American Revolution Vignette – Travels

I had never realized in such vivid detail the challenges of  travels two hundred years ago. In the paragraph above, Adams leaves for the meeting of the Congress in Philadelphia, then the largest city in America, with about 30,000 inhabitants. It was the middle of winter in New England. I have been in Boston in winter, and just going from the hotel door to the rental car is brutal. For him and his companion rider to travel to Philadelphia, there were only three ways to go: walking, on horseback or in a coach. The middle class traveled on horseback. Philadelphia is 400 miles from Boston. If you can travel ten miles a day on horseback, and you travel every day, the trip will take 40 days. You also have the expense of staying in lodges, hotels, taverns and boarding houses every night, the food, feeding and boarding the horses and all the incidentals. I flew home from Baltimore to San Diego nonstop on a Southwest flight. It took 5 hours and 40 minutes, and I complained about having to sit still in a cramped airline seat, being served drinks, being warm and sheltered, on comfortable leather seats, eating the snack I brought along and reading McCullough’s book.

So folks in those days didn’t travel very often, and if they did, they stayed away months, sometimes years.

In America, traveling on the road was supposedly pretty safe. By comparison, in England, one had to constantly worry about being assaulted by robbers. The term “highway robbery” comes to mind. So not only was a long trip treacherous from an endurance standpoint, expensive since living expenses were incurred, but also dangerous. In a world without electronic payments and credit cards, you needed to carry cash with you to stay in taverns, and robbers knew that. 

So far, we have talked about travels within the country. To travel to Europe, which John Adams did several times between 1776 and 1785, he had to board a ship, of course. Ships didn’t leave on a schedule. You might show up at the dock on the first of May, to find that inclement weather delayed departure, and you again had to find a boarding house to wait, days, sometimes weeks, before you could be underway. Once at sea, the trip to Europe took at the very best about a month, very often, if there were storms, or calms, much, much longer. A passage to Europe by ship could take three or four months, and you didn’t always end up at the destination you expected, but some other city or country and then you still had to connect to where you actually needed to go.

Leaving for Europe meant leaving your family and loved ones for years at a time.

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