I got an answer, or rather clues to an answer, while rereading David Hackett Fischer's superb Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. In his chapter on how the original settlers of Virginia brought with them folkways from their home territory in Wessex (southwestern England), Fischer notes another striking characteristic of Virginians--their obsession with gambling. Virginians were observed to be constantly making wagers with one another on almost any imaginable outcome. The more uncertain the result, the more likely they were to gamble. They made bets not only on horses, cards, cockfighting, and backgammon but also on crops, prices, women, and the weather. "They are all professional gamesters," a French traveler observed of Virginia's gentry."... Colonel Byrd is never happy but when he has the box and dice in his hand."
And not just the gentry, as Fischer explains in a subchapter entitled "Virginia Sport Ways: The Great Chain of Slaughter."
Virginia's favorite amusements were blood sports. There was an entire hierarchy of these gory entertainments. Virtually every male in Virginia could be ranked according to the size of the animals that he was allowed to kill for his pleasure. At the top was the noblest of blood sports--the hunting of the stag. This was the sport of kings and noblemen in the 17th century. It was staged in Virginia with the same elaborate pomp and ritual that had occurred in Europe.
Lesser gentry chased the fox--quarry that the high nobility despised as low and vulgar until the sport came to be elaborately rationalized by the Meynell family in the 18th century. English fox hunting was not easily introduced to the New World. Then, as now, Vulpes americanus made a more elusive quarry than its Old World cousin. At great trouble and expense, the gentry of Virginia imported the red fox from England for their sport in the 18th century.
Before that date, fox hunting was an impromptu affair on both sides of the water. It was commonly done with the gun in the 17th century and sometimes culminated in scenes of high savagery. "When they hunted last in Laxton wood," one English gentleman wrote, "Mr. K. shot a fox before the hounds after they had run him sharply for some time, which they tore to pieces and it has given them very good blood."
"Very good blood" was also the object of another entertainment that was followed by the yeomanry and parish clergy on both sides of the water. This was the sport of coursing--an afternoon's diversion in which hares, rabbits, and small vermin were hunted on foot with the aid of specially trained dogs. Such was the enthusiasm for this pedestrian slaughter that it was not uncommon to have several courses in a single day.
Husbandmen and laborers amused themselves in a more humble manner, by murdering birds of various sizes in social rituals of high complexity. One favorite blood sport of farmers in Virginia was called gander pulling [details omitted].
Apprentices enjoyed still another sort of blood sport called cockshailing, which they played at Shrovetide. A cock or chicken was tethered to a stake, and crowds of youths tried to torture and kill it by throwing dangerous objects.
At other points in his account of Virginia and the other Chesapeake colony, Maryland, Fischer recounts with some fondness colonial folkways passed down to the time of his childhood in Maryland. In the above passage, he makes no effort to conceal his distaste (which I share) for the brutality of these "favorite amusements." He does not mention dofighting, but it seems plausible that it also was a colonial amusement, and presumably a sport of the lower orders, ranked perhaps above the cockshailing of apprentices but below the fox hunting of gentry. If that's right, Michael Vick, who grew up in Newport News, Va., was following in the footsteps of distant ancestors.
Which doesn't excuse his conduct, of course, but helps explain it. Fox hunting, though declared illegal by the Parliament in England, is still practiced in Virginia by people who might reasonably be labeled as gentry. It is a gory business, I suppose, but the fox is, after all, a predator itself, and dogs will kill other animals for food or sport. In any case, we seem to consider fox hunting acceptable but have an almost universal feeling that dogfighting is not. Michael Vick, it seems, may have been born in the wrong century.
By Michael Barone