Revolutionary Lifestyles

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An Icon Is Born

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Revolutionary Lifestyles

In an 1893 address to the American Historical Association, Frederick Jackson Turner presented his frontier thesis, which asserted that the rugged individualism, restlessness, and strength of character vital for survival on the frontier continued to influence the national spirit even after the West had been conquered. Turner's myth offered a rational connection between America's agrarian past and its progressive future. It remains a cornerstone of American intellectual and, as figures such as Buffalo Bill attest, public history (Incorporation, 17). The Brooklyn bridge, a physical link between Brooklyn and New York, is a tangible symbol of the shift from agriculture to industry in the late nineteenth century.

Even before William Bradford arrived on its Eastern shores, America promised unrestrained opportunity for "otherness," a chance to create a civilization diametrically opposed to that which drove them from Europe. On this "virgin land," colonists established an society unencumbered by the tribulations of crowded urban life that has become nearly synonymous with Thomas Jefferson. However, this promise included a mandate to fulfill the fledgling nation's manifest destiny. "Facing a landscape covered with barriers to its own promise," Trachtenberg notes, "American society had to become technological in order to survive…to exploit the promise of the land" (Bridge 10). As farmers pushed west, Americans built roads, waterways, and eventually railroads to maintain communication and facilitate transportation, ironically fostering agrarianism through technological advancements. As early as 1828, the Erie Canal linked West to East, the frontier became more accessible, and "the other was an ancient dream" (Trachtenberg, Bridge 20). The very existence of the Jeffersonian ideal slowly disintegrated under pressure from the most sincere attempts to further it.

John Roebling

Although John Augustus Roebling began his American journey two hundred years after Bradford, he followed a course remarkably similar to that of the colonists. He was born on June 12, 1806, into a respectable clan of tradesmen in Mühlhausen, Germany, and later attended the Royal Polytechnic Institute of Berlin. While there, John fell under the tutelage of Hegel, who taught that self-realization can be achieved only in a state where Reason prevails, and such a state exits only where "man as such is free—not only one man but all men" (Trachtenberg, Bridge 43). After graduation, John accepted a position as an assistant engineer for the Prussian government but quickly perceived that state bureaucracy would severely impede his dream of building suspension bridges (McCullough 41). Thus, in 1831, encouraged by Hegel and looking for that which his home country could not offer, John departed for America. In his personal diary, a few months after his arrival, he wrote:

I have found all that I sought: a free, reasonable, Democratic government and reasonable, natural relationships of the people toward each other; freedom and equality; a peaceful, generous, beautiful country the blessings of which are not forcefully and deceitfully taken away from the land toiler by tyrants (qtd. in Trachtenberg, Bridge 49).

Cognizant of America's agrarian foundation, John appropriately founded a farming community in western Pennsylvania. Once Saxonburg had proved itself a self-sufficient town, though, he grew bored and frustrated. He recognized the country's still underdeveloped transportation system and went to work on the Pennsylvania Canal in 1837.

Within two decades, Roebling began laying plans for perhaps the most culturally transformative transportation project yet proposed in America: the Brooklyn Bridge. Mid-eighteenth-century Brooklyn hardly represented the paradigmatic agrarian society, but in a country-versus-city power structure, Brooklyn played second fiddle to New York in terms of economics and social considerations. Thus, Brooklynites sought to reconcile the difference by identifying themselves with the larger city. In fact, as early as 1800, the as yet unchartered city of Brooklyn sought to conquer the East River and link itself with New York. That year Jeremiah Johnson, who would later become mayor of Brooklyn, wrote:

It has been written that a bridge should be constructed from this village cross the East River to New York. This idea has been treated as chimercial [sic], from the magnitude of the design; but whoever takes it into serious consideration, will find more weight in the practicability of the scheme than at first view is imagined (qtd. in Trachtenberg, Bridge 23).

In 1834, Brooklyn officially attained the status of "city." By 1880 the flourishing industrial town boasted 5000 factories, ranked among the top five largest cities in America, and possessed a distinct sense of local pride. Still, many Brooklynites hoped to increase property values, as well as trade with New York, via a bridge to that better-known city. Progress was inextricably tied with money from the start.

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