Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors

Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors

Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors

Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors

Synopsis

In 1776, when the Continental Congress declared independence, formally severing relations with Great Britain, it immediately began to fashion new objects and ceremonies of state with which to proclaim the sovereignty of the infant republic.

In this marvelous social and cultural history of the Continental Congress, Benjamin H. Irvin describes this struggle to create a national identity during the American Revolution. The book examines the material artifacts, rituals, and festivities by which Congress endeavored not only to assert its political legitimacy and to bolster the war effort, but ultimately to exalt the United States and to win the allegiance of its inhabitants. Congress, for example, crafted an emblematic great seal, celebrated anniversaries of U.S. independence, and implemented august diplomatic protocols for the reception of foreign ministers. Yet as Irvin demonstrates, Congress could not impose its creations upon a passive American public. To the contrary, "the people out of doors"-broadly defined to include not only the working poor who rallied in the streets of Philadelphia, but all persons unrepresented in the Continental Congress, including women, loyalists, and Native Americans-vigorously contested Congress's trappings of nationhood.
Vividly narrating the progress of the Revolution in Philadelphia and the lived experiences of its inhabitants during the tumultuous war,Clothed in Robes of Sovereigntysharpens our understanding of the relationship between political elites and crowds of workaday protestors as it illuminates the ways in which ideologies of gender, class, and race shaped the civic identity of the Revolutionary United States.

Excerpt

Shortly after adopting the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee “to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.” As members of Congress understood, every political entity—be it a state or, in this instance, a union of states— needed a seal. Bearing ornate, difficult-to-forge devices, seals served the practical purpose of authenticating treaties, commissions, and other formal memoranda. As instruments of executive authority, seals further attested to the dignity and prerogative of sovereigns. The heads of European states possessed distinctive seals, and if the United States were to assume an equal station among the powers of the earth, Congress must possess one too. Writing on July 9, John Adams suggested that the Declaration would not be complete, would not even be suitable for signature, until Congress had affixed a seal: “As soon as an American Seal is prepared,” Adams announced, “the Declaration will be Subscribed by all the Members.”

Yet, seals did not simply validate public documents or warrant princely will. Commonly bearing royal coats of arms, the likenesses of monarchs, or emblems of peoples, seals also gave potent, iconographic expression to nations. In a seal’s waxy imprint materialized the official symbols of national identity. At the moment of independence, Congress perceived an opportunity . . .

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