December 21, 2008

Conveying Fibs in a Volley of Oaths, Part I

“Were these colonies left to themselves tomorrow, America would be a mere shambles of blood and confusion.”
James Otis, revolutionary from Massachusetts, 1765
Benjamin Franklin once described a group of typical Americans as “little better than Dunces and Blockheads.”

Harsh? Perhaps, but most early Americans were earthy, hardworking people; in 1830, farmers made up about 70 percent of the total United States population. (This was a time when livestock made an excellent birthday gift.) For a snapshot of these forefolks, let’s check in with Dr. Alexander Hamilton (1712-1756). He's not the Alexander Hamilton shot by Aaron Burr, but rather a physician who traveled throughout the Northeast in the 1740s.

Hamilton kept a journal of his journeys in which he carefully described the manners of the people met. This was published in 1744 as Gentleman’s Progress: The Itinerarium of Dr. Alexander Hamilton. In it, Hamilton relates that one landlady heated up leftover clams in a bedpan. Oh my. And in taverns and coffee shops, he found many Americans who spoke so loudly they “spit in one’s face at three or four foot’s distance.” (Star-mangled manners?)

One thing that is clear in reading Hamilton's account is the interesting demographic mix to be found in cities. In Philadelphia, he described sitting down at a tavern’s great table to dine with a motley crew of twenty-five other guests:
"There were Scots, English, Dutch, Germans, and Irish; there were Roman Catholicks, Church men, Presbyterians, Quakers, Newlightmen, Methodists, Seventh day men, Moravians, Anabaptists, and one Jew."
As for entertainment, a seventy-five-year old man performed for Hamilton by jumping on his bum “without touching the floor with any other part of his body. Then he turned and did the same upon his belly.”

As he toured about, Hamilton was amazed by the attention people paid to a simple traveler like himself. Both Greenwich Village and Providence, Rhode Island, were full of bumpkins who stared with open mouths. The people “were as simple and awkward as sheep, and so wild that they would not appear in open view but kept peeping at me from behind doors, chests, and benches.”

But not everyone was shy. Hamilton was most offended by the bigmouths he met on his journey. At every turn, the doctor ran into brash know-it-alls, ignorant clods, and, most annoying, liars and cheats. In Pennsylvania, he wrote, a person “will tell a lie with a sanctified, solemn face; a Marylander, perhaps, will convey his fib in a volley of oaths.” Just like today!
(My sources are here.)

1 comment:

Tracy S. said...

Very interesting and informative, as always, Bart! But I have to say the photo of the lady with balls in her mouth creeps me out more than a little ... :(