1783-1815: Sports and Recreation: Overview

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1783-1815: Sports and Recreation: Overview

Public Virtue. During the Revolutionary War the Continental Congress passed a resolution that discouraged every species of extravaganza and dissipation, especially all horse racing and all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays and other expensive diversions and entertainments. It was felt by the leaders of the nation that these activities were frivolous and contrary to responsible standards of morality. After the Revolution, however, the states began to lift the restrictions on games, sports, theater, and other recreations. Some people saw recreation as an expression of freedom. To them, developments in the arts and participation in leisure activity were the direct outgrowth of a free people and a successful society. Nonetheless, there were still enough people who viewed leisure as sinful, slothful, and a threat to virtue, the cornerstone of democracy. These two conflicting ideologies produced a pendulum-type response to recreation and leisure in the new nation between 1783 and 1815. The laws pertaining to theaters serve as an example. On 2 March 1789 Philadelphia repealed the law prohibiting theatrical performances, and later that year George Washington attended John Street Theater in New York City. His attendance gave respectability to the practice of theatergoing, but at the same time it evoked disapproval from others. Boston closed its first theater, the New Exhibitions Room, on 5 December 1792 and arrested the manager; the law against theaters in that city was not repealed until 1807.

Relaxation and Status. The working classes engaged in recreation after work hours. Such activities as dancing, sailing, sleigh riding, chess, cards, plays, and wax museums represented a break from the monotony of their jobs. For the wealthy, leisure activities were a mark of social standing. Thomas Jefferson spoke of this when he said [A] young [American] gentleman goes to England, he learns drinking, horse racing, and boxing the peculiarities of English education. Whether educated in England or in the United States, wealthy young gentlemen were expected to learn certain social and athletic skills along with their academic studies. These included

conversation, riding, fox hunting, fencing, rowing, and dancing. The southern elite had a good amount of time to spend on sports and leisure because the work of enslaved African Americans gave them the free time to do so. Women of the wealthy class were also taught social and athletic skills, though in a much more restricted manner than the males. The world of sports at the beginning of the nineteenth century was a male domain. Women were neither allowed to participate in nor attend most sporting events; the one exception was horse racing.

Horse Racing. Of all the sporting events during this era, horse racing, considered the sport of gentlemen, was the most popular. Many racing coursesusually a round track enclosed by railings and surrounded by stands for judges and spectatorshad been laid out before the Revolutionary War. However, the conflict brought a halt to most sport and leisure activities, including horse racing. After the war the sport returned, but participation in it was no longer the privilege of the wealthy. By 1800 most large towns had a race course that charged an admission fee. In 1802 the Washington, D.C., National Race Course opened, and many government officials attended the events held there. Yet even though horse racing was a sport engaged in by many segments of the population, not everyone accepted it. For some in the society, racing, and the gambling which often went with it, represented an excessive luxury that would lead to the end of virtue. The Philadelphia Gazette of 1802 condemned the great mischiefs and vices at the German-town races, while the Philadelphia Daily Advertiser spoke of the intoxication, riot, [and] lewdness. North Carolina banned horse racing in 1790, and New York followed in 1802. However, the races continued in New York, conducted by private organizations called jockey clubs. Many of these organizations had been established before the war and aimed to regulate the sport.

Jockeys. In the North horse owners relied on English jockeys, while in the South the majority of jockeys were African Americans. Slave owners valued black riders because they were usually small in stature and had grown up working with and training horses. In the South horse racing was a matter of honor, as one plantation owner pitted his best horse and rider against another planters team. And although the owner would take the praise that came with victory, the slave and possibly the horse felt the effects of a poor showing.

Breeding. The popularity of racing was a catalyst for horse breeding in the United States. In the late eighteenth century American breeders began to import animals sired by famous racing horses in England. Top racing bloodlines were established with the purchase of Mambrina and Messenger from English aristocrats in the 1780s. Probably the most famous thoroughbred at this time was Diomed. In 1798 Sir Thomas Charles Bunbury sold the twenty-one-year-old horse to two Virginia planters for fifty guineas. Diomed quickly resold for approximately 1, 500 guineas, and before his death in 1808 he sired Sir Archy, Florizel, Potomac, Hamlinto-nian, and seven other famous American thoroughbreds.

Pugilism. Boxing was another popular sport of the era and one in which participation differed depending on class. Wealthy young men were most often introduced to it while attending college in England, and they considered it both a leisure activity and a form of exercise. They practiced the scientific style developed by Daniel Mendoza, who became the English boxing champion in 1792. Mendoza introduced defense to boxing. He constantly moved in the ring to avoid being hit.

Toe the Mark. A match conducted under the Mendoza rules differed from the brutal affair which passed as boxing among the lower classes. Far from an art or a science, it was a bare-knuckled test of strength which usually left one of the contenders bruised and broken. A typical ring, located in a tavern or back alley, had a firm dirt floor and was a circle twenty-five feet in diameter. A three-foot-long mark was drawn down the middle of the floor by the referee. The boxers had to return to this line, or toe the mark, after a knockdown. There was no hitting below the belt or when an opponent went down and no holding below the waist. No gloves were used, and as may be expected, a match was quite bloody and could last for hours, ending only when a fighter dropped for good. Sometimes a fight resulted in the death of one of the participants. Heavy bets were placed on the outcome of these bouts.


In the 1790s horse racing boomed as new thoroughbred stock was imported from England. Philadelphia artisans and manufacturers became concerned because the journeymen and apprentices spent too much time at the track, drinking and gambling. In June 1802 city officials received a petition against Harts Racecourse, located on the Hunting Park Estate; it was signed by twenty-seven hundred mechanics and businessmen:

This English dissipation of horse-racing may be agreeable to a few idle landed gentlemen, who bestow more care in training their horses than educating their children, and it may be amusing to British mercantile agents, and a few landed characters in Philadelphia; but it is in the greatest degree injurious to the mechanical and manufacturing interest, and will tend to our ruin if the nuisance is not removed by your patriotic exertions.

Sources: Elliott J. Gorn and Warren Goldstein, A Brief History of American Sports (New York: Hill & Wang, 1993).

Boxing in the South. Plantation owners in the South frequently staged boxing matches among slaves as a form of entertainment during holidays. Often these contests

matched slaves from neighboring plantations against one another. The contestants represented the honor of their masters and the reputation of the plantation, but they had other motivations as well. Sometimes enslaved African Americans who were successful as pugilists were able to use their good fortune as a way out of slavery or at least as a means to garner favors. Slave owners took a special interest in the well-being of their black boxers, and some groomed them for these contests just as they bred and trained race horses. Tom Molineaux was an example of a slave who was able to change his personal situation by success in the ring. Born a slave in either Maryland or Virginia in 1784, he fought for his owner, Algeron Molineaux, in plantation boxing matches. In 1804 he won his freedom and a cash purse by defeating a slave from the neighboring plantation of Randolph Peyton. Molineaux made his way to New York City and then to London, where he trained under William Richmond, another black boxer. In 1810 and 1811 Molineaux fought English champion Tom Crib twice and lost each time, but he demonstrated endurance and skill. Overall, Molineaux was the exception to the rule: most enslaved boxers did not receive favoritism for their endeavors in the ring.

Gambling. Betting was an important part of sports, especially boxing, horse racing, rowing, and cockfighting. In fact, gambling was in some ways a sport of its own, and many taverns had sections set aside for individuals making bets. In some drinking establishments both boxing and wrestling were staged. Other tavern activities included billiards and a card game similar to poker called brag. The dice game known as hazard came to the United States via England and France. By 1813 hazard was transformed into the game of crabs or craps by African Americans in New Orleans.

Cricket and Fox Hunting. Certain activities that came to the United States from England did not have a large following. At the time of the American Revolution cricket was a popular sport in the colonies. In the 1790s cricket clubs sprouted up in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but interest in the game dropped off by 1800. Fox hunting was another activity that did not attract too many participants. There was some fox hunting in New England, and the southern states, especially

Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas, had a reputation for good hunts. Only the wealthy could afford the specially imported riding outfits and the pack of dogs necessary to engage in the hunt.

Blood Events. In addition to the more accepted sports such as horse racing and boxing, Americans of the early republic had a penchant for blood sports, or contests in which the primary goal was to draw blood out of one or both of the contestants. Heavy betting accompanied these affairs, and although some, such as boxing, involved humans, animals were the usual participants. In animal baiting a dog or pack of dogs attacked a bear, bull, or badger chained in a pit. In cockfighting trained cocks, with metal spurs attached to their legs, fought to the death in specially constructed pits. Cockfighting was popular, lasting well into the nineteenth century, although it gradually lost favor among the wealthy and became associated with the lower classes.

The Frontier. In the rural areas of the West certain tasks became social occasions for whole communities. These group gatherings, or bees as they came to be called, brought people together to complete tasks that were too great for a single family to do on its own. Bees represent a particularly American phenomenon, and the term alludes to the social mannerisms of the insect. Husking bees brought the community together to get farmers corn ready for milling after harvest. Quilting bees brought women together to prepare bedclothes for the winter months. There were regional variations in these activities, and a western husking bee was different than a southern plantation corn shuckin. Barn raisings were another communal activity in which neighbors gathered to perform a job and turned the work into a social occasion. Regardless of the reasons, once people came together, they engaged in competitive events. Contests involved such skills as hunting, fishing, target shooting, racing, log rolling, and wrestling. Gambling, card playing, and drinking were also favored.

Music. After the Revolutionary War the musical life of America resumed, and concerts, plays, and operas flourished again in the cities. A renewed interest in religious and folk music also occurred, and singing and dancing schools that had been closed during the war reopened. Professional musicians, particularly from England, came to the United States and settled in the larger cities, where they gave lessons on the pianoforte, harpsichord, and violin. One such teacher was the Reverend Andrew Law, who taught Newport Gardner, the first African American music instructor in the country.

Dancing. Americans of all classes enjoyed dancing. At the close of the eighteenth century social dancing was popular in cities and towns. Attending a ball, which was the name given to any formal occasion in which dancing occurred, became a common and important part of many community activities. For the wealthy, dancing was one of the social graces in which young men and women had to be trained. Wealthy families employed dance instructors to pass on the proper and popular dance steps to their children. In the late eighteenth century dancing teachers were usually servants, but after the French Revolution this changed, as many French instructors sought refuge in America. In addition to providing a place to perform the steps they had been taught by their instructors, dances provided young men and women an opportunity to socialize.

Styles. Dancing instructors taught the minuet, riga-doon, cotillions, reels, jigs, and hornpipe steps. While some of the dances were done by couples, forms that allowed for group dancing were more common. In the reel and contradance, brought to North America by English and Scotch-Irish colonists, two lines, one male and one female, faced each other. The couples moved in set patterns up and down the line. Around 1800 the quadrille, or cotillion, arrived in the United States from France. Four couples danced in a square, sometimes moving in and out of the center. Dancing the cotillion in the 1790s was considered a sign of political allegiance since it was embraced by pro-French Jeffersonians and spurned by the Federalists. As political conflicts cooled, the dance spread, first through urban and then rural areas. New and old steps combined eventually to turn the cotillion into the modern square dance.

Hoedown. On the frontier dancing became a part of almost every social gathering but was not used as a mark of social status. Although a good dancer would be recognized as special, dancing was first and foremost recreational. At a hoedown people danced the same types of dances as in the cities and towns. However, since etiquette was not of the same importance and dance instructors were a rarity outside of urban areas, frontier steps were less regimented and often were performed competitively. In plank dancing two planks would be set across two barrels, and a person would dance on them as the boards bounced up and down. Other dances included Virginia reels, country jigs, and shakedowns.

African American Influence. African Americans, both free and enslaved, cultivated distinctive dance forms and styles. They danced the cakewalk, pigeon wing, jig, buck dance, buzzard lope, juba, ring dance, quadrille, cotillion, reel, and water dance. Even though some of the steps were taken from European dances, blacks improvised and added their own movements. African American dance was not completely separated from that of whites, particularly in the towns and cities. Black fiddlers were present at many balls and hoedowns. Sometimes at dances they were the set callers, singing out instructions to the dancers. It was in these roles that blacks influenced and altered European American dance styles. African American dance was also viewed as a form of entertainment by whites, particularly in the South. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries black social activity was a type of theater for whites. Enslaved blacks were often called upon to perform dance steps or to sing at social gatherings of whites. By the 1820s whites were beginning to use stereotypical imitations of black dancers and performers on the minstrel stage.

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1783-1815: Sports and Recreation: Overview