J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, June 01, 2015

A British Comedian on the “New England Stage”

John Bernard (1756-1828) was a British actor of middling success known chiefly for comedies. He toured the U.S. of A. starting in 1797 and wrote his memoirs of the country in a manuscript published as Retrospections of America in 1887.

The New England Historical Society blog quoted Bernard’s account of his journey across the Atlantic, including worry about pirates. He found travel within the United States more relaxing:
I accordingly started in one of those longitudinal inventions termed a “New England stage,” built without springs on the plan of an English covered wagon, to contain “a full company,” eighteen, inclusive of the driver. This, with a ton of luggage at its tail, was capable of being pulled up-hill with the speed of a whirlwind by four shaggy, scrambling, equine devils that required neither whip nor rein, but seemed to enjoy the joke.

The structure of this machine, placing all upon a level, exhibited a republican principle which as yet was not at variance with a state of means by which a certain class require distinct accommodation. The differences between it and the English stage-coach were not always in the latter’s favor. True, it had no outlet but its mouth, at which it gorged and disgorged like some great Leviathan, and the seats being transverse and supplied with backs, the last-comers, men or women, had to stride over the shoulders of the earlier ones to reach a seat, for each being desirous of keeping as near as possible to the driver, the law of gravity was suspended in this vehicle, and very few of the passengers who came in first found their way to the bottom.

When Mrs. Bernard and myself were at last established in the extreme seat (not unlike the back of the Covent Garden gallery), we discovered that the floor was lumbered with a mail-bag and a valuable assortment of earthen and hardware jugs, kettles, fire-irons, and other articles consigned to a “store” in the interior, which had the effect, before the vehicle had been ten minutes in motion, of dyeing our shins all the colors of the rainbow. The irritation was perhaps augmented by fifteen tongues going, at the rate of ten words a second, upon politics, commerce, and agriculture, broken by the coughing and hawking of those who were further exciting themselves by cigars and pigtail.

But above all this storm, like the deep-toned notes of a powerful bassoon, rose the oracular responses of the “driver.” As American roads have not yet produced any specimens of the Old Bailey chivalry called highwaymen, the luggage needed not that extortionate good genius the English “guard,” the indefatigable driver combining the offices and being the ministry in one. . . .

the New England “driver”…was usually a thin, wiry, long-backed, leather-skinned fellow, sharing the front seat with the company, and flying in and out of the vehicle with the crack of a harlequin. No one more abhorred a superfluity of clothes. A straw hat was his creed, and he would often wear nankeens and shoes in frosty weather. I can remember one—a tall Vermonter, in a village where I resided some time—who, when winter was whistling his sharpest airs, would stand up amid a well-clad undergrowth of travellers, lank as a leafless elm. Placed upon their level, he sympathized with all his company, yet not intrusively. He was a general book of reference, almanac, market-list, and farmers’ journal; a daily paper published every morning, a focus which, by some peculiar centripetality, drew all things towards it.

I see nothing of a joke in the assertion of a New England driver being a major in the army. Europeans forget that, in its European sense, the army in America is not a highly respectable separate profession. Butchers there are sui generis. Men became soldiers during the war because they had something to lose. The driver was frequently the owner of a farm or inn, and of a share in his conveyance. As he took no fees (the brand of slavery in England) he was never regarded as a servant. As a rivet to his influence very often the driver was a wag, who had a joke for his passengers, perhaps as old as his stage, and as little likely to stop running. He had rambled in his youth half over the Union, and could tell you strange stories of Indians and rifles, and planters and panthers, of deer-killing and horse-racing, and the art and mystery of making mint-sling. The reserve of an English conveyance is proverbial, the animation of the one in which we found ourselves offered the greatest possible contrast.
Scholars of the American theater reported that Bernard’s memoirs of his performances don’t always accord with period sources, and it could well be that his description of stage-coach travel was also exaggerated for comic effect. But unlike some British travelers, he seems rather taken with America’s republican ways.

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