Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Department of Quotation: Those American Goliaths

Tuesday, February 23, 2010
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.

Portrait at left is Dolley Madison, 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 AbbĂ© 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."

Travels in Canada, and the United States, in 1816 and 1817. By Lieut. Francis Hall.
Hall.  London, Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, & Brown, 1818.

Courtesy Library of Congress, CALL NUMBER E165 .H19, DIGITAL ID  lhbtn 26822


News From the Holmestead said...

"the room seemed filled with giants, among whom, moderately sized men crept like pigmies."

ROFLOL! I love this man's observations! The visual!

"and the absence of mental irritation."

This made me smile. Hmmm. I wonder if the absence of mental irritation really does contribute to an increase in stature? *g*

Sherrie Holmes, still laughing

Rowenna said...

"Mental irritation" made me laugh, too--though I guess it's not a big surprise that they had already figured out that stress is bad for your health :)

Mme.Tresbeau said...

I smiled when I saw Dolley Madison's picture here. I have always admired her. She was one smart, savy lady. I wonder why no one's written a good historical novel about her life yet?

I liked the "mental irritation" too!

Vanessa Kelly said...

There was so much written on mental irritations in medical books of the 18th and 19th century. Various types of melancholies or neurosis were to blame for just about every medical ill you could think of! And, of course, most of them were attributed to decadent society. Not much different from today, actually.

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It's easy to forget that the first rumblings of the industrial revolution were already making Europe a less pleasant place to be. The average "western" frontiersman would have eaten much better than his counterpart toiling six days a week in a city -- fresh meat, fresh fruit, nuts, and vegetables, and clean water were right there for the taking. Pollution, too, was already a fact of life in many English cities, with the smoke from the ever-present coal fires contributing to London's famous fog. The American frontier must indeed have seemed like an idyllic haven by comparison, and the giants it produced must have sealed the deal for this to be the "promised land". No wonder immigration from the old country was so popular!

Katie said...

I would suggest "Ways to Take a meal: A Ranked Order" from Barbara G. Carson's "Ambitious Appetites: Dining, Behaviors, and Patterns of Consumption in Federal Washington" if you want to pursue the "giant" train of thought. Apparently there was stratification in concerns to height among those in rural colonial and federal America, the poor in urban, and the wealthy. But aside from the urban poor, early Federals were indeed much taller than their European counterparts.

I came across this reading in my material cultures course I had to shares.

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