Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Benjamin H. Irvin's "Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty"

Benjamin H. Irvin is an assistant professor of history at the University of Arizona.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors, and reported the following:
In its efforts to recast American resistance as a holy war, as in its efforts to enlist the memory of the dead in the fight for liberty, Congress met with considerable opposition. Some individuals resented Congress’s attempts to sanctify the American rebellion. Others insisted that Congress hew its politics not toward independence, but rather toward reconciliation. The rituals and observances that Congress inaugurated after the outbreak of war did not fix the meaning or purpose of colonial protest. Rather, they provided opportunities for persons of divergent political beliefs to express their own ideas about the supposed righteousness of the American cause.

“Warlike Musick” broke the Quaker silence. “Uniforms, and Regimentals” swarmed “thick as Bees.”
Unlike earlier histories of the Continental Congress, which focus primarily on the political and constitutional development of that assembly, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty offers a social and cultural history. To strengthen the colonial resistance, to boost morale for an arduous war, and ultimately to dignify the infant United States, the Continental Congress crafted an array of symbolic material objects, ceremonies of state, and public celebrations. These included swords, medals, and statues; seals and emblems; diplomatic protocols; and a calendar of sacred anniversaries and observances. Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty critically interrogates these many artifacts, rituals, and holy days. It further explores the often disobliging reactions of the people out of doors, defined to include not only the working poor who protested in the streets of Philadelphia, but also broader segments of American society disenfranchised by Revolutionary politics, especially loyalists, women, and Native Americans.

In one regard, page 99 brilliantly epitomizes Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty. Falling at the beginning of my fourth chapter, it consists primarily of introductory paragraphs that rearticulate the book’s central themes. Entitled “The Pride and Pomp of War,” chapter 4 opens on the heels of Lexington and Concord. Examining Congress’s efforts to solemnize American military preparations, this chapter features the proclamation of the first continental fast day, derided out of doors as a “Congress Sunday”; a memorial service for General Richard Montgomery, ruined when the Anglican eulogist preached reconciliation instead of independence; and a commemorative medal, commissioned to honor General Washington but also to assert Congress’s supremacy over the Continental Army.

Yet, in its emphasis on the consecration of American arms, page 99 offers but a glimpse of the book. Proceeding chronologically, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty sweeps across the Revolutionary War, investigating among other topics the Articles of Association, which Congress ladened with moral proscriptions against theater and gaming; the continental currency, which Benjamin Franklin adorned with emblems of industry and thrift; the earliest anniversaries of independence, which Philadelphia patriots celebrated by vandalizing the homes of suspected loyalists; and the reception of French minister Conrad-Alexandre Gérard, which a ceremonial committee minutely choreographed both to promote a virtuous republic and to impress the ancien régime. In scrutinizing these phenomena, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty reveals that the Continental Congress could not simply dictate its vision of an American republic. Rather, the people out of doors contested or flatly rejected Congress’s vision as they saw fit.
Learn more about Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue