In Our Backyard: General Assembly Squelches Effort to Ban Horse Racing in Unison

By Howard Lewis and Mitch Diamond

The Virginia General Assembly, in its winter session, rejected an effort by the residents of the village of Unison to ban horse racing on its streets.

But that was 204 years ago.  

In 1817, 29 residents of the village signed a petition asking the General Assembly to ban horse racing on “public days” within a mile and a half of the village. The General Assembly turned the petition down. Why is not known.  But in examining the petition (below) several things of interest jump out from the document.

TO THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY OF VIRGINIA

The memorial and petition of the undersigned inhabitants of the town and vicinity of Union in Loudoun County respectfully represent:

That the practice of horseracing which has prevailed on public days in the Lanes and public Roads near the said town, is attended with manifest danger and inconvenience to the good Citizens thereof, while it has been carried out, almost exclusively, by persons who do not consider that their own true interests and those of the community are inseparably connected with the preservation of moral order which this practice has a direct tendency to subvert:  And the said practice is the more to be deprecated by the Citizens of said town and its Vicinity, as it is become the seat of a respectable Seminary for the education of youth.

Your Memorialists therefore pray that an Act may be passed to prevent the said practice within one mile and a half of said Town, in any public Road, by imposing on those concerned therein adequate penalties.

And your Memorialists as in duty bound will ever pray

First, the village in this petition is referred to as “Union.” In 1829, the village name was changed from Union to Unison because another Virginia village, named Union, had claimed the name earlier and the U.S. postal system required the name be changed to Unison.

Second, while citing the “manifest danger and inconvenience” of horse racing in the village, the petitioners clearly felt that more was at stake here—namely, the “moral order” of the village. The phrase is actually underlined in the petition. Reading between the lines, this concern for the village’s “moral order” was most likely coming from conservative Methodists, who saw horse racing as one of the numerous “vices” of Unison’s Quakers (their other “vices” being gambling, drinking and cockfighting, as reported by the local Quaker Meeting). The Methodists had replaced Quakers as the principal residents of the village after the Revolutionary War and were apparently concerned about  the corruption of their values from the remaining more liberal Quakers. For more about Unison’s Quakers, go to the article which appeared previously in this column at: loudounnow.com/2017/11/24/rowdy-quakers-once-roiled-unison/

Third, the petition notes that horse racing “is the more to be deprecated by the Citizens of said town and its Vicinity, as it is become the seat of a respectable Seminary for the education of youth.”  The “respectable Seminary” was founded in 1817 by John Monroe, who is probably the author of the petition since his signature on the petition seems to match the handwriting on the document. Monroe was a cousin of President James Monroe. Two other signatories on the petition were Henry and Michael Plaster. Both the Monroe and Plaster families still live in this area.

A 1819 newspaper advertisement provides a little more detail about the “respectable Seminary” known as the Union Academy

In the advertisement, Monroe “pledges his honor to those who may place their children or wards under his care, that no exertions on his part shall be wanting to forward them in various studies; he will likewise be equally attentive to their morals and deportment.” Board and tuition were $180 per year, but for tutoring only fees per quarter ranged from $3 for spelling, reading, penmanship and common arithmetic to $5 for higher branches of mathematics and $6 for languages.

Not surprisingly, horse racing doesn’t seem to have been offered.

[This article previously appeared in the newsletter of the Unison Preservation Society in a slightly different form. Howard Lewis is editor of that newsletter and has a farm near the village. Mitch Diamond is a retired businessman and lives on a historic farm just north of Unison.  In Our Backyard is compiled by the Loudoun County Preservation and Conservation Coalition. For more information about the organization, go to loudouncoalition.org.]

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