SI Vault
 
'AMERICA IS FORMED FOR HAPPINESS'
Robert Cantwell
December 22, 1975
So wrote one of the British travelers who toured the colonies before the Revolution, enchanted by the natural grandeur, the wealth of sporting life
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 22, 1975

'america Is Formed For Happiness'

So wrote one of the British travelers who toured the colonies before the Revolution, enchanted by the natural grandeur, the wealth of sporting life

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4 5 6 7

These travelers were unhurried. They zigzagged from one plantation house or tavern to another, taking a year, or even two years, to get from Charleston to New York. The typical Englishman journeyed with his personal servant, who carried his fowling piece and clothes. He often had friends or relatives to visit, or former schoolmates at Eton, Oxford or Cambridge. He could expect to wind up his visit with going-away parties in his honor in New York or Philadelphia, a form of entertainment in which the colonists excelled. Or he might marry an American heiress, as did Sir William Draper and a number of other titled sportsmen.

Who were these travel writers? Sir William was a retired military hero, who prided himself on his skill as a rackets player. Lord Adam Gordon was a genial young Scottish nobleman, a fishing enthusiast. Andrew Burnaby was a divinity student. Janet Schaw, author of The Journal of a Lady of Quality, was a middle-aged Scotswoman who accompanied her brother and three young cousins to North Carolina. Others who kept journals or diaries or wrote memoirs included an engineer, a physician, a notorious gambler, a postmaster, a merchant trying to collect money owed his father, a recruiting sergeant, a cricket player, several officers and a number of impostors who fabricated accounts of their adventures from the works of genuine travelers.

"We catched much good Fish of sorts not known in Europe," wrote Lord Adam Gordon, sailing on the Gulf of Mexico near the west coast of Florida in 1764. Arriving at Pensacola he noted, "The Bay is magnificent.... Fish I never saw in more abundance, or better." In Charleston he felt at home. When Francis Nicholson became governor of South Carolina in 1720 he quieted the unrest in that colony and began importing stallions to improve the breed. (While governor of Virginia in the 1690s, Nicholson instituted annual prizes to be given "to those that excel in riding, running, shooting, wrestling and fencing"—perhaps the first organized sports program in America.) The Charleston Jockey Club, the first in the world, was organized in 1734, some 16 years before the Jockey Club was founded in England. The Charleston club languished, but another was formed in 1758 with an imposing membership of Carolina horsemen. Among them were statesmen, professional men, plantation owners, men of distinction who a few years later would be involved in the Revolution, but the name most familiar to English sportsmen of the time was that of Edward Fenwick. Fenwick accomplished little on his own account, but his family in England owned Matchem, one of the three horses (the other two were Eclipse and Herod) that rank as the foundation sires of all thoroughbreds. A pioneer transatlantic commuter, Fenwick regularly traveled back and forth between Charleston and London. In the plantations around Charleston there were at least 20 owners who were importing and breeding thoroughbreds—Ravenel, Huger, Drayton, Izard, Middleton, Nightingale, Pinckney, Williamson, Moultrie. These people, wrote Lord Adam, were courteous, polite and affable. "Almost all of them, first or last, have made a trip to the Mother-Country...they are more attached to the Mother-Country, than those [living in the] provinces which lie to the North-ward."

On race days a solemn stillness lay over the streets of Charleston. It looked like a city that had been deserted after a natural disaster. Meetings lasted four days. The races—usually matches between two horses—were generally decided by best two of three four-mile heats, with half-hour rests between them, or two-mile heats, with 15-minute intervals. The first heat was run at noon, after which spectators went to lunch, where they pondered their bets for the next heat. It was possible for an English traveler at a Charleston track to wager on a horse he had previously backed at Ascot or Newmarket in the old country. On March 16, 1773, for example, Flimnap, imported in 1772, raced against Little David, unbeaten in 16 starts, with �2,000 at stake. (The purse for the first Derby at Epsom Downs in 1780 was 1,075 guineas.) Flimnap won, taking the first four-mile heat in eight minutes, 17 seconds, and then distanced Little David in the last heat, whereupon he was sold at auction for �300.

Moving on to Virginia, a traveler could count on a friendly reception, if he could find his way. "Directions are, if possible, more perplexing than the roads themselves," wrote Thomas Anburey. The traveler asked some farmer for the right road and the farmer rattled off such guidelines as take the right-hand path, come to an old field; cross that; there's a road with three forks; keep to the right-hand fork for half a mile; come to a creek; cross that and turn left; come to a tobacco house where a road forks; keep to the right-hand fork and come to a tavern where the owner will give further directions.

If the traveler did find a tavern it was likely to be crowded. One Daniel Fisher, a Williamsburg innkeeper, riding from Virginia to Philadelphia, wrote in his diary that he arrived at a tavern at 10 in the morning. It was thronged with "a number of Planters at Nine Pins." He rode on, and at three o'clock came to another tavern, surrounded by "a great number of people at Nine Pins." Everybody in America seemed to be playing at ninepins. It was doctrine in England that in the American South, at least, no one did anything except bowl, play cards, fish, ride to hounds, race horses and gamble. A planter rose early and began the day with a drink of rum, water and sugar. It was believed to prevent malaria. Apparently the only reason for rising early was to drink the concoction. The planter then made the rounds of his plantation on horseback, listened while his overseer told him what his slaves were doing and rode back to the plantation house for another julep and breakfast at 10, after which he played billiards or whist until dinner at two. Then he slept, visited or rode. Lord Adam wrote of planters with carriages drawn by six fine horses—bred from thoroughbred stallions and native mares—carrying people over the good Virginia roads at eight or nine mph. It was not uncommon to visit a plantation 60 miles away for dinner.

Plantation-hopping was much more agreeable than going from tavern to tavern. Moreover, any reasonably civilized travelers with "no other Recommendation, but their being Human Creatures" could "depend upon being received with Hospitality." Great houses like that of Colonel Randolph on the James River had built-in hospitality: it was constructed in the shape of the letter H, with the family living quarters on one side and rooms for visitors on the other, so that they did not have to pay any attention to each other unless they happened to meet in the central parlor between the wings.

A visitor was on his own. He could sleep, read, hunt, fish or rise early and join the fox hunters. It seemed almost all English travelers rode to hounds, but in the colonies the sport never acquired the organization and formality it had in England. Still, the riders were often so numerous that they streamed over the adjoining plantations like marauders. Old Landon Carter of Virginia, who was growing increasingly critical of the British government, took a strong stand against fox hunters. His neighbors paid no attention to his complaints, so he sat up late expressing his bitter feelings in his journal. "Yesterday whilst I was at Colo. Tayloe's," he wrote on a cold December night in 1774, "my low grounds were alive with fox hunters...my fences all pulled down, Cattle drove out of their wits and the wenches obliged to Climb the trees."

A distinguished visitor such as Sir William Draper stood out among the miscellaneous travelers whose names their hosts had difficulty remembering. Sir William was a gloom-ridden individual, age 49 in 1770, described by a political opponent in England as possessing "the melancholy madness of poetry without the inspiration." In his earlier years Sir William led a force that captured Manila from the Spaniards, and accepted the promise of a ransom of a million pounds in return for not pillaging the city. But the Spanish government refused to pay. Disappointed in his effort to persuade England to force the collection of the money due him, Sir William became involved in a war of correspondence with that unknown political genius who wrote under the name of Junius, and inspired some of the most seething of Junius' letters.

Unintimidated, Sir William tried to respond with equal wit, but, after a few letters, was persuaded to visit America instead. In the New World he strained Anglo-American relations by his political pronouncements and his belief that he could beat anybody in the country at rackets. In New York there was a mechanic who was so expert a player that he claimed to be able to beat anybody at the game with one hand tied to a wheelbarrow. That is all that is known about him. Even his name has been lost. He lives in history, insofar as there is any Colonial sports history, because people wondered if he could really beat Sir William despite his handicap. The impending encounter of these two egomaniacs became the first of many such subjects of speculation among sports followers.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4 5 6 7