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The Cap of Liberty

Last modified: 2012-01-14 by rob raeside
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The "Cap of Liberty" is seen on the flag of Paraguay (backside), Santa Catarina and several others.

The liberty cap dates back at least to Roman times. A freed slave wore it during the ceremony of his manumission, and on special occasions afterwards. Much later, it came to figure heavily in French Revolutionary iconography. I've seen representations of soldiers in the French revolutionary army wearing liberty caps as part of their uniforms. One of my favorite paintings by the French painter David shows the battle between the Romans and the Sabines, where many on the Roman side are wearing the liberty cap. This is surely no coincidence, since he painted it in 1799.

Such revolutionary symbols carried over into the Latin American revolutions of the 1820s.

If I recall correctly, I think there is a liberty cap on some versions of Haiti's coat-of-arms, for obvious reasons.

It is prominently featured on the flag of the Army of the Andes.
Josh Fruhlinger - 25 October 1996

I believe the French still call it a Scythian cap (see below). It was one of the most notable items of ancient Scythian costume. After the decline of Scythian power, the Athenians used Scythian police. The Romans kept the Scythian police after they conquered Greece, and that is probably how the cap entered European consciousness. How the cap cropped up in 18th century France, I don't know. (But I'm curious.)

Although the cap quickly became a revolutionary symbol in 1789, a few of them survived on flags well into the non-revolutionary Napoleonic era.

The (French) Polish Legion carried a republican banner with its Scythian cap as late as 1810.
T.F. Mills - 1996-10-26

Actually, the Liberty cap as an emblem of liberty was used by the Sons of Liberty as early as 1765. During the American Revolution, particularly in the early years, many of the soldiers who fought for the Patriot cause wore knitted stocking liberty caps of red, sometimes with the motto "Liberty" or "Liberty or Death" knitted into the band. This style of cap was traditional in the North East (having been popular with the French Voyagers) and became immensely popular during the Revolution.

Folks associated with the hobby of "Living History" (like me) often have such liberty caps; I have a good drawing of "Jonathan" (the allegorical figure of colonial New England) holding the 2nd New England Flag and wearing such a liberty cap. The date would probably be about the time of the "Boston Massacre," 1770.

In addition, there are references of the erection of Liberty Poles, topped with such a cap and flying a Liberty Flag prior to the American Revolution. This was a very popular and powerful symbol in those days.
Dave Martucci - 27 October 1996

Scythian or Phrygian? I've heard it called a Phrygian cap before now...

You're right ! In fact, most historians think that this cap has nothing to do either with Phrygians or Scythians, but the name has remained. The 'Phrygian' cap was rather used by the liberated slaves in ancient Rome.

During the French Revolution, the cap was called the 'red cap'. It is still in use as a strong symbol of freedom and republic, and additionally on the logo of the RPR, the neo-Gaullist party of J. Chirac.

The French Republic is usually symbolized by a gorgeous young woman called Marianne (I've not been able to track the origin of that nickname) and wearing the red cap, as depicted in allegoric pictures (La Liberte guidant le Peuple by Delacroix for example).

There is an 'official' Marianne picture, which is used for the most common post stamps (the small red or green ones) and for the marble bust which appears in most town halls. Our best actresses have been used as a model, for instance Brigitte Bardot (long time ago) and Catherine Deneuve (still 'in use').
Ivan Sache - 28 October 1996

...oops, sorry! I had Scythians on the brain. But there is plenty of archaeological evidence that the Scythians wore both helmets and soft caps very similar to the "liberty" design. The Kul Oba royal tomb had some very nice samples.
T.F. Mills - 31 October 1996

The so-called "Phrygian cap" [in French, bonnet phrygien] is also often called red cap [bonnet rouge] or liberty cap [bonnet de la liberte] The use of the liberty cap started in 1789 during the French Revolution, but the cap became a popular symbol in spring 1790 only. It was initially used to cover the head of the goddesses Liberty and Nation, and became quickly the emblem of Liberty, and then the emblem of men and women who wanted to be citizens instead of subjects. In 1792, it was a normal part of the uniform of the sans-culottes. On 20 June 1792, the king Louis XVI was forced to wear the liberty cap by the crowd who had invaded the palace of Tuileries. After the fall of monarchy, the Liberty cap became ubiquitous, and was used on the representations of sitting or standing Liberty, pikes and flags as finial, Liberty trees, fasces of Unity, triangle of Equity and beams of the scales of Justice. All official documents included it, usually associated with the tricolor cockade. In 1793, wearing the Liberty cap was mandatory in the Assemblies of the sections of Paris.

However, the iconographical use of the Liberty cap predates the French Revolution. It was already used as symbol of Liberty during the American Revolution. However, it predates also the American Revolution and was shown in several iconography treaties from XVI-XVIIIth centuries. The most famous of these treaties was the 'Iconologia' by Cesare Ripa (first edition 1593 - new edition with figures, 1603, then translated all over Europe). All these sources said the cap was the modern version of the "Phrygian cap" worn by liberated slaves in ancient Roma and Greece. Anyway, it is now known that the cap played only a minor role in the slave liberation ceremony and that its link with Phrygia (in Minor Asia) was rather loose. Phrygia was said to be a source of slaves, who worn again their fathers' cup when liberated. Other probable reasons for the popularity of the cap during the French Revolution were the so-called "revolt of red caps", a movement of riots having occurred in Brittany in 1675 against the taxes imposed by Colbert (the red cap was the ordinary cap of the farmers of Central Brittany), and its use in convict prisons, which had replaced the galleys, as a mark of infamy.

The use of the red cap was not unanimously accepted, and it was initially associated with the most extremists sans-culottes and uncontrolled insurrectionists. Robespierre said he did not like either the red caps or the red heels (aristocrats). Anyway, the Convention accepted it as national symbol and put it on the great seal of the Republic and on road milestones (to replace the fleur-de-lys). Under the Consulate, the capped Liberty was progressively replaced by a helmeted Minerva and the liberty caps were removed from all public monuments. Bonaparte was reported to hate the liberty cap.

During the Second Republic, the insurrectionists of February 1848 forced the provisory government to add a liberty cup on the white stripe of the French tricolor flag for a very short time. The cap then disappeared also from the seal of the Second Republic, but was reestablished as national symbol during the Third Republic.

The liberty cap is now widely used to cover the head of "Marianne", the feminine allegory of the Republic, whose bust statue adorns all the city halls of France.
Source: Michel Pastoureau, Les emblemes de la France, Bonneton, 1998.

The most famous representation of the liberty cap might be the big picture "La Liberte guidant le peuple" by Eugene Delacroix, now in the Louvre Museum, which was inspired by the insurrection of July 1830 in Paris, during which the last king of France Charles X was forced to abdicate and was replaced by the 'king of the French' Louis-Philippe. The picture shows a street barricade scene, in foreground of which a gorgeous woman wearing a liberty cap holds a French tricolore flag and encourages the insurrectionists to resist the royal troops. The picture got for a long time a bad reputation, because the woman was a bit too naked and too hairy (under the arms...), and was therefore assumed to be a loose woman (the painter had wanted to depict her as an ordinary laborious woman representing the oppressed people).

A close-up of the woman's head was used in a series of post stamps for ordinary use, known as "Republique, type Liberte". The stamps were in use from 1982 to 1990. The stamps were carved by Pierre Gandon (1899-1990), who already carved the series for ordinary use known as "Marianne de Gandon". Gandon had designed the first series during the Liberation of Paris in 1945, using his wife as the model. The series was used from 1945 to 1955 and is probably the preferred monographic topic of French philatelists. The series "Marianne de Gandon" replaced the series "Marianne de Dulac" (March-November 1945), which also showed a woman wearing a liberty cup0. The series released for ordinary use in 1990 (until 1998), known as "Marianne du Bicentenaire"), was carved by Louis Briat and also shows a "modern" woman wearing a liberty cup. A cockade was added in the upper right corner of the stamp. The current series of stamps for ordinary use also features Marianne wearing a liberty cap, and is known as "Marianne du 14 Juillet". It was created by Ms. Eve Luquet, who won the contest, and is the first stamp for ordinary use created by a woman; it is also the unique stamp to have the national motto "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" written on it.
Source: Le patrimoine du timbre-poste francais, Flohic, 1998.
Ivan Sache - 13 May 2000