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Journal of the Early Republic 26.3 (2006) 377-418

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The Mechanisms of Monticello

Saving Labor in Jefferson's America

In November of 1812, Dr. Robert Patterson wrote to the recently retired Thomas Jefferson relating the peculiar and amusing events surrounding fellow Philadelphia native Charles Redheffer and his ill-fated perpetual motion machine. Patterson, a friend who shared Jefferson's fascination for machines and scientific inquiry, would have recalled the throngs of intrigued spectators who had paid admission to witness the demonstration of Redheffer's ambitious device, for throughout the American industrial revolution, a machine that would operate in perpetuity without an external, expendable power source represented the holy grail of mechanics, engineers, and optimistic tinkerers of all stripes. Indeed, Jefferson himself received dozens of letters from would-be designers of such fanciful machinery. But Redheffer's machine employed a heretofore unexamined source of generation. What paying customers saw, through a barred window, was a gravity-driven pendulum affair that presumably provided the energy to power another, separate machine through a set of interlocking gears. Hidden from view, however, and locked in an adjacent windowless room was an old bearded man, connected to Redheffer's contrivance via a long catgut belt and actually supplying power through a simple hand crank. Redheffer, it soon became clear, was feeding the poor fellow bread and water and forcing him to operate the crank drive all day long—thankless drudge work for meager wages. A bemused Jefferson noted that the "sham machinery" relied on [End Page 377] an "extensive delusion" among the general public concerning the efficacy of such inventions, for "the almighty himself could not construct a machine of perpetual motion while the laws exist which he has prescribed for the government of matter in our system; that the equilibrium established by him between cause and effect must be suspended to effect that purpose." Jefferson's response, although conversational and almost jocular, reveals a startling number of the core issues surrounding how Americans came to regard the forces of mechanization and enslavement in the fledgling union. And Jefferson's personal views not only reveal the interconnection between the two but also exemplify the various intellectual and ideological attempts to reconcile a crucial cultural dilemma, defining many of the most basic debates regarding the limits of liberty, the nature of human agency, and the proper direction of American society.1

Redheffer's thwarted deception illustrates nicely many of the themes that confronted Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century: the intoxicating promise of progressive thought, especially in science and the mechanical arts, to deliver a new order through the manipulation of labor and production; a burgeoning ethos of exhibitionism that publicized and transferred into spectacle many of the more controversial aspects of American culture; the subtly intrinsic interconnection between machinery and slavery (or the veritable enslavement of an indispensable yet increasingly degraded workforce, whatever its legal status); and the intellectualization, rationalization, and aestheticization of these themes by important cultural and literary figures.

To interpret Jefferson's views and recognize their connection to the main currents of thought in the intellectual and cultural life of early America is to confront an enigmatic figure primarily through his language. It is a task that must appreciate the curious nature of literacy and communication during Jefferson's lifetime and one that must also recognize the rhetorical power and cultural force of Jefferson's public texts as well as the more searching, introspective character of his personal [End Page 378] correspondences and documents. Jefferson's letter to Patterson exemplifies an intuitive association between the textual and the material, between his rhetorical methods and the mechanical essence of the spectacle he is describing and interpreting. What brings these two strands together, in the end, is the manner in which Jefferson and Americans of this era proposed to save labor, to produce capital and goods more effectively and efficiently through the twin modes of technology and slavery.

I wish to demonstrate that Jefferson's lifelong struggle to make sense of and to articulate...


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