Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (review)
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Keywords

Continental Congress, American political culture, Rituals

Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. By Benjamin H. Irvin. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 392. Cloth, $34.95).

In February 2011, hours before the game started, the Fox network began its television coverage of Super Bowl XLV with a video montage featuring current and former NFL players reciting phrases from the Declaration of Independence. Starting in the forum of the National Archives with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and former Secretary of State Colin Powell, players read Jefferson’s words from an assortment of patriotic venues across the United States—in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, on an aircraft carrier, at the Statue of Liberty. This performance was the latest, and most direct, effort to conflate what has become America’s two holiest national days, the Fourth of July and Super Bowl Sunday. After [End Page 700] reading Benjamin Irvin’s book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty, it is clear that had the delegates to the Continental Congress tuned in, they would have loved it. For Congress, Irvin argues, had “dedicated substantial creative energies” (281) to the exact same project of affecting American emotions and trying to inspire patriotic feeling long before Jefferson’s words—now delivered by quarterbacks and former coaches—existed.

Irvin argues that the Continental Congress, through careful, strategic appeals to “emotion, passion, faith, morality, sensibility, and aesthetics,” forwarded “not a volitional model of governance, but rather an affective one” (5). Irvin sets aside studies of Congress that highlight internal factions, diplomatic or military policy decisions, or the philosophical expressions of the rational Enlightenment. Instead, Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty focuses on the material and ceremonial culture that the members of Congress cultivated almost incessantly throughout the Revolution: flags and insignia, anthems and songs, parades and military display, monuments and statues, holidays and commemorations. It is a contribution to the literature on how nations “invent traditions,” a concept most associated with a 1983 collection of essays edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger.1 That book focused on how European authorities attempted to legitimize their rule by wrapping themselves in the mantle of cultural expressions that were thought to be ancient and traditional but were in fact brand new. Irvin explains how the Continental Congress—a body without a shred of constitutional legitimacy or legal standing—began to dedicate an impressive amount of time and resources into the same cultural processes as soon as it convened in the fall of 1774. In these efforts of political culture even more than in policy statements there emerged the shape of what political leaders believed the Revolution was about, Irvin argues. He examines how Congress tried to police public morals in the Continental Association, how they crafted a currency that projected “appropriate” values, and how they approved medals and fast days to solidify unity.

The motivation undergirding all this work was readily apparent, according to Irvin. Although historians have given short shrift to their efforts to mold an American political culture, delegates to Congress understood that many Americans were paying attention. Public trust was [End Page 701] in the balance. How the American people responded to their efforts of cultural suasion was critical to whether or not the resolutions passed by Congress would be followed. Martial resistance, the legitimacy of independence, the promotion of a national identity, the support of public morale: All these depended on how Congress won the battle of political culture.

To illuminate how the public received these efforts, Irvin focuses on the local context of Congress—i.e., how Philadelphians “embraced, rejected, or reconfigured Congress’s offerings as it pleased them” (283). Irvin’s discussions of contested reception are among the best parts of Clothed in Robes, for Congress had many competitors limiting its efforts to establish cultural legitimacy. The first, of course, was “Congress.” That body was never “of a single mind” (282) and fought internally about what constituted proper modes of cultural expenditure. Another competing interest was “the people out-of-doors.” When, for example, Congress decided to sidestep its own rules prohibiting conspicuous display to throw a gala for...