Politics & Policy

The Philadelphia Art Museum’s Revolutionary Exhibit

When the city fell to the enemy.

As today’s tea partiers wave the lemon-yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from the American Revolution, it’s instructive to remember the real age of tea parties. “Art in Revolutionary Philadelphia,” now on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, shows how the British takeover in 1777 of what was then America’s largest city brought wrenching upheavals and confiscation of property — plus one wild night of partying that has never been forgotten.

That October, the armies of George Washington and British general William Howe fought furiously in the Battle of Germantown, on Philadelphia’s outskirts. Genteel citizens nervously watched their teacups rattle from the distant roar of artillery.

Washington lost. His tattered army would spend the winter hunkered down at Valley Forge. Meanwhile Redcoats marched right into the city, down Second Street, the start of a humiliating nine-month military occupation.

As the exhibition explores, Philadelphia was split on the question of independence. After its capture, Patriots high-tailed it while Loyalists reveled in a heady ascendancy. Local gentry watched in astonishment as Howe commandeered the sleekest set of horses in town for his own use, and as a top Prussian general, invited to dinner, spread butter with his thumb.

While Washington shivered in his log hut in the woods at Valley Forge, British officers seized the fanciest townhouses for themselves. Dashing young poet-soldier John André, 27, moved into Benjamin Franklin’s place. The haughty Earl of Carlisle took over the home of pro-independence mayor Samuel Powel, forcing him to occupy back rooms and, insultingly, “go up and down the alley” rather than use his own front door. Today, Powel’s parlor, with its famous rococo plaster ceiling, is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it forms part of this exhibition.

Eventually Howe got recalled to England. As a farewell, André organized the zany Meschianza (or Mischianza) party on May 18, 1778. Its whimsical mock-Italian name hinted at exotic delights as the romantic André painted fabulous stage sets and designed costumes. The most beautiful belles of the city were invited; for them he fashioned Turkish gowns and enormous feathered turbans laced with jewelry and pearls (his drawing of one of these is in the exhibition, alongside a coveted ticket to the bash).

Barges transported Meschianza revelers down the Delaware River in full view of a gawking citizenry. In a huge field, British officers dressed as White Knights of the Blended Rose and Black Knights of the Burning Mountain jousted on horseback in a scene out of the Middle Ages. Then two actors wrestled in the guise of George III and George Washington. Couples danced far into the night in a candlelit ballroom lined with borrowed mirrors, one of which is on display.

A month later, the British abruptly pulled out of Philadelphia, which had offered them little strategic benefit. Washington turned the city over to his trusted officer, Benedict Arnold, as military governor. Big mistake — greedy Arnold enriched himself through his newfound authority. He bought a lavish country seat as a gift for his new bride, 18-year-old Peggy Shippen, a Meschianza starlet and daughter of one of the city’s toniest Tory families. That house, Mount Pleasant, stands near the museum, which owns it today, and can be visited.

Charged with corruption and forced to resign, Arnold nursed a deep grudge. During the occupation, winsome Peggy had fluttered her fan at many British officers and perhaps become the lover of André. Soon she was ferrying messages back and forth between spymaster André and her husband. For cash, Arnold agreed to help the British capture West Point as well as the ultimate prize: George Washington himself, who would be visiting there.

The rest is history: André got captured, and in his boots were found military documents given to him by Arnold. André pleaded to be shot as a soldier, but Washington hanged him as a spy instead. Benedict and Peggy Arnold escaped to England, where they were hissed at and shunned.

As the exhibition demonstrates, fierce retribution was then exacted against Philadelphia Loyalists, whose goods — from household furnishings to slaves — were sold in the streets at auction. On display is a gorgeous silver coffeepot, encrusted in rococo chasing, that the Tory Joseph Galloway smuggled to England when all the rest of his property was confiscated. A ball-and-claw-foot high chest, richly carved and escutcheoned, has scrawled on the back the name “James Milligan 1783,” the city official who acquired it by seizure.

Non-Loyalists suffered too, for as the war dragged on, steep and highly unpopular taxes were levied to fund it. When Elizabeth Drinker, a Quaker, refused to pay on anti-war grounds, she watched helplessly as two men invaded her home and “took from us one walnut dining table, one mahogany tea-table, 6 hansom walnut chairs,” similar examples of all of which appear in the exhibition. Bitter resentment against taxation is an old American theme, stretching back 233 years — as “Art in Revolutionary Philadelphia” effectively reminds us.

– W. Barksdale Maynard is a writer and lecturer on art history. He lives in Wilmington, Delaware. “Art in Revolutionary Philadelphia” will be on display through the fall at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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