Oil on canvas. 76.83 x 61.28 cm • 30 1/4 x 24 1/8 in. Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
As students of Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau are always reminding us, the
age of reason was really an age of sentiment. In this too, Washington was a man of his age. When he established the first general decoration in the American Army, the Purple Heart, it was not (as it became in the twentieth century) an award available to all soldiers wounded in the line of duty. Only privates and noncomissioned officers could win the original
Badge of Military Merit, a cloth-shaped heart sewn over the man’s actual heart, which allowed him to
pass all guards and sentinels which officers are permitted to do. The symbol was not of heart’s blood shed, but of virtue proceeding from the heart. Limiting the award to nonofficers was meant to indicate that great virtue can be shown regardless of rank — that in Washington’s words,
the road to glory in a patriot army and a free country is thus open to all.