Diplomatic Reception Rooms

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Object Details

Maker
Design by Pierre Charles L'Enfant (French, 1753-1825), drawn by Augustin Louis Belle (French, 1757-1841), engraved by Jean Jacques Andre Le Veau (French, 1729-1785)
Date
1788
Geography
France: Paris
Culture
French
Medium
paper; line engraving on laid paper
Dimensions
Paper: 27 in x 21 in; 68.58 cm x 53.34 cm
Provenance
Knoedler Galleries
Inscriptions
signatures signed in iron gall ink
Credit Line
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R. Y. Mottahedeh
Collection
The Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State, Washington, D.C.
Accession Number
RR-1966.0027

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Object Essay

In May of 1784 the Society of the Cincinnati adopted Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for its membership diploma. The copperplate was prepared in Paris by the engraver Jean Jacques Leveau after a drawing by Augustin-Louis Belle. It was then sent to America, where the wording was added by an unknown American engraver. The French members of the society, in particular, were anxious to have some written evidence of their connection with the American conflict, but it took many years before they received their diplomas. This example was signed by the president general, George Washington, and the secretary general, Henry Knox, and sent to France in 1788.1E. McSherry Fowble, Two Centuries of Prints in America, 1680–1880 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia for the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1987), 267; General Edward Erskine Hume, “The Diplomas of the Society of the Cincinnati,” Americana 29, no. 1 (January 1935): 19–20,41–43. I wish to thank Emily Schultz of the Museum of The Society of the Cincinnati Headquarters, Anderson House, Washington, D.C., for making this source available to me.

The medallions at each side of the certificate display the attributes of the society’s medal as described in the society’s founding document, the Institution.2Francis S. Drake, Memorials of the Society of the Cincinnati of Massachusetts (Boston: Society of the Cincinnati of Massachusetts, 1873), 11–12. The obverse, depicted at left, shows Cincinnatus receiving the accoutrements of war from three generals while his wife huddles next to their home. An armor-clad warrior holds an American flag with the Great Seal of the United States (adopted 1782) in the center (replacing the customary stars), and his foot rests on the flags of the British Empire. At his side, an eagle discharges lightning bolts, forcing Britannia, her crown askew, and a puppylike British lion to make a hasty retreat in a fragile rowboat. On the right, the medallion’s reverse shows Cincinnatus being crowned by Fame, with the sun rising over a city with open gates and vessels entering the port. The medallion hangs from a chain fastened to the sash of an angel who heralds the arrival of the French fleet and American victory. The badge worn by the society’s members, in the form of an eagle (see Acc. No. 94.13), illuminates the scene from the heavens. 

Membership in the Society of the Cincinnati was to be open to all Continental Army officers who served three years or more as well as French ministers, admirals, and commanders of the French army and navy.3Drake, Society of the Cincinnati, 8–13. This certificate, signed by George Washington in 1788, was issued to Claude-Gabriel, marquis de Choisy (1723–1799), who as brigadier general of infantry commanded a detachment at the Siege of Yorktown under the comte de Rochambeau. Following the surrender the marquis was promoted to the rank of maŕeschal de camp, the title on this certificate, and set sail for France from Annapolis with Rochambeau in January 1783. Louis XVI recognized the French Society of the Cincinnati in January 1784 and was patron of the order. Dissolved during the Reign of Terror in 1792, it was reorganized in the twentieth century and officially recognized by the general society in 1925.4M. Prevost and Roman D’Amat, eds., Dictionnaire de Biographie Francais (Paris: Librarie Letouzey et Ane, 1959), 8:1226–27; Asa Nird Gardiner, The Order of the Cincinnati in France, Its Organization and History (n.p.: Rhode Island State Society of the Cincinnati, 1905), 78. I wish to thankFrancis S. Drake, Memorials of the Society of the Cincinnati of Massachusetts (Boston: Society of the Cincinnati of Massachusetts, 1873), 11–12. Emily Schultz for making the Gardiner work available to me.

Barbara McLean Ward

Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.