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The Story Behind the SAR Badge

Our membership badge is steeped in historical significance, as related in this scholarly account by Compatriot Duane L. C. M. Galles.


SAR Member MedalMost Compatriots are familiar with the Membership Badge of the Society of the Sons of the American Revolution.  Few perhaps are familiar with the history and significance which underlie it.  The badge 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 Badge was designed in the very early days of the Society by Major Goldsmith Bernard West, Vice-President of the Alabama Society.  The badge 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 royal and military Order of St. Louis was part of a package of war veterans’ benefits decreed by the Sun King at that time.  For disabled or needy war veterans, Louis founded the Hotel des Invalides, the first old soldiers’ home of the modern era.  Its chapel, the Church of the Invalides designed by Hardouin-Mansart, is today known around the world as the magnificent baroque interpretations of Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s and as the final resting place of Napoleon.  To reward officers for distinguished service and merit Louis established the Order of St. Louis.  The Order was named after his namesake and patron, Louis IX, saint crusader and king of France.  It was also richly endowed so that a member received not only a decoration but also a pension.  These varied depending on grade and seniority and ranged from 800 to 6,000 livres a year.  In addition, a member was exempt from certain taxes.

The cross of the Order of St. Louis is identical to the SAR cross except in three details.  The central medallion of the SAR badge bears the image of Washington rather than that of St. Louis; the medallion is surrounded by the SAR; motto “Libertas et Patria: (Liberty and Country) rather than the military order’s motto “Bellicae Virtutis Praemium” (the Reward for Virtue is War); and the angles between the arms of the cross lack the French fleurs 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 badge.  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 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 something like 300 chevaliers of St. Louis saw service in North America.  Hence, it was in recognition of the decisive aid of France and the significant presence of the Order in North America that the SAR chose the St. Louis cross as a pattern for its own.

But the adoption of the cross of St. Louis was appropriate for other reasons, too.  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 to remember and recognize 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 badge is consciously modeled on that of the Legion of Honour.  The laurel wreath is borrowed from the Legion of Honour.  Even the size of the badge is designed to be exactly that of the Legion of Honour.  But the badge refuses to follow the Legion of Honour in all respects.  Unlike the Legion of Honour cross which as five arms, 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.

 

Eagle Denotes Patriotism

Distinctly American also is the eagle which suspends the cross.  Badges of European orders had used a trophy (a war helmet), a wreath, or a gold loop.  These symbolized their chivalric purpose.  But the purpose of the SAR was not chivalry, but patriotism.  Hence, the SAR appropriately adopted the eagle which the Cincinnati had previous selected for their badge.  The SAR was conceived as a society of the Cincinnati, open to all sons of Revolutionary sires without regard to primogeniture.  The choice produced a uniquely American badge.

 

Bibliography

National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution, Historical Notes (New York, 1890) pp. 39-40.

Aegidus Fauteux, Les Chevaliers de Saint Louis en Canada (Montreal, 1940)

H. Gourdon de Genouillac, Nouveau Dictionnaire des orders de chevalerie (Paris, 1891)

Hanson, An Accurate Historical Account of All the Orders of Knighthood at Present Existing in Europe (London, n.d.)

Paul Hieronymussen, Orders and Decorations of Europe (New York, 1967)

When this article was first printed Compatriot Galles was Vice-President of the Minnesota Society.  He also served as President of the Minneapolis Chapter.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree from George Washington University, Master of Arts from the University of Minnesota and Doctor of Jurisprudence from the William Mitchell College of Law.  He has also studied at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Toronto.

Source.  Centennial History of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution 1889 – 1989, Turner Publishing Company, Paducah, KY.  Copyright 1991 NSSAR Louisville, KY.  Page 110.