The Liberty Cap
& it’s many depictions on money

As a collector of paper money and coins, I have come across several types of imagery that have been used over vast areas and shared between countries and cultures. Eagles, lions, snakes, and other animals have been used as symbols of a country’s spirit, resolute nature or power. Allegories of Justice have been used on money usually when depicting the national seal. Several countries have depicted hydroelectric dams to honor their power generation. Images of farming, aviation, industry, etc have all been used very frequently. One of the more famous symbols has been that of Liberty. Over the years, Liberty has been depicted as female, even though civil rights (liberties) for women were a long time in coming. She has been depicted in many ways, but whether as standing, sitting, reclining, reaching, bare breasted, regal or what have you, she has always been the symbol of both hope and accomplishment relating to freedom. Lady Liberty has been depicted on money throughout North, Central and South America as well as in France. One aspect of the depiction of Liberty, well known in its day, seems to have lost its significance today. This depiction is of the Liberty Cap, also known as the Phrygian Cap. This cap, an actual cap worn through the ages, is a brimless cap made usually of red felt and was worn with the top pulled to the front. This is a brief history of that icon.

The cap was worn first in the ancient land known as Phrygia in what is now Turkey. It is generally accepted that Phrygia was settled about 1200 B.C. and prospered until the 6th century B.C. when it fell to the Cimmerians, then was ruled by the Kingdom of Lydia, then Cyrus, and eventually Rome. It is important to note that Phrygia was best known as a source of slaves, and it is believed that as slaves were freed, they would again be able to wear the Phrygian cap of their homeland. This soon became a symbol of emancipated slaves especially in Rome and Greece.

Fast forwarding to the year 1675 there was a revolt in Brittany known as the Bonnets Rouges which was an uprising against taxes, demanded rights to land and water, and against misappropriated tithes. During this revolt people wore “Bonnets Rouge” or “Red Hats” which became a well known symbol as a revolt against the government. It is believed that the caps either were, or were similar to the style of, the Phrygian caps. This may have been on the minds of American revolutionaries when the Liberty Cap was adopted. As a side note, it is also curious that the traditional flag of Brittany is similar in design to the US flag, with black and white alternating stripes, a white field where the US blue field is and ermine spots where the US stars are. Though I do not in any way suggest that the design was adopted from Brittany, it is mentioned here merely as a curious coincidence.

In 1675 the Sons of Liberty, a formal underground secret pre revolutionary organization of American Patriots from the 13 colonies, adopted the Liberty Pole and Cap as a symbol of liberty. The Liberty Pole is a pole similar to a flagpole which would fly a flag or be topped with a Phrygian Cap. Handbills would be printed summoning interested parties to meetings and speeches for Liberty at various places including the Liberty Tree and Liberty Pole. It is likely that the pole or tree was adorned with the cap during such meetings to draw people to the spot. During the American Revolution, soldiers in the North Eastern colonies were known to wear red caps embroidered with “Liberty” or “Liberty or Death”.

In early American literature, Washington Irving referred to the Liberty Cap in his tale about Rip Van Winkle, describing a groggy Rip confused at sighting the ‘red night cap’ on a pole in town.

In 1855 a model of and allegorical figure of Justice presented by the sculptor Thomas Crawford for a statue to top the US Capitol Building was depicted with a Liberty Cap. This was rejected by Jefferson Davis, who was then the US Secretary of War, because of the history of the cap being tied to freed slaves. His objections were based on his belief that American freedom was not transferable to slaves held in the United States. The cap was thus redesigned to a helmet with an Iroquois Headdress. Jefferson Davis was later to become the President of the Confederate States.

The Liberty Cap is depicted on the seal of the US Army, the seal of the US Senate, the state flags of Idaho, New Jersey, New York, West Virginia, and on the state seals of Arkansas, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and West Virginia. Several coins and paper currency have had illustrations of the Liberty Cap and Pole. The last circulating US Coin to depict the Liberty Cap was the 1947 Walking Liberty Half Dollar, yet this design is still used on the non-circulating one ounce silver bullion one dollar coin to this day.

In France, the cap is known better as the Bonnet Rouge of Bonnet Liberté. After the Bonnets Rouge revolt in 1675 and the American Revolution, the cap was well known as a symbol of liberty. The French Revolution used the Liberty cap from as early as 1789, and was depicted as being worn by both Liberty and France’s Marianne. Its first public appearance as a symbol of freedom was in May 1790 when it was on a statue of Marianne (an allegory of the French Nation) and on a spear of a statue of Liberty.   The Sans-Culottes, the poorer class revolutionary who wore full length trousers instead of the popular knee high trousers (Culottes) soon incorporated the Bonnet Rouge into their daily dress as a uniform identity. When deposed, King Louis the XVI was made to wear a Bonnet Rouge as was the Archbishop of Paris. In 1793 the Liberty Cap had become a national symbol and was on the Seal of the French Republic and on roadway milestones throughout the country. The Phrygian cap is still worn by Marianne today, depicted in a logo on all national papers and media.

The poorly led 1798 Irish rebellion by the Society of United Irishmen adopted the Liberty cap as an emblem as well. It was depicted with the Brian Boru harp, a national symbol. 

As the western hemisphere struggled to gain independence from the European colonizers and the early unsatisfactory leaders, the Liberty cap and its symbolism moved south through Mexico and the Caribbean into Central and South America. As well as on coats of arms and flags, the Liberty Cap has appeared on the coins and currencies of most of these nations, and many can still be seen today, primarily shown on a liberty pole or alone rather than worn.