Celebrating the Republic: Presidential Ceremony and Popular Sovereignty, from Washington to Monroe (review)
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Political culture, Early republic, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Presidential history

Celebrating the Republic: Presidential Ceremony and Popular Sovereignty, from Washington to Monroe. By Sandra Moats. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. Pp. 255. Cloth, $36.00.)

During the past two decades, scholarship on the vital roles that public celebrations, memorials, and rituals have played during the early American republic has broadened our understanding of the inextricable intersections between government, the body politic, and cultural life. Studies by Simon P. Newman, Sarah J. Purcell, Len Travers, and David Waldstreicher have explored the ways politicos and common people alike constructed political cultures, civic memory, and, indeed, nationalism itself, out of, for example, George Washington’s birthday fetes, Bunker Hill commemorations, and Independence Day processions. These historians have also located meaning-making contests among varied groups within public festivity, from partisan politicos jockeying for power to disfranchised women and free African Americans struggling to achieve a sense of agency. In this study, an expansion of her 2001 dissertation [End Page 741] about President Monroe’s 1817–1819 national tours, Sandra Moats brings to this ongoing conversation a focus on the positions that the first five presidents—particularly George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe—assumed within this world of political spectacle.1

Celebrating the Republic “tells the story,” according to Moats, “of how our first presidents invented the American political culture that endures today by employing the symbols and rituals they believed best illustrated republican principles to an American citizenry who now possessed sovereign authority over this new national government” (3). The five-chapter-long story reconstructed from published presidents’ papers, congressional documents, and newspapers, is based upon the premise that popular sovereignty was not a “‘fiction,’” and that this “governing principle had to be activated for the new government to succeed” (6). The first two chapters are devoted to Washington, who, beginning with his pre-inaugural procession that approximated a “royal progress” through triumphal arches, appropriated monarchial traditions for republican ends—to reach the sovereign citizenry. His 1789–1791 national tours, graced by receptions, toasting, and speechifying, as well as his open houses, levees, and dinner parties at the capital, provided accessibility, but smacked of aristocratic pretension according to critics. Republicans pounced—none more relentlessly and covertly than Thomas Jefferson, according to Moats—on regal presidential ceremony, even as John Adams was strategically lowering its register during his administration. Assaults upon Federalist-fashioned pomp hardened under Jefferson—the subject of chapter 3—who “adopted an intentionally unadorned public style” (83) that at times made his official hostess, Dolley Madison, flinch. Jefferson’s dismantling of formality, however, “introduced a new generation of voters to a new way of honoring republicanism” (88). While James and Dolley Madison brought back some of the bygone elegance, it was James Monroe who revived Washington’s ceremonial tours—albeit without some of their fussiness and on a larger, more [End Page 742] regionally defined stage that lent distinct local flavor to the proceedings. Chapters 4 and 5 show that although Monroe’s nonpartisan tours were meant to celebrate national unity, they invited last-gasp Federalist rallying in the Northeast, unleashed election-minded Republican horn-tooting in the South and West, and engendered newspaper attacks all around. Moats concludes that the architects of the Second Party System refashioned political ceremony in more democratic ways, but with the same end in mind as their predecessors, namely “putting sovereign citizens in contact with their government” (171).

What is best about this book is that it tells a story, and a well-written, coherent, and entertaining one it is, that plumbs mundane details for their greater significance while revealing the everyday mechanisms behind life in high places. While early-republic historians will recognize some of these anecdotes, Moats weaves them together with new emphasis. Washington’s 1789 oddly endearing questionnaire asking officials’ advice on conducting dinner parties and visiting hours, becomes, in Moats’s hands, a “ceremonial blueprint for his two terms in office” (37). Jefferson’s greeting guests in “slippers and shabby clothing” before formal dinners, signifies a tribute to “republican simplicity” (85). That...