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  • “Raising the Roof”: Authors, Spectators and Artisans in the Grand Federal Procession of 1788
  • Laura Rigal (bio)

[A]ll European processions . . . yield, in the effect of pleasure, to our hasty exhibition . . . The whole of this vast body was formed, and the entertainment of the day conducted with a regularity and decorum far beyond all reasonable expectation. The footways, the windows, and roofs of the houses were crowded with spectators, exhibiting a spectacle truly magnificent and irresistibly animating. But what was more pleasing, . . . universal love and harmony prevailed and every countenance appeared to be the index of a heart glowing with urbanity and rational joy . . . Such is the difference between the effects of a republican and monarchical government on the minds of men. 1

—Benjamin Rush, The American Museum, or Repository, July 1788

In the spring and summer of 1788, a series of “Federal Processions” were held in North American seaports from Charleston to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. As the Constitution of 1787 was ratified in state after state, triumphant Federalists in each capital city celebrated with toasts, dinners, rounds of gunfire, and a street parade. By the early summer of 1788, when it became clear that the Constitution would be ratified by ten of the thirteen former colonies, Philadelphia began to plan a national celebration. Called “The Grand Federal Procession,” Philadelphia’s parade was scheduled to coincide with the Fourth of July. Drawing on diverse European and Euro-American processional traditions, including the recent state processions, the Philadelphia parade put the city’s craftsmen, or mechanical artists, at the center of its structure and meaning.

Winding through the streets between 9:30 and 12:30 on a cloudy Fourth of July morning, the Grand Federal Procession of 1788 was an extended pun on political representation as craft production and on the newly written and ratified Constitution as well-constructed “fabric,” “frame,” and “edifice.” More than forty-five of the city’s crafts or trades marched at its center, arranged “promiscuously” (“equality being the [End Page 253] basis of the constitution” 2 ) and divided by “troops of light cavalry, infantry and militia” from each other, and from the other “ranks” ahead or behind them (government officials, city merchants, ministers, university teachers, and students). Contemporary published accounts of the Procession united in reiterating the parade’s meaning: on the grounds of American manufacturing, anything and everything could be made federal, and a universe of things and persons collected—or assembled—under the newly “raised” Federal roof.

Compounding various Euro-American festival and civic functions, Philadelphia’s Federal Procession descended in part from the organizational forms, emblematic devices, and mechanical wonders of British craft processions, Lord Mayor’s Day celebrations, and the European ceremonial tradition of “the Triumph.” 3 It descended as well from a colonial and American Revolutionary tradition of street parades, marches, and rituals. 4 Street performances and crowd action had been staples of urban political practice during the Revolution. However, the extra-legal street activity of the 1760s and 70s had not infrequently resulted in assaults on buildings or persons. It was [End Page 254] precisely this kind of local, ad hoc activism which the Grand Federal Procession was to supplant in a republican show of Union. 5

Chaired by Federalist poet and Justice of the Admiralty Francis Hopkinson, Philadelphia’s “Committee of Arrangement” aimed to eliminate both “spirituous liquors” and the collusion of crowds in order to create awe and silence, and to constitute “political joy.” As a republican civic ceremony, the Grand Federal Procession consciously distinguished itself from the street genres of colonial protest and crowd action. As such, it addressed itself to an “extended,” newly national audience of marchers and spectators. Hopkinson estimated the numbers at “five thousand in the line of the Procession and seventeen thousand” at the feast (a “cold collation”) on the “Union Green” at parade’s end. 6 And the spectacle both presumed and reached an even more extended audience via print, through newspaper accounts and their reprinting in miscellanies and magazines such as Matthew Carey’s American Museum, or Repository of Ancient and Modern Fugitive Pieces, &c for July of 1788.

Carey’s Museum is our single...

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pp. 253-277
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