The insignia of the Society of the Cincinnati was designed in 1783 by Pierre-Charles L’Enfant. Known as the Eagle, the Society’s insignia is a double-sided medal in the shape of the bald eagle, a distinctly American symbol that was chosen just a year earlier as the central figure of the Great Seal of the United States. With its down-turned wings, olive branches in both talons and depictions of the ancient Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the Society Eagle emphasizes the founding of a peaceful American republic and the return of its soldiers to their civilian lives.

Members wore their Eagles to parades, orations and other civic events, in addition to private Society meetings and gatherings. The Society insignia became, in part, a public symbol of the officers’ participation in the War for Independence and a reminder of the American republic’s ideals and origins. Benjamin Franklin—later elected an honorary member of the Pennsylvania branch of the Society—took note of the organization’s insignia in January 1784. In his now-famous letter expressing his preference for the turkey as a symbol of the United States, he objected to the choice of the eagle for the Great Seal and the Society of the Cincinnati insignia—“by no means a proper emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America, who have driven all the Kingbirds from our Country.”

The first Eagles were made in early 1784 in Paris under L’Enfant’s direction, as he considered French craftsmen to be the only ones in the world skilled enough to produce the fine gold-and-enamel medals. L’Enfant contracted with Nicolas Jean Francastel and Claude Jean Autran Duval to make these first several hundred Eagles. American craftsmen soon began making their own versions of the Society insignia, which were sold to members in cities from Boston to Savannah.

The more than sixty Society Eagle insignias in the Institute’s collections document the variety in designs and makers over the years, especially in the founding era. Foremost among them is the Diamond Eagle, a jewel-encrusted insignia that French naval officers commissioned for George Washington in 1784 and became the badge of office of the Society’s president general.