McCurdy on Cohen, 'They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic'

Kenneth Cohen
John G. McCurdy

Kenneth Cohen. They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017. Illustrations. 334 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-5017-0549-6.

Reviewed by John G. McCurdy (Eastern Michigan University) Published on H-Early-America (November, 2019) Commissioned by Joshua J. Jeffers (California State University-Dominguez Hills)

Printable Version:

Manly competition was central to the creation of the United States, ultimately facilitating the country’s commitment to democracy. However, as several historians, including Dana D. Nelson in National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men (1998) and Honor Sachs in Home Rule: Households, Manhood, and National Expansion on the Eighteenth-Century Kentucky Frontier (2015), have observed, early national competition often excluded certain groups and Jacksonian democracy did not prevent the rise of a powerful elite. Kenneth Cohen joins this conversation by connecting competition and democracy to the rise of mass entertainment, arguing that “a widespread ‘sporting culture’ ... simultaneously promoted egalitarianism and hierarchy on the Anglo-American mainland between 1750 and 1860” (p. 3).

As Cohen explains, “sporting culture” is not the same thing as “sport.” He focuses not on games but rather on taverns, theaters, and racecourses, arguing that “themes of unpredictability, competition, and performance tie them together” (p. 6). This broad view of popular masculine culture enables Cohen to bring in previously neglected source material, such as financial, architectural, and court records. These sources enable Cohen to expand his interpretation, allowing him to connect billiards rooms to changing ideas of race and gender as well as early American politics.

They Will Have Their Game is organized chronologically, beginning in the late colonial era when tavern games, horse racing, and the theater emerged as popular entertainment. However, the colonists had not one sporting culture, but two. At Robert Dillon’s brick public house in Charleston, refined men politely played backgammon, while across town, a rougher clientele sparred over billiards at Benjamin Backhouse’s wooden tavern. This division repeated itself at the track where planters like John Tayloe II paid lowly whites and slaves to race their quarter horses, and in the theater where wealthy subscribers enjoyed boxes high above the audience in the pit. The Revolution unsettled this division as the Sons of Liberty assailed the theater as immoral and the Continental Congress denounced “all kinds of gaming, cock-fighting, exhibitions of shews, plays, and other expensive diversions and entertainments” as contrary to virtue and industry (p. 83). 

In the early republic, laws against theaters and gambling fell away as an ethos of capitalistic competition emerged. Entertainment entrepreneurs like Robert Morris cited their freedom to make a profit while simultaneously stressing that theaters and racetracks served the good of the community. “Federalists had won the right to install their economic and sporting systems,” Cohen observes, “but they knew their victory had come at the cost of acknowledging the need for popular approval” (p. 105). Such democratic tendencies were on display in the theater where aspirational elites sought public approval from the pit and poor men hollered from boxes. Respectable women removed themselves from these scenes of masculine competition, but slaves like Cornelius Johnston discovered that skillful horseracing entitled them to respect. None of this undermined social hierarchy. Rather, “sporting investors helped propagate an economic system and culture that welcomed honest competition among all white men, but privileged their own superior access to private capital, granting them a better ‘heeled’ start and reserves more likely to endure over the course of a lifetime” (p. 157).

In the antebellum era, the popularity of mass entertainment reached new heights. At the racetrack, “turfmen” appeared: men like William Ransom Johnson who were not elite planters who benefited from breeding horses but profit-driven middling men who sold successful racers for exorbitant sums. To improve the reputation of their horses, turfmen drew larger crowds and heavily publicized races. At the theater, managers like Thomas Apthorpe Cooper sponsored English “stars” to bolster attendance and built new theaters. However, both turfmen and managers suffered from too much competition, high costs, and the Panic of 1837. To survive, the cleverest ones made their institutions look more democratic; turfmen built bigger stands and cut ticket prices at the track, while theater managers replaced stars with local troupes and moved to a lecture hall model where all seats cost the same. But both also turned to undemocratic means like limiting competition to stay in business.

Throughout They Will Have Their Game, Cohen connects sporting culture to politics, noting the similarities between the rise of universal white male suffrage and masculine competition. Jeffersonian Republicans used playhouses to cultivate their followers’ anti-aristocratic ideals and Andrew Jackson helped open Nashville’s first purpose-built racecourse. The exclusion of women and African Americans from both sporting culture and politics was more than coincidental, as the denial of entrance into one helped to justify their absence from the other. This connection of manly entertainment and politics culminates in the last chapter where Cohen explores 1820s and 1830s cartoons that depicted presidential candidates as card players, jockeys, and even racehorses. Ultimately, “mass sport transformed voting into a statement of inclusion in the empowered white male community much like participation in mass sport” (p. 234).

They Will Have Their Game is a rich cultural history that deftly connects popular culture to issues of gender, race, and politics. Cohen’s choice to focus on a few colorful fellows is a particular strength of the book. The depictions of “the Napoleon of the Turf” William Johnson and the head of his stables, the enslaved Charles Stewart, help flesh out an era already filled with swindlers like P. T. Barnum and would-be patriarchs like Andrew Jackson. Indeed, there is a very human aspect to the men in this work, men who found success one moment, only to fail when trends changed a few years later. Because of the vicissitudes of the market and democracy, men who found themselves anti-aristocratic rulebreakers one day could turn anti-competitive elites the next, which certainly captures the uncertainty of manhood in the new nation.

Because Cohen draws from so many historical literatures, it would be easy to fault him for not thoroughly exploring each one. Scholars of race may be disappointed that he does not more tightly connect capitalism and slavery. Likewise, I wanted to hear more about how other forms of masculinity informed sporting culture. In particular, I wondered how military ideas played a role here, since both sports and politics consciously evoke a language of warfare. But such critiques would miss the fact that this book connects so many disparate strands of American history in such creative and fascinating ways.

Citation: John G. McCurdy. Review of Cohen, Kenneth, They Will Have Their Game: Sporting Culture and the Making of the Early American Republic. H-Early-America, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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