- Celebrating the Republic: Presidential Ceremony and Popular Sovereignty, from Washington to Monroe
An underappreciated area of inquiry into political life that is largely ceded to television pundits is the study of how acceptable rules of appropriateness for pragmatic politics are formulated, followed, and altered. The political use of presidential spectacle is a prime example: few doubt that the presidency’s prominent visibility lends the office opportunities for shaping popular opinion, but a full exploration of what kinds of spectacle suits both public taste and political principle has yet to be written. Why is it, for instance, that presidents’ appearances before Congress more closely resemble those of the British monarch before Parliament than the Prime Minister’s Question Hour? Clearly, the former benefit presidents’ political agendas, but it undermines the US’s theoretical claims about the nature of intra-branch relations.
That’s why Sandra Moats’s book is so important; Celebrating the Republic documents presidential spectacle from Washington to Monroe, centering on the presidential tours of Washington and Monroe, events that she persuasively argues were fraught with significance as Americans were still struggling to understand what it meant to be governed by a president rather than by a king. What is really valuable here is the meditation on the role of public spectacle in representing the regime’s values, and the gritty political calculations that go into devising such events. They understood that their behavior sent important messages about the nature of their power and their political goals. It was not enough, Moats argues, for presidents to engage in ceremony; they had to carefully read both royal precedent and the popular mood of a new republic to determine how to present themselves publicly in appropriate ways. The result was a pastiche of maneuvers that both borrowed from and rejected royal pageantry as presidents sought to instill respect for their position while simultaneously assuring citizens of their adherence to republican principles. Washington, in particular, carefully worked to strike the right balance between authority and approachability in the events he attended, the houses he rented, even the clothes he wore. Reminding readers of the partisan valence of such acts, Moats recounts Jefferson’s deliberate reversal of Washington’s style in almost every detail, only to see his successor and protégé Monroe resurrect it as he tried to ceremoniously unite Federalists and Republicans.
Moats provides rich documentation of presidential travels, including delightful accounts of the lavish public receptions put on by the cities they visited and the perils of travel in the early republic (Monroe even “disappeared” at one point in the wilds of western Georgia). Moats is a historian with an ear for politics, and the descriptions of the inside political maneuvering surrounding these events (especially among those angling to replace Monroe) make the work a valuable read. The connection between the practical and the ceremonial is sometimes lost, but the effect is to remind the reader that the challenges of maintaining one’s political position and simultaneously broadcasting one’s compliance with unspoken rules of behavior—especially for the first executives of the new American republic—are precisely what make the politics of ceremony so complicated, and this kind of study so necessary.