The All-American Tendency to “Take a Chance”
Commentator Thea Marshall looks at the all-American tendency to “take a chance,” to take a risk, to gamble. Historian and author David G. Schwartz wrote that gambling is as American as apple pie and much older than the Mayflower. It is something deep in the nation’s bones and reflected not only in games of chance but in the stock market and entrepreneurship. There is, he writes, a straight line—a legacy—from the early settlers and the plantation grandees to today’s visitors to the Las Vegas Strip. None of these people mind taking a chance.
John Smith, the first European explorer to set foot on the Northern Neck, saw the Indians do it and even joined in, and the Puritans didn’t want to do it, but they did. The early Virginia colonists did want to do it and they did. As a matter of fact it was so rampant, that Landon Carter of the Robert King Carter dynasty said of it, “No matter so great a slave as a man obsessed with gambling.” He may have been thinking about his nephews, who spent much time and energy and large fortunes betting on the early horse races held in Williamsburg, according to historian David Schwartz, author of Roll the Bones, a History of Gambling.
There’s a straight line, a legacy, from the early settlers and the plantation grandees to today’s visitors to the Las Vegas strip. None of these people mind taking a chance. Well, taking a chance! In 1773, Philip Bickers Fithian took a chance, and well, he left his divinity studies and his home in New Jersey to tutor for about a year the children of Robert Carter III, and in that role he had a unique view of the gentry. He wrote in his ever-present diary that he had attended many a horse race at the track at Richmond Courthouse. Just a year later, the Continental Congress, prompted perhaps by folks like Landon Carter, issued an order that stated, “The colonists will discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing and all kinds of gambling.” Well, were the colonists discouraged? Not very. According to historians, the gentry continued, “at public gatherings, in taverns, laying bets on the fall of a card, a dice, sporting events, trials of strength, changes of weather and politics.”
This seems to have been a male-dominated diversion, so what did the ladies prefer? Well, dancing, and dancing was serious business. Once again, thanks to Fithian’s journal and other sources. The dancing went on for hours most every evening and was regarded, not only as an elegant form of recreation, but a social necessity. Another journal keeper was one Lucinda Lee, who in 1782 came to visit relatives in the Northern Neck, and of course was invited to all the dances, and, apparently, her favorite partners were the best dancers. Except, according to Lucinda’s journal, “Captain Grigg, whose minuet was really the most ludicrous thing I ever saw. And what makes it more so, is he thinks he dances a most delightful one.”
Well, dancing isn’t quite the favorite pastime it once was. Gambling is. Author David Schwartz said that it’s something deep in the nation’s bones and reflected not only in games of chance but in the stock market and entrepreneurship. This nation, he said, was founded by people who left what was home and came over here. Clearly, they took a risk to get here. Mark Twain, that great observer, I think recommends it when he wrote, “Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the tradewinds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
This is Thea Marshall.