Religious significance has the whip hand on the road

The Victorians — people of the age, not just those under the flag of the British Empire — were proudly aware that they did not know everything; though each and every day they grew to know more and more. They knew how to put things together. They knew how to explore. They gloried in doing so.

This present day has no time for humility. Every blessed thing must have a trite explanation, if only to prove how superior are the know-it-all know-nothings — kids who left college unable to spell or subtract. There can never be too many ‘dark matter’ fumblings after explanation of the inexplicable for them.

Much history and most archaeology is Sherlock Holmes territory. In archaeology it’s about ‘this layer is on top of that layer, therefore…’, ‘marks in the ground here show this, whereas other marks there show that…’ and so on. It’s all fine deductive reasoning, a thought process of which the 19th century would readily endorse, because, well, they invented it. Like archaeology, history too sets out to imply human motive from documents and to discover unrecorded chains of causation that led to a recorded outcome.

Where I part company with history interpreters is their wilfully myopic over-extrapolation of solid evidence into a, make that their, thesis. For them there can be only one answer from the evidence — and they have it. This trait reveals itself in museum objects labelled with the authoratative words “…religious significance”. Imagine a future archaeologist digging up a collection of  bronzed child’s sneakers, once beloved of doting parents. “Ah yes”, will say tomorrow’s expert, “the 20th century definitely believed in a child foot worship cult.”

Way too often I have dragged my sorry psyche through 55 minutes of a TV programme on ancient history where the presenter will construct a web of floss more intricate than that upon Miss Haversham’s wedding breakfast. They yabber on about prehistoric beliefs in afterlife, the religious significance of sky, water, underground places, astrology, the body after death, or the solstices.

From what?

From nothing, mostly.

I was reminded of this evident truth because of my attempt to find an answer to that simple question. Why do Americans drive on the right?

This we know: Human cultural evolution is a lazy beast. America has penny nails and still measures in eighths of an inch, ounces and miles because, well, you know why… Jacobite English colonists did so. And no-one has seen any good reason to change.

But those same 17th and 18th century asylum seekers to the New World drove their carts and carriages on the left. That was the way they did in England. You would expect that  the colonists took this rule with them on the Mayflower. Written records show the customary left side of the road in England was called the ‘proper’ side. That was universally understood.

At some time, whether before or after the revolution I have yet to fathom, the US chose to abjure this customary rule and chose its binary opposite. That’s a big rift in cultural terms. I simply wanted to know when that happened and why.

That’s when I discovered how easy it was to spoof up cockamamie theories, masquerading as truth.

From various sources of dubious scholarship I was informed that:

  • Romans drove chariots with the reins in their dominant right hands to allow them to whip a horse with their left. That way there was little risk of accidentally whipping a passing chariot.
  • Since most people are right-handed, swordsmen preferred to keep to the left in order to have their right arm nearer to an opponent and their scabbard further from him. Moreover, it reduced the chance of the scabbard (worn on the left) hitting other people.
  • If a wagonner is seated on a wagon and uses a whip, he will hold the whip in the right hand. Driving on the left allows the whip to swing freely and not get snagged in the hedges etc. bordering a road.
  • The French Revolution of 1789 gave impetus to right-hand travel in Europe. Before the Revolution, the aristocracy travelled on the left of the road, forcing the peasantry over to the right, but after the storming of the Bastille joined the peasants on the right.
  • In the late 1700s, teamsters in France and the United States began hauling farm products in big wagons pulled by several pairs of horses. These wagons had no driver’s seat; instead the driver sat on the left rear horse, so he could keep his right arm free to lash the team.

No, I have made none of these up.

Here are a few wake up call bullet points of my own to the theorymeisters:-

  • Were the ancients that clumsy that they were forever accidentally whipping one another, tying up their whips around hedges or bumping scabbards? I think not. I bet that the average whip user was as skilled as an expert fly fisherman.
  • Who said that only France and the US cottoned onto the idea of putting farm products in big wagons and the British did not? Of course the English did. The Brits had their teamsters too. An English Act of Parliament of 1654 (yes that’s right, 1654, way before the ‘late 1700s’) had a section that forbade wagons in England to be pulled by more than ‘five horses or mares or six oxen and one horse or mare’. So thereforeThe English  did allow six oxen and a horse to be attached to a cart. That must have been some big wagon.
  • This left seat or left horse theory that necessarily leads to driving on the right is also nonsense. Firstly if the custom was (and it was) established to drive on the left, why would people choose to seat themselves where they could not see — when there was a perfectly adequate empty place on the right of the wagon or on the right hand horse?  Also, if they sat on the left and drove on the right to watch their wheels in order to miss scraping oncoming carts — and they still held their whips in their right hand, then the whip in the hedge theory must be guff.

    “Hey, brudder, I’m wid Local 2917. How come youze sitting in duh center?”

  • If only these nebbishim had done some research. One answer might have been to look at John Constable’s painting, The Hay Wain. Hmmm, Big wagon, man driving, sitting in a place on the left that should have been impossibly difficult for those lefty-driving limeys to manage as they kept on foolishly driving on the left. Is that a whip in his left hand with which he is swishing the horses along? Doesn’t he know the rules?haywain
  • The people that made the laws for America were the men of the East Coast states. The elegant rich of Boston and Philadelphia still had a penchant for all things English that lasted long after the Civil War. They also had wide paved streets where two way traffic could pass with ease.
  • Teamsters were never the arbiters of opinion about anything. Rules weren’t made for them or by them. They were universally reviled as thieving, Godless, lazy sweary liars. Teamsters had to make do with thin trails or no road at all. Being bullies they brutishly drove down the middle of what road there was. The gouging monopolies of teamsters prompted the growth of branch railroads across the West.

    Whip that lot, teamster!

    Whip that lot, teamster!

So there must be another answer to this seismic shift in the rule of the road. It will probably come down to politics, but that is not yet a theory or even an hypothesis — yet.

Maybe it’s all about America’s beliefs in the afterlife, the religious significance of sky, water, underground places, astrology, the body after death, or the solstices.

Maybe I should make a TV programme…

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5 Responses to Religious significance has the whip hand on the road

  1. You should definitely make a TV programme!


  2. Reblogged this on Nothing Gilded, Nothing Gained–Writing Historical Fiction at Middlemay Farm and commented:
    Do you know why Americans drive on the right?


  3. Pingback: Tehachapi to Tonopah | Actonbooks

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