After a week of acrimony and division, Sunday provides a respite from the painstaking, but critically important, task of creating a government such as never before been attempted. This morning, George Washington “rode into the country for exercise 8 or 10 miles,” then “dined at the Hills and spent the evening in my chamber writing letters.”
Confined for five hours, six days a week, in the East Room of the Statehouse is contrary to the active, physical life Washington is not only used to, but prefers. At fifty-five years of age, Washington is a formidable presence, measuring six feet two inches “in his stockings” and weighing about two hundred pounds. He survived smallpox as a child and the hazards of battlefields in the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.
Washington is physical and physically fit. Surveying lands in the west as a teenager, he made rafts of out trees with his own hands in below-freezing weather and hacked paths through thick woods and across unexplored mountain ranges. His prowess as a horseman in legendary, but he also indulges with skill in most of the sports of his day, including fencing, canoeing, archery, swimming, wrestling, and fox hunting. He loves dancing and is known for dancing hours at a time, a skill he warmly refers to as “the gentler conflict.”
Washington is not alone craving exercise. This morning, James McHenry wrote to his wife Peggy, informing her of his plans for the day, which include spending at least “half an hour in the State House walks” before enjoying a more sedentary evening with “the poetic and ingenious” writer [William] Haley. The State House grounds are ideal for the “walking exercise.”
Elbridge Gerry is also concerned about exercise and health, but not for himself. Today, to “his dearest life” Ann, he wrote, “I fear, my dearest girl, you do not exercise enough. This season never agrees with you, I very well know, but were you to ride, bathe in the evening and leave off tea, I think you would find yourself better.”
Ninety percent of the people of the United States are employed in farming, a labor-intensive occupation. Ploughing, harrowing, seeding, harvesting, and tending to animals, all require extensive physical effort. However, physical labor does not necessarily provide all of the exercise needed for good health. From his youth, Benjamin Franklin has studied and felt the need for exercise, specially swimming. “When I was a boy,” he wrote to Barbeu Dubourg, “I made two oval palettes, about ten inches long and six abroad, with a hole for the thumb…much resembling a painter’s palette. In swimming I pushed the edges of these forward and I struck the water with their flat surfaces as I drew them back. I swam faster by means of these palettes.” He also fashioned a paper kite to use while he was swimming, “drawn along the surface of the water in a very agreeable manner.”
Franklin was only eighteen and in London for the first time when Sir William Wyndham, “a friend of Swift and Bolingbroke,” heard of Franklin’s impromptu jump into the Thames, swimming from Chelsea to Blackfriars. Franklin was immediately hired as a swimming instructor for Wyndham’s children. But exercise is more than swimming, Franklin noted. Strenuous walks “open the pores and hydrate the body.” Swinging dumbbells contributes to overall good health. And so on. In 1772, Franklin, living in London, wrote to his son, William, “The resolution you have taken to use more exercise is extremely proper,” and supplied William with expert advice on exercise.
Later in life, plagued with chronic gout, Franklin expounded at length on the science of exercise in a delightful literary dialogue between “The Gout” and “Mr. Franklin.” Years before, Franklin’s adages and poetry in Poor Richard’s Almanac frequently dispensed advice about health and exercise. “Eat to live and not live to eat” was a favorite. So was “Be not sick too late, nor well too soon.” Perhaps the most popular regarding exercise is: “There are no gains without pains.”
Dr. Benjamin Rush is forty years younger than his friend Benjamin Franklin and is a trained medical doctor who has taken an unusual interest in preventative medicine and mental health. A signer of the Declaration of Independence and activist in the Patriot cause, Rush contributed to promoting exercise in a unique form - a “Sermon on Exercise,” choosing Proverbs 7:9-11 as his text: “How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? When wilt thou arise out of thy sleep…?”
Rush began by quoting another scripture in which God pronounced a sentence on mankind “after the fall” - that “in the sweat of his brow he should eat bread all the days of his life.” Rush went on to assert that “we cannot help admiring the goodness of the Supreme Being, in connecting his punishment with what had now become the necessary means of preserving his health.” In short, God “bids man to be active,” to work. An abolitionist, Rush also took a swipe at slavery, not only for its immorality, but because of its effects on man’s collective health.
To their own detriment, Rush asserted, “after the fall” men “soon deserted his fields – and his flocks – and sought for some more speedy methods of acquiring fortune and a superiority over his fellow creatures. These have been obtained by commerce, war, rapine, and lastly, to the reproach of the American colonies and of humanity…by slavery.” But in exchange for this, man has “given up that greatest of all blessings, health.” Since, therefore, “we cannot bring man back again to his implements of husbandry, we must attempt to find out some kinds of exercise as substitutes for them.” Exercise, then, is “voluntary labor.”
Rush’s goes on to describe “different modes of exercise;” the best time of day to exercise; and dividing exercise into “active” and “passive.” Walking, running, dancing, fencing, swimming, “and the like” are active forms of exercise. Passive exercise includes sailing, riding in a carriage, and on riding on horseback. His advice is uniquely specific and includes evidence for it. For example, “walking is the most gentle species” of exercise, and “promotes perspiration.” It “invigorates the system.” Rush heartily endorses swimming, or “as the poet of Avon expresses it, ‘buffeting the waves with lusty sinews.’” It “exercises the limbs and washes away the dust.” Skating, jumping, tennis, bowles and golf are also recommended. Exercise should be “varied according to age, sex, temperament, climate and season,” Rush advised. Exercise should “never be used with a full stomach” and so on, and so on…all for one’s invigorated health. As Rush explained, the purpose of “his “Sermon on Exercise” was “to lay before you the most powerful arguments, to excite you to exercise.”