Utopia, Limited

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During the first month of his absence, the Preliminary Society ran well enough on the momentum of its first enthusiasm. In accordance with the program Owen left behind for them, the members danced on Tuesday nights in the Hall of New Harmony, the committee held a business meeting on Wednesday nights, there was a concert on Thursday nights, and on Sundays there were lectures in the Harmonists’ old frame church, which the newcomers called the Steeple House. “Here there are no brawling braggarts and intemperate idlers,” one Owenite wrote back home to his son. He described how well the postmaster lived with his wife and several sons on the $1.54 a week that he earned in credit at the community store by being not only postmaster but also a committeeman, superintendent of the farms, and a selling agent for the store. But by midsummer, discontent and dissension had set in. “The idle and industrious are neither of them satisfied,” one member wrote to a friend, “the one contending that they do enough for their allowance, the other thinking themselves entitled to more.” At the same time, this letter writer’s wife was telling her aunt in Pittsburgh, “The hogs have been our Lords and Masters this year in field and garden. We are now … without vegetables, except what we buy; and I believe we shall go without potatoes, turnips, or cabbages this winter, unless they are purchased.”

Her prediction came true, and by the time Owen returned in January, 1826, the society was in chaos and splinter groups were in the process of forming both within and on the periphery of the town. Owen, however, was so delighted by what he thought he saw that he announced the time had come, a year in advance of his original plan, for the formation of a permanent “Community of Equality.” Another constitution was drawn up, not greatly different from the first. In a short time the threatened splinter groups were a reality, one of them calling itself Feiba Peveli. Pledged to a scheme of nomenclature, devised by an English architect, in which letters were substituted for the numerals in latitudes and longitudes of places, the group suggests the eccentric spirit of Owen’s New Harmony. The architect proposed the renaming of Pittsburgh as Otfu Veitoup, New York as Otke Notive, and New Harmony itself as Ipba Venul.

It was at this point that William Maclure came on the New Harmony scene as Owen’s partner and a financial backer. Like Owen, Maclure was a wealthy man, a Scot who had accumulated a fortune in an English-American export business. Some twenty years before, he had made a geological survey of the United States, travelling alone, crossing and recrossing the country some fifty times. His primary interest in the New Harmony community was in its educational experiment, and he soon began to look upon his partner’s social theories with a jaundiced eye. Before the year was out, Maclure and Owen quarrelled and dissolved the partnership. But, happily for New Harmony, Maclure’s practical, levelheaded influence continued.

A remarkable craft had brought Maclure to New Harmony in January, 1826. A keelboat of his own purchasing, first named The Philanthropist but rechristened for posterity by Owen as The Boatload of Knowledge , it carried an astonishing intellectual cargo on one of the most hopeful and halting voyages in the history of the Ohio River. Among the boat’s passengers were Thomas Say, the American naturalist; Charles Alexandre Lesueur, the French naturalist; Madame Marie Duclos Fretageot, a schoolmistress from Paris via Philadelphia who was a disciple of the Swiss educational reformer, Pestalozzi; Robert Dale Owen, Robert Owen’s oldest son, the educator, pioneer champion of birth control, and crusader for women’s rights; and a score or more of teachers and pupils for the school system that was to make New Harmony famous in the history of American education.

In New Harmony, these people and others of equal renown who followed them wrangled deplorably over the nature of universal happiness and the proper pursuit of it. They were required by Owen to wear a ludicrous costume—white pantaloons buttoned over a boy’s jacket without a collar, compared by one observer to “a feather-bed tied in the middle.” But in spite of their inability to manage their everyday lives, there was a persistent charm and an initial enthusiasm for the New Moral World that Owen dreamed of. Most of the Owenites were not designed by nature or experience for the work they needed to do to keep the community going, but they tried at first to do their share of the harsher chores. Thomas Say developed such blisters that he could hardly shake hands with the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach when the Duke visited the town. Robert Dale Owen spent a day sowing wheat and got a sore arm. After that, he lent a hand in the community bakery and spoiled the bread. Charles Alexandre Lesueur preferred zoological expeditions into the woods to teaching school. Plaiting his beard and tucking it into his waistcoat, he fled as often as possible with his three dogs—Penny, Snap, and Blucher—to collect specimens. One of these was a skunk, which his French biographer a hundred years later described as the first “pool-cat” ever to be sent alive to Europe. One elderly man, discouraged by the handicap of advanced age, marched about town carrying a twelve-foot iron rod every time there was a thunderstorm; he wanted to die, but thought it was God’s duty, not his, to do the job.