Roundtable Sacralizing Rebels, Riots, and Rituals: Early Veneration of the American Revolution

AHA Session 211
Saturday, January 8, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Grand Ballroom Salon A (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Simon Finger, McNeil Center for Early American Studies
Zara Anishanslin, College of Staten Island, City University of New York , Katherine Jorgensen Gray, Johns Hopkins University and Elizabeth Milroy, Wesleyan University
Simon Finger, McNeil Center for Early American Studies

Session Abstract

Session Abstract:

Rebels, Riots, and Rituals:

Early Veneration of the American Revolution

What a society celebrates as most sacred to its history is, at times, found entirely outside the realm of the religious.  In keeping with the conference theme of “History, Society, and the Sacred,” our panel considers one such secular sacralization.  Using a wide range of interdisciplinary evidence—from a popular wallpaper illustrating America as an Indian princess to a wooden Iroquois “manitoe face” mask burned in a military skirmish—our panel looks at how early Americans venerated one of the most formative of their historical events:  the American Revolution. 

American reverence for the Revolution is hardly a new (or a surprising) notion.  Since the Revolution itself, Americans have celebrated their war for independence, and a cursory scan of current popular culture finds the American Revolution invoked on everything from signs carried in grassroots protests to Facebook quizzes.  Like the American people themselves, historians have long discussed the Revolution and the veneration of it as a defining historical moment.  Historians like David Waldstreicher and Simon Newman, for example, have ably demonstrated how early Americans used public celebrations memorializing the Revolution to unite the early body politic.  Much of this scholarship, however, relies upon the written record and rhetoric of officially organized and very public ritual.  Building on such scholarship, this panel also considers the early story of the American fascination with the Revolution by looking at how Americans in the revolutionary and early republican periods went about sacralizing their rebellion against Great Britain—how they venerated the rebels, celebrated the riots, and commemorated the rituals at the heart of the American Revolution.  

In contrast to previous scholarship, however, our panel relies on different forms of evidence to consider previously unexplored sites—and formerly unexamined sociopolitical consequences—of revolutionary veneration.  This panel goes beyond the rhetorical and documentary record to employ a wide range of visual and material culture evidence.  For example, papers by Zara Anishanslin and Philip Mead examine how Americans memorialized the revolution through the use of visual and material culture like prints and wallpaper, and military trophies, respectively.  The papers also find early American revolutionary celebration in sites well outside the realm of the official and publicly political, in places as unexpected as the commercial pleasure gardens Elizabeth Milroy explores.  Finally, the papers uncover the outcomes such celebrations had beyond the purely political, as in Katherine J. Gray’s look at how flag ceremonies supported conservative family politics and youthful heterosexual norms.  Together, the papers offer a way to rethink the standard history of how early Americans sacralized and celebrated their Revolution.

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