- Diversionary Tactics and Coercive Acts: John Burgoyne’s Fête Champêtre
On Thursday the 9th of June 1774, General John Burgoyne, of Saratoga fame, arranged an elaborate Fête Champêtre at the Oaks, in Surrey, to celebrate the wedding of his nephew Lord Edward Stanley and Lady Elizabeth Hamilton. The guests included the foremost men and women of the kingdom and this seemingly trivial gathering of fashionable society was the subject of extensive reporting in the newspapers. Lengthy descriptions of the event were published under the title of “Oaks Gazette Extraordinary” in the Public Advertiser, The Morning Chronicle, and in The Gentleman’s Magazine. The title is important because the supplemental texts which were added to the papers as “Gazette Extraordinaries” were generally devoted to political or military news, and thus this text was signaling that something more than the pleasure of the elite was at stake on this evening. If the title implies that Burgoyne’s Fête Champêtre is an event of some consequence, an editorial note to The Gentleman’s Magazine’s printing of the “Oaks Gazette Extraordinary” speaks directly to charges of triviality which, despite the infiltration of cultural analysis into all manner of practices, continues to inhere: “those who may think the repetition of this rural festival beneath the notice of a periodical work intended to record the principal transactions of the times, will, perhaps, be of another opinion, when they recollect that [End Page 133] it is from the gravest authors we learn the diversions of the ancients.”1 The editors of The Gentleman’s Magazine are making an argument more specific and more profound than that simply implied by the title. To suggest that this report is comparable to similar passages in the ancients is to argue not only that the magazine itself is recording a history comparable to that of the Roman empire, but also that this “diversion” tells us something about the current imperial situation.
The term “diversion” here is significant because, as the Oxford English Dictionary indicates, it constitutes the “turning away of the thoughts, attention, etc., from fatiguing or sad occupations, with implication of pleasurable excitement; distraction, recreation, amusement, entertainment.” As Richard Steele indicated in Tatler no. 89, “Diversion, which is a kind of forgetting our selves, is but a mean Way of Entertainment.”2 Steele’s usage emphasizes that a diversion is an entertainment, however facile, that instantiates forgetting. Implicit in these definitions is a recognition that diversion is fundamentally connected to sadness or aggravation, and even in its enactment is but a temporary abatement of displeasure.3 The Gentleman’s Magazine text subtly reinforces this point when it emphasizes the relationship between accounts of diversion and the gravity of ancient authors. In that term “gravity” lurks a historical shadow.
The “Oaks Gazette Extraordinary” makes a great deal of General Burgoyne’s management of the Fête Champêtre, and I would argue that the reiteration of his involvement in the event immediately prior to the editorial argument for its historical importance is not coincidental. It is important to remember that during the months when this celebration was being organized, Burgoyne was an active parliamentarian working with Lord North, a notable participant in the fête, to pass the Coercive Acts. When news of the Boston Tea Party reached Britain in January of 1774, the ministry moved quickly to punish the residents of Massachusetts by passing the The Boston Port Act on March 31, The Administration of Justice Act on May 20, The Quartering Act on June 2, 1774, and The Quebec Act on June 16. A quick glance at The Gentleman’s Magazine for 1774, or any of the dailies in this period, reveals that the press was overwhelmed with discussions of how best to discipline the American colonies. And these parliamentary measures, quickly re-named the Intolerable Acts by the colonists, not only instantiated further insurrection and revolutionary organization among the residents of Massachusetts, but also precipitated widespread resistance in the arena of colonial print culture.4
Burgoyne and Stanley were strident advocates for military intervention in America.5 On April 19, 1774, in a widely reported speech...