The National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. (1991). Centennial history of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, 1889-1989. Paducah, Kentucky: Turner Publishing Company. Page 110.