The Order of St. Louis, military and democratic, was the most popular in the kingdom. Louis XIV founded it in 1693. It comprised grand crosses, commanders and chevaliers or knights, all of whom were Catholic officers of the royal army. Louis XV instituted the Order of Military Merit for Protestant foreign officers serving in France.
During the Revolution, all orders were abolished, but it was soon realized that some form of officia compensation was needed to honor outstanding service and various collective and individual medals, crowns and arms especially, were instituted, particularly during the Directoire.
By an order enacted under Napoleon Bonaparte on 4 Nivôse, Year VIII, the"Arms of Honor"were instituted to recognize feats of valor by members of the army. These arms were engraved with the name of the bearer and frequently mentioned the exploit for which they had been awarded. Sabers signified first class. They entitled the bearer to double pay. To earn it, an individual had to have distinguished himself in an exceptional manner. Rifles, muskets and carbines along with drumsticks (for example those of the famous Arcole drum preserved in the Museum of the Legion of Honor), grenades, bugles and boarding-axes, signified second class and conferred the right to extra pay.
Yet the First Consul was already thinking about instituting a new award that would not be conferred exclusively for military valor. Seeing himself as the continuator of the Revolution, he conceived the formation of an honorary order that would reflect the principle of equality not only between military and civilian but also in services rendered to the country.
Napoleon’s project was adopted and by the law of 29 Floréal, Year X, the new order, which he named the Legion of Honor, was instituted.
Never was a name better suited to an institution. It was indeed a Legion of Honor with the head of state as its grand master. From the beginning, it has been conferred on illustrious individuals in all walks of life—the military, magistrates, administrators and civil servants as well as men of distinguished achievement in the arts, fine arts, teaching, agriculture, trade and industry.
It was not enough, however, to recognize personal achievement and leave matters there. The founder of the Order wanted more, he wanted to spur the members of the Legion to even greater efforts in the service of their country.
He did so by instituting four ranks in the Legion: knight, officer, (commander until 1814), and grand-officer. In addition, Napoleon, as Emperor, added a fifth rank: grand croix or cross, called "grand-eagle" during his reign. The ranks of grand officer and grand cross are known as dignités.
From the outset, the emperor intended membership in the Legion of Honor to be a distinction of such illustriousness that it would fire people’s imagination, spur soldiers to valor and be held in high esteem in other countries.
On July 15, 1804 the first crosses were awarded in the Church of the Invalides with all the splendor of imperial pomp. The emperor personally bestowed the awards on members of the great bodies of state—the assemblies, judges, clergy, the Institute, etc.— and of course on the marshals and soldiers of the garrison in Paris (including the famous Coignet) after receiving their oath of loyalty as required by law.
Then on the following August 16, an unforgettable, solemn military ceremony was held at Boulogne-sur-Mer for the troops who were to embark for England, the conqueror’s dream. There, within sight of the enemy’s shores and to a gun salute from his fleet in the English Channel, Napoleon personally bestowed the new star on the officers and soldiers to whom it had been awarded, among them men who bore the Arms of Honor, automatically members of the Legion, to whom the first promotion of the Order (about 2,000) was dedicated.
During the Empire, the vast majority of appointees were soldiers, but civilians of merit did not go unrecognized. Some of the most illustrious names in France at the time appear on the lists, learned men like Monge, Chaptal, Bertholet, Jussieu and Montgolfier; artists David, Gérard and Houdon; the musician Gréry: writers Bernadin de Saint-Pierre and Fontanes, and among foreigners, Goethe. Some are less famous, for example, Oberkampf, whose "toiles de Jouy" replaced the English cotton fabrics that were cut off because of the blockade, who was personally decorated by the emperor. And even a simple workman, a miner from Liege, received the insignia of the Order in great pomp in 1812.
Napoleon, however, did not brave public opinion to the extent of awarding the Legion of Honor to an actor. The illustrious Talma, who was a favorite of his, did not receive it. (Louis Philippe was the first to award the decoration to a few actors, now little known, and to a male dancer but as a member of the Garde Nationale).
The Legion of Honor was retained during the Restoration and coexisted from 1814 to 1830 with the old royal orders that were revived. At that time, it went to many civilians. Victor Hugo and Lamartine were made knights in 1825.
Then starting with the reign of Louis Philippe, the Legion of Honor became the sole French national order, and the awards instituted by the kings disappeared for good.
Space does not permit even a few words about the great deeds, the illustrious achievements, devotion, bravery, sacrifices, inventions and progress in all branches of human activity that the Legion of Honor has stimulated, encouraged and honored as its founder had hoped.
Suffice it to say that the scarlet ribbon from which the cross with its motto "Honneur et Patrie" is suspended is coveted to this day by the most illustrious men and women of France and much esteemed abroad.
Over time, as a result of political vicissitudes and serious events that shook French society, the founding statutes were slightly amended in a few points of detail, specifically in 1816 by Louis XVIII and 1852 by Louis-Napoleon.
In 1962 General de Gaulle signed a new Code which, while taking into account the evolution of ideas and manners, restored the Legion of Honor to the character it had at its inception.
A second national order, the National Order of Merit, was instituted in 1963 as a compliment.