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The Colonists Dishonor God
Not all our early settlers were God-fearing, Sabbathrespecting citizens. Some were desperate characters who had previously earned their living playing cards in Lon don. Some were aristocrats who had lost position and fortune at Continental gaming tables. Fast-living, reckless cavaliers had expatriated themselves to American soil upon ' King Charles's death or King James's abdication. They brought their Old World gambling habits to the New.
In the Virginia forests men dealt cards and tossed dice, counted their gains, and bemoaned their losses in the comparative safety of rude blockhouses. In 1624, when gambling absorbed the time of even the clerics, the Virginia Assembly deemed it advisable to enact a law:
Mynisters shall not give themselves to excess in drinking or yette spend their tyme idelie by day or by night, playing at dice, cards or any unlawful game.
The early Dutch settlers favored a fast short-banking game known as "lansquenet," in which any number of players could take a hand with all bets made on single cards and covered by the banker. The cards, with seventy-three constituting a full deck, were rudely hand-painted with quaint and allegorical figures.
In New England the Puritans considered flirtations, gambling, equal abominations, short cuts to hell. Gambling was taboo not so much on moral grounds as because it usurped God's power. Cotton Mather explained the general dispproval:
Lots, being mentioned in the sacred oracles of Scripture as used only in weighty cases and as an acknowledgement of God sitting in judgment . . . cannot be made the tools and parts of our common sports without, at least, such an appearance of evil as is forbidden in the word of God.
The Connecticut General Court concurred officially "that great and sollemne ordinance of a Lott is expressly and directly abused and prophaned." In 1670 the Massachusetts legislature banned cards and dice as a "great dishonor of God." Since the seventeenth century believed that gambling was a vain assumption of the Lord's authority and the "lot," according to the Bible, was an appeal to God, it was profane. The Connecticut blue laws summed up the generally joyless attitude:
Puritan headmen, finding that boredom drove men to flout the law even though they landed regularly in the stocks for "drinking, gambling, and uncivil revelling," introduced full-time snoopers in the guise of tithingmen, ordered to report
All profane swearers, and Cursers, and the Number as nere as they Can of their oaths; All such as are guilty of extortion; All such as Keep houses where unlawful Games are used QC such as live Idley without estates, Suspicious persons, Whores, night Walkers, mothers of Bastard Children; such as Common Nuisances.
And what is more, the tithingmen were empowered to inspect all houses at any time where they "suspect that any person . . . doe spend their time or estates, by night or by day, in tipling or gaming . . ." For this the tithingmen were rewarded with a substantial part of any fines levied by the courts. Puritan New Englanders were fined for any turning aside from prescribed conduct and card playing by graduate students was, in the eyes of Harvard College, the most expensive sin of all:
Profanation of Lord's day, not exceeding 3.0
Unlike the Puritans, the Southern colonists did not think an extravagant mode of life or gambling incompatible with the ideals of Christian behavior. The planters of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries were so liberal they labeled no man intoxicated unless:
Where ye same legges which carry a Man into a house cannot bring him out againe, it is Sufficient Sign of Drunkenness.
Of the sports imported from England, and all attended by gambling, the most brutal were the most popular. Bearbaiting, banned in New England, Macaulay hinted, "not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators," gander pulling and cockfighting were common pastimes.
Cockfights were conducted by old English rules. Two birds within two ounces of each other's weight were turned loose in a cockpit from eighteen to twenty feet in diameter and rimmed to prevent the birds from falling into the laps of the spectators. The Southerners spent much time around the "Cock-pitte" and staked large sums of money on the fierce combats between the spurred cocks. For more than two centuries, gamecocks descended from the great fighting cocks of England and Ireland were bred and developed in the South. "Warhorses," "Fannie Carters," "Eslin Red Quills," "Arkansas Travelers," "Cotton Bolls," and "Hustlers" were a few of the breeds that became known throughout the Carolinas, Virginia, and Georgia for their tough ways of giving punishment and taking it.
During the eighteenth century cockfighting grew in popularity and pits were set up around taverns and even courthouses. The newspapers then extant carried advertisements of matches. The Virginia Gazette in 1768 announced "at Sussex Courthouse on April Fourth: A match of Cocks, between the Brunswick and Sussex Gentlemen to show 30 cocks a side, for 5 1 a battle, and 50 1. the odd."
As wealth grew in the South the diversions of the plantation owners became more refined. The ballroom, the playing-card table, and the race track became their favorite arenas, while cockfighting remained popular among the common folk.
Many race tracks had been built in the South by 1700, with Virginia claiming hers to be the best up to the Revolution. The racing sessions at Williamsburg, Annapolis, Alexandria, and Fredericksburg were country-wide attractions. George Washington was a steward of the Alexandria Jockey Club and often ran his horses there and at Annapolis. At the time it was the sole right of the gentry not only to enter horses in a race but also to bet on the outcome, as immortalized in a 1767 court order issued in York County, Virginia:
James Bullocke, a Taylor, haveing made a race for his mare to runn with a horse belonging to Mr. Mathew Slader for two thousand pounds of tobacco and caske, it being contrary to Law for a Labourer to make a race, being only a sport for Gentlemen, is fined for the same one hundred pounds of tobacco and caske.
To Mr. Bullocke and his like were left the pleasures of betting on cockfights, cards, dice, wrestling matches, ninepins, and other tavern games of skill. The rich bloods, with infinite leisure, developed a passion for more elegant forms of gambling, not for gain--but as one of the pursuits of a gentleman.
In 1664, King Charles II enlarged his claims in the New World to include all the territory south of New England. To his brother James, Duke of Albany and York, he gave a patent that embraced all lands held by the Dutch. On September 4, James's deputy, Colonel Nicolls, took New Amsterdam without a fight.
The simple living of the Dutch faded out under British rule as English colonists arrived bent on gain and pleasure. The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were wonderful times in New York, There were farces and pantomimes, revels, masked balls, bullbaiting, horse races, cockfighting, and other public diversions. Jessamines (dandies) and primped-up women followed sporting events and gambled freely.
The poor gambled as ardently as the rich. Little merchants, artisans, and laborers gathered at local inns and taverns to pitch the big and heavy copper pennies of the day, to play ninepins for pistareens or ninepence pieces. (A pistareen was a silver coin equivalent to twenty-five cents in modern values, while a ninepence piece was worth twelve cents, or one eighth of a dollar.) They bet on cockfights staged in back of the tavern and played cards as they drank tankards of ale. If men commonly dissipated, drinking and gambling to excess, evidently women were not far behind them, for in many laws penalizing troublesome drunkards the words "he or she" were used. It was not uncommon for women who had partaken of spirits to "great exorbitances and drunkenness" to languish, heads bowed, in the stocks till sober.
With some justification inns and taverns were considered the retreat of . . . servants, and the sink of ye town and country assembled and congregated together for the more secure indulgence of the several fashionable, and without your Honors interposition, legal diversions of cards, dice, drinking, cursing, swearing and the whole train of debaucheries incident to such infamous places . . . as a New Jersey grand jury expressed it in 1754.
Notwithstanding such thunderous denunciations, the taverns and inns (where lottery tickets were sold) were looked upon as social institutions, community and political centers, throughout all the colonies before the Revolution.
Etiquette in colonial high society required "at home" cards, calling cards, invitation and admission cards to balls. Most of these were written or printed on the backs of ordinary playing cards before formal cards were manufactured and while only playing cards were imported for sale. In 1775, on the back of a playing card, appeared "The Gentlemen of the Army present their compliments to Mrs. Jeykell and beg the favour of her company to a ball at the State house on Monday next." A decade later playing cards were being utilized as admission tickets to classes at the University of Pennsylvania. Benjamin Franklin, one of the few printers who manufactured playing cards in the colonies, sold them right at the post office.
Shuffling the "Devil's playthings" was also popular with children and, according to one source, was instrumental in bringing Wesleyan Methodism to America. Mrs. Barbara Heck was sorely displeased when she discovered her young brother enjoying a game of cards in a hayloft on John Street. She tore up the cards and wrote her English cousin Philip Embury, a lay preacher, to come to America at once since New York-and her brotherneeded religious reform.
Mr. Embury, an Irishman by birth and education, a carpenter by trade, and a lay preacher by inclination, arrived with a number of his countrymen who had been attracted to Methodism in England, and in 1766 formed the first American Methodist Society. The congregation, led by the earnest Mr. Embury, took roots and grew. Methodism spread, but so did gambling.
Colonel Nicolls, first English governor of New York, was a horse enthusiast, and one of his first public acts was to order that part of the Salisbury Plains (now Garden City, Long Island) be converted into a race track. It was called Newmarket, and the first American race for a stake was run there in 1666. Subsequently several tracks appeared an lower Manhattan, but trials of speed for large side bets were often held on public highways. A newspaper dated April 29, 1754, noted: "Tuesday morning last a considerable sum was depending between a number of gentlemen in this city on a horse starting from one of the gates of the city to go to Kingsbridge and back again, being fourteen measured miles (one way) in two hours time; which he performed with one rider in 1 hr. and 46 min."
And in 1726 a Philadelphia grand jury tried to make contests on public roads unlawful because they were a source of peril: "Since the city has become so populous the usual custom of horse racing at fairs in the Sassafras Street is very dangerous to life."