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, June 04, 2006

Boston's political footballs

In the charged atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Boston, even football got caught in political disputes.

In 1768-69, Boston’s Whigs sent a series of anonymous dispatches to newspapers in other colonies, describing (with some exaggeration but mostly a lot of complaint) the town’s sufferings after four army regiments had arrived at the request of the royal governor. In the 13 January 1769 letter, the Whigs turned their attention to football:

At a C——l [Council meeting] last Thursday G.B. [Gov. Francis Bernard] exhibited another specimen of the inexpressible littleness of his mind, and the fullness of its enmity against the people: It seems that some boys were the other evening playing at foot ball near the province house [the governor’s official residence] when either by accident or design; they threw down one of the centry boxes at the gate; this rude and mischievous behaviour of children, the G——r has represented to the C——l as a serious and important matter, upon which he required their advice or concurrence, in giving orders to the King’s Attorney to prosecute them for the same, which we are told has been done; and we doubt not an account of this little rude boyish trick, will be transmitted to Administration [in London] 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.

At most other times, Boston was not so indulgent toward football-playing youth. According to social historian Alice Morse Earle, the town had passed a law against playing football in the streets as early as 1657. In 1787 the selectmen asked “the several Masters of the public Schools, that they make their respective Scholars acquainted with the By Laws forbidding to throw Snow Balls and play Foot Balls in the Street.”

In a deposition dated 24 July 1770 and held at the British National Archives, Pvt James McKaan of the 29th regiment described another confrontation with Boston youths over football on the previous 25 December. (This may be the first documented example of that American tradition, the Christmas Day football game.) McKaan was on sentry duty at Boston Neck, the narrow land entrance into two. In late afternoon a number of young locals started kicking a football around nearby. The soldier went into his sentry box for a while, then came out and told the people to keep their game away from him. The crowd, probably resenting the military presence in town in the first place, became more rowdy and "at lenth Struck the Ball against this Deponent and hit him on the Head."

The football bounced over a wall. McKaan insisted that no one was allowed to go after it. But "A Young Lad" jumped over the wall to get the ball, and someone else threw a stick at the private's chest. McKaan "made an offer to strike him that Jumped after the Ball but did not reach him," then retreated back into the sentry box. At that point the crowd reverted to strict interpretation of the law, and left to find a magistrate to arrest McKaan for trying to assault the lad. McKaan said he had to lay low for a little while to avoid arrest. (I use this example of a confrontation between the military and Boston youths in my chapter of Children in Colonial America, due this fall from NYU Press.)

The rules for football in colonial Boston were probably informal, adapted to the players and location as in pick-up soccer games today. As for the footballs themselves, in A Restless People Oscar and Lillian Handlin described New Haven boys in this period playing “with a blown-up bladder.” The British antiquarian Joseph Strutt described boys in rural England centuries before playing with “a blown bladder without the covering of leather...putting peas and horse beans withinside, which occasioned a rattling as it was kicked about.” But Strutt also noted that in the same period shoemakers made leather footballs.

However the ball was made, it had to bounce. John Greenwood, a teenaged soldier in the winter of 1775-76, recalled in his 1809 memoir seeing large shells from the British artillery “strike the ground when it was frozen and bound up like a foot-ball.” African-American veteran Boyrereau Brinch, writing in 1810, also used a football metaphor to describe his vicissitudes: “I was fortunes football, and must depend upon her gentle kicks.”

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