Enjoyed by almost all but appreciated for what it is by only a few, America's sporting heritage is one of the finest legacies bequeathed by the Founding Fathers. Historians and political scientists have ransacked the Revolutionary period for the tiniest details of early American life, but for the most part they have had little to say concerning sports. Most people know that George Washington rode to hounds, but was that the extent of it?
By no means. Sports of all sorts were so popular in Revolutionary America that, in some sections of the young country, they were regarded as the devil's own doing. Much of this prejudice stemmed from New England (some early Puritan laws even prohibited walking through the fields on Sunday) but it was felt elsewhere as well.
This bias was so strong, in fact, that the First Continental Congress, convening at Philadelphia in 1774, passed an agreement calling upon the several colonies to "discountenance and discourage every Species of Extravagance and Dissipation, especially all Horse Racing, and all Kinds of gaming, Cock Fighting, Exhibitions of Shows, Plays and other expensive Diversions and entertainments." Ironically, the distinction of publishing the first sporting book in America, The Sportsman's Companion, apparently belongs to a member of the British expeditionary force which evacuated New York in 1783.
Happily, the sentiment against sport began to disappear after the Revolution. One of the main factors was President Washington's enthusiasm for the active life. In defiance of the bluenoses, Washington once took Thomas Jefferson, his Secretary of State, out to sea on a fishing expedition. No one raised a cry when they returned, not even the claim that they were spending time away from their official duties. To Washington, then, must also go the credit for setting the precedent of the sporting president.
Physically vigorous, an uncommonly fine rider and a fearless one, Washington held the reputation as the finest sportsman of his day, no small feat inasmuch as his fellow Virginians (in contrast to New Englanders) comprised, to use the happy phrase of Historian Sydney George Fisher, "a race of sportsmen, cock-fighters and fox-hunters." As befits one who was raised in the aristocratic Tidewater, Washington's greatest passion was horses. He not only bred them, raised them and raced them, but, like the classic Cavalier he was, bet on them. In 1773, to cite but one instance, at a time when a great number of colonists in both the North and South were fretting over the worsening conditions with England, Washington made a special trip from Mount Vernon to attend a race meeting at Annapolis. The records do not disclose whether or not Washington won, but it is a matter of record that when beaten he was always prompt to congratulate a rival owner upon his "success on the turf."
As one might expect, his love for horses often led him into fox hunting, and his diary bears frequent reference to the days when he "went a Fox hunting in the Neck." In January and February of 1769, Washington rode to hounds 15 times, one week on six successive days. We know the names of some of his hounds: Pilot, Musick, Countess, Truelove, Mopsey, Bell Tongue, Sweetlips and, perhaps prophetically, Trueman.
Although Washington had to abandon fox hunting during the Revolution (he sneaked in at least one game of wicket while at Valley Forge and cashiered a lieutenant for running a fast shuffleboard game), he returned to the field after the surrender at Yorktown. Thanks to his stepgrandson, George Custis, we are told that on a typical day at Mount Vernon, Washington and his house guests breakfasted by candlelight (with Washington downing corncakes and milk) and were in the saddle by sunrise. Washington, mounted on his favorite horse, Blueskin, wore a hunting coat, a scarlet waistcoat, buckskin breeches, top boots and a velvet cap. He carried a whip with a long thong to handle the enormous stag hounds which he owned in addition to fox hounds. The stag hounds had been presented to him by Lafayette, his former aide and fellow billiard player (he introduced the French mode of play to America and was an expert fencer as well). One stag hound, Vulcan, was so huge young Custis rode him instead of a horse around the grounds of Mount Vernon.
A GENTLEMANLY LETTER
In later years Washington seems to have occupied considerable time with cards, billiards and shooting. He "went a ducking," as his diary attests and, as his enthusiasm grew, his generosity diminished. "My fixed determination is," he wrote to one Archibald Johnston, "that no person whatever shall hunt upon my grounds or waters. To grant leave to one, and refuse another would not only be drawing a line of discrimination which would be offensive, but would subject one to great inconvenience; for my strict, and positive order to all my people are, if they hear a gun fired upon my land to go immediately in pursuit of it." Then, as though his conscience were getting the better of him, Washington came to the point and admitted, "Besides, as I have not lost my relish for this sport when I can find the time to indulge myself in it...it is my wish not to have the game within my jurisdiction disturbed." While this may appear harsh to some modern readers, it was a fairly civil and gentlemanly letter in its day. Founding Father Button Gwinnett, that obscure signer of the Declaration of Independence whose signature is so rare that it once brought $51,000 at auction, threatened to prosecute "to the utmost rigour of the law" anyone who hunted or fished on St. Catherine's Island, Georgia.
While Washington was most certainly one of those fabled Virginians who would go five miles to catch a horse in order to ride him one, his fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson, though a fine horseman, later came to believe that the taming of the horse had resulted in the degeneracy of the human body and thus preferred walking for exercise. Reason and self-reliance dominated Jefferson's choice of sports. Family legend has it that when Jefferson was 10 years old his father presented him with a gun and sent him into the woods alone to develop his self-reliance. Unsuccessful in his search for game and undoubtedly miserable from homesickness, he finally ran across a wild turkey trapped in a pen. Employing what must be the first example of gamesmanship, Americana division, Founding Fathers' section, he tied the turkey to a tree with his garter, shot it, then carried it home to loud huzzahs.
Jefferson chose his sports carefully, fully weighing the value of their mental discipline. He played chess (defined by an old sporting dictionary as "the most celebrated of all sedentary games, and not dependant upon chance. It is of early and eastern origin, and the favourite amusement of some of the most renowned monarchs"), backgammon and a game known as "cross & pile," a coin-tossing pastime.
"I don't know how good Jefferson was at those games," says Columbia's Professor Dumas Malone, a leading Jefferson authority. "They didn't have any contests in those days, but I suspect he was pretty good."
Jefferson studied at William and Mary, where he walked and ran for exercise. He also loved to swim. Once he swam 13 times across a millpond that was a quarter of a mile wide. He insisted upon bathing his feet each morning in a bucket of cold water, a practice which lasted at least 60 years. He claimed it prevented him from catching colds.
As a William and Mary student, Jefferson—along with other students—was automatically debarred from having any interest in race horses or even running a little handbook on the side. A college regulation of his time ordered that no scholar belonging to any school in the college "of what age, rank or quality, soever do keep any race horse at ye College, in ye town—or any where in the neighborhood—yt thay be not in any way concerned in making races, or in backing or abetting, those made by others, and yt all race horses kept in ye neighborhood of ye College, & belonging to any of ye Scholars, be immediately dispatched and sent off & never again brought back, and all this under pain of ye severest animadversion and punishment."
Like Jefferson, fellow Virginian James Madison preferred the intellectual sports. He was so eager a nature lover and bird watcher that he often fell victim to his own enthusiasm—in later life Madison, possibly to the detriment of affairs of state, became greatly perturbed over exactly how far north the cardinal ranged. Virginia's Patrick Henry also fell victim to his own enthusiasm. He was, a contemporary wrote, "remarkably fond of shooting, fishing and playing on the violin." In fact he was so fond of shooting that early in his law career he often showed up in court fresh from the field, breathless and clad in hunting garb.
A SPORTING SOUL
In the Middle Atlantic colonies things weren't quite so free and easy as they were in the South. One had to watch one's behavior even if one were a prospective Founding Father. Benjamin Franklin, who certainly wasn't a prig by any standards, even succumbed to the pressure of his prudish neighbors. When he was struggling with his stationer's shop in Philadelphia, he displayed his frugality and industry to his customers and the community at large by literally selling his sporting soul. "I drest plainly," he admits somewhat sheepishly in the Autobiography. "I was seen at no places of idle diversion. I never went a fishing or shooting."
This must have been very painful for Franklin. As a boy in Boston he had "delighted" in swimming and "had studied and practis'd all Thevenot's motions and positions, added some of my own, aiming at the graceful and easy as well as the useful."
Franklin had one chance to flash his swimming form. In 1724 he went to London to study printing and while there went for a dip in the Thames. "I stripped and leaped into the river," Franklin says without a blush of modesty, "and swam from near Chelsea to Blackfryar's, performing on the way many feats of activity, both upon and under water, that surpris'd and pleas'd those to whom they were novelties."
General Mad Anthony Wayne was a precocious lad who became an excellent billiard player while still in grammar school. When only 21, wrote Biographer Harry Wildes, Wayne "went on pigeon shoots and bagged more than his share of game; at cider frolics he talked knowingly about horses. At taverns, in late afternoons and evenings, he matched glass for glass with hardened drinkers, yet kept a head clear enough to play respectable backgammon, and nerves sufficiently controlled to make a run at billiards." Once the autumnal harvest had been reaped in Waynesborough, Mad Anthony would head for Philly on the gallop to attend the Jockey Club races. When the Revolution started, Wayne fought well and gallantly. He emerged alive, but, alas, as one might expect, Mad Anthony died with his boots off after an attack of the gout "in critical form."
In New York, Alexander Hamilton was to be seen roaming through the forests of Harlem armed with a single-barreled fowling-piece. If Hamilton failed to flush a woodcock, his grandson, Allan McLane Hamilton, related, "he found his way to the wooded shores of his estate in search of an occasional striped bass in the clear water of the North River."
The chance exists that as Hamilton fished he watched Gouverneur Morris sail by. Morris, who lost his left leg when 28 (he was thrown from a phaeton when he got too frisky with the horses), loved to sail around Manhattan and occasionally took a quick skim to Staten Island when the breeze was right. Morris also fished and hunted, fond as he was of "outdoor sports" since his boyhood.
A ROUGH-AND-TUMBLE LIFE
In New England, John Adams daringly frolicked with "Bat and Ball" in Boston, while Nathanael Greene, later General Greene, led a rough-and-tumble life in Rhode Island. Greene was extremely fond of riding, and, after an absence from home, his first visit was always to the stable, a habit which no doubt piqued his wife and mother. A long-suffering victim of asthma, he nevertheless roughed it as much as he could. He swam. He ice-skated. He sailed. He loved running, jumping and wrestling. Greene suffered from a stiff right leg and once at a dance his partner remarked archly, "You dance stiffly." "Very true," replied Wrestler Greene, "but you see that I dance very strong."
But as virile as Greene was, no one in New England could come close to Vermont's Ethan Allen. Raised in the frontier atmosphere of the Vermont hills, Allen was a magnificent shot. His brother Ira has puzzlingly written of Ethan: "He was fond of hunting game in his youth, run after deer tired them down or turned them by often firing on them so as to kill them by night." Ira gets a little clearer when he gets down to cases: "... one day in Poultney he (Ethan) came across a company of Deer and killed one which he dressed hung up the Skin and Meat then to preserve that from the Ravens hung his hat on it and went on. He soon killed another deer; with that he left a short hunting Jaccoot and went on; killed another deer—with that left his Frock and went on and killed another—with that left his Breeches then pursued the deer and killed another—took the Skin about him and went to his camp."
Looking back today at the Founding Fathers, it is quite evident that sports had a deeply rooted place in the hearts of the men who established the U.S.
John Adams' simple game of bat and ball was the forerunner of the game which attracts 85 million Americans a year and is known as the "national pastime." If Hamilton were alive, there is no doubt but that he would be among the 15 million who keep alive the sport of hunting. And surely Washington would have been delighted to join the 50 million hardy souls who journey yearly to the race track.
SWIMMING TREATISE by Ben Franklin was a labor of love for statesman who once swam Thames.
SOME PATRIOTS AT PLAY
On the following pages Artist Joe Kaufman presents a gallery of Founding Fathers, each one indulging in a favorite sport. See if you can identify man and sport, then check the key which appears on page 66.
KEY TO FOUNDING FATHERS' GALLERY
1 Mad Anthony Wayne, billiard player.
2 Patrick Henry, fisherman.
3 George Washington, fox hunter.
4 Benjamin Franklin, swimmer.
5 The Marquis de Lafayette, fencer.
6 Ethan Allen, deer hunter.
7 Nathanael Greene, wrestler.
8 John Adams, ballplayer.
9 Alexander Hamilton, hunter.
10 Gouverneur Morris, outdoorsman.
11 James Madison, bird watcher and nature lover.
12 Thomas Jefferson, chess player.