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In the Course of Human Events



The members of the Continental Congress of 1774, in Article 8, agreed seriously 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.

This spirit of self-denial was adhered to by many and disregarded by many. But even the latter made show of conforming, as an item in the New York Journal's April 6, 1775, issue wryly discloses:

On the 11th day of March last, there came on, before Peter Guion, Esq; at Besley's Tavern, at New Rochelle, a trial about a disputed Horce race that had been run on Rye Flats; one of the parties demanded a jury, and the justice accordingly issued a Process for the Purpose.... A number of the inhabitants were summoned and appeared. but unanimously refused to be sworn, declaring, that as Horse racing was contrary to the Association of the Congress, they would never serve as jurors in any such cause, and that if the justice thought proper to commit them, they would go to gaol.... In short, the justice was obliged to try the Cause himself.

George Washington's account books show that before the war playing cards was one of his particular pastimes, especially on winter evenings and rainy days, and he recorded meticulously every penny spent or received. He often won or lost as much as nine pounds a night and even during the Revolution found time to indulge in cards. Of course it was too much to expect his soldiers to desist, with the result that gambling became so rife through the army in 1776 that the commander in chief issued this order: "All officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers, are positively forbid playing at cards, or other games of chance. At this time of public distress, men may find enough to do, in the service of their God and their country, without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality."

To little avail, for in 1777 Washington again sternly reminded his men that "gaming of every kind, is expressly forbidden, as being the foundation of evil, and the cause of many a brave and gallant officer's ruin. Games of exercise, for amusement, may not only be permitted, but encouraged."

Two of the most flamboyant and successful industrialists in Pennsylvania at the time were Robert Coleman and Baron Harry W. Stiegel. Coleman., an Irishman from County Donegal, worked as a clerk in Lancaster County, first at the Windsor Forges and later at Elizabeth Furnace, a large ironworks, where Baron Stiegel was his boss, and he married a sister of the baron's son-in-law. Both men were passionately fond of horses. Coleman had ridden as a jockey in his youth; Stiegel's father had been a horse breeder in Germany. Stiegel and Coleman successfully crossed powerful Flemish and German cart horses with English thoroughbreds to produce the famous Conestogas, a breed capable of pulling loads at high speed.

Every Saturday night the two men played cards together for moderate stakes, beginning at nightfall and ending at midnight so they would not feel fatigued in church the next morning.

When the Revolution broke out Coleman and Stiegel immediately enlisted as privates in a Lancaster County militia regiment. Throughout the war they shared a tent and the hardships, perils, and pleasures of soldiering. They continued their card games, but now the stakes were high, particularly before battles like Brandywine, Germantown, and Port Washington. Coleman did most of the winning, and when the baron had no more money to gamble away, he began to risk his other assets. One night Coleman won all Stiegel's Conestoga stallions; on another the waterworks Stiegel had built at Schaefferstown-the first waterworks in America. One by one Coleman won Stiegel's interests in the ironworks at Elizabeth Furnace, Charming Forge, and Bowling Springs, then the Manheim warehouses and glassworks, as well as countless acres of land rich in timber, ore, glass sand, and undeveloped water power.

Stiegel never flinched and after he was honorably discharged following the battle of Yorktown, tried to make a comeback but failed and landed in debtors' prison. When he was finally released, he taught school till his old card-playing comrade found him and made him chief bookkeeper and accountant for his vast business ventures, many of which Stiegel had lost to him at the gaming table.

If gambling could not be effectively discouraged among the dedicated revolutionaries and the ragged troops who won the war, it was just as rampant on the other side. The British soldiers and officers shocked the sober American mercantile class with their excessive flirting, drinking, and gambling in wartime. In cities held by His Majesty's forces, loyalist proprietors of taverns and inns catered to British officers and card games went on all day and horse races were promoted. One, during the British occupation of New York City, announced a " `ladies' subscription purse of 50 and a race by women - quarter-mile heats - best two in three; the first to get a Holland smock and chintz gown, full trimmed, of four guineas value, the second a guinea and the third half a guinea." To remind the audience of the gravity of the war, "God Save the King" was played every half hour.

An international contribution to gambling was made by the French army officers who invented a game resembling whist on which they gallantly bestowed the name of "Boston" as a token of regard for that city. Its greatest popularity was achieved thousands of miles away, in New Orleans, where its greatest enthusiasts were the aristocratic Creoles and rich businessmen. The ebb and flow of many New Orleans fortunes were affected over the years by high-stake games held in the privacy of the "Boston Club," named to celebrate the players' favorite game.

The Continental Congress appointed Thomas Jefferson on June 10, 1776, to draft a Declaration of Independence. Historians are prone to say that he retired to meditate on its stirring words. In fact Jefferson kept a current note-and-expense book and notations for the three weeks from June 10 to July 2 indicate that he sought a normal amount of relaxation during the period when he was making history.



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