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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Sunday, August 07, 2016

The Schoolboy Footraces of Philadelphia

In his 1811 memoir, Alexander Graydon (1752-1818) offered a glimpse of schoolboy life in 1760s Philadelphia.

After the death of Alexander’s father in 1761, to support the family and to pay his tuition at the academy his mother took in other boys as boarders. He recalled:
The first lads that were placed with her, were two brothers, the sons of a colonel Lewis of Virginia. The younger, named Samuel, about a year older than myself, had the attractions of a pleasing countenance and great gentleness of manners. Though he belonged to a younger class than mine, the living and sleeping together were sufficient to cement a warm attachment between us, and there was not a boy in the school in whose welfare and competitions I took so decided an interest; the ardor of which was in almost perpetual requisition, from the circumstance of his being a champion in the gymnastic exercise of running, which was then the rage.

The enthusiasm of the turf had pervaded the academy, and the most extravagant transports of that theatre on the triumph of a favorite horse, were not more zealous and impassioned, than were the acclamations which followed the victor in a foot-race round a square. Stripped to the shirt, and accoutred for the heat by a handkerchief bound round the head, another round the middle, with loosened knee-bands, without shoes, or with moccasons instead of them, the racers were started; and turning to the left round the corner of Arch street, they encompassed the square in which the academy stands, while the most eager spectators, in imitation of those who scour across the course at a horse race, scampered over the church burying-ground to Fifth street, in order to see the state of the runners as they passed, and to ascertain which was likely to be foremost, on turning Market street corner. The four sides of this square cannot be much less than three quarters of a mile; wherefore, bottom in the coursers, was no less essential than swiftness, and in both, Lewis bore away the palm from every one that dared enter against him.

After having in a great number of matches completely triumphed over the academy, other schools were resorted to for racers; but all in vain: Lewis was the Eclipse that distanced every competitor, the swift-footed Achilles, against the vigorous agility of whose straight and well proportioned form, the long legged stride of the overgrown, and the nimble step of the dapper, were equally unavailing.

I was scarcely less elated with his triumphs, than if I myself had been the victor. I was even supremely happy in the circumstance, which gave me a claim to a more than common degree of interest in him, and from my experience of the force of these associations, in which, by a kind of metonymy, we take the place of the real agent, I can fully enter into the feelings of the butcher, who, ecstacied at the good behavior of his dog at a bull beating, exclaimed to Charles the second, “Damme, sir, if that is’nt my dog!” Since the time of those exploits, in which I was too young to enter the lists, I have valued myself upon my own agility in running and jumping; but I have never had the vanity to suppose, that at my best, I could have contended with any chance of success, in so long a race against Lewis.

At what time I was separated from this friend of my youth I cannot remember; but have to regret, that I lost the opportunity of seeing him, when several years afterwards, having I know not what business in Philadelphia which required dispatch, he called upon me one evening when I chanced to be out, and as he was obliged to leave the city very early in the morning, staid in the hope of meeting me till a very late hour. But my engagements unfortunately detained me too long, and he had been obliged to depart before I returned. This could not have been long before the war, probably between the year 1770 and 1772, when we had both attained to years of manhood; but whatever may have been his destiny, I have never since heard of him.
In a footnote, Graydon guessed that his childhood chum Samuel Lewis might have been part of the Battle of Point Pleasant in Dunmore’s War in 1774. Col. Andrew Lewis commanded the Virginia militia in that fight, and he had a son named Samuel, but that boy had died young in 1763.

The stretch of Fifth Street between Arch and Market is now designated as the northern part of Independence Mall. The “church burying-ground” that race spectators hurried through contains the grave of Benjamin Franklin. A late-nineteenth-century editor of Graydon’s memoir wrote that the distance around the square was not really close to “three quarters of a mile” but only 700 yards.

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