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Supreme Athletes:

Everyone knows that Justice Byron White was a noted professional football player; but now I learn from a reader that when Chief Justice John Marshall was a young lieutenant during the Revolutionary War, he was known for his "athletic prowess in footraces and jumping contests" and was supposedly able to "leap over obstacles six feet high." (See Joseph Ellis, His Excellency 199 (2004).) The latter assertion strikes me as pretty improbable, but I pass it along for whatever it's worth . . . .

guest:
don't track-and-field types leap over objects 6 feet high (you know, where they flip over backwards and arch their backs and then land on a big pad)?
7.25.2005 1:40pm
stillers_fan:
I'm sure you're referring to the high jump and the fabulously named Fosbury Flop technique.
7.25.2005 1:48pm
Kristian (mail) (www):
Assuming the data here is correct (http://multimedia.olympic.org/pdf/en_report_88.pdf):

in 1912 the official WR for men's high jumpe was 2.00m (~6'6").

So, 6' ca. 1776 would seem to me to be exceptional, perhaps WR level. I mean, 6" in 125years, as medecine and nutrition improves, would seem to be very reasonable...
7.25.2005 1:57pm
Jon B (www):
It's not unusual for high school track and field athletes to jump higher than six feet in the high jump event.
7.25.2005 1:58pm
Postscript:
Perhaps the account refers not to literal jumping, but vaulting over an object (think traditional cross-country or steeplechase races).
7.25.2005 2:14pm
Jim Lindgren (mail):
Postscript (above) probably has it right.

Think of vaulting over a wall by jumping and pushing off with your hands. Also, I seem to recall that an 8th grader in my junior high school in the 1960s could high jump 6 feet, so this story does not seem implausible to me if Marshall could use his hands to get lift.
7.25.2005 2:42pm
John Deszyck:
...I seem to recall that an 8th grader in my junior high school in the 1960s could high jump 6 feet...

Weren't people much smaller in the eighteenth century than they are today? I remember visiting museums exhibiting child-sized Revolutionary War uniforms, docents droning on about poor nutrition, disease, ignorance of hygiene...

I presume that Marshall was a member of the upper class, and would have fared better than the soldiers whose gear was on display. In any case, I don't see how a four-foot-something athelete would be able to jump over a six-foot obstacle, regardless of physical condition. Thoughts?
7.25.2005 3:51pm
jallgor (mail):
It is a myth that people were much smaller in the 18th century. Bottom line is that people were on average a little shorter in the 18th century, like an inch or so. Thinks like small beds, low ceilings and low doorways in old buildings all have explanations unrelated to height that I won't get into.
As for Marshall I am pretty sure he was over 6 feet tall just like his cousin Jefferson.
7.25.2005 4:09pm
Kevan Choset (mail):
According to this site, George Washington was 6'2": http://www.doctorzebra.com/prez/g01.htm
7.25.2005 5:15pm
Dylan Alexander (mail) (www):
Americans were not much smaller in the 18th century, but even then they were notably taller than Europeans. Napoleon was actually of average height for his time and place, and there's the well known (and not, I think, apocryphal) anecdote of the Founder at a Paris dinner who challened his host's assertion that everything in America (people, fauna, flora) was smaller than in Europe by lining up the dinner party and finding every American in attendance was taller than every Frenchmen.
7.25.2005 5:51pm
Ross:
I think the key point here is the fosbury flop, I dont think any human has every high jumped 6 feet or more without that technique.
7.25.2005 6:28pm
Leftist (mail):
The Fosbury Flop technique appeared in the late 60s. The world record already was over seven feet, and it had been established using more traditional styles. John Dumas first eclipsed seven feet in the late 50s at the Los Angeles Coliseum. As a track and field fan, I don't find the assertion that Washington could vault six feet highly improbable. As a 14-year=old who was athletic but not a high jumper, I could HURDLE my height, which then was five feet six inches.
7.25.2005 7:01pm
Leftist (mail):
Make that Charlie Dumas. I was confusing him with John Thomas, also a great American jumper who eclipsed seven feet without the Fosbury Flop technique.
7.25.2005 7:10pm
Craig Oren (mail):
Eric Hobsbaum, in The Age of Revolution, states that of the French revolutionary soldiers recruited in one area, 72% were under 5'2". (The French, being French, kept good records.) Now it's true that they were lower-class, but it seems unlikely that Americans were, on the average, much taller than that. It just could be that Marshall, like Washington, was very tall for his age; or, as suggested earlier, we're talking about hurdling or climbing over, not the high jump.

High jump technique in the United States has changed several times over the last century. Whatever Marshall was using was probably much more inefficient than modern techniques.
7.25.2005 7:46pm
Hattio (mail):
For anyone who's read On The Road, Kerouac talks about jumping over a bar held chest-high, and I think he was talking about doing this from a flat-footed stance. If I remember right both he and the Dean Moriarty character are over 6' which would put the bar in the range of 5 feet off the ground. Of course, it's a work of fiction but well known to be very thinly auto-biographical.
7.25.2005 8:06pm