- Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors
Benjamin Irvin provides a compelling analysis of the Continental Congress’s struggle to establish sovereign authority during the American Revolution. In attempting to garner respect for a quasi-national government, Irvin argues, Congress attempted to appeal to a national identity through the construction of new symbols, rituals, holidays, and public ceremonies. In order for them to work, however, these “invented traditions” needed the acceptance of the “people out of doors,” without whom the Congress and this new nation could never exist, at least cohesively (5). The “people out of doors,” particularly Philadelphians, Irvin posits, did not willingly accept all of Congress’s creations, but instead confirmed, debated, rejected, and tailored the symbols and fêtes of Congress to fit their own views of the new nation. [End Page 317] Together, Irvin contends, Congress and the “people out of doors” fashioned “a revolution in America’s national identity” (10).
Members of the Continental Congress attempted to shape a national identity using their own cultural lexicon and in their own self-perceived image. The goals were twofold: to encourage within the people allegiance to the nation, while at the same time bolstering the authority of a gentry class to govern the nascent republic. The behavioral practices Congress demanded, the images it designed, and the fêtes it approved, “employed material wealth and polite sociability” in order to establish the gentry’s “prerogative to rule” (24). For example, Irvin argues that Congress’s enactment of the Continental Association in 1774, which was an attempt to govern the manners of the people by proscribing luxurious consumption and popular diversions, was also part of a concerted effort to establish the core of a republican ethos that garnered loyalty to the American cause and its new government. The association, according to Irvin, “bore the power to promote a collective, even a national, consciousness.” But this “consciousness,” Irvin argues, was also “borne of an impulse to preserve Anglo-American social hierarchy” by hardening “distinctions of class, race, and gender.” Restrictions on the consumption of tea, for example, targeted women in an effort to promote “masculine virtue” in the face of “effeminate luxury” (32, 34, 36).
Congress attempted to affirm this circumscribed identity through a host of symbols and rituals. Congress commissioned Benjamin Franklin to print a currency with symbols encouraging “righteousness, industry, and fortitude” (77). Heraldic depictions of royal authority were replaced with images such as a hand-threshing grain and mottos like “Mind Your Business,” which, Irvin claims, aimed to reform human behavior (86). Like the association and currency, some of the public celebrations promoted by Congress, such as Independence Day festivities, days of fasting and thanksgiving, and funerals for deceased members of Congress, were all imbued with a similar “patriotic sentiment” (8).
Not every public display of sovereignty drew on such austerity. In an excellent section on congressional diplomacy, Irvin shows how republican ideals competed with the exigency of establishing the United States on the world stage as a sovereign power and gaining wartime assistance from European allies. Diplomacy mandated pomp, ceremony, lavish dinners, and even seemingly royal gesticulations. Nothing seemed further from the republicanism of the association or the symbols on Franklin’s Continental bills than [End Page 318] a congressionally planned parade with French ambassador Conrad-Alexander Gerard riding toward the State House in the United States’ coach-and-six accompanied by a retinue of local officials. Even more telling, once inside the State House, Gerard met a literally elevated President of Congress, Henry Laurens, who sat in an ornate mahogany armchair set up on a platform in imitation of monarchical authority. According to Irvin, “having seen the king of England on his throne,” many congressmen, especially southern delegates, “would not relinquish the monarchical conceit that national glory resided in the exalted body of a supreme ruler” (175).
For all the planning and public fêtes, however, Congress’s efforts failed on several levels. By...