A social and cultural historian of British North America and the United States, Benjamin H. Irvin is the executive editor of the Journal of American History and an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. His primary research interests include national identity, the federal state, gender, disability, and law in the revolutionary era and in the early republic. His first book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (2011), examines the material culture and ceremonies of state—including, for example, fast days, funeral processions, diplomatic protocols, and presentment swords—by which Congress promoted armed resistance and independence. Central to his study are the many ways that the American people challenged Congress and its vision of the United States. His next book project concerns masculinity, disability, class, and citizenship among veterans of the Revolutionary War. Focusing particularly on the family relations and occupational pursuits of impaired soldiers and officers as well as their efforts to obtain invalid pensions from state and federal governments, Irvin’s investigation illuminates the many ways that political ideologies, social norms, medical technologies, labor practices, bureaucratic infrastructures, and domestic arrangements shaped veterans' experiences as they struggled to subsist in Jefferson's yeoman republic. In support of this project, Irvin spent spring 2014 as the Emilia Galli Struppa Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and 2016-2017 as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
This lecture examines the material culture and ceremonies of state—including, for example, funeral processions, diplomatic protocols, and presentment swords—by which the Continental Congress endeavored to rally the American people for war against Great Britain and to legitimate the infant United States. The congressmen who gathered in the Pennsylvania State House readily perceived that the former British colonists, who had long adorned their lives with emblems of Hanoverian monarchy, required a new iconography with which to imagine a nation. They likewise understood that if the United States were, in the language of the Declaration, “to assume, among the powers of the earth, [a] separate and equal station,” the upstart Congress would first have to assume the trappings of a sovereign government. Yet, the American public did not passively accept Congress’s visions of nationhood. Rather, the people out of doors often rioted or staged richly demonstrative street protests in order to challenge the symbols and rituals by which Congress asserted authority.