Utopia, Limited

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Meanwhile, everybody read and thought and wrote and wrote and talked and talked and talked, when they were not attending lectures in the Steeple House or dancing the night away in the Hall of New Harmony. Lovers wandered in the mystic labyrinth that the Harmonists had designed with tailored hedgerows and a small temple at the center and which the Owenites allowed to grow into a jungle. Picnickers gathered in the neglected vineyards and boating parties drifted on the river. A duel was fought in the Harmonist cemetery, but with no casualties, and two women engaged in fisticuffs in front of Community House No. 4 without serious damage to either. Single gentlemen complained that their socks were stolen from community-house washlines, and Madame Fretageot told the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, in German, that Mr. Owen’s democracy was harmful to the manners of the young. A group of dissenters built a coffin and would have buried “Owenism” if the coffin had not been smashed by unidentified persons the night before the funeral. It is little wonder that the Harmonists’ factories stood idle, the Harmonist mill wheels no longer turned, the Harmonist fences broke down.

Owen’s experiment at New Harmony lasted altogether about two years and ended in chaos, but with Owen and Maclure still owning most of the property. Owen tried to save his dream by frequent reorganizations and, toward the last, by offering land for lease or sale to anyone who would attempt to establish a community according to his design. On July 4, 1826, once more mistaking the word for the deed, he sought to free the community of all its troubles by making a “Declaration of Mental Independence.” On this date, the fiftieth anniversary of American political independence, he announced, “I have calmly and deliberately determined upon this eventful and auspicious occasion, to break asunder the remaining mental bonds which for so many ages have grievously afflicted our nature and, by so doing, to give forever FULL FREEDOM TO THE HUMAN MIND .” Less than a year later, he delivered two successive farewell addresses in New Harmony, on May 26 and 27, 1827. Thereafter, deeding his property over to his sons, he left the community to its own devices and took off in pursuit of a new dream: he would ask the government of Mexico to give him Coahuila and Texas for his next “experiment.” Owen died in 1858, at the age of eighty-seven, a spiritualist claiming to be on familiar terms with Napoleon, Shakespeare, and Benjamin Franklin.

Where George Rapp, believing that the “last day” was at hand, built New Harmony as if it were going to endure forever, Robert Owen, convinced that a new world was just beginning, erected nothing permanent. What one sees of old New Harmony today is the work of the Germans; there is not a single visible structure left that was created in Owenite days. And yet, with all the monuments to the Germans’ industry, it is difficult to determine what went on in their minds and spirits as they worked, while the stamp of the Owenites’ intellectual independence and cultural aspirations has shaped the history of the town throughout the intervening years and is still apparent. Owen was not a practical reformer, but he was a prophet and a catalytic agent among other dreamers.

Specifically, Owen shaped New Harmony’s future by the remarkable group of people he brought to Indiana, many of whom remained, and by leaving behind four remarkable sons and one remarkable daughter, who became the town’s “First Family.” The people of New Harmony today like to speak of the period immediately following Owen’s community days as the Golden Age. Certainly the town remained for a long time as lively and exciting a place to live in as it was when Robert Owen was proclaiming his miracles of Mental Independence and the New Moral World.

After Owen’s departure, Maclure became New Harmony’s first citizen and major patron. He did more for the community in outright gifts and, through his agents, gave it more guidance than did the man whose name is more often associated with its history. Under Maclure’s direction, New Harmony had the first free public-school system in America for boys and girls alike and the first trade school, supported by his generosity until finally the state of Indiana adopted a school system supported by taxation. Through Maclure’s generosity also, the Workingmen’s Institute was founded, a society of mutual self-improvement for the common man; and largely because of his spirit New Harmony’s public library today remains remarkable for a town of its size—a large three-story brick building housing 18,000 volumes for a population of 1,121.

When Robert Owen first came to New Harmony, he purchased a new Stansbury press in Cincinnati and had it shipped to the town on the Wabash. On this press the New Harmony Gazette was published regularly every week from 1825 until 1828, edited first by William Owen and Robert Jennings and later by Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright, the feminist, who finally took the journal to New York City and renamed it the Free Enquirer .