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Some Samples of Yankee Shrewdness

By Joseph C. Lincoln
American Magazine, July 1919, pp 42-44, 75

    THIS isn't an after-dinner, speech. But it is going to resemble that brand of oratory in one respect— it is going to begin with a story. In the late '70s, when perishable fruit, oranges, grapes, and lemons were still being carried in sailing vessels from the Mediterranean ports to this country, there was intense commercial rivalry between two large Philadelphia fruit-importing houses. There being no refrigerating system in those days, speed, a quick voyage, was of prime necessity. The firm getting its fruit into port in the best condition, which meant the soonest after loading, made the most money.
    Giving these firms names, for convenience, we may as well call one Jones and the other Brown. Jones had a crack bark, named the "Hurry," which had beaten all of Brown's vessels. So Brown built a bark on purpose to beat her. It was agreed that each craft was to sail from Philadelphia on a given day at a given time. The one making the port of Messina first won the race. There were good-sized bets on the result.
    In command of the "Hurry" was Captain Joshua Bartley, a Cape Codder, a thorough seaman, a driving skipper, and then, as now, one of the finest fellows that ever lived. If he reads this he may not recognize his name, but he will the circumstances. The two barks left port on time. For the first day, so evenly were they matched, they kept in sight of each other; and so the greater part of the second day.
    But on the afternoon of that day, Captain Bartley, intent on every possible advantage and keenly alive and alert, noticed along the windward horizon a slowly rising bank of clouds. The Brown ship, miles away to leeward, could see them, too, of course, but not so plainly. The clouds looked wicked, threatening. There was wind in them, certainly, but how much and how continuous? Captain Bartley consulted the barometer; there were no marked indications of a storm.
    Night was coming on. The skipper of the Brown bark, watching his rival through the glass in the deepening dusk, and also anxious concerning the weather, saw the "Hurry" suddenly begin taking in sail. The royals came down, so did all the lighter kites, and hastily, too. Evidently, so the Brown skipper reasoned, Captain Bartley, fifteen miles to wind-ward, was preparing for a dangerous storm close upon him. Whereupon he, too, began shortening sail. Then darkness shut in.
    But Bartley's anxiety and consequent sail-shortening were all a bluff for the Brown skipper's benefit. He knew that the latter must be watching him and the weather; and that he would probably reason just as the events, proved that he did. So while, during most of that night, the Brown craft, under scant canvas, was cautiously anticipating the gale which did not come, the "Hurry," with every stitch set and her lee rail awash, was tearing on her course. She never saw her rival again, and easily won the race to Messina.
    Shrewdness, you see, on Bartley's part. Shrewdness, first, in figuring that the clouds, although they must surely mean a strong breeze, did not mean a gale; and, second, in thinking with his adversary's mind and acting upon his thought. He guessed with him, you see, and by so doing outguessed him.

    I TELL this story because it is a good example of genuine "Yankee shrewdness." I can, and will, tell some of the stories which show up the popular misconception of that old phrase. But I think it is about time that somebody got up in meeting and testified to the truth about this matter.
    Of course, we are all Yankees nowadays. At least, we all want to be counted in as "Yanks" who either went Over There or helped the ones who did go. But in this article, when I say "Yankee," I mean a native of one of the New England States. That sort of Yankee has been characterized and caricatured ever since a group of them turned out with their old flintlocks to chase the Redcoats down the Concord Road. Uncle Sam himself, high hat, high cheek bones, long legs and leanness, is, or was, an attempt at caricaturing the New England Yankee.
    In the majority of American novels or stories published prior to 1860, and in practically every bit of English fiction up to the end of the last century, whenever a Yankee appeared, he was long and lean and cadaverous; he wore a goatee— not a chin beard, but a thin, small goatee, something the true Yankee almost never wears—and he usually sat on a fence, or on the seat of his wagon, or on the quarterdeck of his schooner, or brig, or whaler, chewing tobacco and whittling. He invariably wished to "trade" something or other, and the Lord help the fellow that traded with him; because that fellow was certain to be cheated out of his eyeteeth. This propensity to chew and whittle and swindle under all circumstances and at all times was called, cheerfully, "Yankee shrewdness."
    Now, I am a Yankee. I was born on Cape Cod—which even a prejudiced observer will concede to be within the boundaries of Yankeeland—and my ancestors, on both sides of the house since 1650, or thereabouts, were Yankees, too. For thirteen or fourteen years I lived among the Cape Yankees and, after that, divided my time between them and the Boston variety. At present I am a New Jerseyman in the winter months, but I hasten back to the Cape just as soon as the early June breezes begin to smell fresh and salty sweet; when, leaning over the rail of the ferryboat, the dirty water around New York City begins to remind me of a beach where the water isn't dirty; when the fishing tackle in the Vesey Street window—
    But there! Excuse these personal details. The reason I dragged them and my ancestry into this thing was because I am about to make a serious statement, a statement which implies flying in the face of tradition, and I want everyone to understand that I do not so fly without having at least the backing of experience and ancestry.
    Here is the statement: In all my forty-odd years of experience with Yankees I do not remember ever having met one who habitually whittled. I have, of course, known some who whittled occasionally, when they were making a "bow'n'arrer" or a boat for one of the children. But I never knew one who whittled when he was making a trade. And I know very few nowadays who chew tobacco. In fact, I have seen more tobacco-chewing in the South than I ever saw on Cape Cod. And I have known fewer still who were, habitually, swindlers. As to their "shrewdness"—well, what is this so-called Yankee shrewdness, anyway?
    It must exist, or at least some trait or traits must exist which give to the New Englander the peculiar reputation he has borne for so long. I think it, or they, does, or do, exist. I think there is such a quality in the New England Yankee as a class. But it isn't a propensity to cheat or swindle. Let's see if we can't get at what it is.
    We'll dismiss in the beginning all such moss-grown yet ever-green yarns as those of the Connecticut maker of wooden nutmegs, of the Down-Easter who fed his horse shoe pegs because they were cheaper than oats—which they never were; of the Maine man who put green spectacles on his horse so that the animal would eat "excelsior" thinking it to be grass.
    These are ancient and decrepit relics of the "swindle" idea. And they are and always were, lies, anyhow. I knew a man once who gave his pig sawdust instead of meal, but he did it because the sawdust box stood next to the meal chest, and it was the morning after the Red Men's picnic. And there wasn't any shrewdness about it, except on the part of the pig, who refused to eat it.

    OF THE same type is the following story. It is not offered as new; it has been told with a dozen variations. It is quoted here merely as a sample of it kind.
    Seth, a New Hampshire farmer, and Ezra, his brother, are talking together. I never heard, but I think it is a safe bet that they are sitting on the fence, chew ing tobacco and whittling. And says Seth:
    "Ezry, what did you do with that old horse I sold you a spell ago? He-he! I declare I was kind of sorry for you when I worked that old balky critter off onto you. But business is business."
    "Oh, it's all right, Seth: I ain't holdin' any grudge. Besides, I ain't got that horse no longer—I sold it day afore yesterday—to Mother."
    "Wh-a-at! You sold that good-for-nothin' thing to Mother! How'd you do it?"
    "Wa-all, 'twas the day after Mother fell down the cellar stairs and she wa'n't quite up to snuff, I cal'late."
    "Well, well, well! If you ain't the shrewd one, Ezry! I snum, I'm proud of you!"
    Funny? Of course it's funny. But that kind of "shrewdness," or slyness, or crookedness, is not peculiar to New England or to the Yankee.
    It exists wherever there are crooks and rascals. There are plenty of them in New England, yes, indeed! But there are plenty, also, in the West, where they "salt" mines, and in the South, where they entrap the Northern clerk and semi-invalid into investing his savings in "orange groves" in the middle of the Everglades. They are not respected anywhere, neither are they typical, thank goodness, of their localities.

    BUT my story of the race between the "Hurry" and her rival is typical. There is an element in this exploit of Captain Bartley's which, I think, is always present in true New England shrewdness, that is, the sporting element. The captain took a certain chance, he gambled just a little bit on the weather and on the mind and temperament of the rival skipper.
    Nine chances to one his diagnosis of the clouds and wind was correct; nine chances to one the other captain—whom he knew and whose merits and weaknesses he had appraised—would shorten sail when be did. But—there was the one off-chance. It took the affair quite out of the "sure thing" class and made it a game, a battle of wits, distinctly worth while of itself, aside from winning the ace.
    One of Boston's famous merchants of sixty years ago, himself an ex-Cape-Codder and sea captain, said, in his old age and at the period when he was several times a millionaire: "I don't suppose I would take the trouble to walk a half-mile on the certainty of having a thousand dollars given me. But, old as I am, I would tramp to the other end of the city if I thought I could make a hundred dollars by beating another fellow in my line of business in a square trade risk."
    It was the sporting element that appealed to him, you see. It turned an otherwise common place deal into an adventure.
But don't get from this the idea that the Yankee, as a type, is a reckless gambler. He isn't. If he gambles, if he takes a chance, he does it only after a careful study of the situation and a cool-headed estimate of persons and things involved. Having decided to go in, however, he goes in whole-heartedly. An old chap whom I once knew gave me this piece of advice: "Son," he said, "when

JCL fishing
    A FAMOUS author of "Down-East" yarns. Born in Brewster, Massachusetts, in 1870, Lincoln has spent his whole life in New England—except latterly, when he has passed a few months each year in or near New York City.
    Following are the titles of some of his best known books: "Cap'n Eri," "Mr. Pratt," "Keziah Coffin," and "Extraditing Obadiah."
The article on "Yankee Shrewdness" was written in response to the following invitation sent to Mr. Lincoln by the Editor of THE AMERICAN MAGAZINE:
    We hear a great deal about Yankee Shrewdness. Is there any such thing as Yankee Shrewdness? Isn't shrewdness just shrewdness—no matter whether it appears on Cape Cod or in Buenos Aires?
    Anyhow—please tell us. Give us some points—and give us some stories to back up your points. You yourself are a Yankee. And you know Yankees. If anybody can tell what Yankee Shrewdness is—Joe Lincoln can.

you've made up your mind to leave the ship and swim ashore, for thunder sakes stick to your job! Don't swim halfway, and then tread water and holler till you drown."
    Or, as another puts it: "A sensible man either stays to home or goes fis'hin'. He don't set by the window all day with a hook and line in one hand and his bedroom slippers in the other."
    Or again: "By godfreys mighty! if I had decided to jump off Bunker Hill Monument I'd jump! Blessed if I'd set up on top there, scared to death, and puttin' off and puttin' off till I got so old and feeble I fell down! Either way they'd probably put in the papers: 'Another dum fool gone;' but if I jumped, they'd have to put 'spunky' afore the 'dum.'"

    ANOTHER characteristic of true Yankee shrewdness, it seems to me, is the faculty of observing and of putting the results of observation to use. Most of us go stumbling along the highways of this world, seeing all sorts of things, hearing all sorts of things, but, so far as any profit from eyes and ears is concerned, we might as well be blind and deaf.
    Down on Cape Cod, for a hundred and fifty years people saw the wild cranberry growing amid the sand dunes, and perhaps half of those who noticed this much idly wondered why the berries seemed to grow better where the sand sprinkling was even and uniform, rather than where it was not. But one day a man came who noticed and experimented. And now the cultivated Cape Cod cranberry brings the highest price in the markets of the United States.
    About fifty years ago Captain Lorenzo Baker of Wellfleet, Massachusetts, was in command of a little coasting schooner and had put in at Kingston in the island of Jamaica. The, cargo he had brought with him was discharged, and he was vainly looking for a return load.. Bananas were plentiful in Kingston, by no means as plentiful as now, but plentiful. They were of the yellow type. It seems almost incredible in the light of later developments, but the yellow banana was then sold but little in the United States. The bananas which we had, and they were not so very plentiful, were the red variety, coming from South America.
    Captain Baker ate bananas and, casually, talked bananas while waiting and hoping for his return cargo. Someone, a native Jamaican, said something about the yellow banana keeping better, spoiling less easily, than the red. "You can hang up a bunch of these things," said the Jamaican, "when they're as green as grass, and they'll ripen perfectly, hardly any loss."
    "Hum!" observed Captain Baker, musingly. "I suppose you could ship 'em green, if anybody wanted to, and they'd keep."
    Captain Baker did some more thinking; then he loaded his little schooner with yellow bananas and set sail for Boston.
Yellow bananas were a novelty. The captain's cargo arrived in good condition and sold at once. He tried another cargo; the same result. People began to ask for yellow bananas. Then he began to think in earnest. Jamaica was far nearer the United States than Colombia, from, which most of our bananas had come hitherto. That meant shorter and less expensive voyages. Then, too, it was plainly evident that the Jamaican climate and soil were ideal for the culture of the fruit. To Jamaica went Captain Baker with his brother-in-law, bought lands, and set about raising bananas for Northern markets. He succeeded; but this success did not prevent his continuing to exercise his native shrewdness in thinking and planning larger successes. He came North, interested others, Yankees like himself, and a company was formed, with Baker at its head, to bring West Indian bananas in large lots to this country. To-day that company, in consolidation with its successors, has fleets of steamers sailing from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and New Orleans to Jamaica, Colon, and Santa Marta. As a side line it does a flourishing passenger business. It owns great hotels. And from Jamaica alone come yearly millions of bunches of yellow bananas, Captain Baker's experimental cargo.
    It was the captain's Yankee shrewdness that realized the possibilities, saw the opportunity, and seized it.
    Of course there are thousands and thousands of instances of this sort of thing. There is the story of the Salem skipper who so long ago carried the first cargo of ice to Cuba, carried it on a chance, having, like a million other people, noticed that Cuba was a warm place. The difference between this Salem man and the others lay in the fact of his shrewdly guessing that a cargo which would, for a while, relieve that warmth might be profitable. Also because, having noticed that ice in Massachusetts was packed in sawdust in wooden ice-houses, he did some reasoning, and packed his cargo in sawdust in the vessel's hold—turned her into a Massachusetts ice-house, so to speak. He sold that cargo for a price sufficient to buy another vessel. Then he went back, with two ships, for more ice.

    THE Yankee judges character in his own way and expresses his judgment in that way, also. Once, while spending the day with an old friend of mine, a retired captain, of course—in those days every "solid man" in the town was a captain, either active or retired—there oozed, so to speak, into the yard a smooth individual who was representing a land company. The company, it appeared, had some thousand acres of real estate twenty miles or so from Boston. According to our caller, who, it seemed, was himself a heavy stockholder, the said acres were, without doubt, the most remarkable bit of property on this continent. Hills, Valleys, brooks, a lake, wonderful views, an even climate, near the railroad—or would be when the spur track was built; connected by trolley— when the trolley finished the extension they were soon, probably, to begin; fertile soil, everything desirable. As an investment—well, say!
    It developed that the smooth one had called purely out of a desire to do my old friend, the captain, a kindness. He was resting for a few days at the boarding-house in our village, and it had occurred to him that a pleasant way of putting in his time would be to drop in on some of the fine, substantial citizens, "like yourself, Captain," and acquaint, them with this marvelous opportunity. There were a few choice lots or tracts yet to be sold, et cetera, and so on.
    "Of course, you mustn't take my word for it. I should be glad to go with you to look over the property any time. You may not wish to build yourself, but as an investment, sir—"
    And so on and on and on. My friend listened, calmly puffing at his cigar, once in a great while asking a question. Our caller wound up with a grand peroration, mopped his forehead, and then inquired cheerfully:
    "Well, Captain, what do you say?"

    MY FRIEND crossed his leg. "No," he said, with marked deliberation.
    "No? But, my dear sir, I'm doing you a favor!"
    "Um-hm! I know; I'm much obliged. But I'm too old a man. If I wait a little while longer I'll maybe have a place in heaven given to me. 'Tain't no use to buy it of you ahead of time, at twenty-five cents a front foot."
    After the smooth gentleman had departed, crestfallen, the captain shook his head.
    "If that fellow was peddlin' stock in himself I might have took a little," he observed. "He'd ought to be worth a risk as natural gas and ile. . . . Humph! Boy, when a perfect stranger is so ever-lastin' anxious to give you a bite of his apple that he all but shoves it between your teeth, look out for the worm."
    In a blacksmith's shop one day I heard the blacksmith conversing with a lean old chap who was a tin peddler. They were discussing a mutual acquaintance who was ill.
    "It's some kind of gallopin' dyspepsy, ain't it?" inquired the blacksmith. "His wife says she can't imagine how he got it." The tin peddler rubbed his chin.
    "Did you ever see him eat?" he asked.
    "Don't know's I ever did. Never noticed, anyhow."
    "Humph! If you'd seen him you'd have noticed, you couldn't help it. If you shut that fellow up in a box he'd eat his way out, like a rabbit. And now he's surprised that he's got dyspepsy! Huh! I cal'late if a man swallered a sawmill he'd be pretty darn sick when it started goin'."
    The ability to judge character for himself, and to get at the reasons for things, is equally marked in the New Englander's faculty for sizing up a situation.
    Back in the days of Harrison's Administration, Captain Crowell was United States consul in a little town in Brazil. James G. Blaine, then Secretary of State, had a pet hobby, namely, trade reciprocity with the South American countries. To the captain's office in this little Brazilian town came a form letter from the State Department at Washington.
    "State as briefly as possible," it read, "what opportunity, in your opinion, an American merchant would have should he engage in the business of selling American goods in your neighborhood."
    Captain Crowell's opinion of most things in that neighborhood had been formed some time before. But to make certain he gave the place another thorough looking-over. His faculty for judging people and situations, let me add, had been formed through a lifetime of adventure and command all over the wet places of the world. He sat down and wrote his reply:
    "An American merchant coming here to sell his goods," he wrote, "would have about as much chance as a cat in hell with no claws."
    A year or two later the captain received orders to go to a certain official in the Brazilian capital, receive from him a valuable secret document and bring it without delay to Secretary Blaine at Washington. The captain's yarn of how he carried out his commission is a mighty good one of itself, and there is plenty of Yankee shrewdness in if, too; but it is too long for this article. He got the paper to Washington in safety and was summoned to the Secretary's room.
    Mr. Blaine was there, so was Secretary Tracy, and another member of the Cabinet. The document was handed over, Captain Crowell was thanked for his promptness and efficiency, and then Secretary Blaine ordered one of his clerks to bring a certain file of letters. From this file he selected a letter.
    " 'An American merchant coming here to sell his goods,'" he read aloud, "'would have about as much chance as a cat in hell with no claws.' . . . Are you the author of that, sir?"

    THE captain shook his head. "No, sir," he replied.
    "You're not! Didn't you write this letter?"
    "Yes, sir, I wrote the letter; but I'm not the author of that saying. It was a French admiral who said that first, I believe."
    Mr. Blaine laughed. "Is that so?" he observed. "I didn't know it. It's expressive, certainly. You are well informed, Captain. Where were you educated?"
    Captain Crowell smiled. "I never was educated," he said. "All the schooling I ever had I got in a little square school-house with a rock under each corner down in the Cape Cod sand."
    Blaine, himself a Maine Yankee, turned to Mr. Tracy and shook his head. "That's where they come from," he said, with emphasis.
    Shrewdness doesn't mean meanness, or stinginess, in New England. There are stingy Yankees, shrewd or otherwise, but the Yankee as a type is not stingy. Thrifty? Oh, yes! The Yankee believes in putting by for a rainy day. As one of them said to me, "See what Noah got by it." He believes in paying his just debts, in keeping his house painted and repaired, and his wife and children comfortably dressed and self-respecting. "When you owe money, don't give money," is a maxim of his. He is willing to, and does, give generously when he can. But he does not give endlessly and promiscuously; he makes certain that the recipient of the gift is deserving before he bestows it.
    In one of the Cape villages is a specimen of that curious character, the township "dead-beat." Call this particular specimen Robinson; it will do as well as any other name. Robinson lives alone, never works if he can possibly help it, begs his food and clothes if he can, bathes very seldom—bathing implying exertion—and plays the fiddle atrociously. The regular inhabitants of the village know Robinson of old and give little heed to his pleadings. But a stranger, a newcomer, is Robinson's "meat."

    WHEN Captain Nat Philips came home from Mexico, where for five years he had been bossing a fleet of tugs for a railroad company, Robinson swooped down upon him like a gull on a sand-eel. He talked, he told of his want, his dire need, his invalid condition. Captain Nat listened and, while he listened, looked him over.
    "I'm sorry for you, Robinson," he said. “Of course, if things with you are as you say they are, I shall be glad to help you. What do you want me to give you?"
    Robinson was humbly grateful.
    "I leave it to you, Cap'n," he said. "You see how I be. Judge for yourself, and give what you think I need the most.”
    Of course he hoped, and expected, that the gift, money preferably, would be bestowed there and then. But Captain Nat did not give in that way. He made some inquiries, and when Robinson again approached him, he was ready.
    “It’s all right, Robinson,” he said, “I’ve sent it to you. I've used my judgment, same as you told me to, and I've sent you what I think you need the most.”
    He had sent him a cake of soap.
    There! I think that's about all. Genuine Yankee shrewdness, as I gather from my lifelong acquaintance with those possessing it, is a rich mixture of the qualities and faculties I have tried to exemplify in the instances given. If we were after a shorter definition, I think it might be boiled down to this: The possession and habitual use and application of Common Sense.

The photo of JCL used here actually came from the cover of the Hamlin Garland tribute, but seems to be the same photo.

posted April 2004 by