- Historic Sites
The Secret Life Of A Developing Country (Ours)
Forget your conventional picture of America in 1810. In the first half of the nineteenth century, we were not at all the placid, straitlaced, white-picket-fence nation we imagine ourselves to have been. By looing at the patterns of everyday life as recorded by contemporary foreign and native observers of the young republic and by asking the questions that historians don't think to ask of another time—what were people really like? how did they greet one another in the street? how did they occupy their leisure time? what did they eat?—Jakc Larking brings us a portrait of another Americna, an America that was so different from both our conception of its past life and its present-day reality as to seem a foreign country.
September/October 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 6
Margaret Hall was no proponent of abolition and had little sympathy for black Americans. Yet in her travels south she confronted incidents of what she ironically called the “good treatment of slaves” that were impossible to ignore. At a country tavern in Georgia, she summoned the slave chambermaid, but “she could not come” because “the mistress had been whipping her and she was not fit to be seen. Next morning she made her appearance with her face marked in several places by the cuts of the cowskin and her neck handkerchief covered with spots of blood.”
Southern stores were very much like Northern ones, Francis Kemble Butler observed, except that they stocked “negro-whips” and “mantraps” on their shelves. A few slaves were never beaten at all, and for most, whippings were not a daily or weekly occurrence. But they were, of all Americans, by far the most vulnerable to violence. All slaves had, as William Wells Brown, an ex-slave himself, said, often “heard the crack of the whip, and the screams of the slave” and knew that they were never more than a white man’s or woman’s whim away from a beating. With masters’ unchecked power came worse than whipping: the mutilating punishments of the old penal law including branding, ear cropping, and even occasionally castration and burning alive as penalties for severe offenses. In public places or along the road blacks were also subject to casual kicks, shoves, and cuffs, for which they could retaliate only at great peril. “Six or seven feet in length, made of cowhide, with a platted wire on the end of it,” as Brown recalled it, the negro-whip, for sale in most stores and brandished by masters and overseers in the fields, stood for a pervasive climate of force and intimidation.
The penal codes of the American states were far less bloodthirsty than those of England. Capital punishment was not often imposed on whites for crimes other than murder. Yet at the beginning of the nineteenth century many criminal offenses were punished by the public infliction of pain and suffering. “The whipping post and stocks stood on the green near the meetinghouse” in most of the towns of New England and near courthouses everywhere. In Massachusetts before 1805 a counterfeiter was liable to have an ear cut off, and a forger to have one cropped or partially amputated, after spending an hour in the pillory. A criminal convicted of manslaughter was set up on the gallows to have his forehead branded with a letter M. In most jurisdictions town officials flogged petty thieves as punishment for their crime. In New Haven, Connecticut, around 1810, Charles Fowler, a local historian, recalled seeing the “admiring students of [Yale] college” gathered around to watch petty criminals receive “five or ten lashes…with a rawhide whip.”
Throughout the United States public hangings brought enormous crowds to the seats of justice and sometimes seemed like brutal festivals. Thousands of spectators arrived to pack the streets of courthouse towns. On the day of a hanging near Mount Holly, New Jersey, in the 1820s, the scene was that of a holiday: “around the place in every direction were the assembled multitudes—some in tents, and bywagons, engaged in gambling and other vices of the sort, in open day.” In order to accommodate the throngs, hangings were usually held not in the public square but on the outskirts of town. The gallows erected on a hill or set up at the bottom of a natural amphitheater allowed onlookers an unobstructed view. A reprieve or stay of execution might disappoint a crowd intent on witnessing the deadly drama and provoke a riot, as it did in Pembroke, New Hampshire, in 1834.
At a drunkard’s funeral in Enfield, Massachusetts, in the 1830s—the man had strayed out of the road while walking home and fallen over a cliff, “his stiffened fingers still grasping the handle of the jug”—Rev. Sumner G. Clapp, the Congregationalist minister of Enfield, mounted a log by the woodpile and preached the town’s first temperance sermon before a crowd full of hardened drinkers. In this way Clapp began a campaign to “civilize” the manners of his parishioners, and “before many years there was a great change in the town; the incorrigible were removed by death, and others took warning.” Drinking declined sharply, and along with it went “a general reform in conduct.”
Although it remained a powerful force in many parts of the United States, the American way of drunkenness began to lose ground as early as the mid-1820s. The powerful upsurge in liquor consumption had provoked a powerful reaction, an unprecedented attack on all forms of drink that gathered momentum in the Northeast. Some New England clergymen had been campaigning in their own communities as early as 1810, but their concerns took on organized impetus with the founding of the American Temperance Society in 1826. Energized in part by a concern for social order, in part by evangelical piety, temperance reformers popularized a radically new way of looking at alcohol. The “good creature” became “demon rum"; prominent physicians and writers on physiology, like Benjamin Rush, told Americans that alcohol, traditionally considered healthy and fortifying, was actually a physical and moral poison. National and state societies distributed anti-liquor tracts, at first calling for moderation in drink but increasingly demanding total abstinence from alcohol.