The Legion of Honor: Leading with Red-Ribboned Buttonholes

The story behind France’s top honor.

The order was far too common; he could not possibly accept. So thought the King of Sweden when Napoleon Bonaparte offered him France’s newly-created Legion of Honor. Established in 1802, the Legion was originally part of a broader program to reorganize the French state after the Revolution. It was designed to replace the system of honors that had existed before the Revolution, while respecting the nation’s egalitarian ideals. The order was to be based purely on individual merit: it would be open to all ranks and professions, it would have no religious component, and it would unite the courage of military personnel with the talents of civilians under one idea of national honor. Napoleon’s Legion of Honor was completely unprecedented.

As Oliver Ihl explains in his article,“The Market of Honors,” the Legion was not a new system of nobility. It was designed to be a form of governance – a means for Napoleon to secure political loyalty and national identity. Nevertheless, the idea that civilians and soldiers were equally qualified to receive the award prompted significant opposition, particularly given that the award was to replace the Weapons of Honor awarded during the Revolution. Yet, the Council of State – France’s new legislative body – ultimately adopted the Legion of Honor, and Napoleon welcomed his first inductees at an 1804 ceremony at the Hôtel de Salm. (Today, the palatial building houses the Museum of the Legion of Honor.) The first class, Napoleon’s self-proclaimed “soldiers and savants,” included Empire Marshals, veterans of the Revolution, senior civil servants, judges, doctors, industrialists, scientists, artists, architects, musicians, and writers.

To a certain extent, the King of Sweden was correct: the Legion of Honor was common. It was open to all and readily seen throughout the Empire. Napoleon proudly displayed his Grand Eagle, and the prevailing fashion allowed members of the order to do the same with their own decorations. Guy de Maupassant wrote a parody about the phenomenon in his 1883 short story Décoré, recently translated by A. E. Henderson. Despite being altogether undeserving, Monsieur Caillard has dedicated his life to receiving the Legion of Honor. The story opens with Monsieur recounting the results of yet another torturous walk spent tallying the number of red-ribboned buttonholes he encounters.

Ironically, this type of self-serving quest was not far from Napoleon’s mind when he created the Legion. He is famously reported saying, “You call these baubles, well, it is with baubles that men are led … Do you think that you would be able to make men fight by reasoning? Never. That is good only for the scholar in his study. The soldier needs glory, distinctions, rewards.” Though often misinterpreted, Napoleon’s declaration was not said cynically. His soldier did not go to war to receive a ribbon. He went to war out of individual and national honor. The red ribbon, like Adam Smith’s invisible hand, was meant to represent the underlying, guiding forces behind one’s actions, whether they be honor or economic well-being. In both cases, these forces bring about an outcome that benefits society as a whole, either as a stronger state or economy. It is in this sense – and not Maupassant’s – that Napoleon’s France was led by red-ribboned buttonholes.

Today, the Legion of Honor has approximately 79,000 living members across its five ranks – Knight, Officer, Commander, Grand Officer, and Grand Cross, which replaced Napoleon’s Grand Eagle. The French head of state is the Grand Master of the Order, and he appoints all other members, often on the advice of the French government. A separate Grand Chancellor manages the Order’s museum and all-girls boarding schools, known as the Maisons d’Education. Napoleon created these schools for the daughters, grand-daughters, and great grand-daughters of members in 1805, shortly after inducting the Legion’s first class.

On average, 2,000 French citizens and 300 foreign nationals are decorated each year, with all heads of state awarded the Grand Cross as a courtesy. The vast majority of historical recipients owe the honor to military service in World Wars I and II. Just this past July, French Ambassador Philippe Etienne presented three American veterans with the award for their role in liberating France from Nazi occupation – a period beautifully caputured in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. These three recipients join the thousands of Americans to receive France’s top distinction, among them Josephine Baker; James Baldwin; Julia Child; Toni Morrison; Raymond Schinazi for his pioneering work on HIV and Hepatitis; Martin Scorsese; Spencer Stone, who subdued the gunman during the 2015 Thalys train attack; and Robert Redford.

How did so many Americans from such different walks of life come to receive the French order of merit? Lawrence Kritzman, a professor of French and Comparative Literature at Dartmouth and fellow recipient of the Legion, offers one response, “It shows the enormous gratitude of the French Republic to Americans. … There are times in the media of misrepresentation of the relationship … and even in the greatest of relationships there are moments of disappointment, but it doesn’t mean that the sense of recognition and gratitude is not there.” American recipients of the Legion of Honor are a testament to the French-American relationship, one which encapsulates and honors every aspect of human activity. Together with their French counterparts, these recipients are the present-day equivalent of Napoleon’s “soldiers and savants.” And, just as in the days of empire, our recipients do not only come from within the territorial borders of modern France.

Sophie Evans

Further Reading:

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot SeeScribner.

Antoine Claire Thibaudeau’s Mémoires sur le Consulat, 1799 à 1804Chez Ponthieu et Cie.  

Delaware Veteran Receives France’s Highest HonorVoice of America.

Emory HIV/AIDS Drug Inventor, Entrepreneur Decorated with French Legion of Honor Emory. 

France Bestows Legion of Honor on Robert Redford Salt Lake Tribune. 

Guy de Maupassant’s The Legion of Honor – Saga Egmont International.

Josephine Baker is the First Black Woman to be Inducted into France’s Pantheon – NPR. 

Legion D’Honneur for Julia Child for Popularizing French Cuisine – NYTimes. 

Legion of Honor Winners are Truly a Legion – USA Today. 

Martin Scorsese Honored at Cannes – AP News. 

Oliver Ihl’s The Market of Honors – French Politics, Culture, & Society.

Sartre on the Nobel Prize – New York Review of Books. 

The Institution – Légion d’Honneur.

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