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PolitiFact: Were the founding fathers active cockfighters?

The statement

"Many" of the founding fathers were "very actively involved" in cockfighting.

Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Matt Bevin, April 3, in a radio interview

The ruling

Were the founding fathers cockfighters? It's not a question PolitiFact expected to ask this campaign season. But we're going to ask it because a Kentucky Senate candidate recently claimed that "many" of the men who founded our nation also took an interest in the blood sport. Here's what we know.

George Washington: There is one reference in Washington's diaries that confirms that as a 19-year-old, the nation's future first president attended a cockfight.

"A Great Main of (co)cks fought … (be)tween Glouster and york for 5 pistoles each battle and 100 ye odd I left it with Colo. (John) Lewis before it was decided …," he wrote.

However, it's unclear how excited the young Washington was, as the entry says he left before the fight ended, said Mary V. Thompson, a research historian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington.

Thomas Jefferson: The evidence on Jefferson is similar.

"Although it is always much harder to disprove something than to prove it, I am confident that if Jefferson had any interest in cockfighting, I would come across some reference to it in my 25 years of working with his documentary archive," Lucia C. Stanton, the former director of research at Monticello, wrote to the Humane Society in 1993.

Stanton told PolitiFact that while it is impossible to tell what activities Jefferson took part in before he started prolifically documenting his life, it would be surprising if he had been actively involved in cockfighting as a young man yet made no mention of these activities in his later writings.

John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and other founders: The evidence about the other founders is no more convincing.

Adams, who would become the new nation's second president, has only one known reference to cockfighting — his lament that young men waste time of the activity, said Amanda Mathews, assistant editor of the Adams papers with the Massachusetts Historical Society.

As for Franklin, some claims about his fondness for cockfighting involve his proposal to designate the turkey the national bird instead of the familiar bald eagle. Some have taken this as a symbol of his association with cockfighting, but this seems too vague to serve as solid evidence.

As for other founders, we will note that in October 1774, the Continental Congress, which would become the United States' first governing body during the Revolutionary War, signed a resolution that, among other things, discouraged cockfighting.

Our ruling

Bevin said that "many" of the founding fathers were "very actively involved" in cockfighting. In looking at the most prominent founders, we found no indications that any of the founders were avid and frequent participants. We rate the claim False.

Tim Ryan, PolitiFact

Read the full ruling at PolitiFact.com.

PolitiFact: Were the founding fathers active cockfighters? 05/01/14 [Last modified: Thursday, May 1, 2014 11:08pm]
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