On Ribbon and Revolution: Rethinking Cockades in the Atlantic

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Ashli White

I am currently writing a book that reinterprets the age of Atlantic revolutions through material culture.  I analyze objects associated with the revolutions in the United States, France, and Haiti and their significance not just for one another, but for Britain and other Caribbean colonies as well.  As part of this endeavor, I track, as much as possible, the production, distribution, and consumption of revolutionary things.  I find that objects were much more dynamic than we have given them credit for—dynamic in their physical motion (they reached some unexpected places), but also dynamic in their interpretive potential.  As revolutionary items traveled from one site to another, they brought people into contact with political debates in tangible and provocative ways.

The objects in my study share three attributes: they are products (in some cases, tools) of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary activity; they move through the breadth of the Atlantic world rather than remaining in one national context; and finally, they affect substantial numbers of people, as evidenced by their ubiquity or the publicness of their display.  In light of these criteria, the book makes the case for the centrality of some seemingly bizarre things, like model guillotines and life-sized wax figures.  But it also reconsiders from a fresh perspective more familiar items, such as ceramics, furniture, prints, garments, and accessories.

Bicorn hat with cockade.
Bicorn Hat with Cockade, MFA Boston

By way of example, take the cockade, a rosette of ribbons that individuals pinned to hats, bonnets, coats, and dresses.  It is perhaps the most illustrative object from the age of revolutions, and historians have done excellent work interpreting the cockade’s significance for specific nations.  In these interpretations, a cockade marked a wearer’s political loyalties, and because they were relatively inexpensive, people from all walks of life—elite, middling, poor, and even the enslaved—had an opportunity to wear their politics on their sleeves.  The appeal and proliferation of cockades gave actors at the time (and scholars later on) a quick way to locate the outlook of people across the ideological spectrum and to gauge the extent of republican transformation.

But as cockades moved around the Atlantic, they often defied such straightforward readings.  Rather, these bits of colored ribbon could be deceptive, and part of the problem stemmed from the fact that for all their power of individual political expression, cockades were also badges of conformity.  While this trend held true throughout the Atlantic, it is easiest to see in the French case, because the French government made the wearing of the tricolor cockade mandatory.  Throughout the revolution, officials would tinker with this law—for instance, debating whether women should or should not wear cockades—but for much of the 1790s, those living in France and its territories, as well as foreign visitors to these lands, were required by law to wear the tricolor cockade in public.

Inherent in the very absolutism of the French decrees was a tacit recognition that the wearers may not espouse the ideals the cockade was supposed to represent.  Evidence suggests that wearing a cockade was, in some cases, a matter more of safety than of political devotion.  One American, sailing to France in the mid-1790s, described how his fellow passengers had tricolor cockades in “their pockets ready to put on”—but only once they disembarked in France.[1]  For these travelers, the cockade was a precaution, not a political statement.  One could argue that French laws were didactic, designed to help the wearer inculcate the republican values the cockade supposedly encapsulated.  Victor Hugues, the French republican governor of Guadeloupe, made a similar claim when he requested that his superiors send thousands of cockades for distribution among black soldiers, describing the cockades as “little stimulants that produce great effects.”[2]

But pedagogy frequently fell short, and throughout the period, commentators in Britain, France, the United States, and the Caribbean pointed out the gap between what the cockade was supposed to signify and the behaviors of people who actually wore it.   At times, the meaning of a particular cockade was illegible to some audiences.  In the early 1790s, some twenty British prisoners escaped Saint-Domingue and arrived to Baracoa, Cuba, with a cockade that they said had been in possession of black “rebels.”  The cockade was decorated with a fleur-de-lis, a heart, and the word, “Constitution.”  As Ada Ferrer has suggested, the symbols combined aspects of both early French republican ideology and vodou.[3] The soldiers, however, were baffled not only by the fact that black “rebels” had this cockade, but also by what it might have meant to them.

Moreover, observers were suspicious that cockades might cloak for misdeeds.  Because of their association with military dress, cockades were seen as emblems that imparted dignity and honor to the wearer.  But some men embraced cockades for fashion rather than for country, and satirists lampooned men with big cockades and little fortitude.  In Matthew Darly’s famous print The Martial Macaroni (1771), the man wears, along with other outlandishly-sized accoutrements, a flamboyant cockade that dwarfs the hat, swallowing it in tentacles of black silk ribbon.  The caption reinforces the visual lampoon: “Pray Sir do you laugh at me?”  Clearly, the answer is yes.  While cockaded fops were troubling in a time of war, cunning men in cockades were even worse.  Newspapers were littered with anecdotes of cockaded men who traded on the honorable associations of the emblem to escape from prison, take out credit under false pretenses, steal, and seduce young women.[4]  In these scenarios, a man used a cockade to inveigle his way into someone’s confidence and to take advantage of him or her.

Cockades masked even greater abuses. After witnessing a Caribbean colonist beat a slave, one U.S. commentator remarked, “this Frenchmen appears to me to be one of those who, while they honour the republic with their mouth, and decorate their hats with the national cockade, retain all that despotism so predominant in the West Indies, in their hearts.”[5] This critique is not as radical as it appears at first glance; the author goes on to emphasize the need for better treatment, not freedom, for slaves. Nevertheless, the author reprimands the master for hypocrisy—for thrashing a slave like a tyrant rather than acting reasonably.  No matter where one went in the Atlantic world, cockades were cause for suspicion, for they all too easily masked the ideological and moral failings of wearers.

As this brief survey suggests, cockades were indeed crucial revolutionary objects, but they cannot be contained in the neat boxes proposed by some historical studies.  To be sure, the affordability, popularity, and pervasiveness of cockades made them ideal candidates for connecting people far and wide in name of revolutionary causes.  Yet since cockades were markers of conformity, they also emphasized the potential distance between conviction and appearance—a feature of cockades that undercut their very purpose and was exacerbated by their transnational movement.  It is in this manner cockades stand as an emblem of age of revolutions—not for their tidy encapsulation of ideals, but for the ways cockades manifested the unstable power and contested meanings of Atlantic revolutions.

Ashli White is an associate professor of history at the University of Miami and is currently at work on a book project titled, Revolutionary Things: Politics and Material Culture in the Late Eighteenth-Century Atlantic.  Her first book, Encountering Revolution: Haiti and the Making of the Early Republic (Johns Hopkins, 2010) won the 2011 Gilbert Chinard Prize from the Society of French Historical Studies and the Institute Français d’Amérique.

Title Image: Bombe nationale : un bonnet servant de couronne à un ballon auquel est adapté une nacelle dans laquelle sont plusieurs voyageurs aériens parcourant le camp des Autrichiens et jettant sur leurs têtes quantités de cocardes et bonnets tricolores… : [estampe], 1792. 

Further Reading:

Leora Auslander, Cultural Revolutions: Everyday Life and Politics in Britain, North America, and France (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Simon Newman, Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997).

Richard Wrigley, The Politics of Appearances: Representations of Dress in Revolutionary France (Oxford: Berg, 2002).


[1] February 1, 1797, p. 307-8. Benjamin Johnson Diary, Winterthur Museum and Library, Winterthur, DE.

[2] Quoted in Laurent Dubois, A Colony of Citizens: Revolution and Slave Emancipation in the French Caribbean, 1787-1804 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 199.

[3] Ada Ferrer, Freedom’s Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 55.

[4] For a few examples in the U.S. press, see Daily Advertiser (New York), September 19, 1794; Columbian Centinel (Boston), November 12, 1794; Wiscasset Telegraph (Wiscasset, ME), December 24, 1796.

[5] Argus (New York), June 9, 1795.

On Ribbon and Revolution: Rethinking Cockades in the Atlantic