Part II, Chapter 4
Paradise in Posey County
In these comments I offer three morality tales for your guidance, with the moral to be found in each tailored to the needs of my pre-existing biases. My first and third stories are laid in that romantic region, Posey County in Indiana’s pocket country—once the haunt of Ohio River pirates and moonshiners. My second is laid in the no-less-romantic home of Bobbie Burns, oatmeal, and the theory of infant damnation—to be specific, in New Lanark, Scotland.One early summer day in 1815, a strange and wonderful armada entered the mouth of the Wabash River. In the lead boat, somewhat obscured by a magnificent patriarchal beard, stood Father Rapp, the leader of this valiant group. In the other boats were some eight hundred men, women, and older children. All were dressed in the quaint costume of German peasants from the region of Wurttemberg. This is not surprising because that is just what they were.They went ashore just a few miles up the Wabash from its mouth and, kneeling in prayer, dedicated “Harmony” (the name they had selected for their settlement) to the uses of Christian brotherhood. These were the Rappites—German peasants, primitive Christians, practical communists, and the followers of George Rapp. Why were there only older children in the group, you ask? Because some years before they had sworn themselves to celibacy. The reason? God had originally made Adam as part male, part female. The separation of the one into two had led to the fall from grace; hence the celibate state is more pleasing to God. (No man or woman who has been married for any considerable time would wish to reject that hypothesis out of hand.)These people were also millennialists. They believed that the coming of the One was imminent and that when He came He would deal out destruction to all of man’s futile and evil creations. Particularly marked for destruction was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, near which the Rappites had lived for their first ten years in America and from the citizens of which city they had apparently suffered numerous indignities. Unfortunately, perhaps, Pittsburgh still stands, sustained no doubt by the combined strength of the United States Steel Company and Mean Joe Greene.Arising from their knees, where we have kept them for too long, these sturdy souls set to work with a will to bring order to the wilderness. How well they succeeded can be seen in the fact that ten years later Harmony was clearly the most prosperous place in the entire region. The Rappites sold their many products throughout the Mississippi valley—wheat, hides, horses, hogs, shingles, linen, tobacco, furniture, and whiskey reputed to be the best in the West—a whiskey that they themselves were forbidden even to sample for taste. They had their stores in Vincennes, Shawnee-town, and St. Louis, with agents in Pittsburgh, Louisville, and New Orleans.How were these miracles accomplished at a time when Indianapolis was a wilderness and Fort Wayne a place where the whites dressed like Indians and wore scalps at their belts? By a shrewd mixture of communism, the capitalist marketplace, religion, superstition, and the autocratic driving force of George Rapp. Rapp taught his followers obedience, humility, and self-sacrifice; he also used every trick in the bag—not excluding force—to keep his followers in line. We are told (in a probably apocryphal story) that when his only blood-line son broke the vow of celibacy, he had him forcibly emasculated, and the impetuous young man died in the process. Rapp also had frequent visitations from obliging angels who told him what his followers must do. The footprints of one of the heavier of those angels can still be seen impressed in a limestone slab in modern New Harmony (the angel involved was no less than the angel Gabriel). He also had built various tunnels under the settlement, and the young Rappite who thought that he might rest for a moment, perhaps to reflect on the dubious privilege of celibacy, might find himself confronted with the furry head of his ubiquitous leader, emerging from the bowels of the earth to reproach him for having yielded to temptation.In 1825, Rapp, discouraged by the unfriendly nature of the malaria-bearing mosquitoes and the citizens of Evansville and Princeton who surrounded him, decided to move his flock again and sold the whole operation for $150,000. He led his followers back toward the hated Pittsburgh, where they founded a new community, appropriately labeled Economy.So much for the first story. Now for the second. It starts on January 1, 1780, in New Lanark, Scotland. A rising young industrialist, Robert Owen, has just assumed control of the New Lanark textile mills. In a new twist on an old story, now that Owen and his partners have purchased the mills, he marries the daughter of the previous owner.Robert Owen also sees visions, but instead of visions of the millennium, he envisions a paradise here on earth, “a new existence to man” to be attained by surrounding him with superior circumstances only. The mind of the child is a blank page, a
tabula rasa, says Owen; let only the rational, the pleasant, the good be written on that page, and the world can be transformed in one generation.Unrealistic? Impractical? Not so, says Owen, and goes to work on the people of New Lanark, particularly the children. He reduces the hours of work in the mills, organizes schools for the children (where the two teachers can neither read nor write and hence are uncorrupted by unnatural, non-Rousseau mankind), replaces the whip in the mills with various colored blocks which indicate whether a given worker has been good or bad, and sends his inspectors to check on the cleanliness of each home. This his fellow industrialists might have forgiven him had he not also made an incredible amount of money in the process. His textiles command a 50 percent premium in the market and he recoups his investment in four years’ time. Philanthropy is proved to be practical, and modern industrial psychology is born. From Russia comes Grand Duke Nicholas to survey the wonders of New Lanark. The Duke of Kent, whose daughter is to rule England for over sixty years, and who is neither more nor less off his rocker than the other offspring of that addled rustic, George III, is an enthusiastic disciple of Owen’s and a close personal friend. New Lanark is soon known throughout the world.For most men this would be enough, but Owen is a born chaser after the immortal butterfly. New Lanark today; the world tomorrow. In his book,
New View of Society, he presents his science of society, complete with a rational deistic religion, modified free love, abolition of private property, and rectangular communities of two thousand people. Goaded by his critics, he determines to prove the practicability of his scheme, and in 1824 he completes arrangements to buy our old friend, Harmony, from the Rappites for $150,000. Thus, New Harmony is launched, and with it our third story.This third story is short, like the life-span of the experiment it describes. No model community was ever launched with more fanfare. In the early spring of 1825, Robert Owen delivered an address in Washington, D.C., on his plans to redeem the world. In the audience were most members of both houses of Congress, the judges of the Supreme Court, President John Quincy Adams, and most of his cabinet members. An invitation was issued to all who shared Owen’s desire for a new state of society to join him in New Harmony. Many responded, including some of the best-educated men of the day.The old Harmony had been composed of ignorant, superstitious peasants. New Harmony was composed of many men of brilliance, including of course Robert Owen, the leading industrialist of the world. The Rappites had had to tame a wilderness. The Owenites were moved into one of the most prosperous pieces of real estate west of the mountains. The Rappites were just putting in their time until the world came to an end; the Owenites were launching the Brave New World. The Rappite settlement lasted ten years and was many times more prosperous when it ended than when it began. The New Harmony experiment lasted less than three years and was a social and financial disaster.It is instructive to follow the chronology of events. After his triumph in Washington, Owen made his way to New Harmony. In April 1825, in the old Rappite church, he announced, “I am come to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals.” He proposed to establish a “new empire of peace and goodwill,” which would lead to “that state of virtue, intelligence, enjoyment and happiness which it has been foretold by the sages of the past would at some time become the lot of man.” The truth of his principles would spread “from Community to Community, from State to State, from Continent to Continent, finally overshadowing the whole earth, shedding light, fragrance and abundance, intelligence and happiness upon the sons of man.” Here is the way it was expressed in an Owenite poem:
Ah, soon will come the glorious day,
Inscribed on Mercy’s brow,
When truth shall rend the veil away
That blinds the nations now.
The face of man shall wisdom learn,
And error cease to reign:
The charms of innocence return,
And all be new again.
However, Owen was no foolish optimist; he did not expect this to come about immediately; on the contrary, he admitted that the whole task would probably take at least three years. He then offered the community a constitution (which provided for something less than the ultimate communism), appointed a Preliminary Committee to manage the affairs of the society, issued an invitation to “the industrious and well-disposed of all nations” to come to New Harmony—and promptly took off for England.Many did respond to this generous invitation, but I must report to you, in sadness, that not all who did so were “industrious” or “well-disposed.” Some were indeed attracted by the intellectual excitement of the society—but were less than excited by the associated labor in the dairy barns. Others were drawn by the alluring combination of free food and free love—neither of which proved in fact to be readily or long available in New Harmony.In the meantime, though, sustained by the generosity of Robert Owen and William Maclure (a scholarly and wealthy convert to Owenism), the society managed to survive through 1825. The
New Harmony Gazette (the uncritical voice of Owen’s philosophy and Owen’s optimism) reported that various businesses and manufacturers were “doing well” but regrettably only “soap and glue” were produced in quantities that “exceeded consumption.” Both medicines and basic foods were available without cost … except, of course, to Owen. One hundred and thirty children were schooled, boarded, and clothed at public (i.e., Owen’s) expense. Amusements flourished. A band played for a ball each Tuesday night and for a concert each Friday night, both in the old Rappite church—which, I regret to report, was no longer used for the purposes for which it had been so lovingly constructed by the Rappites.Owen returned to New Harmony in January of 1826, and growing impatient with the step-by-step approach to paradise, proclaimed “The New Harmony Community of Equality,” under the direction of an Executive Council, soon to be replaced, at the request of the membership, by one-man rule by Owen himself. A nucleus of twenty-five of the true believers was created and all others had to apply anew for membership in the community (with Owen having the right of veto). It is instructive to note that there were three classes of memberships outside the nucleus—conditional, probationary, and persons on trial. If a Paradise on Earth, why not a Purgatory as well?By May of 1826, two communities of dissenters had been established: Macluria and Feiba Pavelli. Those great friends, Owen and Maclure, had come to a parting of the ways over the proper conduct of the educational program. Maclure, a disciple of Pestalozzi, had not followed Owen’s instructions in the education of the young, and the result was a new colony, across the road from the old. Feiba Pavelli was formed largely by a group of English farmers who found Owen’s restrictions on the brewing and drinking of ale vexatious and troubling to the spirit. Its name was the product of a code designed by one of its members which, to those who knew the code, revealed the exact latitude and longitude of the community.Another source of dissent within the larger community included the vital question of whether the ideal commune should be rectangular or hexagonal in form. (Those of you who have attended a college faculty meeting will recognize the
genre. Indeed, the famous “Boatload of Knowledge,” carrying some of the leading scholars of the day, had followed closely behind Owen when he returned in January 1826. The makings of a faculty-type meeting were indeed present.)Despite these minor defections and difficulties, Owen was encouraged enough, on July 4, 1826, to deliver his celebrated “Declaration of Mental Independence.” I quote:
I now declare to you and to the world, that Man, up to this hour, has been in all parts of the earth, a slave to a Trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon his whole race. I refer to Private or Individual Property, Absurd and Irrational systems of Religion, and Marriage.
But as the oratory waxed, the economy of New Harmony waned. Agriculture, for example, was virtually at a standstill; the fences collapsed from want of repair, and the fields grew up in weeds. In desperation, on August 25, 1826, the people held a meeting at which they abolished all offices then existing and appointed three men as dictators.On November 11, the
Gazette carried a speech of Owen’s in which he spoke in glowing terms of the progress of the community; but by January of 1827, Owen was selling property to individuals, the greater part of the town was resolved into individual lots; commercial enterprises took over most of the stores and sought a clientele with the vulgar signs of the capitalist heresy; a wax-figure and puppet show was opened at one end of the boarding house, and communalism as a way of life vanished as quickly as it had appeared.In June of 1827, Owen took leave of New Harmony, never to return. Fortunately, he divided the land among his sons, who stayed on in Indiana and proved to be men of great spirit and intelligence, very real assets to the soon-to-be-state—but that’s another story.In 1842, a student of communalist societies by the name of Macdonald visited New Harmony and reported as follows:
I was cautioned not to speak of Socialism, as the subject was unpopular. The advice was good; Socialism
was unpopular, and with good reason. The people had been wearied and disappointed by it; had been filled with theories, until they were nauseated, and had made such miserable attempts at practice, that they seemed ashamed of what they had been doing. An enthusiastic socialist would soon be cooled down at New Harmony.
But not, of course, the dedicated utopian; thus John Humphrey Noyes, historian of American socialisms and one of the founders in the 1840s of the Oneida community in New York, closed his remarkably honest survey of the New Harmony experiment by saying that “we can still be sure that the
idea of Owen and his thousand was not a delusion, but an inspiration, that only needed wiser hearts, to become a happy reality.”
In other words, as with the modern socialisms (all of which, in my opinion, have been failures to the extent that they were socialist), the fault is never with the idea itself but always with its particular form of implementation.It is with this idea that I take fundamental disagreement. I prefer to Noyes’ evaluation of New Harmony that of a man identified only as L. Bolles and included in Noyes’ section on New Harmony. I quote:
The popular idea is that Owen and his class of reformers had an ideal that was very beautiful and very perfect; that they had too much faith for their time—too much faith in humanity; that they were several hundred years in advance of their age; and that the world was not good enough to understand them and their beautiful ideas. That is the superficial view of these men. I think the truth is, they were not up to the times; that mankind, in point of real faith, was ahead of them. Their view that the evils in human nature are owing to outward surroundings, is an impeachment of the providence of God. But they have taught us one great lesson; and that is that good circumstances do
not make good men.
In my view, the Robert Owen who showed the world the way to a better life for all was not the Owen of New Harmony but the Owen of New Lanark, the hardheaded businessman who proved that the humane treatment of others works, that is, it serves the purposes of both employer and employee. In my view, New Harmony should be seen, not as a monument to man’s idealism, but as a testament to man’s capacity to delude himself about his real nature.
Richard La Piere,
The Freudian Ethic (New York: Duell, Sloan, and Pearce, 1959) p. 166.
Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America 1680-1880, 2d ed. (New York: Peter Smith, 1966), p. 101.
John Humphrey Noyes,
History of American Socialisms (1870), p. 43.
Ibid., pp. 54-55.