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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
Liquor consumption provoked a powerful reaction: an unprecedented attack on drinking.
To a surprising degree these aggressive temperance campaigns worked. By 1840 the consumption of alcohol had declined by more than two-thirds, from close to four gallons per person each year to less than one and one-half. Country storekeepers gave up the sale of spirits, local authorities limited the number of tavern licenses, and farmers even abandoned hard cider and cut down their apple orchards. The shift to temperance was a striking transformation in the everyday habits of an enormous number of Americans. “A great, though silent change,” in Horace Greeley’s words, had been “wrought in public sentiment.”
But although the “great change” affected some Americans everywhere, it had a very uneven impact. Organized temperance reform was sharply delimited by geography. Temperance societies were enormously powerful in New England and western New York and numerous in eastern New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. More than three-fourths of all recorded temperance pledges came from these states. In the South and West, and in the laborers’ and artisans’ neighborhoods of the cities, the campaign against drink was much weaker. In many places drinking ways survived and even flourished, but as individuals and families came under the influence of militant evangelical piety, their “men of business and sobriety” increased gradually in number. As liquor grew “unfashionable in the country,” Greeley noted, Americans who wanted to drink and carouse turned increasingly to the cities, “where no one’s deeds or ways are observed or much regarded.”
Closely linked as they were to drink, such diversions as gambling, racing, and blood sports also fell to the same forces of change. In the central Massachusetts region that George Davis, a lawyer in Sturbridge, knew well, until 1820 or so gaming had “continued to prevail, more and more extensively.” After that “a blessed change had succeeded,” overturning the scenes of high-stakes dice and card games that he knew in his young manhood. Impelled by a new perception of its “pernicious effects,” local leaders gave it up and placed “men of respectable standing” firmly in opposition. Racecourses were abandoned and “planted to corn.” Likewise, “bear-baiting, cock-fighting, and other cruel amusements” began to dwindle in the Northern countryside. Elsewhere the rude life of the tavern and “cruel amusements” remained widespread, but some of their excesses of “sin and shame” did diminish gradually.
Over the first four decades of the nineteenth century the American people increasingly made churchgoing an obligatory ritual. The proportion of families affiliated with a local church or Methodist circuit rose dramatically, particularly after 1820, and there were fewer stretches of the wholly pagan, unchurched territory that travelers had noted around 1800. “Since 1830,” maintained Emerson Davis in his retrospect of America, The Half Century, “…the friends of the Sabbath have been gaining ground....In 1800, good men slumbered over the desecration of the Sabbath. They have since awoke....” The number of Sunday mails declined, and the campaign to eliminate the delivery of mail on the Sabbath entirely grew stronger. “In the smaller cities and towns,” wrote Mrs. Trollope in 1832, worship and “prayer meetings” had come to “take the place of almost all other amusements.” There were still communities near the edge of settlement where a traveler would “rarely find either churches or chapels, prayer or preacher,” but it was the workingclass neighborhoods of America’s larger cities that were increasingly the chief strongholds of “Sunday dissipation” and "Sabbath-breaking.”
Whipping and the pillory, with their attentive audiences, began to disappear from the statute book, to be replaced by terms of imprisonment in another new American institution, the state penitentiary. Beginning with Pennsylvania’s abolition of flogging in 1790 and Massachusetts’s elimination of mutilating punishments in 1805, several American states gradually accepted John Hancock’s view of 1796 that “mutilating or lacerating the body” was less an effective punishment than “an indignity to human nature.” Connecticut’s town constables whipped petty criminals for the last time in 1828.
Slaveholding states were far slower to change their provisions for public punishment. The whipping and mutilation of blacks may have become a little less ferocious over the decades, but the whip remained the essential instrument of punishment and discipline. “The secret of our success,” thought a slave owner, looking back after emancipation, had been “the great motive power contained in that little instrument.” Delaware achieved notoriety by keeping flogging on the books for whites and blacks alike through most of the twentieth century.