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  • Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors by Benjamin H. Irvin
  • James Kirby Martin
Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors. By Benjamin H. Irvin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. xii plus 378 pp. $34.95).

In so many ways, Benjamin H. Irvin’s study is a fascinating, amazing book. The author focuses on the Continental Congress from 1774 to the mid-1780s, not so much on political matters, but rather on the ways in which this Revolutionary body sought “to devise symbols and rituals” in what was a haphazard effort “to invent an identify for the United States.” Congress’s purpose, writes Irvin, was “to unify the former colonists and to situate the United States among other sovereign nations.” (16). What follows are a series of detailed vignettes that range in content from the designing of Continental currency, thanks to Benjamin Franklin and Francis Hopkinson, the commissioning of statues memorializing such fallen heroes as Joseph Warren and Richard Montgomery, the fashioning of protocols in formal gatherings with such French diplomatic emissaries as Conrad-Alexandre Gérard and Anne César de La Luzerne, and the official but often muted annual celebrating of independence among other matters resonating with semiotic significance.

One strength of Irvin’s presentation is his exploration of the interactive process between the activities of Congress and the people out of doors. Early on, for example, delegates attending the first Congress in 1774 adopted a comprehensive boycott of British trade goods. This Continental Association, like earlier boycotts, helped unite “Americans in reciprocal acts of consumer self-denial” and “reciprocal acts of moral self-denial” (32). On the other hand, many Congressional leaders believed their public stature should elevate them above homespun in favor wearing the latest fashions, traveling in well-adorned carriages, and attending plays and ostentatious social events. The ordinary people of Philadelphia, as Irvin demonstrates, especially after the economy worsened in 1775, were in no mood to permit “the imperative of statesmanlike fashionability” to trump “the imperative to patriotic sacrifice” (43). Thus when Congressional leaders announced that a gala ball would be held at the City Tavern to honor Martha Washington, then passing through Philadelphia on her way to join husband George and Continental forces outside Boston, anonymous persons began threatening local folk would tear down the tavern before allowing such an unnecessarily extravagant social occasion to take place. Congressional leaders [End Page 797] canceled the event, and Martha went on her way. By such actions, concludes the author, Philadelphia’s common people established the point that even Congress in “its social affairs and civic events” should “promote a spirit of simplicity and austerity” (51) consistent with the rhetoric of personal self-sacrifice that was at the core of the Revolution’s ideals.

A theme that runs throughout relates to Congress’s inability to support various signs, emblems, and symbols that could cover up its actual powerlessness as a political body. If anything, repeated attempts to gain respect proved self-defeating, since Congress had virtually no authority over the sovereign states, besides having to reckon with serious revenue shortfalls. When dealing with the Continental army, for example, Congress occasionally offered swords and medals as rewards for valiant service but often lacked the income to purchase these emblems of valor. Under Washington’s leadership, the army did accept its subordination to civil authority but also would often question Congress’s competence. As Irvin points out, many times the officers expressed their contempt for Congressional rulings against perceived frivolities, as related to the theme of virtuous self-sacrifice, by sponsoring and attending dancing assemblies and plays. While still resident at Valley Forge, “the army conspicuously upstaged the Continental Congress” in May 1778 “by feting the Franco-American alliance in such high fashion” (225). In addition, argues Irvin, once the war ended the officers organized their controversial Society of the Cincinnati with its own signs, symbols, and public awards, partially as a way to express their sense of greater importance vis-#x00E0;-vis the often toothless Congress in seeing the Revolution through to military victory.

Irvin’s text covers a broad...


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