- They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic by Kenneth Cohen
Sports, Theater, Sporting culture, Horseracing
The “sporting culture” of early America is the focus of this fine book. Not really sports history in the narrow sense of the term, the book uses sports as a lens to examine the cultural history of early and antebellum America. Based on a huge variety of printed and archival sources, including legal records and correspondence, Cohen reconstructs and analyzes the changes that sporting culture underwent from the colonial period to the 1850s. The book is gracefully written, and a large number of well-chosen illustrations add to the narrative.
While Cohen defines “sporting culture” broadly, the book mainly focuses on the theater and horseracing. It also pays some attention to billiards. It does not deal with rowing, running, baseball and cricket, cockfighting, or prizefighting—a sport that rose to incredible popularity beginning in the late 1840s. The emphasis on the theater may seem odd, but Cohen notes the broad meaning of “sports” in this era and a number of similarities to horseracing including elite backing and liminal status. The foremost sporting paper of the era, The Spirit of the Times, offered extensive theater coverage. Most of the focus in the book is on New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia.
While the colonial sporting scene, as described in They Will Have Their Game, was undeveloped by later standards I think many readers will be surprised at how extensive it was. Horseracing in the early 1700s was informal but widespread—men of all classes gathered at the tavern to race their horses and bet on them. Theatrical performances were staged in miscellaneous spaces. As colonial cities grew in the 1750s and 60s, promoters began to construct racetracks and theaters. This was funded mainly by members of the elite who hoped these sites would reinforce their link with one another and their influence in society at large. These new venues were designed to separate the elite from others with less [End Page 767] status—in stands at racetracks and in boxes in theaters. Less genteel spectators were admitted but would be kept away from the elite. The Revolution set back both activities significantly.
After the Revolution, sports were reborn. In the eighteenth century, many wealthy backers had seen viewed their support mainly as way of burnishing their status, but in the nineteenth century both horseracing and the theater emerged as businesses; this trend would continue to develop after the Revolution. One of the strengths of the book is Cohen’s careful tracing through letters and legal records of the financial history of the new theaters and racecourses. Men on the make seem to have been among the most enthusiastic backers, who, Cohen argues, hoped they would gain respect for their financial acumen. Both horseracing and the theater had a cross-class appeal, and the need to make a profit meant opening the doors to ordinary men and women. This began a process of democratization that was not easily controlled. Disorder was often the result, and drinking and fighting routine. Cohen argues that this new sporting-business elite “laid the foundation of for the white male republic as well as the values of capitalism that justified growing inequality within it” (12).
Both horseracing and theaters had long faced criticisms. But now cogent defenses emerged. Racing horses, so it was said, improved the breed. Theaters could provide moral instruction. In horseracing, as the commercial aspects developed, thoroughbreds were raised and mated, which gave ordinary horse owners little chance of competing. Professional trainers and jockeys came to be employed by the wealthy men who dominated the sport. White men controlled these sports, but women and blacks were allowed as spectators at horseraces and the theater. African Americans were allowed in segregated sections of the gallery in theaters. Some jockeys were black, and Cohen tells the fascinating story of Cornelious Johnston, one of the leading jockeys of...