Utopia, Limited


The man who bought New Harmony, lock, stock, and barrel, was Robert Owen, a British industrialist and reformer who had made a fortune in the textile business. His model community of textile workers at New Lanark, Scotland, was famous. Owen was a worldly idealist, and where Rapp waited for a Second Coming, Owen announced that he was bringing a social millennium to Indiana himself. At New Lanark he had established a school to reform the character of the working class and had long preached his doctrine that man is not responsible for his acts and can be saved from ignorance and poverty only by the improvement of his surroundings. Owen had little faith in the Lord and regarded all religions as “superstitions.” By 1825 his public attacks on them had lost for him much of his influence and popularity in the British Isles, and he was ready to seek fresh fields for his Utopian projects. When George Rapp’s agent in Scotland approached Owen as a prospective buyer of the town on the Wabash, the agent was so astonished by Owen’s immediate interest that he said to Owen’s son, “Does your father really think of giving up a position like this, with every comfort and luxury, and taking his family to the wild life of the Far West?” He did indeed: At New Harmony on Sunday, January 2, 1825, he personally closed the deal. Accounts of the price he paid vary from $50,000 to $190,000; whatever the figure, he got a bargain.

Robert Owen suffered all his life from an inability to stay on any job long enough to see it well done; he was always mistaking the word—his own word—for the deed. He had no more than signed the papers for New Harmony when he was off to Washington to tell America about his plans as if they were already a fait accompli . In two speeches before joint sessions of Congress, with the President of the United States and members of the Supreme Court in attendance, he exhibited a model of the town he planned to build at New Harmony. With only a hazy explanation of its governmental structure, he predicted the spread of communities like his all over the United States and a consequent release from ignorance and oppression such as mankind had never before witnessed. Immediately afterward, having set up no kind of organization in New Harmony whatsoever and with only his son William, just turned twenty-three, left there as his representative, he published a manifesto inviting any and all who dreamed of a socialist millennium to move to the town on the Wabash at once. The result was that by the time he returned to New Harmony three months later, about a thousand men and women had arrived before the last of the German Harmonists had moved out, and people were living there two and three families to the house.

Undismayed, Owen dedicated the Harmonists’ brick church to free thought and free speech, renaming it the Hall of New Harmony, and promptly made therein the first of the many speeches that were to be his substitute for action. “I am come to this country,” he announced, “to introduce an entire new state 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 contests between individuals.” He then outlined, in general terms, a constitution for a Preliminary Society, pointing out that for a while he would keep the property in his own hands and the people must temporarily accept “a certain degree of pecuniary inequality.” Thenceforth, he said, there would be no social inequality. Three days later the community adopted his constitution.

This document was mostly preamble, establishing very little beyond the fact that “persons of color” were not to be included in the social equality, that the society was not answerable for its members’ debts, that those who did not want to work could buy credit at the community store by paying cash quarterly in advance, and that everyone must try to be “temperate, regular, and orderly” and set a good example for everybody else in order to achieve the goal of “universal happiness.” The actual government of the society was to be by a committee which Robert Owen would appoint, but neither its size nor its function was defined, unless the statement that it “would conduct the affairs of the society” can be regarded as a definition. As soon as the constitution was adopted, Owen appointed four members to the governing committee and allowed the society to elect three more “by ballot among themselves.” Then he was off again, to the East, to spread the news of New Harmony further, and to Scotland, to settle his financial affairs. This time he was gone seven months.