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.