Monday, August 8, 2011

Symbolic revolt

In Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors, Benjamin H. Irvin describes an American Revolution that didn't quite work out

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty tells the story of an unsuccessful experiment: the attempt by the infant government of the United States to create a semiotics of the American Revolution. We all know that the Founding Fathers were masters of the English language (one part of their patrimony they could never forsake). The attendant attempt to create a national system of symbols and rituals to go along with manifestos like the Declaration of Independence preoccupied figures no less than John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. From the mid-1770s to the mid 1780s, a period spanning the formation of the First Continental Congress to the Treaty of Paris, government leaders declared holidays, struck medals, built monuments, created currency, and took other steps to culturally institutionalize their government. But while some of these steps toward creating what Benedict Anderson has famously called "imagined communities" had an effect temporarily, very few of them ever took root.

As Benjamin Irvin, assistant professor of history at the University of Arizona, explains, there are a number of reasons why. Perhaps the most important in his view is that that the people -- make that the People -- had an unofficial vote in the adoption of collective symbols, and didn't passively accept what their leaders handed them. So a parade might turn into a riot, for example. Ordinary people could also send messages of their own. Irvin's first chapter describes an episode when Congressional leaders were forced to cancel a ball to be held in Philadelphia to mark the arrival of Martha Washington, because they were warned that such frivolity, which appeared to contradict Congress's own pronouncements about frugality, led to threats that the tavern where the event was to be held would be attacked. Irvin uses the phrase "the people out of doors," which has become something of a buzz phrase among scholars of the period, to describe such dynamics.

Perhaps the most vivid of Irvin's case studies involves Franklin's creation of U.S. currency. A former engraver, he was the obvious choice for the task, and one to which he brought a distinctively Poor Richard sensibility. Franklin's bills included hands trying up uproot thorny bushes (of oppression), harps with thirteen strings, busy beavers, and thrift-minded phrases like "Mind Your Business," all reprinted in the book. Alas, the American people didn't buy them, literally or figuratively. Continental currency depreciated rapidly, and ultimately had to be replaced (under contentious terms) because its image had decayed so severely.

A second reason why Revolutionary symbolism came up short is that opponents of the new regime had resources of their own. Irvin describes the efforts of clergymen, poets, and other Tory figures who satirized, lampooned, or otherwise attacked efforts to create language and symbols for the new nation-state. Such opponents often resorted to racial, class and gender imagery, casting Patriots as henpecked husbands, uncouth hillbillies, or people little more civilized than savage Indians. (An early emblem of the United States had a frontiersman with a tomahawk; that was soon dropped.) 

Finally, the leadership elite of the Revolution had their own internal tensions, even contradictions. Though Irvin believes it was sometimes exaggerated, lingering Puritan strains in New England culture lent a spartan air to Revolutionary imagery, and led to injunctions against cultural practices like theater and gambling, which were more common and acceptable in the South. And republican notions of simplicity often clashed with the imperatives of foreign policy, where the Americans grappled with unfamiliar French opulence and a desire to be taken seriously that required demonstrations of grandeur on their part.

By the closing years of the Revolution, Congress had largely exhausted its resources, financial and otherwise. Its attempts to buy goodwill from the Continental Army with swords and commendations proved no substitute for adequate pay, and the strains between the military and politicians were dangerously near the breaking point. When victory came, it was the army and the French, not Congress, that led the way in celebration.

In years to come, the defining symbols of American life, such as the National Anthem, imagery of Uncle Sam, and other pieces of iconography would emerge more indigenously. Ironically, the one durable cultural practice of the Revolution -- commemorating Independence Day -- had gone into eclipse when before war was over, and there was uncertainty about just when to celebrate it. (Adams believed July 2 would be the day that would be immortalized.) It would have been helpful for Irvin to run this story a forward a bit more, and help us understand a little more clearly how a national semiotic order finally did take shape. He also might have done more with a surprising obvious omission here: the evolution of the American flag.

Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty is nevertheless a carefully researched and elegantly executed book. The individual chapters are usefully segmented and can stand on their own, but the whole also adds up to more than the sum of its parts. This is a fine addition to the cultural history of the American Revolution.