New England Revolutions

By Daryl Leeworthy, Guest Contributor 

Today’s Fourth of July celebrations mark the 240th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, that moment when it became necessary for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another.” The effects of independence, and quite what the effects on social and cultural habit actually were, have been much debated by historians and there is no space to rehearse those arguments here. The generation that came after the Revolution, as Joyce Appleby has written, “were much freer to imagine what the United States might become.”[1] They looked towards their own habits, their own interests, and their own codes of behavior. Some began to turn away from the games played by their parents, played by the soldiers during the revolutionary war. The sorts of activities that prompted Abigail Adams to complain to her husband in 1777 that

this continent has paid thousands to officers and men who have been loitering about playing foot-ball and nine pins, and doing their own private buisness whilst they ought to have been defending our forts and we are now suffering for the neglect.

It is perhaps surprising to see Mrs. Adams discussing football, with some of the British meaning attached to it, so used are we to American disinterest in the game – or at least one of its descendants. That is until recent interest in Major League Soccer, and recent recoveries of soccer’s rich history in cities such as Chicago and New York. This prompts some interesting methodological questions for our field, which I want to explore in this post.

In the late 1970s, around the time that Allen Guttmann’s From Ritual to Record (1978) was first published, and sport history was still in its infancy as an academic pursuit, the question of when sport emerged in a form that is recognizable to modern audiences was much more hotly contested than it is today. For those who share Guttmann’s assertion that modern sport is the way it is because of certain characteristics, such as quantification and secularization, it is immediately apparent that the sports played on the streets of early colonial America, for instance, cannot readily be described in the same way as those that were played in the twentieth century. But is that really a fair assessment? From an alternative perspective, such as the Marxist analysis employed by Tony Collins in his recent Sport in Capitalist Society, the distinguishing factor between then and now is the role played by capital. “Modern sport,” he concludes, “is capitalism at play.” In other words, what we know as soccer today is not the natural result of progress but an outcome of intensive struggle, economic change, and the emergence of an industrial proletariat.

The influence of capital clearly changed the way in which sport developed, just as it changed the way in which society and politics developed. Both characterisations rely on a divide between modern and ‘pre-modern’ that is guided by a desire to explain the present – how things are as they are now, and how they’ve progressed to get there. But can that really help to explain what sport was like during the sporting ‘dark ages’ – as we might describe the long period between the end of Roman sport and the emergence of modern forms in the late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? If indeed we should properly call it ‘sport’ at all – for reasons of space, I employ it here without prejudice of meaning. Can either the Marxian or Guttmannian model really help to explain sport in colonial America on its own terms? And how exactly can historians avoid accusations of antiquarianism – already evident in the pursuit of the ‘origins’ of baseball and soccer?

Before I get to the main body of narrative in this post, I should lay out some of the historiographical foundations. An obvious starting point, given the period I’m dealing with, namely c.1600-1776, is the Atlantic World literature that has in recent years become very influential in the study of the early modern Americas. If in the end our focus is on the English (and later British) and Dutch colonies of what became the north-eastern United States, this historiography serves as a reminder of the multiple colonial influences on the Americas and provides a way of considering how societies developed out of and in response to empire. John Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World (2007), an ideal example of this literature, compares and contrasts the English – later British – and Spanish empires. On the face of it, this offers clearly distinctive differences between a Catholic and a Protestant empire, between an increasingly constitutional monarchy and an absolutist one, and so forth. And then, of course, there are the similarities: the contest between the colonisers and the monarchy for control, encounters with native peoples, the limits and extents of self-government, and ideas of identity. Was the New World genuinely new or was it, at least in intent, an idealised projection of the Old World?

Framed in such a way, it is not very difficult to see how something like sport – which was played – can be explored in such a way as to shed light on the making of colonial America and its relationship with the Old World. Two questions follow from that assertion: how to conduct such research and why it hasn’t been undertaken already. The former is relatively straightforward, and I shall consider methodology in the conclusion. The latter is more important, even if the answer is quite straightforward as well. Put simplistically, the reason why sport historians haven’t caught up with the Atlantic World literature, haven’t played a full part in that exciting ‘turn’, is because the field is presentist and a little too comfortable with ‘diffusion’ and ‘exceptionalism’. That is, on the one hand it accepts, much too readily, the sporting notions of the modern (post-1850, say), and on the other the idea that sports ‘diffused’ from Britain along channels of nineteenth century empire, except in the United States where the persistence of baseball and American Football pointed to its exception from the rule. Even as historians begin to grapple with the early eighteenth century, they remain tied to a chronology that feeds directly into the modern. Mike Huggins’s recent article on eighteenth-century horse racing published in the Journal of Sport History, for instance, self-describes its analysis as ‘pre-modern’. But for those at the time, wasn’t it new and modern? A facetious complaint, to be sure, but it does point to a wider methodological and historiographical impasse.

Let me demonstrate what I mean with some examples. The city of Boston was founded in 1630 by Puritan colonists from England. In the words of Richard Brown, it was a ‘bastion’ of puritanism which saw that form of Protestantism exert considerable influence over the city’s politics, economic ideas, the flow of information and ideas in and out of the city, and, above all, how its society was governed. “In contrast to other major ports,” Brown writes, “Boston authorities routinely monitored social behaviour.”[2] This meant controlling what people could say, what they could do in their leisure time, who they could sleep with, and when they could do certain things. Things considered frivolous, such as bowling, dancing, horseracing, and the playing of football were banned. Thus, in November 1657, at a meeting of the city authorities in Boston, the following resolution was passed:

For as much as sundry Complaints are made that severall persons have received hurt by boyes and young men playing at football in the streets; these are therefore to Injoyne that none be found at that game in any of the streets, Lanes, or Inclosures of this town, under the penalty of twenty shillings for every such offence.[3]

Three years later, the authorities relented slightly and altered the wording of the order to read “or Inclosures without the owners consent.”[4] But given the reiteration of the ban in 1677, the city authorities clearly remained at odds with the popularity of the sport amongst the younger population. Eventually, attitudes in Boston did change and by the early eighteenth century football was spoken about openly, if not always enthusiastically, and was clearly a legitimated everyday activity.[5] “Whilst these opposite sets of angry men are playing at football,” lamented the New England Weekly Journal, for instance, “they will break all the windows and do more hurt than their pretended zeal for the nation will ever make amends for.”[6] As to who was playing by this time, here is the view of the Weekly Rehearsal in January 1735: “the common people will endure long and hard labour; insomuch that after twelve hours hard work they will go in the evening to football, stoolball, cricket […] or some such like vehement exercise for their recreation.”[7]



Hardly very different to what could be found in Britain at the time.

Not everywhere underwent the same process of liberalisation, of course. For every Bostonian and Philadelphian who regarded sport as, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “not very sinful exercises,” elsewhere attitudes remained hardened against them.[8] Salem, made famous by its witch trials of 1692 and 1693, continued to outlaw football and cricket right up until the Revolution. The same ban also extended to throwing snowballs in the streets![9]

The English colonies were not alone in exercising strict control, particularly in the seventeenth century, over the social activities of colonists. In the Dutch colony of New Netherland, attitudes towards sporting activity were strikingly similar. Reacting to frustration from burghers – the colonial middle class – at the damage to property and person caused by playing golf in the streets, authorities in Fort Orange and the neighbouring village of Beverwijck, the Dutch ancestors of Albany, New York, banned the sport in December 1659. Anyone caught playing would pay a fine of fl.25.[10] Similar bans were imposed on football, cricket, tennis, and other amusements, especially on the Sabbath and on traditional feast days such as Shrovetide. Protestant antipathy towards perceived Catholic frivolity extended across the spectrum of social and cultural activity, with sport being a notable casualty.

Far from being a modern development, then, sport has been played and governed in the Americas (in European forms) since colonisation. After all, in order to regulate something, it must exist in the first place. The place of sport in the processes of early European colonisation of the Americas is important to recover, both on its own terms, and in terms of what it tells us about everyday life. The transposition of sporting habits from Europe to the Americas, and the transposition of regulation, clearly played some part in the construction of the Atlantic World. It still does. But unless sport historians involve themselves in those debates, this may well continue to be overlooked or merely offered as an interesting sidelight.

After all, as Boston simmered on the eve of Revolution, even little things like footballs kicked at soldiers could bring the city dangerously close to the edge. In the course of a century, the playing of football had gone from being banned to being something that Bostonians felt they had a right to do. Attempts by the British authorities to limit it were increasingly met with outrage. As one newspaper reflected warily in March 1769:

It seems some boys were the other evening playing at football near the province house, when either by accident or design, they threw down one of the sentry boxes at the gate. This rude and mischievous behaviour of children has been represented to the council as a serious and important matter, upon which their advice or concurrence was required. […] And we doubt not an account of this little rude boyish trick will be transmitted to administration with such glosses and comments as may have a tendency to impress them with the heinousness of the offence; and as another proof of the necessity of regular troops, to keep the inhabitants in order.

Perhaps life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, did mean, in some small part, the opportunity to kick a ball about without subsequent penalty.

To conclude with some methodological ideas. Given that most historians of sport are historians of nineteenth and twentieth century society, culture, and politics, our sources are relatively traditional – minute books, newspapers and magazines, government materials, photographs, and audio-visual resources. From these we can build up a strong picture of sport and its place in society. Seventeenth and eighteenth century sources are not all that different: governments regulated, newspapers recorded, sports and amusements were discussed, satirised, and depicted. Analysis of colonial sport and society does not require a significant alteration in the methodological instincts of the field. There is considerable evidence waiting to be discovered in court records, in the records of local churches, in early newspapers, and in government sources. It is the historiographical instincts that need overhauling. For the reason to look in these places should not be because we wish to know about the ‘origins’ of particular sports. Rather, at least from my perspective, it is because we wish to trace the role of sport in the making of the Atlantic World; or observe the role of sport in liberalising attitudes to social governance; or considering the emergence or decline of different identities – local, regional, national, or transnational.

For a while now, sport historians on both sides of the Atlantic have been thinking through a certain existential crisis. Why don’t other fields take us seriously? We have been around for a while, after all. My own view, encouraged largely through my work with Colin Howell on borderlands, is that the crisis has occurred partly because of the insular limitations of the field as it was originally conceived. By turning our attention to themes and periods that matter in the wider literature – such as the transnational nature of the early modern Atlantic World, or nineteenth and twentieth century borderlands, or the nuances of the newer imperial histories – we can place our work in the front rank. There it is more difficult to ignore. It may be the case, for instance, as a review of a chapter Colin and I wrote for the Routledge Companion to Sports History pointed out, that borderlands hasn’t played much of a role in the writing of sport history; but it has played a major and recurring role in the writing of history in North America! Which matters more?

Mo Smith is right to say that “the contested terrain of sport will continue to be a rich space for academic study – and none of us should cede ground to those academics and laypersons who claim to be discovering this new terrain.”[11] But let us also go on the offensive and make ourselves part of debates and territories that we do not normally occupy. One of these, surely, is colonial America and those mid-seventeenth century Bostonians or New Amsterdammers playing football or golf in the streets, very much against the desires of those in charge. That’s how we make ourselves relevant, in the end: by parking on someone else’s lawn. Now that really would be a New England Revolution!

Daryl Leeworthy teaches British and American history with the Department for Adult and Continuing Education at Swansea University in the UK. An infrequent NASSHer, his research focuses on the North Atlantic as a sporting borderland and on the labour movement in Britain. He can be contacted at


[1] Joyce Appleby, Inheriting the Revolution: The First Generation of Americans (Cambridge, 2001), p. 3.

[2] Richard D. Brown, Knowledge is Power: The Diffusion of Information in Early America, 1700-1865 (Oxford, 1989), p. 16.

[3] Second Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston (Boston, 1902 edn), p. 141.

[4] As above, p. 157.

[5] And on the eve of the Revolution, residents could even approach the Selectmen with plans to open schools of dancing. See: A Report of the Record Commissioners of the City of Boston Containing the Selectmen’s Minutes from 1769 through April, 1775 (Boston, 1893), p. 82 (2 May 1771).

[6] New England Weekly Journal (Boston), 5 May 1735.

[7] The Weekly Rehearsal (Boston), 20 January 1735.

[8] American Weekly Mercury, 15 May-22 May 1740.

[9] Essex Gazette, 13 December-20 December 1768.

[10] E. B. O’Callaghan (ed.), The Laws and Ordinances of New Netherland, 1638-1674 (Albany, 1868), p. 367.

[11] Maureen M. Smith, “Will the Real Sport Historians Please Stand Up?: Shadow Boxing with an Absent Presenter,” Journal of Sport History 43, no. 1 (2016), 92.

2 thoughts on “New England Revolutions

  1. Pingback: New England Revolutions — Sport in American History | By the Mighty Mumford

  2. Pingback: ICYMI: An Overview of Nearly Everything We Wrote in 2016 | Sport in American History

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