Sam Patch, American Jumper (Part Two)
Last time we introduced Sam Patch, who jumped from great heights as a form of populist protest. “Some things can be done as well as others,” as he was fond of saying. He made his first public jump in September of 1827, and quickly became a public figure.
A Spectacle And A Bear
Patch built on this theme several times in subsequent years, and eventually became something of a celebrity. That fame, even if it came through the 19th century equivalent of a ‘reality show,’ of course meant that Patch was not a ‘common man’ anymore. His world changed, dramatically.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family with no resources makes a great narrative, but it does mean Sam faced the world having grown up in a dysfunctional family with no resources. However American dreamy and work ethical that sounds, it hardly provided a solid foundation on which to build a normal adult life – let alone a successfully atypical one. A little notoriety, the stresses of minor success, and it’s no surprise Patch became a bit of a wreck.
Within a few years, Patch had a reputation as a drunk – usually the fun kind, but sometimes just the drunk kind. It’s likely he was a heavy drinker before, but now people recognized him. They may have bought him drinks, in the way people do to show appreciation or solidarity. Along the way, Patch somehow found himself bestowed with a pet bear, which he began taking around with him and lived with as a pet of sorts.
As if that weren’t colorful enough, the bear joined Sam on many of his jumps - off of cliffs, bridges, and waterfalls. Wherever Sam jumped, so jumped the bear.
Well, ‘jumped’ might not be the most accurate term. ‘Pushed,’ maybe. ‘Forcibly flung.’ They were different times, and concern over the treatment of animals was simply not a priority. The bear was apparently none the worse for wear, and that Patch could essentially throw a bear off a cliff repeatedly and have it still be cooperative is oddly impressive, if inexplicable. Were this fiction, the reader would no doubt demand a more satisfying explanation, but history is far less accommodating.
The Last Jump
On November 13, 1829, Sam made his last jump.
Something went horribly wrong. It may have been the drinking or a related difficulty, but descriptions from those witnessing the event suggest he died in mid-air, presumably from something internal. His body positioning gave way and he fell limply for at least half of the 125 feet he spent in the air, striking the water with an impact which would have been fatal even had he still been alive.
Less than a year before, Andrew Jackson had been elected President of the United States. One has to assume Patch would have been an enthusiastic supporter, assuming he paid any attention at all to such things.
Jackson’s 1828 victory was an unabashed victory for ‘the common man,’ and they knew it. After six presidencies of consciously ‘elite gentlemen’ – rich, white, educated males – Jackson was a game-changer. Sure, he was a white guy – but he grew up all kinda poor, and lacked a formal education in his youth.
The expansion of voting rights and other civic validity which facilitated Jackson’s victory, and which continued to expand during and after his presidency, is even named after him: “Jacksonian Democracy.” Maybe the “all men” created equal in 1776 were a fairly limited bunch, but over time it’s been stretched to cover quite a variety of colors and socio-economic statuses. Heck, they even let girls vote now – that’s getting serious.
To celebrate this ‘victory of the common man’, Jackson broke with the restrictive traditions of his predecessors and threw open his inaugural celebration at the White House to all comers. It wasn’t HIS victory, after all – it was THEIR victory. Why not let THEM celebrate it as fully as anyone?
In return, the ‘common man’ trashed the place.
Celebrants stood on and broke furniture, wandered into the private, personal rooms and made souvenirs of the bathroom fixtures and any nice undergarments they discovered in the bedrooms. When the front entrances grew congested, they tromped through the muddy gardens and came in the windows, further destroying the rugs and furniture and generally wreaking havoc.
Jackson bailed almost immediately. The help finally had to lure out the unwashed masses with bowls of alcoholic beverages and trays of deserts, which were hurriedly filled and rushed to the peripheries of the grounds in an effort to Pied Piper the common man the heck out of the White House.
Jackson’s entire Presidency was spotted with such tensions. In his determination to defend and assist the ‘common man’, he pushed through legislation that crippled the economy. In order to open up homesteads for the ‘little people’, he oversaw Indian Removal. His fervent defense of his not-quite-divorced-from-her-first-husband wife led to innumerable conflicts before he took office, and his transferred outrage in defense of a similarly soiled Peggy Eaton a few years later crippled his cabinet for months.
That’s the difficulty in defending the ‘common man’. They’re dirty, and they do stupid things. One might argue that’s why they’re ‘common’.
It’s not merely an income issue; economic equity is no easy task, but it’s at least tangible. Social capital is more difficult. In a pinch, I can give you money - but I can’t give you decorum. I can buy you a house - but I can’t stop you from leaving trash in the yard or otherwise make you a responsible home owner.
The sociology of it all is rather tangled and unsatisfying.
“There’s No Mistake In Sam Patch”
Sam Patch jumped off of cliffs near waterfalls, off of the topmost masts of ships, and from other daunting heights – often into the narrowest of survivable apertures, disciplining body and breathing precisely to allow him to emerge unharmed.
It was noble, in a way. Kinda cool, and so counter to the carefully crafted ‘nature experiences’ built by the well-to-do. Each leap was intensely primitive compared to precisely arranged visitations of the finest majestic sights, which were in any case available only to the elite. Even the rhetoric – “Some things can be done as well as others,” or “There’s no mistake in Sam Patch” – was marvelously stark compared to the noble blithering which filled bourgeois journals.
Patch was a bacon cheeseburger in contrast to the artisanal essence of kimchi of his day. With a tall draft beer. Or seven. And greasy. Dripping on the shirt. And falling apart halfway through. And leaving the wrapper in your yard.
It’s easy two centuries later to belittle Timothy Crane and his precious little recreation area with its froo-froo bridge. He charged for… nature! If he really cared about art, if he really valued beauty, he’d make it available to all – without cost or restriction!
Others did just that. Idealists in some parts of the north opened their parks and benches, their landscaped gardens and artistic efforts to all, just as Nature and Nature’s God had done before them. In return, the common man trashed the place, vandalizing, urinating, and harassing the better elements until they no longer frequented such places.
In many ways, Sam Patch echoed the same tensions and contradictions being played out across the Age of Jackson and certainly into our own day. It’s easy to admire Sam Patch and his giant wet middle finger to the system, but in doing so we must recognize even while singing his praises that he wasn’t merely rejecting a loftier lifestyle – he was completely unqualified and incapable of living one out had it been handed to him.
How do we draw a clear distinction between the sort of ‘behaving decently’ we might reasonably ask of all well-intentioned people, and the limiting mores of middle or upper class privilege, with their own rules and codes – many designed over the decades for the sole purpose of separating the cream from the whey? How do we embrace the value of all people while still maintaining sufficient expectations that we don’t simply reverse which groups are effectively excluded from conversations and experiences?
Patch challenged both traditional concepts of respectability and evolving American definitions of success. He stood neither on family name nor economic status, proclaiming instead in his entirely unique way that “some things can be done as well as others.” It’s doubtful he was much of a philosopher about it, but his instinctive defiance of existing value systems resonated with a generation of Americans fully immersed in the glorious potential of their national ideology while bound by their own cultural, educational, and economic limitations. They were drowning in just enough Enlightened understanding of what they could and should be, but weren’t, to recognize their dilemma and the bitter gaps in the American Dream. Patch symbolically broke those bonds and surfaced for them, however sporadically and incompletely. Sometimes that’s enough.
Jackson’s belief in the nobility of the common man seems to have been largely sincere. It may seem a bit naïve when viewed more widely, but he certainly had the force of will to lock it in as a fervently-held conviction. Patch simultaneously fulfilled and contradicted that narrative, kicking against elitism with a grit Jackson no doubt found familiar while failing to rise to the social, economic, or political roles a democratic narrative demands. He gloried in his humble status, but – depending on one’s preferred paradigm – he was subsequently either crushed by a society built for better men, who consumed natures such as his in the same way an engine consumes coal, or his nature in turn destroyed him through his own free will and poor choices.
When Philadelphia presented a beautiful white horse to President Jackson in 1833, he named it 'Sam Patch'. What that suggests about either man is left for the reader to consider.
RELATED POST: Sam Patch, American Jumper (Part One)