Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Those American Goliaths [from the archives]

Wednesday, August 19, 2015
Gilbert Stuart, Dolley Madison 1804
Loretta reports:

Lieut. Francis Hall, an Englishman traveling in North America in 1816-1817, offers some fascinating observations of the young United States and its people. Dolley Madison, at left, was the president's lady at the time.
The President, or rather his lady, holds drawing-room weekly, during the sitting of Congress. He takes by the hand those who are presented to him; shaking hands being discovered in America to be more rational and manly than kissing them. For the rest, it is much as such things are every where, chatting, and tea, compliments and ices, a little music, (some scandal, I suppose, among the ladies,) and to bed. Nothing in these assemblies more attracted my notice, than the extraordinary stature of most of the western members; the room seemed filled with giants, among whom, moderately sized men crept like pigmies. I know not well, to what the difference may be attributed, but the surprising growth of the inhabitants of the Western states is matter of astonishment to those of the Eastern, and of the coast line generally. This phenomenon, which is certainly a considerable stumbling-block to the Abbé Raynal's theory, may probably be resolved into the operation of three positive causes, and one negative, namely, plentiful but simple food, a healthy climate, constant exercise in the open air, and the absence of mental irritation. In a more advanced stage of society, luxurious and sedentary habits produce in the rich that enfeeblement of vitality, which scanty food, and laborious or unwholesome occupations bring upon the poor. The only persons to be compared with these Goliahs of the West, were six Indian chiefs from Georgia, Chactaws or Chickasaws, who having come to Washington on public business, were presented at Mrs. Madison's drawing-room.

They had a still greater appearance of muscular power than the Americans; and while looking on them, I comprehended the prowess of those ancient knights, whose single might held an army in check, "and made all Troy retire."
—Lieut. Francis Hall, "Washington," from Travels in Canada, and the United States, in 1816 and 1817, courtesy Library of Congress.

Images: Gilbert Stuart, Dolley Madison 1804, courtesy Wikipedia; George Caitlin, “Three Celebrated Ball Players—Choctaw, Sioux, and Ojibbeway,” 1861, National Gallery of Art, Paul Mellon Collection [my photograph of the painting].

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Susan G. said...

A book worth reading is The People of the Abyss, non-fiction by Jack London. He posed as a homeless person in London around 1900 -- it's sad that so many of the things he describes are still true. One thing American Jack noticed was that members of the upper classes in London were literally a head taller than the London poor. Tiny, wizened children grew to be tiny, wizened adults on a life-long starvation diet.

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