Religion, Rhetoric, and Ritual in the Political Culture of the Early American Republic, 1776–1815

AHA Session 230
Sunday, January 6, 2013: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Roosevelt Ballroom II (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Matthew Dennis, University of Oregon
Matthew Dennis, University of Oregon

Session Abstract

Over the past two decades, scholarship on the early republic has revealed many sites for public ritual and the creation of nationalist sentiments such as the Fourth of July, thanksgiving celebrations, election-day festivities, parades, and other events.  While some historians have argued that such events led to the development of a particular brand of nationalism, others have posited that these celebrations created a distinct sense of American identity which changed along with the needs of the nation. Many scholars of the period have noted the plethora of rituals the new nation created and this panel proposes to look at several under traditional rituals which the early republic reappropriated.  This panel chaired by Dr. Matthew Dennis, views rituals, such as oaths, election sermon rhetoric, or the celebration of Pope’s Day, as contested and artificial creations employed for political purpose.  Because these rituals were contested events, examining them provides valuable insight into the political and cultural climate of the age.  These papers speak both to recent trends in ritual theory and on the political culture of the early American republic.  Scholars of ritual theory such as Philippe Buc have criticized the study of ritual which describes cultural norms or social behaviors without acknowledging that ritual constantly evolves and changes based on the needs and desires of its participants; a challenge which all three of these papers take on.  Following the work of Matthew Dennis, David Waldstreicher, Jeff Pasley, and others, these papers also examine new sources of knowledge on the political culture of the early republic. 

In the opening paper, Tara Thompson Strauch examines oath rituals during the American Revolution in order to understand the ritual George Washington performed at his 1789 inauguration.  As states created their own constitutions and laws, decisions over the form and procedure of oaths reflected an attempt to expand citizenship without sacrificing national virtue.  Washington’s oath, which involved placing one hand on the Bible and adding “So help me, God” to the end, represented both an acknowledgement of America’s ecumenicalism and God’s role in American government. 

Spencer McBride’s paper looks at the intersection of politics and ritual from another perspective by investigating the ways in which rhetoric about Jefferson’s religious beliefs shaped the 1796 and 1800 elections.  McBride focuses on Election Day sermons which offered up objections to Jefferson’s deism and questions whether these sermons truly doubted his fitness for office on the basis of religion or if they covered clergymen’s political objections as well.  

Kevin Doyle closes this panel with a paper which probes the continuation of Pope’s Day celebrations in the early republic.  While many scholars have assumed that the holiday lost importance once America declared independence, Doyle argues that the day took on new meaning in the late eighteenth century as American citizens collectively celebrated how the day had incited protests during the struggle with Britain during the Stamp Act, Quebec Act, Tea Act, and the Revolution itself.

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