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  • "Republican Machines"Franklin, Rush, and the Manufacture of Civic Virtue in the Early Republic
  • Colleen E. Terrell

The Perfectibility of Man! Ah heaven, what a dreary theme! The perfectibility of the Ford car! The perfectibility of which man? I am many men. Which of them are you going to perfect? I am not a mechanical contrivance.

—D. H. Lawrence, "Benjamin Franklin"

———Whatever is, is right
Tho' purblind Man Sees but a Part of
The Chain, the nearest Link,
His Eyes, not carrying to the equal Beam
That poizes all, above.

Benjamin Franklin, misquoting Dryden1

In a 1786 essay, "The Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," Philadelphia physician Benjamin Rush famously asserted that he "consider[ed] it possible [End Page 100] to convert men into republican machines," a necessary adaptation "if we expect them to perform their parts properly, in the great machine of the government of the state." Frequently quoted by scholars, Rush's statement carries a sort of modern shock value along with its testament to the eighteenth-century belief in education's transformative potential. That individuals might be trained to take their anonymous public places in a "uniform" and "homogenized" mass, regularly and unquestioningly performing their duties as republican citizens, tends to arouse both surprise and suspicion on a twenty-first-century reading.2 Yet I would argue that the meaning of Rush's claim is no longer self-evident; his eighteenth-century "machines" slip so easily and elusively between the literal and the metaphorical that it is difficult to see where one ends and the other begins.

Contextualizing Rush's vocabulary within the mechanical philosophy that was a hallmark of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century science reveals the ways in which the line between mechanism and human nature remained every bit as indistinct as that between the proverbial machine and garden. Mechanical analyses of causation applied as well to questions of physiology and psychology as to astronomy, physics, and chemistry, a scientific approach that located the human—as l'homme machine—in the greater structure of the world machine.3 As I will argue, Rush's work illustrates how this complex [End Page 101] imbrication of mechanism and biology was put in the service of the Enlightenment's belief in the perfectibility of man, rationalizing methods of pedagogy and moral improvement in the New World as in the Old.

Rush, however, explicitly directs his physiological approach to pedagogy toward republican goals, and his invocation of republican machines thus also draws on a more politicized and metaphorical discourse of mechanism in early America as well as a scientific one. Where the literature of national founding routinely employs a lexicon of mechanical construction in the representation of beginning the world anew and fashioning an improved "machinery" of government, Rush's phraseology uses the same trope to sketch an individual's exemplary relation to that government. The idea of a citizen-machine dutifully playing his civic part reproduces on a personal level the goals and ideals of America's new political arrangement, whose orderly, hierarchical structure, harmonious, regular motion, and sheer constructibility are beautifully epitomized by mechanism's physical qualities and aesthetic appeal. At the same time, however, the contradictions and inconsistencies in Rush's essay suggest that the discourse of mechanism he invokes captures not simply an optimistic rhetoric of national construction but also a means of representing more fundamental political problems at the heart of the nation's founding. Comparing Rush's work to that of his more famous contemporary purveyor of standardized virtue, Benjamin Franklin, illuminates the ways in which the concept of a machine perfectly analogizes the fundamental tension between order and liberty at stake in the new republic.

The methods of self-making presented in Franklin's Autobiography draw on the same mechanical vocabularies of early American science and politics found in Rush's writing, but they also, significantly, intersect with Franklin's interest in the pervasive eighteenth-century metaphysical debate over free will and determinism. The image of the machine plays a central figure in this controversy, providing a crucial common point of reference for both philosophical and political concerns about liberty and necessity: Franklin's text subtly juxtaposes the political laws of...


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