George Washington - commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and the first President of the United States - was the most painted American of the 18thc. In all those many portraits, he is shown either in his general's uniform of buff and blue, or in civilian clothes, often a black suit. Compared to his counterparts in Europe, his dress is sober, even severe, as was fitting for a near-legendary citizen-soldier, the leader of a new republic.
However, in the case of this remarkable jewel-encrusted medal - which doesn't appear in any of those portraits of Washington - the general made an exception.
After the end of the war, officers of the Continental Army and their French counterparts who had served together formed the Society of Cincinnati. The mission of the Society was to preserve the memory of the war for future generations, and to maintain an appreciation for the achievement of American independence.
The golden eagle that became the Society's insignia was designed by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French-born military engineer who served in the Revolution and, in time, became the master planner of Washington, DC. When L'Enfant returned to France to have the Eagle made by the Parisian goldsmiths, officers of the French Navy commissioned a more impressive, jeweled version as a surprise for Washington - the Diamond Eagle shown here. L'Enfant carried the medal back to America with him in 1784, and presented it to Washington on behalf of the French officers at the first general meeting of the Society of Cincinnati in Philadelphia in May, 1784.
Washington seemed to have reserved the Diamond Eagle for the most formal occasions. As President General of the Society of Cincinnati, he likely wore it for the Society's special events, and also for his own annual birthday ball. Featuring emeralds, rubies, and 160 diamonds from India and Brazil and a total diamond weight of 9 cts., the medal also includes scenes and mottoes related to the life of Cincinnatus, the self-sacrificing Roman statesman to whom Washington was often compared. The medal was unique in 18thc America, and was a stunning tribute to the man who wore it.
After Washington's death, his widow Martha Washington sent the Diamond Eagle to Alexander Hamilton, the newly-elected President General of the Society. It's much easier to imagine Hamilton taking pleasure in wearing the medal - not only for what it represented and its association with Washington, his mentor and close friend, but also for the sheer showiness of it. Hamilton enjoyed dressing well, and since he especially liked the display of military uniforms, he must have been both honored and secretly delighted to wear the Diamond Eagle.
Following his death in 1804, his widow Elizabeth Hamilton (yes, the heroine of my historical novel I, ELIZA HAMILTON) sent the medal to the third President General, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Pinckney in turn donated the Diamond Eagle to the Society in 1811, and it became the badge of office of the president general of the Society. The Society continues today as the oldest patriotic organization in America, and remains devoted to the principles and ideals of its founders.
Rarely exhibited publicly, the Diamond Eagle is currently on loan to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia until March 3, 2018. It's especially fitting that the medal is displayed in the museum adjacent to Washington's War Tent, another powerful symbol of Washington's dedication to his troops and the Revolution.
See here for more information about viewing the Diamond Eagle at the MoAR.
Above and below: The Diamond Eagle, front and back, with its original leather case. The blue and white ribbon, symbolizing the continuing friendship between France and the United States, is a modern replacement. All photographs courtesy of the Society of Cincinnati.
Read more about Eliza Schuyler and Alexander Hamilton in my latest historical novel, I, Eliza Hamilton, now available everywhere.