Richard Hoover: Those now forgotten potent symbols

(1) Liberty caps are seen atop swords and bayonets in this image from the French revolutionary days at the Field of Mars on July 14, 1790, the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Courtesy image

Little that is antique intrigues more than potent symbols once revered but now forgotten. Take the liberty cap, that floppy, flame-red slave’s hat worn in Ancient Rome so that on the street one could distinguish the free from the enslaved. Some accounts describe the cap as the mark of the manumitted slave only — who really knows?

In any event, the cap’s contemporary meanings stem from the great slave rebellion led by the gladiator Spartacus, finally put down on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius by Roman generals Pompey and Crassus in 71 B.C. When Spartacus and his boys captured a town, it’s said they headed straight for the mint to make their own money. And just so everyone would know who made the coins … BAM! … they struck the image of their caps right on the obverse.

While the liberty cap continued as a slave’s traditional covering (I have seen French engravings of banks of liberty-capped galley slaves from the 1750s ), the Spartacus uprising also turned the cap into a symbol of liberty and revolution against tyrants — specifically, against kings and queens.

French revolutionary days, therefore, were wild with liberty caps. See the profusion on the points of swords and bayonets as troops gather on the Field of Mars, July 14, 1790, to celebrate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille (1). See the cap placed on the head of King Louis XVI, June 20, 1792, when the mobs stormed the Tuileries palace and broke into his rooms (2). And there’s the cap atop the executioner’s helper, who stands on the scaffold with Queen Marie Antoinette, October 16, 1793 (3).

In the young United States, the liberty cap quickly took over. Etched on the blades of Federal period swords, it reminded: if we did not stay strong militarily, the big slave master would return to do another job on America. “And who was that big slave master?” I ask visitors to my gun show tables. Full marks if they answer “King George III.” It’s the big buzzer if they say (which most do): “some plantation owner.”

(2) The liberty cap is seen on the head of King Louis XVI, on June 20, 1792, when the Tuileries palace was stormed. Courtesy image

See Liberty wearing her cap as she hovers over this Yorktown surrender scene, sending a British imperial chariot with its unfortunate occupants crashing (4). And here she is again on this 1865 half dollar, wearing her cap on her pike (5).

In my collecting and reading experience, it is the Civil War that shifts the liberty cap from its focus on British dangers to the abolitionist campaign against slavery. In hoc signo vinces (‘with this sign you shall conquer’) proclaims the banner etched on this Union blade, referring to the liberty cap directly above (6). It was these words, together with the Holy Cross, that Emperor Constantine saw in the sky at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, just before he captured Rome and launched the eventual conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. Accordingly, the association of this hallowed phrase with the Liberty Cap helped raise the abolitionist cause to a religious one, reflected gathering northern war aims directed against slavery.

With the end of slavery and the morphing of Anglo-American conflict into the “special relationship,” the liberty cap faded from American consciousness, although it is still found on the seals of a handful of states and of the Department of the Army (7).

In Latin America, however, I believe the image remains relatively strong, recalling the struggles against Spanish and French imperialism. At least I remember seeing it frequently in the 1970s, especially on coins and signs. In fact, it appears on the flag of Haiti.

Here, perhaps, is the bottom line, the one I use at shows with curious little folks interested in potent symbols on swords: ‘Dears, you will never find the liberty cap on the sword of anyone who belongs to a King or Queen. Even that nice old couple in London….Elizabeth and Philip…..for them this cap is what the sign of the cross is to a vampire. It represents a guillotine right in the center of Trafalgar Square! No, it is a symbol belonging only to republics and democracies!’

(3) The libery cap is shown on the head of the executioner's helper at the scaffold with Queen Marie Antoinette on Oct. 16, 1793. Courtesy photo

Richard Hoover, a retired Foreign Service officer, resides in southern Warren County.