A Spartan Education for Antebellum America? Conflicting Views on the Use of Sports and Exercise in a Modern Republic

By Edward McInnis.

Published by Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities

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Article: Print $US10.00
Published online: May 7, 2015 $US5.00

This paper examines how and why antebellum-era (1815-1860) writers addressing educational issues in American periodicals frequently advocated for the incorporation of exercise and sports into school curricula. The call for adding sports and fitness into nineteenth-century American schools seems a little unusual since a generation earlier, American revolutionaries’ envisioned a republic of letters which championed philosophy, the arts, and science instead of health. My paper argues that nineteenth-century reformers championed sports and exercise in American education for both men and women in antebellum-era periodicals because they believed that an increasingly consumer- oriented society negatively impacted republican values and debilitated the citizenry’s ability to serve in local militias. Publication after publication featured articles encouraging sports and exercise in schools while simultaneously lamenting that excessive luxury - one product of a consumer society - might lead to effeminate men and delicate women. In addition, antebellum-era articles frequently lauded the culture of ancient Sparta with its fitness orientation and highly militarized educational system. Thus, I will show how, in the nineteenth-century United States, writers on educational reform increasingly promoted an educational system that produced a disciplined and physically fit citizenry to counteract the free market’s negative impact on republicanism.

Keywords: Republicanism, Education, Exercise

Journal of Sporting Cultures and Identities, Volume 6, Issue 2, June 2015, pp.23-32. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Published online: May 7, 2015 (Article: Electronic (PDF File; 380.849KB)).

Dr. Edward McInnis

Assistant Professor, The Department of History, University of Louisville, Louisville, Kentucky, USA