An article by Winston Ross in the web edition of Newsweek reports on the trend of increased lawmaking and law enforcement actions to crack down on the cruel and bloody sport of cockfighting. Because state and federal legislators have upgraded the laws to root out this criminal enterprise, and because police and prosecutors around the country are aggressively enforcing those laws, the so-called “cockers” are waging a futile war to repair their public image. Ross quotes the mantra of the website Gamerooster.com: “No sport can be higher than the class of people that support it. Do your part to popularize cocking.”
It’s no surprise, then, that the cockfighters are trying to hitch their wagon to the heroes of American history. As I wrote last week, a resolution in the Hawaii state legislature imploring the United Nations to commemorate cockfighting as a “global sport” opines that “even the American Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson recognized the value of cockfighting, as participants in that sport.”
They’d have us believe that cockfighting was as important to the fledgling nation as the Declaration of Independence—as if Mount Vernon and Monticello preceded Michael Vick’s Bad Newz Kennels as the hotbeds of Virginia animal fighting. But it’s wishful thinking at best, and simply doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. It’s time to set the record straight.
Several years ago, Eric Sakach of The HSUS set out in search of documents and records regarding the oft-repeated claims that four American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln—were cockfighting enthusiasts. After consulting several historical sources, here’s what we know:
John P. Riley, historian for the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, indicated that he was aware of only two references to cockfighting among Washington’s many writings, diaries, and correspondence. “By the numerous references in his diaries and letters to foxhunting, card playing and attending the theatre, we know that these were some of Washington’s favorite amusements,” Riley wrote. “The two references to cockfighting in his voluminous writings and the absence of documentation or physical evidence of any cockpit at Mount Vernon leads me to believe that it was not an entertainment in which he participated in any great way.”
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation’s director of research, Lucia C. Stanton, noted that “we have found nothing in the documentary record to indicate that Jefferson either attended cockfights or raised fighting cocks. His interest in raising poultry was evidently just for culinary purposes.” She added, “I am confident that if Jefferson had had any interest in cockfighting I would have come across some reference to it in my twenty-five years of working with his documentary archive. Our former Director spent over thirty years studying Jefferson and also found no references to cockfighting.”
Regarding Andrew Jackson, the Ladies’ Hermitage Association located only one reference in his papers putting him on the scene of a cockfight near Nashville in 1809. Sharon Macpherson, the deputy director of research, noted that “cockfighting became one of the issues in the campaign of 1828. The anti-Jackson forces published a number of broadsides attacking his character and trotting out all the fights, canings, stabbings, duels and other unsavory events of Jackson’s past.” They apparently accused him of being a cockfighter, too, and a letter in Jackson’s own handwriting denied the charge: “It is a positive falshood that Genl Jackson has been either at a cockfight or sports of a similar nature for the last thirteen years.”
The Illinois State Historical Library reports that cockfighting occurred in Lincoln’s home village of New Salem, but there is no evidence that Lincoln was involved in any way. Thomas F. Schwartz, curator of the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection, observed, “His love for animals is well documented and it seems unlikely that Lincoln would endorse cock fighting. In his autobiography, Lincoln indicates that he gave up hunting after shooting a turkey.” Schwartz further refuted the notion that Lincoln earned the nickname “Honest Abe” from judging cockfights, pointing out that Lincoln’s moniker came from his dealings as a storekeeper and his fairness in judging horse races.
Although it’s harder to prove inaction than action—that eighteenth and nineteenth century leaders did not routinely participate in cockfighting—there is evidence that they also actively sought to root out the cruelty. In the colonial era, cockfighting was under pressure thanks to a combination of Puritan, Calvinist, and Quaker influences, and then the notion that such frivolous games detracted from the seriousness of the Revolutionary War effort. The First Continental Congress passed legislation in 1774 to “discountenance and discourage every species of extravagance and dissipation, especially all horse-racing, and all kinds of games, cock fighting, exhibitions of shows, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments.”
Over the centuries, horse racing and theatre came back into popular and political acceptance, but cockfighting never did. Most states formalized the prohibitions against staged fights in the 1800’s, yet there were a number of states where cockfighting was not criminalized. The practice had its devotees and an industry developed, but the public always remained dubious and when citizens had a chance to outlaw the practice, they've always done so.
The founding fathers, it seems, had it right: Cockfighting had no place in the United States then, just as it has no place in the United States now. Whether the First Congress or the 110th, passing laws is the way to make cockfighting history.