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What Will Become of This Nation?
THE great families in their great houses in tidewater Virginia were bankrupt and in debt for more than a decade following the Revolution, though they still lived splen didly and their hospitality was unabated. Merchants possessed most of the ready cash available. There was never any for the tax collector, but lotteries still lured Virginians, high and low, to part with what little they had hidden away. When officials found it useless to levy taxes for public improvements, they again resorted to lottery schemes and had no difficulty in getting the funds needed to repair churches, improve highways, or build schoolhouses.
This way they even collected from the common folk who lounged around taverns, played old sledge (sevenup), E.O. (a sort of roulette without the zero), and faro, and bet on their favorite bully-boys in the brutal version of wrestling then practiced.
At the same time New York had given its heart to racing. Even the houses of prostitution were empty on race days, the habitues as well as the working residents joining the rest of the populace in the carriages bound for Jamaica.
The moral standards were so loose at this time that the authorities of Columbia University deluged the young (students usually matriculated at fifteen or sixteen) men under their care with admonitions to keep out of houses of ill-fame near the campus and to avoid cockfights and the playing of cards or dice. General stores, precursors of modern department stores, catered to the prevailing interests. William Griggs, whose establishment was located at the corner of Maiden Lane and William Street, advertised in the May 1, 1779 New York Gazette:
Checker Boards, Backgammon Tables, Dice, Money Scales and Weights, Spice Powder and Shaving Boxes, and many other articles.
The fashionable afternoon tea party was likely to be dull till the hostess brought out cards and the guests settled down to win or lose several hundred dollars at omber, quadrille, whist, and loo.
Laws were enacted to curb gambling in New York and tavern keepers were threatened with fines that they gladly risked paying. There was approximately one tavern to every ninety New Yorkers and gambling was a big part of the business. Gamblers ate and gamblers drank and winners were openhanded.
Hopeful of curbing "excessive and deceitful gaming," the New York State Legislature decreed in 1788 that only ready cash could be risked at games. Mortgages, I.O.U.s, and other pledges won at gambling "shall be utterly void, frustrate and of none effect, to all intents and purposes whatsoever." It further provided that if a man lost ten pounds or more at one sitting he could resort to any New York State court of record, no later than three months afterward, and sue the winner for the entire sum plus legal costs. Since losers as well as winners could be fined for gambling, no one took advantage of this protection. The law tried to impose penalties for "any fraud or shift, cousenage, circumvention, or unlawful device of ill practice whatsoever." And to control "divers lewd and dissolute persons [who] live at great expences, having no visible estate, profession or calling, to maintain themselves," i.e., the emerging class of professional gamblers. The city paid little or no heed to the law. People continued to gamble at anything where money could be risked.
In New England the Puritan spirit still prevailed, but dancing, music, drunkenness, and gambling were no longer held in the Calvinistic horror of pre-Revolutionary days. Tavern attics held secret rooms where green-baize-covered tables welcomed the recalcitrant. The war had led men astray; they had contracted the habit of playing cards even when they should have been in church, and drowning themselves in rum and sugar, whenever they could get it. Alongside the well-patronized local taverns they pitched horseshoes and tossed coppers for gain.
Efforts to surpress gambling were unavailing, though offenders were threatened with fines, innkeepers with loss of licenses, and incarceration in houses of correction was recommended for "persons using subtle craft ... or unlawful games." A vague for horse racing developed, and saintly Puritans cried out, "What it to become of this nation?"
The freemen of New England towns still met each year to elect tithingmen. But by 1800 these props of Puritanism no longer carried out their original duties and were rudely disregarded when they tried to keep taverns shut on Sunday and to learn the names of transgressors who made noise, worked, played, traveled, gambled, or drank on the Sabbath.
The opening of the nineteenth century saw the slow retreat of New England Puritanism. The new generation shocked the old-line Puritans by their growing depravity, and irate letters appeared in publications like the Boston Weekly Magazine: "Do, sir, say a word or two on this subject and don't forget to mention the idle expensive and profligate manners of our young men; haw boys of sixteen will boast of their amours; spend their money in gaming, and their time in drinking. . . ."
While the moral fiber of New England was racked with a consciousness of sin and impending doom, Philadelphia, the most extravagant and fashionable city in the new republic, was said to indulge an unembarrassed lust for pleasure and passion for gambling. The most popular form of betting was on cockfights, which took place daily. The settling of quarrels by the English custom of boxing also furnished Philadelphians with many favorable occasions for betting. Fights, conducted according to rules and regulations, were usually held by the light of the moon and spectators' lanterns. The opponents removed their jackets, rolled their shirt sleeves to the elbows, and took a stiff fighting stance. When a signal was given they rushed at each other and continued to punch till one or the other was knocked senseless or finally admitted defeat. Then the bettors were paid off.
Though certain earnest Philadelphians remonstrated with the city's many card enthusiasts for spending their time shuffling the pack when life was so short, Benjamin Franklin, an avid player, wrote Mrs. Mary Hewson in 1786: "I have indeed now and then a little compunction in reflecting that I spend time so idly; but another reflection comes to relieve me, whispering, `You know that the soul is immortal; why then should you be such a niggard of a little time, when you have a whole eternity before you?' So, being easily convinced, and, like other respectable creatures, satisfied with a small reason, when it is in favor of doing what I have a mind to, I shuffle the cards again, and begin another game."
With the growing pains of the new nation political battles became more and more absorbing, but such serious interests had to compete with the new country-wide craze for the game of loo. Ladies of quality, especially, played it relentlessly and bet on it extravagantly. Matching skill for higher and higher stakes players easily lost (or won) over three hundred dollars in three successive deals at a simple twenty-five-cent game. Loo fans soon became the target of public taunts.
After the yellow-fever epidemic of the summer of 1794 in Philadelphia and New York, pious men declared that it had been punishment from the hand of God for Sabbath-breaking, extravagance, and dissipation. They cautioned the fortunate survivors to mend their ways, but instead bets were made in coffeehouses and taverns on the number of the dead, New Yorkers risking money that at least a third more Philadelphians had fallen during July and August and Philadelphians taking the opposite line.
Philadelphia's Quakers pressed for enforcement of an antitheater law, but the American Company circumvented both law and Quakers by offering The Gamester as a "serious and moral lecture, in five parts, on the sin of gambling."
As the country expanded westward, emigrants from New England carried the Puritan influence to the new wilderness settlements, but other pioneers in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, western Virginia, western Pennsylvania, and western New York were susceptible to any form of excitement whether it were an Indian attack, holding dances, or gambling.
Frontiersmen who risked their lives whenever they stepped out of the clearing beside their rude huts gladly risked their savings on loo or brag, old sledge or all fours, whist and dice, while horse racing was popular all along the frontier and betting on it went to such lengths the clergy ranked it a deadly sin, equal to drinking and swearing.
The hard-bitten men of this hard-bitten era were often heroes and almost always gamblers. Andrew Jackson, who defended New Orleans against the British in 1814 and survived the rigors of life in Tennessee to become our seventh president, staked his horse against two hundred dollars on the roll of the dice one night, and won. Henry Clay was one of the sharpest all-time poker players of Kentucky, a distinction he carried right through the Kentucky legislature and into the national Congress. He preferred poker to lawmaking and won forty thousand dollars in a single evening in Lexington from John Bradford. The next day Bradford admitted that he could not raise such a sum and Clay said, "Oh, give me your note for five hundred dollars and let the balance go." At a later game Clay lost sixty thousand dollars to Bradford and was forced to tell him that he could not make immediate payment. Bradford said nonchalantly, "Give me back the note for five hundred dollars I gave you and we will call it square."
A classic American story has Clay playing poker against Daniel Vvebster, Vvebster dealing. Clay asked for one card and Webster stood pat on the draw. The two pressed and upped each other till each had $?000 on the table. Clay called. Webster laughed sheepishly and threw down his cards. "I only have a pair of deuces," he said. Clay laughed too. "The pot is yours," he said. "I only have ace high."
That was a rare occasion. Clay had the reputation of being a natural winner. Mrs. Clay was chaperoning a young lady from the North at a party when they passed through a room where Mr. Clay and other gentlemen were playing cards. The prim young lady was shocked. "Is this a common practice?" she inquired. "Yes," said Mrs. Clay. "Doesn't it distress you to have Mr. Clay gamble?" aked the young woman feelingly. "No, my dear," the sterling Mrs. Clay replied gently. "He most always wins."
There were few times and few places where Americans in the West did not gamble, even at delayed funerals. (A delayed funeral was a service preached months after the corpse had been consigned to the grave and was generally prescribed in the will to prevent the widow from remarrying immediately.) And still the bluenoses moaned, as in this fearful letter to the editor, which the Pittsburgh Gazette quoted in 1787: "To what a height this contagious distemper is arrived . . . is but too visible. Every village which has the least pretension to gentility, has its assembly; every tradesman must have his fine horse, his club parties, and his card parties.... In short, gaming and luxury is arrived to such a pitch, and become so universal, that we may, with great propriety be called a nation of gamesters. . . . America is game mad; thousands of my good countrymen seem to be quite out of their senses."
The inhabitants of Louisville, in Kentucky on the Ohio River, were described by one Thomas Ashe as "universally addicted to gambling and drinking. The billiard rooms are crowded from morning to night, and often all night through."
By 1790 the new nation had survived the first difficult years of the peace. The beginnings of prosperity engendered widespread good will toward the government and its financial measures.
Thousands of merchants, shopkeepers, and farmers held government certificates as final settlement of their war claims, and soldier certificates and government notes had been accepted, though reluctantly, in payment for services and losses in the cause of independence. Many had promptly sold their certificates to speculators for what they would bring.
Then the ingenuity of Alexander Hamilton reversed the trend by making notes and certificates interest-bearing. Certificates, settlement notes, and hard money came out of hiding. All major cities fell victim to the speculating fever that had begun at the end of the war when soldiers' certificates changed hands several times a week. Hamilton's organization of the Bank of the United States promoted the prevalent gambling spirit, for it financed speculators in land, merchandise, and government scrip.
That summer of 1791 witnessed an insane appetite in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston for gambling in government bank scrip. Men of all classes bought and speculated and, if they lacked ready money to buy, borrowed at weekly and monthly interest. Scrip changed hands by the hour. One memorable time in Philadelphia its value jumped from twenty-five to one hundred forty dollars, then unaccountably tumbled to a new low. "It went up like a rocket, and fell like its stick."
In some places all business but gambling came to a complete halt. Shopkeepers grumbled and merchants wrung their hands in despair. On July 10, James Madison told Thomas Jefferson, "In fact, stock-jobbing drowns every other subject. The coffeehouse is in an eternal buzz with gamblers."
Men who lost their scrip transactions upbraided the government as the architect of their misfortune. The public satirized them as victims of scripomania and scripophobia. Said John Bach McMaster: "The symptoms of the disease were declared to be a long face, a pale complexion, deep silence, and a heavy heart."
Many companies came into existence as prosperity began, though most of them were companies in name only since few fulfilled their proclaimed purposes. Company stocks were bought and sold among individuals, and stocks of corporations humored the ardent temper of the times as actively as did government scrip. Businesses that once had been sustained by lotteries now maintained themselves by issuing stock. Speculators and stockjobbers bought and sold stocks of new manufacturies, canal companies, turnpike companies, bridge companies, land companies, and banks.
As speculators in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston barrowed more and more to buy stocks and government scrip, the rate of interest rose until men were paying as high for a thirty-day loan as they had previously paid for a year's.
Robert Morris and John Nicholson, comptroller general of the state of Pennsylvania, engaged in an absorbing and monopolistic plan to secure riches by speculating in land, often available at a few cents an acre, in the inland regions of the state. Many suffered ruinous losses and Morris was sent to jail for debt. Some notion of the magnitude of the operation may be formed by the indebtedness attributed to Nicholson-estimated at $12,000,000, no paltry sum then or now.
In 1806, six years after the collapse of the land scheme, Nicholson's brother Samuel (one of the few who had benefited) informed the governor of Pennsylvania that the lands to which he held title swallowed up one seventh of the state. He also reported that one transaction involved change in title of between one and two million acres in Georgia.
As the mania for speculation persisted, a new class of men, the stockjobbers, emerged and became the direct ancestors of today's stockbrokers. Many a onetime lottery-ticket salesman now made it his business to attend public sales and buy and sell shares and scrip on a liberal commission. Whenever a stockjobber walked into a coffeehouse in one of the three great cities, he was stormed by gamblers eager to buy today so that they could sell for profit tomorrow. The stockjobbers earned fortunes in commissions.
The very poor who could not afford to speculate so high were able to risk a few shillings in the lotteries that continued to sweep the land. Newspapers regularly published the numbers of the winning tickets and the names of the lucky winners. Thus a Boston paper of 1790 announced; "The highest Prize (£ 3000) in the New York Lottery was drawn by 2 deserving Servant Girls. . ." The Columbian Centinel of June 5, 1790, that "Two apprentices belonging to Mr. Bemis, Paper-Maker, in Watertown drew the 1000 dollar prize in the Williamstown Lottery," and the Salem Gazette of May 10, 1791, that "No. 17221, which drew 2000 dollars in the Semi-annual State lottery, was paid on Friday last, by Messrs. Leach and Fosdick, in Boston." Curiously enough "the proprietors were four Africans belonging to Newport."
Publicizing the winners had a hypnotic effect and people of all classes neglected business, shop, and farm to witness the drawing of the wheel. The governor of Massachusetts declared that lotteries were bad for the morals of the common people and earnestly pressed the general court to terminate their use as a means of procuring public funds. Connecticut and New Hampshire, frightened by the vast sums that were leaving their states for lottery tickets, banned the sale of tickets for all lottery schemes outside their state borders. Pennsylvania, too, sounded a note of alarm in its legislature.
More than two thousand authorized lotteries were functioning at once and the sale of tickets averaged $2,000,000 annually. The figure is enormous in relation to the total population of four million.
Still, a number of lotteries were planned to finance the building of Federal City in the District of Columbia in 1793. Federal Lottery No. 1 offered fifty thousand tickets at seven dollars each, of which 16,739 were to draw prizes. The inn that was to cost $50,000 was first prize, the commissioners, following French usage, calling it a "hotel." Blodgett's Hotel, probably the first in America to be so called, was named for Samuel Blodgett of Philadelphia, as he had helped to plan the lotteries for Federal City. President Washington bought the first ticket and the record of this lottery is still extant, a treasured item in the Library of Congress.
Federal Lottery No. 2 was designed to build "The Six Houses" in a row west of the White House.
Land speculation affected Federal City, for Daniel Carroll, a Marylander, owned land in the District and was selected by the commissioners to lay out the city. He expected his holdings to fetch so high a price that when Stephen Girard, the richest man in Philadelphia, offered $250,000 for it he held out for a cool million. The price was too high and the city expanded in a different direction, on cheaper land. Carroll died poor.
If lotteries could support public projects, men reasoned, why not private ones? The American Daily Advertiser of May 12, 1791, reported that Gabriel Legget, a New York chairmaker, was fined £ 500 for operating a private lottery wheel. And on another occasion "William Thornton, a blacksmith, was fined £84 14s. for having opened and set on foot a private lottery."
Conservative Americans prophesied that lotteries would ruin the nation and make its citizens unhappy. These jeremiads notwithstanding, the natonal finances became more stable, the country more prosperous, and the people apparently enjoyed reasonable happiness.
Gambling had a curious social effect. Men holding widely divergent political beliefs and living on different economic planes fraternized around the gaming table. The Duc de la Rochefoucauld, who visited Charlestown in the late eighteenth century, remarked that in the numerous gaming houses "aristocracy and sans culottes mix in friendly intercourse and indiscriminately surround the tables. It is asserted that they play very high."
Professional gamblers were not yet numerous and were usually ramblers who dealt cards or threw dice in inns and grogshops. Sweat, or sweat-cloth, as our present chuck-a-luck was sometimes known, was the chief dice game of these itinerants. Charleston, with a French population swelled by refugees from San Domingo, had several establishments with rooms and tables for this game. Faro was also popular and some of Charleston's professional gamblers, who visited Federal City in 1800, when Congress first met there, introduced the Congressmen, lobbyists, and visitors to the game. Pickings were good, so the gamblers lingered, and before two decades had passed, houses specifically for private and public gambling had become a permanent feature of the capital.
For the first time in America there now appeared a granddaddy of the shell game, which presaged the art of swindling and cheating that nineteenth and early twentieth century sharpers developed to a high art. This was thimblerig. One Dr. Bennett, who later rose to fame as a riverboat gambler, has been credited with inventing it. In Bennett's travels during the 1790s he relieved many credulous tosspots and rustic sports of their cash by shifting an elusive pea from one to another of three inverted thimbles. When Bennett invited observers to bet which of the thimbles covered the baffling pea, it was almost always between two of his nimble fingers.
Bennett was about seventy years old in 1845, his hair white, his fading eyesight abetted by spectacles. But after a lifetime of gambling he was still considered King of the Thimbleriggers, and his fingers were as light and quick as ever.