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Utopia at the Frontier: New Harmony, Indiana


Charles-Alexandre Lesueur arrived at New Harmony for the first time in January 1826. Approaching from the southern hills and seeing a lush valley in the midst of thick forest with the silver arms of the Wabash River cutting through it, set against the backdrop of the wide prairies of Illinois, he must have felt like Moses at the gates of the Promised Land. In winter, of course, the site would not have looked as magical, but in the spring's first strong suns, with nature awakening and the fireflies lighting the earth like stars in the sky, the traveler was transported to a new realm. The forest and its animals - deer, beaver, bear, wolves, hares, wild cats, squirrels and snakes - suddenly came alive. In theair and on the ground one could hear the calls of so many birds: wild turkeys, parakeets, woodpeckers, nuthatches, crested cardinals and chickadees. Abundant trees and vines produced flowers and buds that decorated branch and soil: gum trees, plane trees, cypress, apple trees, maples and thick vines. Countless big trees, many taller than sixty-five feet and wider than a yard, provided shade in all seasons: oak, beech, ash and a great variety of nut trees. The richness of flora and fauna filled Lesueur's heart with joy. Here was a paradisiacal garden, an Eden in Indiana.

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Boat landing of New Harmony, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

Boat landing of New Harmony, showing the Wabash and Cut-off Island - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1828)
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

 

The ladies of the Philanthropist, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

The ladies of the Philanthropist in Cincinnati - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1825)
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

 

Owen and Maclure's Utopia in New Harmony


The history of the region, its links with French culture, the purity of the Wabash valley, and the richness of its flora and fauna made this part of America infinitely attractive to Lesueur. His future duties and obligations to the utopian community were not by any means his only reason for staying there. Robert Owen had bought a tiny, isolated island of civilization - the equivalent of a futurist lunar base - in the midst of a wilderness, completely unexplored by science. Moreover, Lesueur's patron William Maclure would bring in all the necessary tools to identify and publish data about objects of natural history. To make new discoveries, Lesueur only had to walk a few steps. What more could he ask for? Do not all scientists dream of working in such a perfect environment? Maclure and Lesueur had collaborated for more than nine years to support Pestalozzian schools in Philadelphia. From the very beginning of this undertaking, Lesueur participated in the manifold projects of his patron. In the autumn of 1825, Maclure became Owen's associate and financial partner. They were giving Lesueur a unique opportunity to explore unchartered regions. But like in a Greek tragedy, the protagonists were confronting enemies they had not sufficiently anticipated: Ambition, Pride, Jealousy, Intrigue and Greed for Power. Or was there really just one Great Opponent? Were they being locked in a battle of biblical dimensions with an antagonist capable of halting all human progress? Like the titans Epimetheus and Prometheus, Owen and Maclure wanted to change man's destiny by giving the working classes access to useful knowledge, reserved, till then, for the ruling elite. Did they really have a chance to win that war?

Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier, 11-12, 17.

Frederick Rapp's Description of New Harmony


"Town of Harmonie with 20,000 acres of first-rate land adjoining, situated on the east bank of the Big Wabash, seventy miles by water from its mouth, only fifteen miles by land from the Ohio River. Wabash is navigable at all seasons for boats of twenty tons burden, and a great part of the year for steamboats of middle class. Two thousand acres of highly cultivated land, fifteen of it in vineyard, thirty-five acres in apple orchard, containing 1,500 bearing apple and pear trees. Considerable peach orchard and pleasure gardens with bearing and ornamental trees. One large three-story water-powered merchant mill; extensive factory of cotton and woolen goods, 2 sawmills, 1 oil and hemp mill, 1 large brick and stone warehouse, 2 large granaries, 1 store, a large tavern, 6 large frame buildings used as mechanic's shops, 1 tanyard of fifty vats, 3 frame barns 50 x 100, with one thrashing machine; 3 large sheep stables, 6 two-story brick dwellings, 60 x 60; 40 two-story brick and frame dwellings; 86 log dwellings; all houses have stables and gardens; 2 large distilleries, 1 brewery."

 

Robert Owen's Letter of April 21, 1825, to William Allen in New Lanark


"I have bought the flocks & herds & implements of husbandry & stock of store goods &c altogether as much in value including one year's stock of provisions for a thousand people, as in England would have cost a princely fortune, for these articles I get 2 & 3 years credit if I do not find it more advantages [sic] to pay for them at the end of this year."

 

The Price of New Harmony


The price of New Harmony (with the land, animals, equipment and provisions) totaled $175,000. This sum included the first installment of $95,000 of April 1825, as well as $30,000 paid for livestock, food stocks and other provisions that the Harmonists had provided to Owen's community. At this point, Owen would still have to pay another $50,000, comprising a $5,000 commission for Richard Flower, a second installment of $5,000 due in May 1826, and two more installments of $20,000 due in May 1827 and May 1828. These last two payments would entitle him to receive an additional 7,400 acres of land.

Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 150.

 

New Harmony brick church, Indiana, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

New Harmony and the church where Robert Owen pronounced his inaugural address - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1831)
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

 

New Harmony's First Owenites


The first group of Owen's disciples arrived in New Harmony on April 24, 1825, but when he gave his inaugural address four days earlier, the philanthropist nonetheless had a huge audience. Invitations had been sent to several villages in Illinois (Albion, Carmi, Shawneetown and Wanborough) and Indiana (Cynthiana, Evansville, Mount Vernon, Princeton, Springfield and Vincennes). According to the journal of Donald Macdonald, six to eight hundred people attended this large meeting which took place in New Harmony's immense brick church. Captain Macdonald also tells us in his diary that the first families who actually moved into the community a few days later, arrived from Cincinnati and were called Jennings, Laurence and Kellogg. Pages 367 to 371 of the recently published Eyewitness to Utopia (Heiligon, 2019) contains a lists of the 782 personal names and 422 different surnames of the American, British, Irish, German, French, Swiss and Dutch citizens who took part in this utopian experiment.

The New-Harmony Gazette


Robert Owen's inaugural address of April 20 was published afterwards in the New-Harmony Gazette, the official organ of the community, which would appear weekly beginning on October 1, 1825. This eight-page newspaper in-quarto was edited by William Owen and Robert L. Jennings at first, and later by William Pelham, Robert Owen, Robert Dale Owen and Frances Wright. Under the heading of the front page the following motto appeared: "If we cannot reconcile all opinions, let us endeavor to unite all hearts." In the first column, the editors set themselves this precise objective: "In our Gazette we purpose developing more fully the principles of the Social System; that the world, with ourselves, may, by contrast, be convinced–that individuality detracts largely from the sum of human happiness." The first issue contained not only the inaugural address but also the constitution establishing the rules of Owen's cooperative society.

 

 

New Harmony Gazette, 1825

First issue of the New Harmony Gazette, October 1, 1825
Courtesy of the Working Men's Institute in New Harmony

Handbill by Robert Owen

Handbill by Robert Owen announcing a millenium of peace thanks to his utopian communes (reproduced from John F. C. Harrison, Quest for the New Moral World, 101, pl. 15)

 

Robert Owen's Fight for Equality among Men


Robert Owen wanted to see a rapid evolution in social customs and favored the mixing of races, as he wrote to William Allen on April 21, 1825: "This new colony [in New Harmony] will be filled up to its full number before the end of this [year] by useful & valuable families & individuals. […] From present appearances I believe the whole of the district north of the Ohio River comprising all the free States will be ripe for the change before the [end] of the year 1827. […] Our operations will soon extend to the blacks & the Indians who by singular circumstances have been prepared in a peculiar manner for the change which I propose." Robert Owen proceeded with caution when he included a special clause concerning "persons of color" in the first draft of a constitution, but in the second draft, adopted ten months after the first, all discriminatory restrictions relating to Blacks, Mulattos and Indians had been removed from the constition of the New Harmony Community of Equality. In Owen's book A Development of the Principles and Plans on Which to Establish Self-Supporting Home Colonies, published in 1841, he openly condemned "evil of any kind," particularly "slavery, and servitude, and oppression." Owen underscored: "This is the first step towards the attainment of the Millennium; […] there can be no human slavery, servitude, or inequality of condition; except the natural inequality of age and experience; which will, for ever, preserve order and harmony in society."

More about Robert Owen

 

Social Activities in the New Harmony Community of Equality


Despite the early difficulties, the future seemed promising for utopian New Harmony. From the beginning, communal and leisure activities were organized to bind the members closer together and to forge a team spirit. On Monday, after work, everyone took part in military exercises and parades; on Tuesday, people danced; Wednesdays were for public meetings to improve the town and its organization; Thursday evening was free; Fridays were for musical concerts; and on Saturday, the men had technical training in fire control. Throughout the week the members played ball games and cricket. Despite these activities together, good will was not always that easy to come by, according to Thomas Pears, the assistant bookkeeper of the society, who wrote down many of his observations:

"Mr. Owen's heart, I think, ran away with his head here. He collected his numbers, or rather perhaps they flocked. to him indiscriminately, and the Belle Vision he displayed captured their imaginations; and happy then, they saw not the rugged passage which they had to travel. And tho' I believe it will be safely reached, the promised land is farther off than most of us anticipated."

Owen's dream echoed the millennial hopes of many Christian movements of his era who were awaiting divine intervention. To change the earth into a paradise, workers and scientists would have to collaborate, just as Francis Bacon foresaw in his utopian masterpiece The New Atlantis. Bacon's writings were much in vogue in the nineteenth century because he was regarded as the father of modern science. William Maclure, who admired him particularly, often expressed ideas inspired by Bacon's philosophy. By allying himself with scientists of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, Owen too sought to conform his ideal city to Bacon's utopian model.

 

New Harmony, Indiana, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

Main Street, New Harmony - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1826)
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

 

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's Sketches of Utopia


As a committed communitarian in New Harmony, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur embraced the opportunity of becoming a member of America's first secular communal utopian experiment. The potent ideas and financial underwriting of its two founding philanthropists would surely assure its success. William Maclure's utopian faith in practical Pestalozzian education to improve the economic and political standing of the working classes would merge with Robert Owen's utopian belief that enlightened education from infancy could reform human character and combine with advances in science and commodious communal living to create a New Moral World of peace and plenty.

Besides, Lesueur and Maclure themselves were partially prepared for life as communitarians. Their fascination with the scientific, educational and economic innovations of two of the most famous religious movements that chose to live communally in America had led them to visit towns of the Moravians at Bethlehem and Nazareth, and the Harmony Society at Harmony and Economy in Pennsylvania. There they observed and recorded the benefits and demands of communal living historians now see as an age-old method of organization which has offered security, solidarity and survival to religious and secular groups the world over.

Lesueur made painstakingly accurate sketches, documenting not only these successful Moravian and Harmonist communal sites but later also those of Owenite New Harmony, the English community called Wanborough at Albion, Illinois, and the anti-slavery advocate Frances Wright's attempt to use communal living to free slaves at Nashoba, Tennessee. Drawing these sketches of multiple American communal settlements, brought together for the first time in Ritsert Rinsma's vivid reproductions, became one of Lesueur's unique eyewitness contributions to America's utopian history. No other artist attempted this before or since.

Read more in Bauke Ritsert Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur’s Sketches of the Frontier, drawings and sketches by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, foreword by Edouard Philippe, Donald E. Pitzer and Ralph G. Schwarz, translated by Leslie J. Roberts (Heuqueville, France: Heiligon, 2019).

 

 

New Harmony, Indiana, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

View from Lesueur's garden in New Harmony - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (c.1831)
Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

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