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The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth

The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth

by Steven Stoll

Economic growth is more than an observable fact—it’s a belief in the limitless abundance of the natural world. But when did people begin to believe that societies should—even that they must—expand in wealth into the indefinite future? Did they think about the limits of the natural environment?

In this vivid book, the historian Steven Stoll


Economic growth is more than an observable fact—it’s a belief in the limitless abundance of the natural world. But when did people begin to believe that societies should—even that they must—expand in wealth into the indefinite future? Did they think about the limits of the natural environment?

In this vivid book, the historian Steven Stoll considers the way people throughout the Atlantic world read wealth into nature during the 1830s and 1840s. Opening among the supersized products and high-stacked shelves of Costco, The Great Delusion weaves past and present together through the life of a strange and brooding German engineer and technological utopian named John Adolphus Etzler, who pursued universal wealth from the inexhaustible forces of nature: wind, water, and sunlight. He was not a major theorist. He did not invent anything we use today. But Etzler absorbed and articulated just about every major materialist idea of the time, using those theories to pursue his own program for abundance and happiness. In Etzler we see a disturbing picture of ourselves. If he seems eccentric—or just plain crazy—he was no less so than the most pragmatic thinkers of his time, and of ours. Eloquent and insightful, The Great Delusion neatly demonstrates that Etzler’s fantasy has become our reality and that we continue to live by some of the same economic assumptions that he embraced.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Environmental historian and author of the well-received Larding the Lean Earth , Stoll (history, Fordham Univ.) here considers the life and ideas of the greatly deluded J.A. Etzler, a now-obscure utopian engineer whose influence during his peak in 1820s-40s Germany and America was nil. Etzler believed that inexhaustible earthly natural resources, to which value would be constantly added through technological innovation, fated poverty and inequality to obsolescence. History has not proven Etzler prescient, so it's puzzling that Stoll works so hard to make the case against Etzler's hyperconsumption gospel. The book suffers from disjointedness, with three related but mismatched essays-an intellectual biography of a less-than-scintillating figure, an overview of 19th-century environmental history, and a work of contemporary advocacy of conservation. Stoll's witty account of Etzler's unworkable "Naval Automaton," variously described as an engine or wagon by contemporaries, is the book's highlight. While the narratives are well done, the book is ultimately not fulfilling. Recommended with reservations for academic libraries.-Scott H. Silverman, Bryn Mawr Coll. Lib., PA

Kirkus Reviews
A significant work that uses the life of 19th-century explorer and inventor John Etzler to dissect the fallacies of the global mantra for continuous economic growth. Distilling complex ideas in lucid, easily accessible prose, Stoll (History/Rutgers Univ.; Larding the Lean Earth, 2002, etc.) explains how his zealous protagonist, who believed the earth could support a population of one trillion people, was shaped by the Young Hegelian materialist theories of his era. Born in central Germany in 1791, Etzler promised his followers lifelong ease and abundance based on limitless natural resources. Modern consumers, too, believe that the energy powering their iPods, cars and leaf-blowers will always exist, notes Stoll. But in a time of rapidly rising gas prices and melting tundras, his timely and immensely readable book asks whether unfettered consumption can continue in a world with scarce resources. The author convincingly argues that modern economic theory, with its belief that growth equals progress, is derived from the same materialist currents that inspired Etzler. He takes as a metaphor Etzler's bizarre invention, a massive, lumbering, do-anything machine called the Satellite, powered by wind, water, a pivot and ropes. The Satellite never worked, because Etzler ignored entropy; energy seeped away as useless heat (caused by friction over long ropes) and could never be recaptured. Stoll contends that the law of entropy, which establishes that natural energy resources are finite and unrecoverable, has also been willfully ignored by growth-focused economists. Unless consumerism is curtailed to a rate that allows the earth to replenish itself, and manufacturing becomes environmentally benign,he predicts that major crises will occur. In the 1840s, Etzler led a group of English emigrants to Venezuela, promising them a tropical paradise without limits on natural bounty, but delivering only destitution and death. Ideas influence behavior, Stoll reminds us, and Etzler's life has a clear message for us today: "Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist."An erudite, entertaining historical deconstruction of the modern economic world. Agent: Lisa Adams/The Garamond Agency
From the Publisher
“This is a hot little book, hot in moral intensity, hot in probable consequences, and hot to handle. It will dismay some, infuriate others, and invite thinking by anyone who regards ours as the responsible species. We have memory and anticipation. Stoll wants us to observe, anticipate, and act. A stirring and eloquent piece of work.” —Roger Kennedy, Director Emeritus, the National Museum of American History

“An odd and intriguing chunk of history that helps us understand where our great ideé fixe—endless growth—came from. When you consider what a weird idea it actually is, and how central to our intellectual universe, it’s well worth trying to figure out how we first fell under this fancy.” —Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy

“Stoll’s brilliant exhumation of the life of Etzler—Frankenstein-like inventor and Hegelian con man—confronts us with the lunatic-utopian origins of our civilization’s most profound (and suicidal) desire: the infinite consumption of nature.” —Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

“This is a hot little book, hot in moral intensity, hot in probable consequences, and hot to handle. It will dismay some, infuriate others, and invite thinking by anyone who regards ours as the responsible species. We have memory and anticipation. Stoll wants us to observe, anticipate, and act. A stirring and eloquent piece of work.” —Roger Kennedy, Director Emeritus, the National Museum of American History

“Enthrallment with growth has brought us to a perilous state environmentally. The world economy is so large that its impacts are disrupting the planetary systems that make life on earth possible, and yet economic activity is on track to double in size in less than two decades. Stoll’s insightful book on the utopian origins of our growth fetish could not be more timely. It raises difficult issues about the balance of economy and ecology that must soon be faced.”—Gus Speth, Dean of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Professor in the Practice of Environmental Policy, Yale University

“Steven Stoll presents the technologically utopian zeitgeist of our time in biographical preview—the fascinating story of a possessed nineteenth-century German engineer named John Adolphus Etzler. It is a cautionary and instructive story.” —Herman E. Daly, Professor, School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland

“The lesson Stoll wants us to learn from the mad inventor’s biography is clear: Despite our optimism that we can harness all the energy necessary to increase production, we cannot fool Mother Nature.” —Paul Davidson, The New Leader

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Read an Excerpt


The Great delusion


A Philosophical Machine

They rolled it out of the shed before daybreak, heaving it with men and horses to where it stood the morning long, in the ordinary dampness of the field. The directors of the Tropical Emigration Society arranged with a local member of the gentry for the use of the pasture near Oxford, England, renaming it Satellite Field for the occasion. Gunshots and church bells rang out before noon, and people gathered with bottles and blankets to watch what promised to be more than just another rake-and-reaper show—rather, a world to come, a kind of revelation. Its inventor designed it to do anything on the ground: plow, pulverize and sift soil, level a field, sow grain, pull weeds, cultivate between plants, mow, harvest, hammer, saw, cut down trees, pull out stumps, notch rocks, excavate and elevate, dig ditches and canals, form terraces, operate in water or mud, dig mines, and generate its own power. It was a Swiss Army knife on wheels, a cross between a plow and the Batmobile. The inventor devised other marvelous things that he promised would capture the abundant and available forces of the earth: a Naval Automaton powered by ocean waves, as well as a floating island covered with fertile soil, supporting houses, halls, and windmills. But nothing surpassed the Satellite in its transformative power, in the vastness of its meaning. The country people would witness a conduit of energy that would liberate them from authority and custom, a tool toward the creation of a completely cultivated and populous earth, the prime mover behind a community that would be exemplary for all communities—a philosophical machine.

We know it only from its blueprint. It consisted of an iron frame nearly forty feet long and eighteen feet wide—about the dimensions of a shipping container. Two long, rotating beams mounted on top extended its length to fifty-seven feet. Massive wheels carried it at the front end, smaller ones behind. Its forward motion turned a roller that could be fitted with teeth for planting or spades for digging. Add a hopper for seeding; attach blades for harrowing; connect ropes and wheels for pulling anything; snap on brushes, shovels, boards, saws, and hammers as needed. A truck for collecting ran alongside. No horses, no engine. It looked more like the Mars rover Leonardo da Vinci might have invented than an agricultural implement.

Its energy came from a square-shaped reservoir surrounded by twelve windmills. The windmills lifted water into the reservoir, which filled to the level of a spillway, from where the water fell 100 feet onto a wheel. The rotating wheel pulled a series of wire lines thousands of feet long, each wrapped around a wooden pivot. The turning pivot transferred energy from the wire lines to ropes connected to the Satellite. To understand the shape it created, draw a line ending in a point; then draw a radius off of the point at any angle, like the hour hand of a clock; then draw the circle implied by the radius. But the Satellite didn’t go round and round in the same circle. The ropes could be shortened or lengthened to change the machine’s distance from the pivot, resulting in a spiral pattern as the contraption worked its circle inward or outward, sowing or cutting trees or harvesting wheat or digging ditches. Think of the circular fields created by pivot irrigation on the Great Plains. Each is about 2,600 feet in diameter, or half a mile. On paper, the Satellite had a maximum radius of 1,000 feet, enclosing about 70 acres as it wound inward, tracing a furrow like a snail shell. Gawky in its details, the Satellite makes a different impression from high above its trajectory, seemingly as elegant and certain in its orbit as the moon.

The Satellite. Etzler’s design for a machine that would generate infinite wealth by concentrating infinite power on infinite resources can be difficult to decipher. This top view of the machine shows its rotating beams and a roller fitted with spikes. A truck for collection runs alongside. The same illustration features the reservoir and windmills. Note the smaller version of the Satellite, placed to establish scale. (Courtesy Yale University Library)

Every form of production changes space in characteristic ways. A landscape formed by peasants cutting wheat with scythes looks different in its scale and patterns from one formed by a steam-driven reaper. As a spatial system, Etzler’s model had a single overarching purpose—replication. The Satellite would subject vast regions to mechanical discipline, driven by its determining machine. An observer at cruising altitude would take in branches splitting off from every 4,000-foot central line, creating a hexagon of eighteen orbits, together enclosing about 1,400 acres (including the spaces between the circles). The inventor called this pattern a circuit. Fifty-five circuits formed a dominion of nearly 80,000 acres, twelve miles wide. The history of humankind told a story of drudgery and scarcity, with people flailing helplessly to open the great chest of abundance standing in plain sight. With the Satellite as their key, the starving multitudes had it in their power to overturn the structure of society without violence, causing a social revolution that no industrialist or aristocrat could ever stop. The inventor promised that those “who are poor and of the labouring classes,” who earn but “a poor pittance for sustaining life,” would soon delight in 20,000-acre gardens “cultivated by three or four men, with but one dollar of capital (once forever) per acre,” and would then “live like gentlemen and ladies.”1

Orbit, Circuit, and Dominion. The Satellite created its own land system, one that could be infinitely extended in a geometrical pattern. (Courtesy Yale University Library)

The benevolent colonizer behind the promises, the trickster scientist who somehow shrouded the most detailed blueprints in fog and night, was John Adolphus Etzler. He was not in England or even in the temperate latitudes at the time of the demonstration. His last communication came from Venezuela, reporting on his negotiations with the minister of foreign affairs for land on which the Satellite would operate. By 1845, Etzler provided the intellectual leadership for a thriving organization of believers who anticipated machinery to usher in their freedom from crippling factory work and horrifying poverty. The South American venture also involved Etzler’s partner, publisher, and interpreter, Conrad Stollmeyer, who remained in England to work out the details of the construction and testing of the Satellite. The mechanic in charge in England, however, found it difficult, whether by a lack of skill or materials, to follow every detail of Etzler’s design, so he built a smaller machine—four feet wide and twenty feet long—and improvised in other ways as well. Awaiting the reservoir and windmills that would plug it in to the earth’s perpetual motion, the Satellite moved under the force of a steam carriage set in the middle of the pasture, the two connected by a six-hundred-foot rope running atop drums and rollers. It must have looked gangly and awkward, like a freight car on a leash, as everyone became silent. It was September 22, 1845. With a crowd of eight hundred looking on, the engine shuddered and smoked, its stationary feet ripping into the black, buckling turf. Then the ropes whined, and the Satellite lurched.



Between the 1820s and the 1850s, a new kind of existence came into view, powered not by lumbering bodies but by gravity and coal. The fusion of philosophical idealism with innovations in mechanics released a soaring optimism. Go back to 1750, and everyone on earth lived nearly the same way—moving only as fast as a horse, pulling only as much as an ox, and preparing food, shelter, and clothing by hand. It was a biological old regime about to be overthrown. In 1814 the industrial advocate Tench Coxe reported statistics meant to dazzle Americans. With the British technology of the time, Coxe said, 100,000 Americans (roughly the population of Baltimore) could mill as much cotton into yarn as eight million people (the entire population of the United States in 1810) could accomplish by hand in the same amount of time. The outlines of a new economy became distinctive even as it remained firmly anchored to the larger economy of nature. Anyone who had ever felt his teeth rattle in his head as hundreds of looms shook the beams and floors of a water-powered factory—as it turned out bolts of cloth like eggs from an automated henhouse—walked away thinking that the human economy no longer possessed definite limits. Material progress did not first appear in the 1820s, but only then did many people witness its possibilities; only then did they really experience it. According to anthropologist Ernest Gellner, “A society had now emerged which, for the very first time in history, was based on sustained, perpetual cognitive and economic growth.”2

Economic growth is a measure of throughput, or the capacity of a system to transfer raw material from environments to consumers through a widening process of production. Growth thrives where proliferating needs meet proliferating means. It creates webs of consumption, as when people clear land to produce corn to feed cattle to turn out beef and leather to make car seats for Cadillac Escalades. All along the line the demand for additional fuel, labor, housing, food, medical care, and roads contributes to that great measure of prosperity—GDP. Growth is also impelled by capitalism, a system of organizing labor and land that creates capital. Capital is the profit or surplus value resulting from production that is then reinvested in technology or additional labor to increase production, creating still more surplus value. This never-ending necessity to keep all the factors of production fully employed makes capitalism different from any other economic system that has ever existed. Adam Smith bluntly asserted that no rational person would behave any other way: “A man must be perfectly crazy who, where there is tolerable security, does not employ all the stock which he commands.” Anyone in the possession of capital, wrote Smith, “always expects it to be replaced to him with a profit.” Karl Marx shouted out this imperative, this drive to expand: “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! … Accumulation for the sake of accumulation, production for the sake of production.”3 The self-perpetuating cycle of accumulation has absorbed nearly the entire material world, turning everything into a commodity.

But while growth has existed, in some sense, for as long as the human population has been increasing, its identification with progress—a human value—is more recent. The word dates to 1475, but its usage took a noticeable turn with the publication of The Pilgrim’s Progress: From This World to That Which Is to Come (1678). John Bunyan’s allegory follows the life of Christian as he navigates a treacherous moral universe, avoiding a gauntlet of shady characters. Christian visits the Palace of Deliverance, climbs the Hill of Difficulty, passes through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and finally makes it to the Celestial City. Before Bunyan, progress mostly referred to movement across a landscape or through the country. After Bunyan, it referred to the movement of the soul through the labyrinth of society to the sacred geography of heaven. The sense of movement took on moral direction. Progress didn’t simply get one from place to place, it represented betterment, improvement, as one moved closer to the goal of salvation by overcoming the moral obstacles of life. For centuries, the natural environment had no particular role to play in salvation, but that was about to change.

Then came the Enlightenment. Radical thinkers, including Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Baruch Spinoza, argued that the world could be understood by experience, without reference to God. By arguing that God was the inner essence of all things and not their direct cause, Spinoza equated God with Nature, as having no personality, no conscious power, and no independent control over human affairs. Spinoza ripped a hole in the keel of the old-time religion, and nature came pouring in. Nature quickly emerged as the new foundation of the social order. It could be observed; its properties could be demonstrated; and its vastness lent eternal and self-evident truth to just about anything. So John Locke asserted that a primordial “state of nature” established “natural rights,” and Thomas Jefferson claimed the rightful independence of the United States by appealing to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), did not see God directing people toward their best interests when he devised the “invisible hand,” but some unnamed force, comparable to gravity. God ceased to be the King of Kings and became more like a constitutional monarch, following earthly rules. As for the destiny of the soul in heaven, it came to be replaced by human destiny as the material world took on greater importance: as people understood it better, manipulated it on a larger scale, and saw it as a way to wealth.

Progress became material. Social observers ceased to refer to God at all in their attempts to relate the story of civilization. The philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, including Adam Ferguson, David Hume, Lord Kames, and Adam Smith, introduced a story meant to sync with the Bible and supersede every chronicle of kings and ministers, to reveal the primal motives and environmental influences behind human history. We all know how it goes. In the beginning, there were poor savages who never accumulated enough food by hunting and gathering to sustain more than a few wretched people in scattered groups. Finally using their wits to escape their pitiful starvation, they captured horses and domesticated sheep, living as shepherds or (in the action-thriller version) as pillaging barbarians. Population increased to the point where wild forage became scarce, making it necessary for people to stay in one place and cultivate some of the large-seeded grasses their sheep had been gnawing on for millennia. Farmers produced more food than hunters or pastoralists, resulting in more births. Their surplus grain and milk could be traded in villages, sustaining a population of nonproducers, including princes, bureaucrats, soldiers, and merchants. Divisions of labor, rule by law, a free and open market, great commercial cities—all these defined “civil society”—the final stage of social evolution.4 Progress in the final stage took a different form than it had before: constant expansion. Society would never again evolve into something else; it would just get bigger and bigger, adding new markets, new territory, and more people into its benevolent vortex.

The theory of stages presented the way things must have happened, probably happened, should have happened. Its central assumption, that history has direction and meaning, originated with the messianic faith of the Torah and the New Testament. The narrative translated that faith into secular terms. It built a bridge between religious destiny and the new materialism. It redefined salvation as deliverance from dearth and hunger at the savage edge of subsistence, fulfilling God’s Providence with a set of human institutions that mediated the attainment of necessary things.5 The soul ends up not in the Celestial City, but in the city of shopkeepers. Material progress differed from salvation in another way. It must not end. “If progress is not made,” wrote the Scottish historian James Dunbar in 1780, “we must decline from the good state already attained.” Edward Everett, as governor of Massachusetts, gave an extraordinary speech in 1840 in which he intoned, “The progress which has been made in art and science is, indeed, vast. We are ready to think … that the goal must be at hand. But there is no goal; and there can be no pause; for art and science are, in themselves, progressive and infinite … Nothing can arrest them which does not plunge the entire order of society into barbarism.”6 Everett was very clear. Any pause would result in a terrifying regression, a falling back from plenty and refinement into the strife and violence of the past.

The absence of a distinct goal allowed advocates of material progress to project their expectations onto the future. It gave economic growth its indeterminate quality and captured the imagination of social thinkers who began to maintain that under certain circumstances, nations could achieve sustained affluence. The phrase “national wealth” appeared for the first time in 1680, when political economist William Petyt wrote, “It is evident that all sorts of home manufactures must advance or save the National Wealth.” Smith said that growth had been going on for more than a century by the time he noticed it; in fact, “since the time of Henry VIII the wealth and revenue of the country have been continually advancing … They seem, not only to have been going on, but to have been going on faster and faster.” Adam Ferguson believed that the advance of revenue had no clear beginning and no terminus: “The materials of human art are never entirely exhausted,” he wrote in 1767, “and the applications of industry are never at an end.” By the middle of the next century, with steam engines harnessed and hissing in every major American town, possibility became expectation. Industrial throughput and the terrific returns from overseas colonies gave intellectuals of every designation a view from the mountaintop. As one utopian leader wrote in 1840, “Man … seeks for happiness and enjoyment as a law of his nature, as a part of his destiny;—he seeks for riches and the goods of this earth, as a right.” Etzler simply described the going trend: “The mass of the civilized nations turn their minds now more to the earthly improvements of life.”7

Things came together. An older metaphysical progress married a burgeoning productive capacity, creating a powerful ideology of growth—driven by the myth of human perfection and grounded in the precise observation of economic reality.

Etzler is a nexus for the complex of ideas that boiled and simmered into a full-fledged conception of material progress. He was not a major theorist. He did not invent anything we use today. But we can read him to understand the practical and utopian aspects of economic growth in the Atlantic economy of the nineteenth century. He sounded like any political economist when he proposed to use “the materials of the world to the best purpose of human life, as the true universal means of the salvation of all mankind, not in dreams, but in the plain realities of life … food, clothing, houses, comforts, and conveniences.”8 He sounded like any engineer when he noted that “powers must pre-exist. They cannot be invented … no mechanism can produce power.” He anticipated the possible: “There is nothing in my proposals that the Americans do not practice already, nothing new, but the objects themselves to be attained.” There is something deeply pragmatic about Etzler’s schemes and something fundamentally utopian about economic growth, and vice versa. They share the same qualities, and Etzler illuminates them and almost every important materialist idea during the time in which he lived.

In its open-ended promises and totalizing patterns, the Satellite is an emblem of our own assumptions. Etzler’s life and thought illustrate a conception of nature and society that, although eccentric—coming from one who believed that the earth would one day support a population of one trillion people—is oddly familiar. For as much as we tend to dismiss utopia for the way it wishes away greed and poverty, we would do well to consider the ways that the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mall of America, and the Williams-Sonoma catalog partake of the very same expectation of salvation. What happens when we read plenty into environments that have the same kinds of limits our own bodies do? What does it mean that wealth in capitalist societies must be thought of as endless if the system is to avoid contradictions that might destroy it? What was Etzler trying to create with the Satellite and a colony in Venezuela that shows us a picture of ourselves? The following is Etzler’s story, but it is also a journey through nineteenth-century materialism, through the scientific, economic, and geographical thinking that created his context and made idealist engineering seem plausible. That such a thing ever existed suggests what lies ahead in this book. Discoveries in the physical world gave hope to some that the Celestial City might be built, that Eden might be planted.

At Satellite Field, the crowd turned away drunk and drowsy after the chief engineer released the steam from the boiler in the late afternoon. They’d seen locomotives move at forty miles per hour, so why all the fuss over an overwrought plow? (Some said they’d have rather seen a good fight.) No one disputed that the Satellite, moving at less than three miles per hour, plowed up eighty acres over three days, but the members of the Tropical Emigration Society argued for years about what actually happened in that field. Stollmeyer declared the machine’s modest performance a success, proof that the Satellite had opened a long-hidden passageway in human progress. Lloyd’s Weekly gave a cooler assessment. The test established “a new mechanical principle … the transmission of power from a fixed point to a moving point, going in arbitrary directions at the will of one man at the steering wheel, which was thought impossible by scientific engineers.” Those among Etzler’s faithful who expected something miraculous to happen recommitted themselves to the colony in Venezuela as their best chance to discover lifelong ease and abundance. As for Etzler, not even Stollmeyer knew exactly where he was, and though the society managed to fill the columns in The Morning Star reserved for his dispatches, these came irregularly. As fissures opened up around Stollmeyer, he felt compelled to defend the machine as well as its inventor.



John Adolphus Etzler (born Johann Adolph) grew up in Mühlhausen, in the central German state of Thüringen, on the River Unstrut. An even plain of fields rising into gentle forested hills surrounds the city. Tree-lined canals run from the river throughout the plain and suggest that a once-marshy landscape had been reclaimed into a more highly ordered one. Here the Protestant radical Thomas Müntzer roused peasants to revolt against their feudal lords in 1524. He claimed few allies, least of all his former teacher, Martin Luther, who called for his execution. One year later, in the battle of Frankenhausen, Müntzer led a force of eight thousand in a desperate tactic to weaken the hold of entrenched landed authority. Victorious lords dragged the insurgent to the public square and beheaded him. In 1707 Johann Sebastian Bach accepted a position as organist in the church of the Divi Blasii and there composed A Fixed Mountain Is Our God and the Prelude and Fugue in G Minor—two of his church cantatas.9 Etzler’s father, David Christoph Etzler, worked as a shoemaker and married Maria Christina Fröbe in 1790 at the altar of the Divi Blasii. Born February 22, 1791, the oldest of Maria and David’s seven children, Johann would have observed holy days in the cathedral’s Gothic nave, hearing music produced by forced air though pipes of varying widths and lengths, as the sun reached his face through a rose-petal window twenty feet wide.

David worked from a shop at home while young Johann collected the awls, round knives, mallets, and forms of the cobbler’s box. The child would have been expected to enter his father’s trade, but David died in 1808 at the age of forty-eight, when Johann was seventeen.10 By then, Etzler had been thoroughly trained as a tradesman, but he also prepared as a scholar at the town Gymnasium (high school), where he learned engineering as part of a curriculum that stressed worldly needs and the betterment of the Heimat—the homeland or town. At school he might have used the Kleiner Schul-Atlas (1806), which explains such mysteries of geography as the seasonal position of the earth as it orbits the sun. The Louisiana Territory is indicated, along with New Granada, a vast Spanish colony that by 1806 had become a single viceroyalty comprising Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela.

One of Etzler’s greatest influences might have been the one he witnessed in the landscape. Gottfried Tulla, perhaps the most talented and ambitious engineer in Europe, spent the year 1791 studying hydrology in the Netherlands, where he first imagined controlling the floodplain of the Rhine. Germans had sought that control for centuries, trying everything to restrict the river’s highly variable seasonal flow in order to keep marshes and fens in permanent cultivation. Etzler came of age in the midst of this revolution, during the years in which Tulla succeeded in confining the upper river within an artificial bed. The engineer tamed the Rhine by performing miracles of earthen matter. He shortened it by straightening its meandering course; he opened it to more rapid commerce by scraping away more than twenty-two hundred islands; he disciplined the river by constructing 160 miles of dikes, requiring 6.5 million yards of earth. The Erie Canal looks like a barnyard trench compared with what Tulla did to the Rhine. It must have made an impression on Etzler. It said that engineering—a practical physics dedicated to social improvement—could reconfigure marshland and floodplains into territory profitable, inhabitable, and cultivated. The canals of Mühlhausen probably date from the same era of reclamation and state formation.11

Etzler’s schoolmates were a technically talented generation, including the composers Ernst and Adolph Methfessel, the architect Friedrich August Stüler (who designed the National Gallery in Berlin), and Johann August Röbling (John Augustus Roebling)—the future designer of the Brooklyn Bridge—who shared with Etzler an interest in engineering and philosophy. After Gymnasium, Roebling enrolled in the Royal Polytechnic Institute (now the Technical University of Berlin), graduating in 1826. If Etzler attended university, he would have graduated years earlier, being fifteen years older than Roebling, but there is no documented enrollment for Etzler at either the Royal Polytechnic Institute or the University of Berlin. How Etzler spent the years from 1810 to 1822, when he turned thirty-one, is impossible to know, but with his father gone, he undoubtedly shared the burden of earning an income to keep his mother and younger siblings under a roof. He might have worked as an engineer on one of the reclamation projects. We know from Roebling that Etzler boarded a ship for the United States in 1822 and spent the next seven years there, probably in Pennsylvania.

Etzler recorded nothing of these years, and no one recorded anything of him. But it’s clear what he was thinking. A liberal aristocrat observing the emigration of young men like Etzler wrote Der Deutsche in Nord-Amerika (1818), a kind of manual to guide the morals of idealists on the move. “You shall and will devote yourself to the service of the human race, and of your poor countrymen,” the book instructed, “and if destiny has precluded you from exerting in other ways a beneficial influence on the fortunes of the nations, your spirit may find its compensation in this.”12 German conservatives showed nothing but disdain for the emigrants of the 1820s, dismissing them as “political malcontents.” Seekers such as Etzler found a model in George Rapp, a liberal pietist from Württemberg who broke with the Lutheran Church in 1798 and fled to Butler County, Pennsylvania, where in 1804 he founded the commune of Harmonie.13 Rapp preached that Jesus would return in his lifetime, but had trouble deciding exactly where he and his followers needed to be when the miracle happened. He moved his flock to Indiana in 1814, founding another Harmonie, and then back to Pennsylvania, founding Economy. It is possible that Etzler joined Rapp’s community somewhere along the way.

Etzler returned to Mühlhausen in 1829 not because he had failed in America, but because he wanted to convince others to follow him back. He fell into a cauldron of reactionary politics. While he was away, the German aristocracy had moved to dam up the foreign influence leaking through its western border. The youth had become smitten with French enthusiasm, French politics, and even French fashion—openly claiming that these spoke for freedom from arbitrary rule. Students in the universities and high schools wanted some form of democracy, but the Prussian state would have none of it. The liberal historian Carl von Rotteck, himself a victim of the reaction, described the fermentation in Germany after the Napoleonic Wars as a “general feeling of unwell-being.” Rotteck saw a nation caught between “the continuance of the vexations of the old, and the nonappearance of the promised benefits of the new … a nation awakened in the war of liberation to thoughts of liberty.”14 Dismissive of the explosive force they had bottled up, the aristocracy made it illegal for members of the educated class to emigrate, especially those with technical knowledge. It was the most intense period of religious and philosophical conflict in Germany since the Reformation.

Etzler risked his life by openly advocating emigration to the United States in order to save a generation of thinkers from stagnation and paralysis under the heel of a lame yet still dangerous aristocracy. Imagine him standing in the streets of Mühlhausen, clothed in the same reeking coat he wore in the hold during the passage, gaunt and bearded, secretly conspiring with artisans, preaching about Pennsylvania to anyone who would listen. An English follower of the 1840s gave the only known description of him as being “below the middle stature, but of a firmly knit and muscular frame,” with a “massy” head, a large, protruding brow, and a countenance “more of the intellect than of the feelings.” Etzler’s broad face, rounded chin, blue eyes, and wide mouth lent him a “habitual sternness of expression.” The observer watched him speak to a crowd, “grasping the floor with his foot, his head thrown back, his broad chest advanced—firm and motionless.” 15 He threw logic; he demanded attention; he spoke treason. To the hushed folk of Mühlhausen he must have seemed as threatening in his own way as stocky Thomas Müntzer, and he strained to hold the same ground where Müntzer spilled his blood. Prussian police arrested the street rat without a warrant and threw him in jail.

Rotting in the hulk gave physical metaphor to the impossible contradiction between the freedom of his spirit and the bleak medal-chested bureaucracy of King Frederick William III. In those moments, Etzler might have meditated on the apostle of freedom, the enthralling and aloof figure who dominated intellectual life in Germany—Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.

In 1818 Hegel emerged as the leading intellectual in Germany, accepting the chair in philosophy at the University of Berlin—the most visible academic position in the philosophical world. He wielded unprecedented influence. A generation of Germans came to him, and he gave them new tools for contemplating thought and consciousness, for seeking new meaning in politics and history. Philosophers as far back as Plato described ideas and social structures as eternal, the truth as unchanging. Hegel blew that to bits and ignited his audience: everything is becoming, emerging, evolving through the winnowing process of historical conflict and the development of mind. He handed his students a kind of X-ray vision for seeing the world without its totalitarian offices, without the weight of custom, a world in which history had direction and culmination without God pulling the strings. He spoke of the contradictions of modern life, of the “conflict between what is and what ought to be.”16 He told them things about the moral and material world that they desperately wanted to believe—that “all the qualities of Spirit exist only through Freedom; that all are but means for attaining Freedom.” Hegel imagined a just state, one that expressed reason and embodied liberty. He said that Germans could be a world-historical people, with the strength of Spirit (mind) to bring on the culmination of history.17 And he moved students to seek his ideals in the world. As abstract and inward as the philosophy might seem, it actually impelled its followers outward.

Students nearly dedicated their lives to Hegel. They mobbed his lectures, straining the baffled police to keep order. One of the old guard described students “driven in crowds into Hegel’s colleges.” They worked harder listening to Hegel than they did reading him. One of Hegel’s most devoted admirers, Heinrich Gustav Hotho, recorded the Master’s halting style—how he hacked and coughed, stopped to swallow in the middle of sentences, and generally struggled to get a word out (the “birth-labor of thought,” as Hotho put it). But the audience was enthralled, and Hotho recalled, “I felt myself irresistibly bound to him … So completely did all previous ways of thinking vanish.” An American commentator said that Hegelianism shaped the education of the German elite: “The prevalent system of philosophy in Germany is that of Hegel … It is, in short, the form in which the German mind now exists.”18 The ferment did not dissipate with Hegel’s death. He spawned a generation of Young Hegelians, including Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx. The expansiveness of his thought made it possible to carve many possible positions from it. According to one recent interpreter, “Hegel’s philosophy was something that social and political radicals, discontented with the existing order of things, could use for their own purpose.” The young Marx wrote to his father in November 1837, thrilled by his reading of a philosopher who embraced the overarching problem of history and society, the conflict between “what is and what ought to be.”

Hegel, the philosophical mentor to a generation of thinkers. Hegel’s teachings impelled his students outward to discover rationality in the world. He certainly did not invent economic growth, but by declaring that nature served philosophical ends and that all progress began with thought, he put forward an idealism that lacked any tether to material reality. Portrait of Hegel (1831) by Johann Jakob Schlesinger, Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin. (Courtesy Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource)

Hegel’s philosophy unwinds like a spiral. Every paragraph expresses the central idea of the entire system. The universe is rational, and people have the capacity to understand nature and history because the order of the human mind replicates the order of the universe. Hegel said that rationality exists absolutely, not as some figment or illusion: “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” Rationality also described a process of becoming, of emerging. He theorized that history continually resolved social and political contradictions: master and slave, revolution and reaction. For Hegel, history moved through an epic series of conflicts, producing resolutions that contained within them new conflicts.19 He called this the dialectic, and because everything in the universe exhibited the same rationality—from the orbit of the planets to the alignment of the soul—the dialectic could be understood both as a kind of law of nature and as a method of thinking. For Hegel, all lines ran parallel, with thought and history—in fact, everything in existence—pointing toward the same fantastic culmination in absolute freedom, absolute knowledge, and absolute goodness. But history would not culminate all by itself, and this is where every one of Hegel’s students held his breath. The awakening of a nation required struggle. Freedom had to be won, morality established, truths discovered. Yet progress in human events had no certain place for nature.

Hegel was not a Romantic in the mold of the poets and painters associated with the English and American movement. Think of William Wordsworth’s quiet contemplation of the Lake District and Thomas Cole’s luminous canvases of the Hudson River Valley. Hegel didn’t find truth in nature. To the extent that he wrote about the natural environment at all, he saw it as brute matter to be transformed by Spirit: “Nature confronts us as a riddle and a problem, whose solution both attracts and repels us: attracts us, because Spirit is presaged in Nature; repels us, because Nature seems an alien existence … Whatever forces Nature develops and lets loose against man—cold, wild beasts, water, fire—he knows means to counter them … The cunning of his reason enables him to preserve and maintain himself in face of the forces of Nature.” Humans could morally regard what they found in environments as means, not ends: “Since it is our end which is paramount, not natural things themselves, we convert the latter into means, the destiny of which is determined by us, not by the things themselves.”20

This was not something Hegel fretted about; no dialectic wrestled fitfully to be resolved. He found living things boring. They followed predictable laws, did the same things over and over in self-repeating cycles, never developed into anything new, and so could never lead to the perfectibility of society. “In Nature,” he wrote, “there happens ‘nothing new under the sun,’ and the multiform play of its phenomena so far induces a feeling of ennui.” Only changes that took place within the region of the Spirit, under the force of rationality, produced change. “This peculiarity in the world of mind has indicated in the case of man an altogether different destiny from that of merely natural objects … namely, a real capacity for change, and that for the better,—an impulse of perfectibility.” 21 At the same time that other intellectuals reveled on craggy mountaintops in rejection of commodities and capitalism, Hegel did not waver from human goals and aspirations. This is the other idealism—the one that insisted on a progressive humanity over-against (to use a German expression) the capacities of nature. Hegel probably did not influence many American or English political economists, nor did many industrialists link themselves to his thought, but every economic thinker and businessman before mid-century had one thing in common with Hegel: by rendering nature dead and directionless, they could read into it their own metanarrative, one that enshrined expansion as the way to universal peace and happiness. So conceived, human progress had no use for actual environments consisting of actual organisms living in actual time, yet this is the idealism that filled capitalism with metaphysical inspiration.

In the 1830s Marx and other Young Hegelians wanted to apply Hegel to the real world, especially Hegel’s tantalizing claim that Spirit produced Being. The group included Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Essence of Christianity (1841) exploded over the intellectual landscape of Europe. Where Hegel treated the material world as emerging from the sensations of thought, Feuerbach flipped the Master: for Feuerbach, thought emerged from the material world. “One knows the man by the object that reflects his being; the object lets his being appear to you; the object is his manifest being.” If the way we see the world is directly caused by our material existence—by our social class, by how we consume, by the things we own—then a change in our condition would change our view of reality. This is the entrance to materialism, the notion that physical existence is the basis of reality and that social relations have material causes. Marx could hardly catch his breath after reading Feuerbach: “There are moments when philosophy turns its eyes to the external world, and no longer apprehends it, but, as a practical person, weaves, as it were, intrigues with the world … The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.” This is what Marx meant when he said, “Philosophy has become worldly.”22

Five years later, in The German Ideology, Marx unveiled the consummate materialism—the pivotal moment in his transition from idealist philosopher to radical political economist: “As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with what they produce, with what they produce and how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions which determine their production.” Marx became such a firebrand that it is easy to lose sight of his philosophical accomplishments. We are all followers of Marx in the sense that we all believe that the way people view the world is heavily influenced by their material means. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that a corporate CEO believes that the government reflects her interests when her campaign contributions buy her a breakfast meeting with members of Congress. Now consider a minimum-wage earner who can’t make the rent or pay insurance on a car. How might she define citizenship differently? Advocates of economic growth embrace that kind of materialism wholeheartedly, adding that it is possible to change the way people think about themselves and their role in society by increasing their incomes.23 Materialism can be overwrought. It can undervalue religion and culture, missing important factors in social change. But for the analysis it made possible, it stands as a remarkable accomplishment.

Etzler moved in the same direction as Marx and Feuerbach (though there is no indication that he knew the work of either) to derive Spirit from Being, a new social life from transformations in the uses and quantities of energy. The literalness of his paradise posited a relationship between the environment and the way people thought, felt, and behaved. Beauty and abundance would eliminate crime and even deceit. Health and convenience would banish irony. Etzler would have surely agreed with Marx that “the standpoint of the old materialism is civil society; the standpoint of the new is human society, or social humanity.”24 The old materialism stressed individuals acting to maximize their self-interest in a system that left them isolated, empty, dependent. The new materialism, as Etzler and Marx saw it, began with a universal social vision and a scientific understanding of nature. But unlike Marx, Etzler imagined away all limits by claiming that nature never ceased to provide for the improvement of the human condition. This view characterized the thinking of capitalists as well. Idealizing the capacity of nature as a prelude to any economic theory became a common way of speaking and writing in the nineteenth century, as all kinds of people tried to comprehend the promise of modernity.



Etzler had Hegel to mull over when jailers brought his daily gruel. In calling for Germans to leave the fatherland and join him in the United States, he lived out another facet of Hegel’s philosophy—the belief that “America is … the land of the future, where, in the ages that lie before us, the burden of the World’s History shall reveal itself.”25 Hegel argued that history had a geographical basis and that North America provided the best evidence. The Spirit of a people germinates from the particular conditions of their land, their environment. “This character is nothing more or less than the mode and form in which nations make their appearance in History.” No world-historical people could come from either the frigid or torrid zones, said Hegel, only from the temperate climates. Rotteck called the United States an “asylum of all the victims of foreign oppression.” But conservatives, like Wolfgang Menzel, decried transatlantic emigration as betrayal: “Thus are Germans fruitlessly scattered far and wide over the face of the globe.” Menzel suggested that young men ramble up the Danube into frontiers that Germany could claim for her own, to “increase her external strength and extend her influence,” as though the discontented would serve as vanguard troops for the very state they despised.26

Released in 1830, grossly dissatisfied with the life he faced, Etzler ran into Roebling. They must have had light coming out of their eyes. The tumult surrounding them seemed ordered up by Hegel to resolve the contradictions of the age into a new historical moment. Roebling had known Hegel in Berlin, had become a visitor to the professor’s home and taken walks with him. In the shadow of his mentor, Roebling had prepared his own philosophical manuscript, yet he had no outlet, no territory where his idealism might flourish. He had qualified to practice bridge design at the age of fourteen, and he looked forward to some kind of career as a civil engineer.27 By law, he owed the state two years of service following graduation; after that, he might have taken the deal offered him, working the rest of his life on a government salary for the Prussian railroad. Bored and pent up, he listened as Etzler told him about Pennsylvania. Together, the two printed a pamphlet, which they distributed secretly, A General View of the United States of North America, Together with a Community Plan for Settlement, most of it written by Etzler. Roebling then organized an emigration society and drew up an underground plan for escape.

In 1831, everyone seemed to be searching.28 In May, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Beaumont arrived in New York to begin a tour of the United States. Nat Turner’s slave rebellion began in August; his death followed in November. Cyrus McCormick invented the reaping machine. The John Bull, the first steam-driven railroad locomotive, arrived from England for service on the Camden and Amboy Railroad in New Jersey. Charles Darwin embarked on the HMS Beagle—the journey that would result in the theory of evolution. Most momentous to Etzler and Roebling, the July Revolution had begun in France in 1830, filling Europe with a sense of panic and insecurity. The leading powers moved to stabilize the continent after more than two decades of war and revolution, but with every move they managed only to intensify the rebellion. Many recalled the grand affair of state that took place in 1814, a meeting some called the Congress of Vienna and others a conspiracy to undermine the principles of the French Revolution. In what must be the most inflammatory policy ever adopted by an international body, the ministers agreed to restore the Bourbons—the old French monarchy—the same family that was violently deposed in 1792. By 1830, the Bourbon king Charles X flaunted his plan to bring back the French nobility and caused citizens to grind their teeth by his treading on the memory of the Revolution itself, even denigrating the tricolor banner.

The revolt that followed brought the final downfall of the Bourbons and spread a sense of change that, though it blew past Germany in 1789, now contributed to the cause against the government. The liberal historian Rotteck coolly observed, “The edifice of a new European order, built up artfully, finely and self-pleasingly, by the diplomatic architects of the Congress of Vienna, was shaken in all its joints.” One policy after another fell “to the rocking foundations.” In the state of Aachen, citizens raised the tricolor in solidarity with the French. Bread riots and the burning of manorial records and government offices took place in Kessel, just forty miles west of Mühlhausen. A spontaneous congress in Dresden published a constitution modeled on the Declaration of the Rights of Man, proclaiming the people sovereign, the nobility abolished, and the army dissolved. Armed and in the streets, citizens prepared to smash the government “with the butt-ends of our guns.” Terrified government troops opened fire to disperse the crowds.29 Just before Hegel’s death (another of the foreboding events of 1831), he spoke of the July Revolution as “a crisis in which everything that was formally valid seemed to have become problematical.” In the words of one historian, the men and women who faced and then escaped revolution shared certain qualities: “austerely moral, fervently patriotic, and imbued … with an idealism that cared little for actual conditions, but was quite willing to reconstruct the world anew according to a preconceived notion.”30 The July Revolution caused them such agony because it lacked the heat and kindling necessary to incinerate the old regime.

The members of Roebling’s emigration society chartered the Henry Barclay for a passage to Philadelphia. Roebling and his brother Carl, along with forty-three other seekers, set out in May. But when they arrived at the port of Bremen, they found that 230 men, women, and children from the town of Darmstadt, a group that was to unite with Roebling’s for the crossing, had sailed the day before—for Baltimore. A few days later, the contingent from Mühlhausen arrived, including Etzler and perhaps seventy others. They paid for tickets aboard the August Edward, traveling steerage from Bremen on May 23 for a voyage lasting eleven weeks. They ate bacon, beans, grits, coffee, sauerkraut, and black bread. Each passenger received a hogshead of water in a daily ration. They squinted into the glary horizon, tended to the sick in the dank hold, and slept together in a heap. Roebling liked to stand at the bowsprit looking down at the hypnotic motion—how the ship, “driven by the tensely swelled sails, makes its way by main force through the on-rushing billows.” Roebling imagined himself a great leader who would found a society of heroically philosophical Germans somewhere in the American South, but the early departure of the Darmstadt group had deflated him. He penned a long letter about his journey and rethought his plan toward a smaller settlement in the North. Etzler kept to himself. At night, in the candlelit hold, he too felt the incessant motion of the vessel. A health inspector boarded the ship at anchorage in Delaware Bay on August 6, and the company entered Philadelphia the same day, bounding off the wharf with their wool caps and their pipes—dead-on signs, wrote Roebling, of German immigrants. Americans wore straw or felt hats and smoked cigars.31

The two groups never reunited. The passengers aboard the Henry Barclay bickered and split up while at sea. No longer huddled together against the authorities, they discovered their divisions. Some went off to join George Rapp’s settlement in Indiana, though by then Rapp had returned to Pennsylvania after selling the place to Robert Owen. The others scattered. Fissures in Roebling’s group also opened. He described one passenger as “a spoiled city man,” others as having “exaggerated and romantic ideas,” still others as incompetent and “of little value.” He and Etzler originally planned to take the company to west Florida, but Nat Turner’s rebellion of that year turned them against the idea. Roebling learned that in the South, “no individual can undertake anything without considerable property.” The company would have been subject to prosecution had they attempted to educate slaves or treat them as equals.32

Instead, Roebling recommitted himself to establishing a farm or village, and this led to a falling-out with his old friend. Etzler bridled under the oppressive blandness of the scheme. A farm would only replicate the same slavish life, dull customs, social relations, and constant labor that he wanted to transform. He had become aloof and uncooperative, wanting to lead his own company into some vastly different venture. Writing home, Roebling explained why he sought to separate from a small number who allied themselves with Etzler: “From our longer association with these people only disadvantage and not advantage could result, both in pecuniary and social relations. Etzler would have brought us only disadvantage, no advantage; he demands only more sacrifices from our side after we had already sacrificed enough; and what was even more annoying, he demanded that very man should subordinate himself to his views, which we did not like to do.” Seven men broke off with Etzler. Roebling dismissed them, after weighing what damage their absence might cause the project: “All these people possess few means and little education.” One spat back over his shoulder, “Etzler is leading the people to their higher life’s happiness.” Then they were gone.

The feeling of vacancy stayed with Roebling for some time, and he complained, “Not one of these people took leave of us, and only Etzler wrote me a letter composed in a friendly but somewhat mystic tone.” He put down his feelings in a long letter, explaining what Etzler had once meant to him: “I still respect Etzler and have the best opinion of his mind and heart, only he has too stubborn a head, offends all the world, is not a businessman, not in the least, and he does not know how to ingratiate himself with people or how to behave toward them.” Roebling assessed his old friend as being “capable of everything good,” but perhaps not of forming a community “because of his stubbornness and his awkward and objectionable manner.” The two differed in temperament, but they shared the same certainty that the world promised more than what existed—that the possible was actual. Roebling predicted that when the competition, strife, and jealousy between nations finally ended, people would join together to do marvelous things: plant the African deserts, defeat “mosquitoes and alligators,” and perform massive works, like sinking wells a thousand feet deep in order to irrigate forests in the Great Basin. A unified humanity would transform everything to make the earth itself richer, fuller.

Roebling never saw Etzler again. Years later, Washington Roebling wrote about Etzler, “My father considered him the greatest genius he ever met.”33

Of the three hundred people who joined the group, only Roebling’s two brothers and the seven indentured members of the Grabe family founded the colony of Saxonburg in Butler County, twenty-five miles from Pittsburgh. Roebling purchased seven thousand acres that once belonged to Robert Morris, a member of the Continental Congress and later a senator from Pennsylvania and secretary of the treasury. Morris had assembled it from land taken directly from Indians and from the warrants issued to soldiers after the Revolution. Other settlers soon arrived from Germany, and an 1835 woodcut of the village makes it appear modestly prosperous. On summer nights they drank rye whiskey and danced in the heat. Roebling worked the farm and village for six years, growing ever more bored with it. He fiddled with boilers to see if he could invent a more accurate heat gauge to prevent explosions. He applied for a patent for a machine somewhat similar to the Satellite in its functions—a steam-driven tractor/plow/reaper. He invented a “radial engine” that would operate at intense heat.

In 1837 Roebling went to work as an assistant engineer on the Sandy and Beaver branch of the Pennsylvania Canal and, after that, as a surveyor for the Pennsylvania Railroad during the construction of its route over the Allegheny Mountains, from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh. That’s when he first saw the portage railways connecting sections of the canal that had been separated by mountain ranges. Ropes of nine-inch-thick Kentucky hemp pulled boats and railcars up these inclined planes, and the ropes sometimes shredded and snapped. One day he watched helplessly as a runaway car crushed two men to death. The solution went off in his head like a detonator: wire rope. It combined the increasingly common use of steel for building with the circumstantial demands of the inclined plane; it was stronger than hemp and might be of use in bridge design. In 1841 he began to manufacture wire rope at Saxonburg—a practical innovation that made possible the realization of a great Hegelian project, a bridge anchored in the earth but suspended in air, a kind of dialectic in stone and steel.34

Saxonburg, 1835. Etzler rejected Roebling’s village and never spent a day there. (Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries)

Etzler and the separatists left on the road in the direction of Pittsburgh. A Mr. Kleber met Etzler’s party on a steamboat up the Ohio River, but without Etzler, who had left with another man to scout out land in Ohio and Indiana. Finding none to his liking or that he could afford, Etzler showed up in Cincinnati, most likely joining the community of Young Hegelians who sought out the city for its proximity to the uncharted West. A letter dated September 3, 1832, arrived at Rapp’s third settlement, Economy. In it, Etzler asked for a line of credit and insisted that rumors about him as a fraud and con artist were lies.35 Rapp became crucial to Etzler’s plans; the old utopian represented something of the pragmatic idealism that Etzler would soon test with his books and inventions and the kind of community of enlightened Germans that he hoped to found himself. In effect, Etzler wanted Rapp to finance his schemes—perhaps Etzler’s way of gaining legitimacy from Rapp’s reputation. As a sign of his independence from his would-be mentor, Etzler never joined Economy. But he hung around long enough to witness a challenge to Rapp from a bizarre interloper.

One day in 1833, a man calling himself Count Maximilian of Leon walked into Economy. Count Leon—self-proclaimed Anointed of God, Stem of Judah, and Root of David—offered a salvation even more quick and easy than Rapp’s (who set the date for the arrival of the New Jerusalem in 1836). It says something about the heightened messianic expectation of Rapp’s followers that perhaps as many as a third of them dropped tools and followed the “Count” across the Beaver River to an eight-hundred-acre site (at roughly the same latitude as Jerusalem) where they would live at his feet. No one knows who threw the first punch. Peace-loving Christians went to bloody fisticuffs over the Second Coming, with the whole thing landing in court, in a lawsuit over money that Rapp loaned to Count Leon early in his stay at Economy. Rapp called on Etzler to serve as translator during the trial. Here was proof of their mutual trust and a source of much-needed cash for Etzler. In a combination of wages and credit, Rapp advanced Etzler most of $151.36

Etzler’s next move was to Pittsburgh, where he took a job as editor of a German-American newspaper, the Pittsburgher Beobachter (Observer). Ten years earlier, an English traveler described the town as “a poor, gloomy, sickly receptacle, hardly fit for convicts of the worst description; no greater punishment could be inflicted … upon our bank note forgers than to send them to Pittsburgh.” Yet the traveler also called it a place where “the hammers stunned your ears, and the manufactories struck you dumb with astonishment.” Pittsburgh’s sickly convicts were actually its white-knuckled entrepreneurs. As much as Pittsburgh stank, Pittsburgh boomed. By the time Etzler arrived, a German community had formed, and the job of editor placed him at the center of things, made him arbiter of the ideas floating around, and positioned him as a public figure. The Pittsburgh Gazette announced in June 1833, “A German newspaper called Der Pittsburgher Beobachter is issued every Friday by Etzler and Reinhold, No. 74, 3rd Street.” Etzler’s partner, the otherwise unidentified Reinhold, had stuck with him since Mühlhausen. 37



Yet none of this documents Etzler’s inward journey—the one that led him to rectify the idea with the object in his own dialectic. All this time, since the Atlantic passage, he was working through his own idea for a communitarian experiment that would solve the problem of human existence by rescuing people broken by the dislocations of modernity. His settlement would not be predicated on the Second Coming or on any other religious idea. It would not have its membercitizens waiting for deliverance, nor would Etzler ask them to dedicate their possessions and labor for some communal good. He set out to resolve the contradictions between the drudgery, poverty, disease, and sadness he saw on the emaciated faces of backwoods settlers and factory workers and the abundance—the profusion—he observed billowing through the treetops, rising and falling in sea swells, everywhere on Earth.

The world consisted of fruit and force, water and ashes, gravity and sunlight, of beautiful countrysides like the one he had known, where engineers had tamed the River Unstrut. Etzler’s Heimat, his education in Hegel, and his family history imbued him with a desire to organize social life and create environmental order as an outward sign of the rational idealism he saw operating in the world. Every one of his schemes began with energy. Energy from the sun, wind, and waves would free all people from one of the crucial costs and limitations of production. In 1833 Etzler published The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men, the book that he had written during his time in Cincinnati, setting out a world-historical moment:

Fellow-Men! I promise to show the means for creating a paradise within ten years, where every thing desirable for human life may be had for every man in superabundance, without labor, without pay; where the whole face of nature is changed into the most beautiful form of which it be capable; where man may live in the most magnificent palaces … where he may accomplish, without his labor, in one year more than hitherto could be done in thousands of years; he may level mountains, sink valleys, create lakes, drain lakes and swamps, intersect everywhere the land with beautiful canals … he may provide himself with means unheard of yet, for increasing his knowledge of the world, and so his intelligence, he may lead a life of continual happiness, of enjoyments unknown.

Philosophy had become worldly, and though the author promised impossible things, something distinguished it from other social experiments. Etzler did not write his treatise on futurity with his eyes closed, but only after looking for years at the United States and the leading lights of the time. One of the oddest thinkers turns out to have been deeply connected to larger currents.

Copyright © 2008 by Steven Stoll

Meet the Author

Steven Stoll is an associate professor of history at Fordham University and the author of Larding the Lean Earth: Soil and Society in Nineteenth-Century America (Hill and Wang, 2002). His writing has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The New Haven Review.

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