Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper

by Paul E. Johnson

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Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper Themes

The main themes in Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper are the burden of progress, the conquest of nature, and politics, class, and identity.

  • The burden of progress: Johnson highlights the costs of industrial progress, which were often suffered by the working classes.
  • The conquest of nature: The book offers several examples of individuals trying to subdue nature for human purposes.
  • Politics, class, and identity: Sam Patch’s story shows how politics and class are interwoven in ways that inform personal identity.


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Last Updated on January 7, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1326

The Burden of Progress

To many people in the early 1800s, “progress” was a positive word that pointed toward beneficial social change, increased wealth, human development, technological advancement, and a higher quality of life. While Paul E. Johnson acknowledges this view, he also encourages readers to explore another aspect of progres—namely, the burdens it placed upon the lower classes.

Sam Patch and his family were among those who experienced the heaviest burden of progress. While mill and factory owners gloried in the advancement and efficiency of their establishments, the workers bore the burden of production. Sam, his mother, and his siblings worked eleven-hour days, often in freezing or stifling conditions. While children like young Sam were usually not brutalized or badly abused on the job, they suffered from monotony and exhaustion, and their superiors never hesitated to box their ears or slap their faces to keep their attention on their work. Their jobs involved serious risks, and many children experienced injury as they worked around complicated and dangerous machines.

For all these hours of hard labor, mill workers made little money, and they often lived in inadequate housing packed into squalid neighborhoods like Rochester’s Dublin or Paterson’s poor district with its “narrow, unpaved streets filled with pigs and dirty children.” Some child mill workers were orphans, left to fend for themselves. Others were part of single-parent families, usually headed by a mother like Abigail Patch, who had few other options to support her family. Sometimes fathers remained part of family life, but many, like Greenleaf Patch, were unemployed. Others, also like Greenleaf, left their families to fend for themselves.

Mill owners tended to view their workers as inferior and even expendable. When the owners of Paterson’s mills, for instance, declared that their workers were to take their lunch hour at noon rather than one, their employees were furious. The owners insisted that they were making the change for the good of the children, but they never bothered to ask their employees what they thought. Eventually, after workers walked off their jobs, the owners gave in and restored the normal lunch hour, but they also fired the primary protestors. No matter how skilled a worker may be, there was always another waiting to take their place. 

Indeed, the workers bore the burden of keeping their jobs, earning a remotely adequate living, and producing the fruits of the burgeoning industrial revolution, even as the owners and others praised the country’s progress in manufacturing, wealth, and lifestyle.

The Conquest of Nature

Part of national progress, at least in the opinion of many middle- and upper-class Americans in the early 1800s, was the conquest of the natural world. Manufacturing cities like Rochester sprang up across the country, making use of natural features like rivers and waterfalls to power their mills. Indeed, mill owners like Samuel Slater of Pawtucket were focused on forcing nature to work for them. They cared little if their channels or dams flooded nearby farms, damaged fishing spots, reduced waterfalls, or polluted rivers. They were intent upon making money, and nature was simply one of their tools in that venture. It was merely a means to an end, unimportant in itself.

Others did value nature to a point, but they were intent upon improving it. Timothy B. Crane of Paterson adopted this view. In describing his plans for his commercial pleasure park, Forest Garden, Crane claimed,

Although Nature has done more for this spot of earth, than perhaps any other of its size, to render it beautiful and interesting to the visitor, it is nevertheless susceptible of very great embellishments, from the hand of ART.

For Crane, nature in itself was insufficient, no matter how many years the residents of Paterson had enjoyed the wildness and beauty of the area. He felt that the “artful refinement” of nature would lead to “aesthetic contemplation” in people with refined taste, who could appreciate the artifice imposed upon the wilderness of the falls. Indeed, nature was meant to be domesticated for human use and enjoyment, sculpted into a scene that could cultivate social interactions and spiritual uplift. Apparently, for Crane and his fellow improvers, nature needed human help to achieve its best state.

Crane further desired to conquer nature through technological prowess. His customers needed easy access to Forest Garden, so he endeavored to build them a bridge. The Clinton Bridge was a marvel of engineering that spanned the Passaic Falls, taming the natural wonder. Crane even devised a spectacular show on the day his workmen stretched the bridge across the chasm. Of course, his show was interrupted by Sam Patch’s first public jump. Sam, like many of his fellow workers, was disgusted by Crane’s usurpation of the town’s natural recreation area for his own purposes and ideals. Sam, therefore, jumped directly into the natural environment Crane was trying to subdue.

Some upper-class Americans of the early 1800s assumed a different view of nature than that of the manufacturers or developers. These “scenic tourists,” like Colonel William Leete Stone, sought sublimity in nature. They strove after its aesthetic value, pursuing the most beautiful vistas that could lift them to spiritual heights and provide them with a sense of “ennobling terror,” of grandeur and majesty. These aspirants to the sublime, however, wanted all of nature’s awe but none of its danger. Such demands led people like Niagara Falls hotel owner William Forsyth to create elaborate systems of paths, stairs, bridges, walkways, and ferries that would lead tourists to the most breathtaking views in complete safety. In so doing, they, too, attempted to conquer nature and subordinate it to human desires.

Politics, Class, and Identity

In the United States in the early nineteenth century, politics and identity fit together firmly, as Paul E. Johnson shows in Sam Patch, the Famous Jumper. The educated upper classes and the middle-class people who aspired to imitate them tended to identify with the Whig party and adopt a particular set of beliefs about economics, government, culture, entertainment, education, and society. Some Whigs, like Colonel William Leete Stone, pursued the finer things in life: the sublimity of nature, the beauty of art and literature, and the wealth that allowed them to live as they pleased. Other Whigs, like the middle-class citizens of Rochester, sought to improve their lives and gain respectability through hard work, strict moral values, and domestic satisfaction. They, too, appreciated good taste and proper etiquette without embracing the luxuries of their upper-class counterparts; in fact, they often considered such ostentation thoughtless at best.

Despite their differences, however, nearly all Whigs could and did agree on one thing: their disdain for the Democrats. Indeed, the Democrats, while diverse among themselves, identified themselves with the working-class Americans who did not care much about proper grammar or taste but worked hard, fought hard, and played hard. Democrats called loudly for universal white male suffrage—an idea despised by Whigs—and scorned what they viewed as Whig snobbery about theatrical entertainment, drink, and amusement. Rochester’s “sportsmen,” for instance, were intent on having a good time in fellowship with one another and making fun of the establishment. Indeed, Democrats like these embraced Sam Patch as one of their own, a working man and a self-made hero who represented their values and interests.

The figure of Sam Patch illustrates how the issue of class was deeply interwoven with the politics of the time—and how these economic and political realities could feed one’s sense of personal identity. In his daring showmanship, Sam Patch sought to project his working-class identity. Patch and his supporters relished the idea that a man of humble origins could achieve success and fame through hard work and courage. He specifically intended his stunts to defy and draw attention from bourgeois and upper-class institutions. In turn, the Democratic party adopted Patch as a hero, showing how personal identity could play a role in the political arena.

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