Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States

Text and illustrations by Joseph McMillan

Dwight David Eisenhower, 34th President of the United States Banner Photo

The Arms of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Arms: Or an anvil Azure.

Crest: Five stars of five points conjoined as on the points of a pentagram Argent.

Motto: Peace through understanding.

The Reluctant Knight

In the fall of 1945, General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower had just about run out of patience with the shower of honors that had cascaded down upon him following the final defeat of Nazi Germany the previous May. The ink on the instrument of surrender was barely dry when General Charles de Gaulle proclaimed Eisenhower a companion of France's new Ordre de la Libération. Scarcely a month later, King George VI conferred Britain's exclusive Order of Merit in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Soon the awards were coming without respite from virtually every member of the wartime alliance and every country that had been liberated. As early as August, one can sense a certain lack of enthusiasm in the general's accounts of the honors: "The Grand Duchess [of Luxembourg] gave me two more decorations. One of them is the kind that goes over the shoulder." 

By October, Eisenhower was wondering when it was ever going to end. In a letter to General of the Army George C. Marshall, he wrote: 

Some little time ago I thought I had cleaned up my chores of running around various capitals and cities and felt that possibly I could find a few days to go somewhere and loaf. I do not know how many well-meant invitations I have turned down, but in some instances the political advisers and various ambassadors have urged acceptance on me in the strongest terms.... The difficulty in declining any of these is that I hurt the feelings of a whole people, or at least of a large segment. Otherwise I would certainly have done with the whole business.... It is a fearful drain on available time. I do hope the whole business is doing a little good—otherwise I am certainly inconveniencing myself to no purpose. 

One of the capitals pressing for a visit when Eisenhower wrote to Marshall was Copenhagen, where King Christian X was eager to confer on Eisenhower his country's highest honor, a knighthood in the Order of the Elephant. The Order of the Elephant had been founded in the 1400s, a time when Denmark ruled a great empire embracing modern Denmark, Norway, and Sweden and substantial areas of northern Germany. Over time, the Elefantorden came to be Denmark's answer to such highly esteemed orders of chivalry as England's Garter and Austria's Golden Fleece. Under the Order of the Elephant's 1693 statute, membership was ordinarily limited to 30 knights. The Order of the Elephant was rarely conferred on commoners, and even more rarely on foreigners other than heads of state and members of royal families. For the King to bestow it on General Eisenhower was thus a tremendous honor. 

Originally, "because of repeated invitations from the King," Eisenhower planned to travel to Denmark to receive the order on November 12, 1945, but a death in the Danish royal family forced a postponement to early December. Then, while on a visit to the United States, Eisenhower contracted a respiratory infection and was medically barred from flying, forcing a further delay. Finally, the King seems to have given up hope of receiving Eisenhower any time soon, and so on December 15, 1945, breaking with precedent, he published the official announcement conferring the order even though Eisenhower was not there to receive it. Christian X would die 16 months later, never having presented the insignia of the order to the victorious general. Nor would his successor do so. Six months after ascending the throne, Christian's son, King Frederick IX, decided to waive the long-standing rule that new Knights of the Elephant were personally invested in Copenhagen by the King. He determined that if Eisenhower could not come to the Elephant, the Elephant would go to Eisenhower. On October 20, 1947, at the Royal Danish Embassy in Washington, General Eisenhower finally received the collar, sash, and star of a Knight of the Elephant from the hands of the Danish ambassador.

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The Indifferent Armiger

Eisenhower soon learned that entry into the Order of the Elephant entailed an obligation that must have come to him as a surprise. Each knight is required by the statutes of the order to provide the Chapter of the Royal Orders with a copy of his coat of arms and motto. These are then painted into the armorial of the order kept at the Chancery in Copenhagen and on an enamelled metal plaque which is placed in the chapel at Frederiksborg Castle. Confronted with this requirement, Eisenhower's initial reaction was honest and direct: he didn't have a coat of arms to provide.

In July 1951, a proposal for arms for General Eisenhower, apparently to fill the requirement levied by the Danish Royal Order, was drawn up by Arthur E. DuBois, chief of the heraldic section of the Army's Office of the Quartermaster General (now the Institute of Heraldry). DuBois' sketch included an anvil—a pun on the name just as in the arms connected with the Eisenhauers in Germany—and the five stars of a general of the Army's rank insignia. However, Eisenhower seems not to have been especially interested in the matter. He never approved the design and the matter was dropped.

Arms of Johann Eisenhauer, 1740 Argent on a triple mount Gules a miner's gad Sable.
Arms of Johann Eisenhauer, 1740 Argent on a triple mount Gules a miner's gad Sable.

After Eisenhower became President in 1953, genealogical researchers discovered the 18th century coat of arms, illustrated at left, which was used by an Eisenhauer family in the Odenwald area of Hesse, near Heidelberg, from which the general's ancestors emigrated. Like many arms of non-noble German families, those of the Eisenhauers depicted a tool related to the family's trade, iron mining. It is also a pun on the name, which means "hewer of iron." Besides appearing on a shield, this device was used as a "house mark" and as a badge on family property, including tombstones, as well. However, there is no proof that the President was closely related to this family, if at all, and he and his immediate kin were apparently unaware that the arms even existed. Nor have any connections been established between his family and other Eisenhauers in Germany who used arms, although interestingly all of these also depict tools used in the ironworking trade.

In 1954, however, the issue was raised again, this time by a Danish-American businessman of the President's acquaintance named Thorkild Knudsen. Early that year, Knudsen was asked by the director of the Frederiksborg Castle museum about acquiring the Eisenhower arms for the chapel. Knudsen brought up the matter with Eisenhower in person and subsequently wrote to the President's personal secretary, Ann Whitman, offering to have an artist submit proposals for a design. Eisenhower annotated this letter, "I would not object to use proposal by DuBois," which Mrs. Whitman apparently interpreted as meaning the DuBois sketch could be provided to Knudsen for his artist to work from. She accordingly sent it off to Knudsen on March 26, along with her opinion that "if a Coat-of-Arms is made up and contains such identifying data as the five stars (which the present one does) that something also might be included to denote the President's present job—perhaps the Presidential seal." 

Knudsen got his artist and heraldic "experts" right to work. On April 21, he wrote back to Whitman with a proposal, assuring her that the design was "heraldically correct for the President" and "entirely appropriate." In fact, the effort was a object lesson in how not to design a coat of arms. While the sketch he provided has apparently been lost, Knudsen's letter, along with a drawing of a subsequent revision of the design, provides enough evidence to reconstruct its essentials. The shield was divided quarterly. In the first quarter were the arms of office of the President, the familiar eagle with shield, olive branch, and arrows. In the second were the five stars of a general of the Army. In the third was an open book with the seal of Columbia University superimposed on it, commemorating Eisenhower's tenure as Columbia's president. In the fourth was the shield of the wartime Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), showing a flaming sword beneath a rainbow. Over all on the center was an inescutcheon bearing an anvil derived from DuBois' 1951 design and representing the family name. The motto, taken from one of the President's speeches, was "Peace through education." The first illustration below is a reconstruction of this proposal; the colors of the four quarters are hypothetical, but the records are clear about the basic design.

Thorkild Knudsen'sFirst Proposal,  April 1954
Thorkild Knudsen'sFirst Proposal, 
April 1954
Arms as Submitted to Chapter of the  Royal Orders, June 1954
Arms as Submitted to Chapter of the 
Royal Orders, June 1954

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Real Heralds Take Charge: The Final Product

The heraldic experts at the Chapter of the Royal Orders must have been taken aback by the design developed by Knudsen and his team with President Eisenhower's input, for it was nearly nine months before Mrs. Whitman received an official reply to her June letter. When it came, it was delivered by A. Bogh Andersen, chargé d'affaires at the Danish Embassy in Washington, who had the unenviable task of telling the President of the United States that what he had chosen as his personal coat of arms was unacceptable. All things considered, however, the response from the Chapter was remarkably tactful, with a particularly artful argument to exclude the emblems that appeared on three of the four quarters:

Considering among other things, that the Coat-of-Arms of a knight cannot include a sign solely referring to a period of his life, after the knighthood was bestowed upon him, the draft (1) [provided by Whitman] cannot be used in its present form. Furthermore, it is not advisable to divide the Coat-of-Arms into sections, inasmuch as a Coat-of-Arms thus divided as a rule originated by collecting the Coat-of-Arms or symbols of several persons or families. Based on the draft (1), the Chapter of the Order has prepared the enclosed draft (2) of the President's Coat-of-Arms as Knight of the Order of the Elephant.

The Chapter's draft reverted to something that was probably similar to DuBois' original proposal. It eliminated everything except the inescutcheon with the anvil from Knudsen's design and changed the color of the anvil from black to blue, with the explanation that a black anvil on gold would imply black and gold mantling for the helmet, thus making black the predominant color in the entire arms. The five stars, which had migrated to the second quarter in Knudsen's first pattern and then, in miniature, to the lower two quarters in the design submitted to the Chapter of the Royal Orders, were removed from the shield and moved up to become the crest atop the helmet.

This simple and elegant design was promptly approved by President Eisenhower without any known comment, suggesting that he must have been relieved to be done with the whole business. The royal herald painter produced the beautiful rendering seen below, which Eisenhower viewed on a visit to Denmark in 1962 after he had left office. Other than that, however, there is no evidence that he ever made use of the arms or took any particular interest in them once they were accepted by the Order.

Eisenhower Arms, Frederiksborg Castle  Photograph by Sunil Saigal
Eisenhower Arms, Frederiksborg Castle 
Photograph by Sunil Saigal

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What Is the Status of Eisenhower's Arms?

With much of the literature on heraldry in the English language being written from an English or Scottish perspective, it is frequently asked whether a particular coat of arms was granted by a sovereign authority, as British arms are, or "merely" assumed by the person bearing it. Implicit in the question is often a presumption that only granted arms are "real," while assumed arms are "bogus." The Eisenhower arms provide an excellent opportunity to examine these assumptions in some detail, since a number of American and British writers have struggled to place these arms in one category or the other. Some writers have described the Eisenhower arms as assumed, while others have characterized them as "assigned" by the Chapter of the Royal Orders. The distinguished American heraldist Dom Wilfred Bayne went so far as to assert that the arms were actually conferred by the King acting through the Chapter. The following summarizes a discussion of this matter provided by Peter Kurrild-Klitgaard, a leading expert on Danish heraldry, in response to a query by the author.

In general, the Danish Crown or government has not granted coats-of-arms by letters patent or documents of similar status other than to hereditary nobles. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but since the early 18th century they have all involved families that have inherited an entailed estate erected by a noble family. Otherwise, there are hardly any rules in Danish public law regulating the use of coats-of-arms by anyone other than the monarch and public bodies. Throughout Danish history, coats-of-arms have been freely assumed by non-nobles, even in the medieval period, and have never been generally regulated.

According to the statutes of the Danish royal orders, someone who is made a Knight of the Elephant or a Knight Grand Cross of the Dannebrog is obliged to submit a drawing of his or her coat-of-arms and a motto. This is the case for both Danes and foreigners. Barring obvious deficiencies, such as those in the proposed Eisenhower arms submitted in 1954, the arms provided by the knights in response to this requirement are accepted by the Chapter of the Orders, entered into its records, painted in the armorial of the order concerned, which are maintained at the Chancery at the Gule Palais in Copenhagen, and painted on shields that are placed in the chapel of the orders at Frederiksborg Castle.

But what happens when the person has no coat of arms? Since the reorganization of the Orders in 1808, the Chancery has helped non-armigerous knights devise arms for themselves. Advice and research has occasionally been provided by the official Historiographer of the Royal Orders, by the Royal Arms Painter, and by various other office holders, as well as others from outside the chancery, such as the person functioning in the role of Heraldic Councillor to the Danish State. It was probably one or more of these individuals who advised Eisenhower to simplify the design of his coat-of-arms. 

But this advice and assistance does not constitute a royal grant of arms. So what then is the status of a coat-of-arms entered into the records and armorials of the Danish Royal Orders? It does not have any protection in Danish law against usurpation, any more than arms assumed by anyone else. While under the statutes of the royal orders the Chapter remains a "separate institute" under the Crown, independent of the government, having arms entered in its books is in no way comparable in legal terms to having arms entered in the Public Register of All Arms and Bearings in Scotland’s Lyon Office, for example. On the other hand, it would be difficult not to consider such newly devised arms, recognized by the Danish monarch and his or her officers, entered into the official armorials of the orders and hung in the chapel of the orders in accordance with various written and unwritten rules going back over 300 years as possessing a status far superior to that of arms that are simply assumed without such royal sanction and approval.

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A Final Note

Whenever the subject of foreign orders of knighthood conferred on Americans comes up, the question is always asked, "Isn't it unconstitutional for Americans to accept foreign titles of nobility?" The Constitution does indeed provide in article I, section 9, clause 8, that "no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State." Obviously the Order of the Elephant and the other honors General Eisenhower received fall under this provision, and obviously he was a person holding an office of profit or trust when the order was conferred. However, Congress had given its consent for American military personnel to accept such orders and decorations in an act of July 20, 1942, which provided "that officers and enlisted men of the armed forces of the United States be, and they are hereby, authorized during the present war and for a year thereafter to accept from the governments of cobelligerent nations or the other American republics such decorations, orders, medals, and emblems as may be tendered them, and which are conferred by such governments upon members of their own military forces." Eisenhower was on perfectly solid legal ground in accepting the Order of the Elephant and his numerous other honors.

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  • American College of Heraldry. The Heraldic Register of America, registration no. 289.
  • Bayne, Dom William Wilfred, OSB. "The Heraldic Art of the Reverend Dom William Wilfred Bayne, OSB," Heraldic Monograph Series of the American Society of Heraldry, No. 1. [N.P.]: American Society of Heraldry, 1967.
  • Committee on Heraldry. New England Historic Genealogical Society. A Roll of Arms Registered by the Committee on Heraldry of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Eighth Part, 1972. Boston: Committee on Heraldry, 1972. Registration no. 565.
  • Chandler, Alfred D., Jr., and Louis Galambos, eds. The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower, Vol VI. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.
  • Eisenhower Library. Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower. Johns Hopkins Publication Project, Presidency Files. Chronological files April 16-May 10, 1954. Case files on DDE letters to Knudsen, 4/27/54 and 5/3/54, documents copied from coat of arms folder, Ann Whitman file.
  • Kurrild-Klitgaard, Peter. Personal e-mail communication to Joseph McMillan. December 19, 2005.
  • Påhlsson, Leif. Letter. The Coat of Arms VII (1962), p. 348.
  • Rangel, Marc A. "The Arms of Eisenhower." The Coat of Arms VII (1962), pp. 25-28.

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