Military commissions

When reorganizing and rehousing the Muhlenberg Family Papers, I dipped into the oversize cabinet to verify the existence of various items. Diplomas, certificates…and military commissions.

I never gave much thought to the physical attributes of military commissions. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed they were simply letters, perhaps with a few extra flourishes in the script or fiddly bits around the margins, but fairly utilitarian. Not so the Muhlenberg commissions, issued by Presidents Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Lincoln, and Johnson. They are large (as implied by the cabinet in which they are housed), printed on thick paper and clearly intended for display. Generous blank spaces are provided for vital information such as name and rank, and the documents are festooned with illustrations of drapey flags, cannons, and so forth.