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  • Republican Machines and Brackenridge's Caves:Aesthetics and Models of Machinery In the Early Republic
  • Paul Gilmore (bio)

In a letter from 1818, John Adams famously contends that "[t]he Revolution was effected before the war commenced," as the true revolution took place "in the minds and hearts of the people." The literary device Adams uses to describe this change is telling. Narrating the simultaneity of the transformation across the 13 colonies, he states that such an accomplishment "was perhaps a singular example in the history of mankind. Thirteen clocks were made to strike together—a perfection of mechanism, which no artist had before effected" (10:282–83). Part of Adams's point is that there was no human artist behind this singular accomplishment. Yet the metaphor of clocks represents a model of engineered precision and accuracy, of smoothly running, complicated, and intricate interior works. Further, while he ends by speaking of 13 clocks striking together, Adams begins by referring to "the minds and hearts of the people," indicating that it was actually two to three million clock like minds and hearts that struck simultaneously. Participating in a wide spread republican discourse relying on mechanical images to indicate the neoclassical possibility of mirroring God's clock like works on a political and literary scale, Adams uses the figure of clocks to reveal the Revolution as a miraculous consummation of independent individual minds and hearts with God's design.

In the fourth volume of Modern Chivalry, published in 1797, Hugh Henry Bracken ridge takes up the republican figure of the self-regulating watch only to suggest its inefficiency or failure. Early in the volume, Captain Farrago meets his former servant, the illiterate Irish Teague O'Regan, who has finally gained his desired position as a government official. As a reward and as a marker of his official dignity, Farrago has given Teague a [End Page 299] new horse, but he now finds Teague on foot. As Teague explains, he has "swaped [his horse] for a watch" for various reasons:

It tells de hour of de day, and what time of de clock it is, slapeing or waking; and in de night time you have but just to look at de face of it; and de sweet pretty figures dat are dare, and yo will know how long it is before de morning come. Not like de dumb baste, that could not answer you a word in de night nor in the day; but hold his tongue like a shape, and say nothing; while dis little watch, as de call it, can spake like a Christian creature, and keep company along de road like a living person.


In an age fascinated by automata of all sorts, including quacking and defecating ducks and instrument-playing mannequins, Teague imagines the watch to be as good as a Christian creature and to stand as a perfectly legible symbol of his new authority within the democratic republic. Yet just as Teague will meet with ill fortune as a tax collector—being tarred and feathered before being exhibited as a "dumb baste" himself—his trade for the watch ends in failure when he realizes he must be able to read the figures on the watch himself. Neither watches nor the new citizens of the republic, it turns out, simply respond on their own, in proper fashion, as automaton-like machines.

Bracken ridge's multi volumed work, published over a period of 13 years, repeatedly uses Teague to satirize the pretensions of the democratic masses in the new republic. Yet, although Brackenridge and/or the narrator are often identified with Captain Farrago's republican or aristocratic ideals, the text, at least in the early volumes, just as often parodies Farrago for appealing to disinterest and sincerity while duplicitously indulging his own interests. The numerous, often contradictory political readings of the novel provide a clue to its ideological as well as formal amorphousness.1 As Farrago wanders the country, exploring the conditions of early American society and testing it against its sometimes antagonistic republican and democratic ideals, the novel shifts between high Federalist, radical democratic, nearly anarchistic, and almost reactionary views of the new society. In the process...


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pp. 299-322
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