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  • The MeschianzaSum of All Fêtes
  • David S. Shields and Fredrika J. Teute

The Meschianza, Hannah Griffitts, Sir William Howe, John Andre, Anthony Wayne, American Revolutionary War, Philadelphia, Benedict Arnold, William Dunlap, Susanna Rowson

“The Meschianza. What is it?” asked a Philadelphian in May of 1779. Hannah Griffitts, a Quaker wit, provided a poetic answer:

A shameful scene of dissipation,The death of sense and reputationA deep degeneracy of natureA Frolick, for the lash of Satire;A feast of grandeur, fit for Kings,Formed of the following empty things:Ribbons and gewgaws, tints and tinsel,To glow beneath the Historic Pencil.1

We take up the Historic Pencil to render what it was. We presume that Griffitts was right: that there was something historic about the Meschianza, something that marked a crisis in Anglo-American culture. Did it murder sense? No—but it certainly assaulted it. Did it mean the death of reputation? Perhaps. Certainly reputation became such a theatrical matter that after the Meschianza who stood for what was open to question.

One reputation very much in question was that of Sir William Howe, commander of the British Army during the Revolution. In an important [End Page 185] respect, the Meschianza was for him, a party to assuage the pain of his resignation from command.2

Twenty-two of his officers subscribed £3,312 to underwrite a pageant bidding him farewell and to distract him from the chorus of criticism sounding in the metropolitan gazettes. The solidarity of his subordinates in celebrating him, and the extravagance of their exertions, would testify that the failures of British arms in North America were not his failures. No incompetent could command so conspicuous a loyalty.

The eighteen-hour extravaganza was held on the Wharton estate outside of British-occupied Philadelphia on May 18, 1778. It included a regatta, a costumed mock-medieval tournament, a fête champêtre, a feast, a ball, a fireworks display, and scripted testimonies to the departing commander.

The name Meschianza attested to the mixed nature of the entertainment—it was a salmagundi of martial ceremony, theater, masquerade, political ritual, and heterosocial rite. It was quite literally the sum of all fêtes, a performance that encompassed the entirety of the theater of British civility.

Yet, that the performance could not be harmonized—that its disjunctions of symbolism and action prevented it from being identified as something other than a mixture—makes it the event par excellence where we can discover the crisis in manners that troubled Anglo–American culture at the end of the eighteenth century. In the contradictions of parts and scenes we can find leads explaining What It Was.3

Of the contradictions, the starkest was that of the British staging a [End Page 186] mock fight—a chivalric tourney—precisely when critics were complaining that the British war effort in America was more charade than war. It was not the regatta that provoked their malediction. London had entertained itself each July since 1775 with annual aquatic processions up the Thames lauding the empire of the seas. No—the offense was the spectacle of British staff officers tricked out in French medieval court costumes (not armor, not English garb), formed into rival cohorts—the Knights of the Burning Mountain, the Knights of the Blended Rose—making passes at one another on horseback with lances, for the regard of rival groups of American girls, and fighting to a draw.4

Whig critics, such as Israel Mauduit, wondered whether luxury and the officers’ absorption with the cult of gentility had robbed them of both sense and manhood.5 There can be little doubt that the officers’ choice of a tourney as the focal event of the entertainment was calculated. Their choice of an open-air event—a fête champêtre—reflected a desire to be au courant with the latest rage in elite pastimes.6

Indeed, one of their own, General John Burgoyne, was largely responsible for initiating the British fashion for fêtes. His dramatic entertainment, The Maid of the Oaks (Drury Lane, November 5, 1774), first put an outdoor festival on stage. Novelties such as mock rustic games, a druidic...