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Utopia is no myth. It was there, at the frontier...


Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's sketchbooks are the enduring work of an exceptional "eyewitness to utopia." Lesueur experienced the utopian quest that was inherent in the early American Republic - the pursuit of happiness through the rights of liberty and justice, the progress in knowledge through discoveries in science, and the promise of perfection through experiments in communal living. In his sketchbooks, Lesueur left his legacy, thousands of meticulously detailed drawings - an unparalleled record of one man's embrace of the spirit, environment, and life forms he found on extensive travels as a natural scientist and teacher in the United States from 1816 to 1837. After visiting many contemporary utopias (Moravian Bethlehem and Nazareth, George Rapp's Harmony and Economy, and several other communal societies), Lesueur ultimately focused on Robert Owen and William Maclure's utopian New Harmony in Indiana, where he lavished his energies and talents as one of the eight-hundred communal members - including scientists and educators from Philadelphia and families from the frontier.

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).


  • Why did Robert Owen believe autonomous cooperatives could solve the problems of his era?

  • How did Owen and Maclure's New Harmony influence Abraham Lincoln?

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    Portrait of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Portrait of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur
    - by Charles Willson Peale (1818)

    Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences
    of Drexel University

     

    Portrait of Robert Owen

    Portrait of Robert Owen - by William Henry Brooke (1834)

    Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery in London


    Robert Owen's utopia in New Harmony


    Richard Flower was commissioned by Frederick Rapp of the religious Harmony Society to sell the town of New Harmony and its adjoining property in 1824. When Flower visited New Lanark, Scotland, he spoke of it to Robert Owen (1771-1858), the manager of the New Lanark Mills, who saw the purchase as a unique chance to put his utopian ideas into practice. He had corresponded with Father George Rapp starting in August 1820, enquiring about "the rise, progress & present state of Harmony." Now the Harmonist leader wanted to inform Owen about the sale. The geographical situation of the village seemed particularly good to Owen, so the cotton spinner put it to his son: "Well, Robert, what say you - New Lanark or Harmony?" Robert Dale Owen answered without hesitating: "Harmony." Flower was visibly surprised to get a positive reaction so soon, for he asked: "Does your father really think of giving up a position like his, with every comfort and luxury, and taking his family to the wild life of the far West?" The answer was "yes," and in the autumn of that year Robert Owen left for the United States, accompanied by Richard Flower, Owen's son William, and his longtime friend Donald Macdonald. In April 1825, Frederick Rapp and Robert Owen came to a final agreement about the sale of New Harmony. The contract set out a total of $175,000, which included the village, independent farms, 27,500 acres of land, equipment and furnishings for the factories and houses, a large proportion of the animals left behind (after the last wave of Harmonists relocated), and enough provisions to feed a thousand people and all the animals for one year. It appears then that Owen wanted to give his dream of an egalitarian community a real chance of success by furnishing all that was needed. A few months later, Owen continued his purchases in Philadelphia, buying many more useful supplies for his communal store at an overall price of $15,000. With these additional acquisitions, the total expenditure for the inauguration of Robert Owen's project came to $190,000.

    Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier, 140, 149.


    More about Robert Owen

     

    William Maclure's scientific community


    Few historians understand the full scope the New Harmony Community of Equality of which William Maclure (1763-1840) was the co-founder. Most analysts emphasize the failure of Owen's cooperative system and ignore almost entirely the successes of Maclure's projects. They miss the importance of his contributions, a lack of insight due to the absence of accessible and published materials relating to Robert Owen's financial partner for nearly 150 years. As a consequence, many scholars have belittled William Maclure's role and overlooked his vision of the future, downplaying the successes of the community. Recently published sources have permitted the author of Eyewitness to Utopia to uncover the lofty objectives of Lesueur's wealthy patron. Unpublished manuscripts in European and American archives have allowed him to define the leading role of Maclure and Lesueur, considered for too long as secondary. By concentrating on Owen, History has failed to recognize an event of major significance: the birth of a New Atlantis, an ideal city comparable to the one described by Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in his famous utopian novel. The New Atlantis was appended to a larger work, entitled Sylva Sylvarum: Or a Natural History in Ten Centuries, published in July 1626, three months after Bacon's death. Unlike other books on utopias, it insisted upon the necessity to let scientists govern society. Thomas Jefferson considered Bacon one of the greatest men who had ever lived, together with John Locke and Isaac Newton. William Maclure, throughout his life, would try to put Bacon's principles into practice.

    More about William Maclure

     

    The Moravians of Bethlehem and Nazareth


    Between 1741 and 1743, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, founder of a social community named Herrnhut in Germany, went to America to visit Moravian missionary families in Pennsylvania, in particular those who had begun building Bethlehem in 1741. In this utopian village, they tried to follow the type of communalism the first Christians had practiced; the way of living preached by Jesus's disciples and clearly described in the Acts of the Apostles:

    "And all that believed were together and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need […]. And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common."

    In 1744 the Moravians organized Nazareth (ten miles to the northeast of Bethlehem and founded by Anglican cleric George Whitefield in 1740) as a second communal village.

    When Lesueur saw Bethlehem for the first time, on October 27, 1816, a palette of autumn colors embellished the countryside. The village, situated on the slope and in the hollow of a valley on the north bank of the Lehigh River, looked from the hills like an amphitheatre, with the church on a slightly higher plain. A stream (Monocacy Creek) wound through the valley, spilling into the river half a mile east of the bridge. The place inspired calm and serenity, and Lesueur caught this mood in his masterful drawings the next day.

    Nazareth was less than a two-day walk from Mauch Chunk on the road to Easton, not far from the Delaware River. Lesueur and his friends arrived there on Sunday, September 4, 1825, an hour before sunset. This community, located eight miles south of the Blue Mountain Ridge, much resembled Bethlehem, ten miles to the southwest. A seventy-five-year-old man welcomed them politely and showed them the dwellings, church and boarding school. A large botanical garden covered the slope of the hill, divided by small walks and several houses.

    Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 62, 73, 168.



    George Rapp's Harmonists


    The story of the builders of Harmony and New Harmony is closely linked with that of Maclure and Lesueur. In 1825 this German religious group sold their second village in Indiana to social reformer Robert Owen, who subsequently invited Maclure and Lesueur to join him there. In 1827, these same Harmonists would unwittingly fuel the break between Owen and Maclure, and we must therefore take into account their history when trying to understand the decisions of Lesueur and his patron in New Harmony. The Harmonist movement started with the Separatist preacher George Rapp (1757-1847), who left his native town of Iptingen, in Southwest Germany, to settle in Pennsylvania in 1803. He proclaimed that the traditional Church was a modern replica of Babylon because of its confusing ceremonies and hypocritical clergy. He publicly opposed the baptism of newborn children and the communion and confirmation of young people, believing that these rites had lost all biblical meaning and had become mere formalities. Rapp also condemned civil oaths and participation in the military, for he felt they were contrary to the teachings of the Gospels.

    More about George Rapp's Harmonists

    Cover of the book Eyewitness to Utopia by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Portrait of George Rapp - by Phineas Staunton, Jr. (1836)

    Courtesy of the Old Economy Village Archives in Ambridge

     

     

    Portrait of William Maclure

    Portrait of William Maclure - by Thomas Sully (1825)

    Courtesy of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University



    The sketchbooks of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur


    Charles-Alexandre Lesueur is one of the last major naturalists from Thomas Jefferson's age of exploration whose story has not been sufficiently told. His recognition has taken far too long, which does not mean that Lesueur's work was not noted and recognized in his native France before and after his arrival in America. He participated in Captain Nicolas Baudin's expedition to Australia, sponsored by Napoleon from 1800 to 1804, and rose into the earliest elite circle of natural scientists - which included such giants as his mentor Georges Cuvier, the great French zoologist and paleontologist. In 1815 William Maclure (already considered the Father of American Geology) would also become Lesueur's mentor and benefactor, offering him a contract to accompany Maclure on his next geological exploration of the United States. Lesueur's subsequent travels, discoveries and artwork with his patron resulted in thousands of sketches and drawings of ante-bellum America and the American frontier The utopian communes Maclure and Lesueur visited between 1816 and 1828 included Moravian Bethlehem and Nazareth in Pennsylvania, George Rapp's Harmonists in Harmony and Old Economy (Ambridge), as well as many other religious and non-religious utopias, such as Wanborough, Illinois, and Nashoba, Tennessee.

    The recently published Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier (Heiligon, 2019) provides American readers their first opportunity to view early nineteenth-century utopias through the eyes of an artistic eyewitness: Charles-Alexandre Lesueur.

    More about The Sketchbooks of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Eyewitness to Utopia


    Dutch historian Bauke Ritsert Rinsma chose the daunting task of searching out, analyzing, and compiling the story of Lesueur's adventures and accomplishments as expressed through his masterful artwork. The author's research took him to archival collections of primary importance in Europe and America, especially the Working Men's Institute in New Harmony, Indiana, and the Lesueur Collection at the Natural History Museum in Le Havre, France, and to venues sketched by Lesueur across the eastern United States. Many of the drawings he has chosen for this book have never been published before as images digitally restored to their original colorful realism. Informative captions and engaging narrative bring them to life. Ritsert Rinsma also inserts recent photographs taken from Lesueur's historical vantage points to give readers a comparative view. Much of the historical content is presented in refreshingly new perspectives, analyses, and interpretations. As a gifted artist, Lesueur became one of the most important "photographers" of his day, documenting the towns and landscapes, flora, fauna, and fossils he found from the Atlantic coast to the Great Lakes and to the Ohio, Wabash and Mississippi Rivers. In 1816, when Lesueur accompanied William Maclure on an exploration of the route Governor DeWitt Clinton was considering for his projected Erie Canal, Lesueur's drawings became a priceless record of a landscape soon to be changed forever. When, in 1825-1826, Lesueur came down the Ohio River on the famous "boatload of knowledge," he scanned the countryside and preserved for posterity the towns and landscapes along its banks, only a few years after the Lewis and Clark expedition had made that same trip.

    More about Eyewitness to Utopia

     

    Cover of the book <em>Eyewitness to Utopia</em>, written by Ritsert Rinsma, and illustrated by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, showing New Harmony, Indiana

    Cover of the book Eyewitness to Utopia, written by Ritsert Rinsma, and illustrated by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, showing New Harmony, Indiana

    Thomas Jefferson's room in Philadelphia, by C.-A. Lesueur, reproduced from Eyewitness to Utopia

    Thomas Jefferson's room in Philadelphia where he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Drawing by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, reproduced from Eyewitness to Utopia.

    Thomas Jefferson, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and America's utopian aspirations


    Since William Maclure and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur made their home base in the culturally and scientifically rich Philadelphia, Lesueur soon became a rising star among the most noted naturalists and teachers in America. He was made curator of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. He was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society and came to know its earlier president Thomas Jefferson. As Ritsert Rinsma reveals in Eyewitness to Utopia, he so revered Jefferson's utopian assertion of human rights in the Declaration of Independence that he drew a scene through the window of the house where Jefferson wrote the first draft.His skill as a surveyor won him an appointment by the United States government to establish the earliest boundary between this country and Canada. In 1825 Lesueur's urban life and scientific venue changed dramatically as he, along with others of Philadelphia's finest scientists and educators, was lured to the utopian adventure of making new discoveries in the wilderness around New Harmony, and of teaching in Maclure's and Owen's progressive schools.

    More about Thomas Jefferson

    Don Pitzer on C.-A. Lesueur


    The ongoing Owenite movement to which Lesueur was an eyewitness into the 1830s exercised a profound influence on shaping modern America with emancipation, laborers' and women's rights, and free tax-supported public schools, libraries and museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. By happy coincidence, Lesueur's fellow Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville took his own investigative tour of the United States in 1831-1832 while Lesueur was still in New Harmony. Tocqueville articulated his astute observations of the country's social and political institutions and practices in his incisive Democracy in America published in 1835. Lesueur made a similar contribution with his incomparable sketches, documenting America's natural and built environment, its ancient and living wildlife, and the utopian vision of its people. Two centuries later, Ritsert Rinsma's Eyewitness to Utopia presents Lesueur's artistic gift to the New World in its most complete rendition and elevates this artist, scientist and communitarian to his own proper status among the most notable figures in the early Republic.

    Dr. Donald E. Pitzer is Director Emeritus, Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana.

    More about Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Cover of the book Eyewitness to Utopia by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma and Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Donald Pitzer is author of the book New Harmony Then and Now
    (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012)

    Alexandre Lesueur, tome 1, by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma

    Cover of the first volume of Lesueur's biography showing Jefferson's room with a view on Market Street, Philadelphia

    Rinsma's biography of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur


    In 1818 the American painter Charles Willson Peale, curator of Philadelphia's first natural history museum, wrote about his portrait of naturalist Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (which hangs in the library of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, now part of Drexel University): "I have put into the museum a portrait of Lesueur who perhaps has the most knowledge of Natural History of any man in the world." The famous Swiss ichthyologist Louis Agassis deemed Lesueur's contributions second only to his own, and English zoologist William swainson declared:

    "Inferior and commonplaced artists are attached to the establishment of the French Museum, while the Raffaelle of zoological painters was suffered to emigrate, and pursued his professional career as a private teacher in Philadelphia, where, we believe, he now is. [...] It is deeply to be regretted, that his works are so scattered, in collections of papers hardly ever seen in Europe; and that no one volume will hereafter point out the matchless excellence of Le Sueur."

    Born in Le Havre in 1778, Charles-Alexandre Lesueur traveled around the world, exploring Europe, Australia, South Africa and North America, before taking residence in Philadelphia, where he lived for ten years. There he befriended the greatest minds of his time, those working in the direct entourage of Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States from 1801 to 1808. In spite of his efforts, and unlike Bougainville and Humboldt, this great explorer and artist would soon be forgotten by history. "What can be done in regard to Lesueur?" inquired American entomologist Thaddeus William Harris, a professor at Harvard College, and its university librarian from 1831 to 1856, "[as he] seems forever lost to his friends and to the world, after a debut the most brilliant. Will he too pass away without leaving behind him any memorials of his eventful career, or any one to record the history of his life and labours?"

    Published in 2007 and entirely based on primary sources, the first volume of the biography Alexandre Lesueur, written by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma, recounts the travels and tribulations of this scientist from France in an innovative and complete way. Together with his patron William Maclure, Charles-Alexandre pursued the noblest of Thomas Jefferson's objectives, that of acquiring Useful Knowledge and disseminating it to the greatest number of people. This fascinating human adventure started on the day when a twenty-two year-old man from Le Havre courageously decided to change his destiny.


    Robert Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony


    Universally considered as the Father of the Cooperative Movement, a great deal has been written about Robert Owen and his attempts to form communities based on egalitarian principles in Scotland and Indiana. His rich career really began in April 1792, when he was appointed first assistant to Peter Drinkwater, founder of a cotton factory employing five hundred people. Owen codirected one of the first industrial plants powered by a water mill, an innovative experiment which led him, in 1798, to meet David Dale (1739-1806), owner of the largest cotton mill in Scotland. During this same period, Owen became a member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, attending his first meeting on October 4, 1793. There he made contact with the intellectual elite of the region; in particular doctor and reformer Thomas Percival, a personal friend of philosopher David Hume, and historian William Robertson. Percival was concerned with the condition of the poor and, in 1796, played an important role in the creation of a sanitation committee, the Manchester Board of Health, of which Owen was a member. Robert Owen also met the apothecary and maker of magnesium Thomas Henry, who was interested in natural sciences, education and medicine, as well as Thomas Barns and John Ferriar, all of whom were involved in a battle to improve the lives of children in factories. It was in their company that Owen deepened his interest in social questions, and they introduced him into scientific and philosophical circles.

  • How much did Robert Owen pay for New Harmony?
  • Was New Harmony a failure?
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    Robert Owen by William Pickersgill

    Portrait of Robert Owen - by Henry William Pickersgill (1825)

    Courtesy of the New Lanark Trust

     

     

    The ladies of the Philanthropist, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Phalanstery designed by Stedman Whitwell, Robert Owen's architect (c. 1824)

    Courtesy of the New Lanark Trust

    Owen's Autonomous Cooperatives


    Among the people who influenced Owen the most were the famous anarchist theorist William Godwin (1756-1836), author of Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, and James Mill (1773-1836), political economist and associate of Jeremy Bentham. Like Godwin, Owen affirmed that man's character was forged by circumstance, that ignorance led to vice, and that the only way to eradicate the evils of society was to regenerate man's moral consciousness. However, unlike Bentham, Godwin and Owen strongly opposed any form of punishment or reward. In their opinion, the ultimate social ideal would be a decentralized society made up of small autonomous communities that cooperated with one another. They were against revolutionary violence and thought a voluntary redistribution of wealth possible thanks to a rational education accompanied by a universal coming to awareness. John Humphrey Noyes, author of the famous History of American Socialisms, wrote in 1870: "Owenism prepared the way for Fourierism. The same men, or at least the same sort of men that took part in the Owen movement, were afterward carried away by the Fourier enthusiasm. The two movements may, therefore, be regarded as one […]. The Communities and Phalanxes died almost as soon as they were born, and now are almost forgotten. But the spirit of Socialism remains in the life of the nation […] [;] it lives still, as a hope watching for the morning, in thousands and perhaps millions who never took part in any of the experiments, and who are neither Owenites nor Fourierites, but simply Socialists without theory - believers in the possibility of a scientific and heavenly reconstruction of society."

    Quoted from B. R. Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia: Scientific Conquest and Communal Settlement in C.-A. Lesueur's Sketches of the Frontier, 131-32, 156.

     

    Maclure's Notes about Owen's Utopia


    In his personal journal, during his visit of New Lanark, William Maclure noted enthusiastically how Robert Owen planned to change his utopian ideas into reality:

    "Mr. O[wen] proposes a new establishment of 700 acres in [a model of] agricultural improvement, [consisting] of a community of property, and every thing tending to dismiss the misery and increase the happiness of the human species. He starts on the broad principle, perhaps as new as it is true, that men's characters are not made by themselves, but in all circumstances and situations depend upon them, that is in habits, or in other words education. [He believes] that it is possible so to organize society as to drown the self in an Ocean of Sociability and make the interest of each the interest of the whole: harmonize society by combining their whole interest into one focus, like a burning lanse [sic: lens], increasing both the union and strength of the whole."

    At the time of Maclure's writing, Owen had not yet bought New Harmony. To what "new establishment" did Maclure refer to? Was it the town in Indiana, since Owen may have already been told by George Rapp that he had put it up for sale? Or is it a reference to the Motherwell community near Glasgow, which, after several preparatory years, was still in the embryonic stage? Not far from there, the Orbiston community would be inaugurated in March 1825. Organized according to Owen's plan, it would last until the death of its founder Abram Combe in 1827. In that same year, a contingent of Orbiston members set sail for Ontario to establish the utopian colony of Maxwell. The New Harmony community certainly became the most famous, but it was only one of many Owenite experiments. The last one would be Queenwood in Hampshire from 1839 to 1845. It is unclear which community Maclure had in mind when writing his July 31, 1824, journal entry. On the other hand, it is quite evident that the American geologist was greatly impressed by the exploits of Robert Owen, whose fame had reached far beyond Great Britain.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 139.


    David Dale's New Lanark


    After resigning from Peter Drinkwater's factory in 1795, Robert Owen became an associate in the Chorlton Twist Company. In July 1799 he and his financial partners bought David Dale's mills, creating the New Lanark Twist Company. Two months later Owen married Dale's daughter, Ann Caroline, taking control of the New Lanark factory in January 1800. It had been in existence for fifteen years and was made up of four immense six-floor mills and many houses for workers. It employed 1,300 people to operate 12,000 spindles. The factory was modern, fitted with an ingenious hydraulic system, and heated by air conduits to diminish the risk of fire. Owen's father-in-law, the founder of the factory, had organized one-and- a-half hour night classes where employees learned to read, write, dance and sing (the pupils were mostly orphans and poor people sent by the town authorities of Glasgow and Edinburgh). This was highly unusual for the era, to say nothing of the fact that Dale also provided social lodging for the workforce. When Owen took over, much of this was already in place. Like his son-in-law, Dale cared a lot about the wellbeing of his employees.



    Robert Owen's Improvements


    Working conditions could still be improved at New Lanark, however, and Owen began in earnest with a series of disciplinary measures. He also made many positive decisions to improve the lives of his employees: he shortened work hours and stopped using children under ten, while establishing a free school for those above the age of five. Moreover, he opened a store where employees could buy all kinds of products 25% cheaper than elsewhere. The extra outlay of money did not deter Owen. In fact, his benevolence increased over time. He financed the school with profits from the store, adding a system of credit, which enabled his debt-ridden employees to buy food and other basic items. A newly created health insurance fund, supported by a sixtieth (1.7%) of salaries, took care of employees who were ill. When, in December 1807, Thomas Jefferson decided to prohibit the exportation of American products to Great Britain, Owen turned this action to his advantage. Although he had to close his mills because of supply problems, he continued to pay his employees who were without work. This greatly increased his popularity, and when the embargo was lifted, Owen could count on the devotion of all his personnel.

     

    New Lanark and the River Clyde, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    New Lanark and the River Clyde

    Photographs by Ritsert Rinsma

    New Lanark and the River Clyde, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma


    Robert Owen Bibliography


    Early biographies on Robert Owen appeared soon after his death in 1858. They were based on his autobiography The Life of Robert Owen Written by Himself (1857-1858). George J. Holyoke was the first to present an original, systematic interpretation of Owen's life, hailing him as the Father of the Cooperative Movement in The History of Co-operation in England (1875-1879). In the early twentieth century, the most important works were those of Frank Podmore, Robert Owen: A Biography (1906), and George D. H. Cole, The Life of Robert Owen (1925). In 1953 Cole's wife Margaret (née Postgate) published her research on Owen in a biography entitled Robert Owen of New Lanark.

    Between 1948 and 1950, Arthur E. Bestor produced two monumental books on Robert Owen in America, Education and Reform at New Harmony and the essential Backwoods Utopias, which were successfully supplemented by John C. Harrison's Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (1969) and Josephine M. Elliott's Partnership for Posterity (1994).

    Other important contributions are: Serge Dupuis, Robert Owen: Socialiste Utopique, 1771-1858 (Paris: Editions du CNRS, 1991); Donald E. Pitzer, "The New Moral World of Robert Owen and New Harmony," in America's Communal Utopias (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 88-134; Ian Donnachie, Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony (East Linton, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 2000), reprinted as Robert Owen: Social Visionary (Edinburgh, Scotland: John Donald Publishers, 2005); Donald E. Pitzer, "The Owenites," in New Harmony Then and Now (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2012), 41-77; and from the same author, "The Capitalism, Christian Communism and Communitarian Socialism of New Harmony's Founders George Rapp and Robert Owen," in A New Social Question: Capitalism, Socialism and Utopia, ed. Casey Harison (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 108-125.

    For an exhaustive list of Owen's works and books, see the bibliography by John F. C. Harrison, in Quest for the New Moral World: Robert Owen and the Owenites in Britain and America (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969), 261-369, and the two-volume bibliography by Shigeru Gotô, Robert Owen, 1771-1858: A New Bibliographical Study (Osaka, Japan: 1932-1934). The latest serious contribution to date, with new insights and sources, is Ritsert Rinsma's reference work Eyewitness to Utopia, which focusses on Robert Owen and William Maclure's community in New Harmony between 1825 and 1831.

     

    Education at the Heart of Utopia


    Robert Owen began his school reforms in 1809, three years before the Statement Regarding the New Lanark Establishment, in which he developed his educational theories. Starting in 1814, his new Quaker partners insisted on an organization based on Joseph Lancaster's methods, and pedagogical tools were provided by the British and Foreign School Society. The Bible continued to be a reading book, and religious instruction remained neutral and non-sectarian. On January 1, 1816, the New Lanark school was renamed the Institute for the Formation of Character. Owen inaugurated it with the famous phrase "character is universally formed for, and not by, the individual." Using this formula, he affirmed the world in which we grow up changes a person's personality and so society has an obligation to control this environment and provide a context in which human beings can become useful citizens. For Owen, learning to distinguish between good and evil had to be developed from childhood. His son Robert Dale Owen, who had been a student of Philipp Emanuel von Fellenberg from 1818 to 1821, was teaching in his father's school after his return from Switzerland. In the book An Outline of the System of Education at New Lanark (1824) he provided a clear description of the institute. The schools of New Harmony opened at the end of May 1825, and about a month later some four hundred pupils attended classes under the direction of Robert L. Jennings and two Irish teachers, Patrick Gilmore and William McCall.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 137, 402n2.

     

    Invitation for a fundraiser concert at New Lanark (1821), photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    Invitation for a fundraiser concert at New Lanark (1821)

    Courtesy of the New Lanark Trust

    Robert Owen's office at New Lanark, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    Robert Owen's office at New Lanark

    Photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    Robert Owen's Radical Ideas


    Robert Owen's radical ideas came up against a ferocious opposition. Regardless of this, he continued to maintain that society had to put an end to "constraining" institutions like Religion and Marriage - these opinions, expressed at the summit of his career, lost him much support. His Quaker partners, who strongly opposed his anti-Christian stance, forced him to sell his part of the factories. The beginning of a typhoid epidemic at New Lanark reinforced negative opinions because it seemed to prove that his detractors were right in saying that hygiene in his workers' village was no better than anywhere else. At the same time, some employees had turned against him, demanding more pay for less hours of work. Criticism in articles and ironic tracts was reaching its highest level, and the way in which Owen's legal proposals had been mutilated was felt like a personal failure. The death of his close partner John Walker, in May 1824, and the news that Parliament had rejected his petition favoring the national creation of projects based on New Lanark were the last straw. "This visionary plan, if adopted, would destroy the very roots of society," his opponents said. Owen concluded that the institutions of his era, unless completely changed, would cause all his initiatives to fail. He probably shared this belief with Maclure at the end of July 1824. Owen was looking for another way to reach out beyond his factories. He wanted to reveal his vision of a New Moral World to the entire human race.

    More about Robert Owen's radical ideas

    Owen and Maclure Join Forces


    On Sunday, November 13, 1825, Robert Owen and several members of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia had dinner at the home of Marie Fretageot, including Charles-Alexandre Lesueur and William Maclure. Knowing Maclure's favorable opinion of his project, Owen clearly set as a goal to convince the American philanthropist to become his financial partner and cofounder of New Harmony. For the moment, Maclure was one of the few people in their circle who did not want to move to Indiana, even though most of his protégés, especially Madame Fretageot and Guillaume Phiquepal, intended to do so. Owen hoped, of course, Maclure would bring his Philadelphian schools to New Harmony, and Marie Fretageot supported Owen, since his actions and principles were "so much in harmony" with her own. She shared with Maclure the joy she felt when conversing with the British reformer. Owen appreciated Marie Fretageot's enthusiasm and was counting on her to convince Maclure to help create a "new empire of good sense." By the end of the evening Maclure decided that his active participation in Owen's experiment might cause it to succeed, and he agreed to become Owen's partner. The two men even chose their day of departure. They planned to go to Pittsburgh on Sunday, November 27, from where they would take a steamboat to Indiana. This new commitment meant that Maclure was going to transfer his "School of Industry" to New Harmony.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 182.

    New Harmony, Indiana, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Fretageot's school on Ridge Road, where Owen and Maclure
    decided to move to New Harmony - by Charles-Alexandre (1825)

    Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Le Havre

    The Departure for New Harmony


    The last days in Philadelphia were spent packing an immense quantity of material, particularly the private collections and books of Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Thomas Say and William Maclure, stored on the ground floor of the Academy of Natural Sciences. The boxes were sent to New Orleans with the rest of the baggage to be taken by steamboat to Shawneetown near New Harmony. On Sunday morning, November 27, 1825, the utopians left Philadelphia in a convoy of wagons and carriages en route to Pittsburgh; William Maclure, Marie Fretageot, Guillaume Phiquepal, Thomas Say, William Price and many others made this trip together. Madame Fretageot traveled with her assistants, Lucy Sistare and Virginia Dupalais. Virginia was accompanied by her brothers André and Victor, and Lucy by her sisters Frances and Sarah. There were quite a few other children in the group, such as doctor Price's three daughters, carpenter John Beal's daughter, and Phiquepal's pupils from Paris and Philadelphia: Alexis Alphonse, Amédie Dufour, Charles Falque, Achille Fretageot, Pierre Duclos, Victor Duclos, Edmund Morris and Thomas Riley. In the evening they met up with Robert Owen and other travelers who had left the same morning by stagecoach. The following days they stopped at Chambersburg, Bedford and Greensburg, and on December 1, the travelers arrived in Pittsburgh at three o'clock in the afternoon. The group initially intended to go to New Harmony by steamboat, but because the water level was very low and the situation had not improved four days later, they decided to find a keelboat.

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 191.

    More about the Boat Load of Knowledge

    Keelboat on the Ohio River - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Keelboat on the Ohio River - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur (1826)

    Courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Le Havre

    Abraham Lincoln and the "Boat Load of Knowledge"


    The cooperative villages and communal schools were miniature models of a New Moral Order. Robert Owen was convinced they would prove on a small scale the efficacy of his social program. It was however under William Maclure's direction that a concerted effort was made on the Wabash River to give a new impetus to the utopian community in Indiana. From December 5 to 8, 1825, a keelboat of eighty-five feet long and fifteen feet wide, called the Philanthropist, was readied on the north bank of the Monongahela River at Pittsburgh for its trip to New Harmony. The interior, divided into four compartments, needed to be modified to house some fifty persons, among whom several high-profile scientists. To turn Owen's dream into reality, William Maclure had recruited educators such as Joseph Neef, Marie Fretageot and Guillaume Phiquepal, as well as scientists like Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, Thomas Say and Gerard Troost. (Troost was already in New Harmony and Neef would arrive a few months later.) It is easy to see why the Philanthropist was almost immediately nicknamed the "Boat Load of Knowledge," or as Robert Owen put it, "a boat which contained more learning than ever was before contained in a boat." Not "Latin & Greek & other languages but real substantial knowledge," for it "contained some of the ablest instructors of youth that c[oul]d be found in the U.S. or perhaps in the world." Consequently, some modern historians have labeled this keelboat the "Mayflower of the Owenites," although the name "Mayflower of intellectual colonization" is clearly more appropriate.

    On Saturday evening January 21, 1826, the Philanthropist gently floated past some log cabins at the mouth of the Anderson River. Suddenly, the calm and peaceful quiet were brutally interrupted. According to Dennis Friend Hanks (1799-1892), who saw the event unfold, seventeen-year-old Abraham Lincoln, son of the local ferryman, also watched the scene. The future president of the United States got "nigh crazy" when he recognized the boat the newspapers had been writing about. Many years later, in an interview with author and journalist Eleanor Atkinson (1863-1942), Mr. Hanks recounted with a Hoosier accent what happened that evening: "An' one day arly in the winter, a big keel-boat come down from Pittsburg[h] over the Ohio. They called it "the boatload o' knowledge," it had sich a passel o' books an' machines an' men o' l'arnin' on it. Then little rowboats an' rafts crossed over from Kaintucky an' ox teams an' pack hosses went through Gentryville and struck across kentry to... to... plague on it! Abe'd tell you in a minute...". Abraham Lincoln wanted to approach the Philanthropist too, but not to tease the passengers like some other people. "Denny," he said, "thar's a school an' thousands o' books thar, an' fellers that know everything in creation [...]. The schoolin' cost only about a hundred dollars a year [...]." Dennis Hanks recalled Abe's father would not even consider sending his son to New Harmony: "Abe'd a broke his back to go, an' it night about broke his heart when he couldn't."

    Quoted from Rinsma, Eyewitness to Utopia, 200-201, 249.

    Philanthropist on the Ohio River (1826), by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

    Lesueur's drawing of the Philanthropist (1826)

    Courtesy of the Natural History Museum in Le Havre

    Robert Owen's office at New Lanark, photograph by Ritsert Rinsma

    Photo of the New-York Daily Tribune (Oct. 23, 1862)

    Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

    Robert Dale Owen and Abraham Lincoln


    In 1836, Robert Owen's son Robert Dale entered Indiana's political arena and, six years later, he became a member of Congress. The abolition movement was very active in New Harmony, which found its ultimate expression when Robert Dale Owen became Abraham Lincoln's political adviser. In a letter dated September 17, 1862, R. D. Owen urged the president of the United States to abolish slavery. He had written a long plea which was placed in Lincoln's hands on Friday, September 19. The following Monday, September 22, Abraham Lincoln issued the first of two Emancipation Proclamations. Owen's letter received national attention because it was published one month later, in the New-York Daily Tribune of October 23, 1862. On page 4, column 2, we read:

    "We publish this morning - by express permission obtained at Washington - a letter from Robert Dale Owen of Indiana to the President of the United States. This eloquent and forcible appeal for a Proclamation of Emancipation as a war measure, sure to meet with the approbation of all loyal men, and to carry confusion into the camp of the enemy, was received by the President a few days before the proclamation was issued. Precisely what influence it may have exercised on the author of that Proclamation we do not know, but we do know, from private sources as well as from the frequent allusions that have been made to it by the correspondents of public journals in Washington, that it was regarded by others of high official position as a succinct and admirable statement of the whole question. Regarding it as a valuable illustration of the history of the times, and all the more so that it comes from one who has long been a distinguished member of the Democratic party, we gladly avail ourselves of the permission to publish it. Though a month only has elapsed since it was written, events are already justifying the foresight that dictated it."

    More about Abraham Lincoln and his connection to New Harmony

    Read Robert Dale Owen's letter to Abraham Lincoln

    Was New Harmony a Failure?


    Today's tendency of trying to qualify things in the most simplistic terms (good vs. bad, right vs. wrong, black vs. white) says more about our modern commentators than about the past events or persons they are commenting upon. Unfortunately one of the signs of our times is that truth is often regarded as "just another opinion," and scientific fact is considered propaganda or a conspiracy. This also applies to Robert Owen's social experiment in New Harmony. When the commentators' personal convictions are on the right of the political spectrum they will probably argue that New Harmony was a failure, that Owen's disciples were socialists, and that socialism is bad, so they had no chance of success. A left-wing commentator will likely make a different statement. But where is the truth? As often when analyzing history, things are rarely black or white.

    Like in any society where people can freely voice their opinion, in Robert Owen's utopia participants would publicly complain when they disagreed with Owen or the policies of their leaders. Freedom of speech was at the heart of New Harmony, and when compromise seemed impossible Owen regularly urged his followers: "If we cannot reconcile all opinions, let us endeavour to unite all hearts." It is therefore not surprising to find much criticism in the primary sources from the very people who participated in his social experiment. Knowing this, it becomes obvious that modern commentators lack historical perspective. They simply quote Owen's sons or his followers to prove New Harmony was a disaster, whereas in fact it was a rather healthy democracy where many things went right (and also wrong).

    Interestingly, community of property never became a reality in New Harmony, in spite of community members pressing Owen to implement just that. Still, modern commentators will tell you Owen's communal society was doomed to fail because property was shared and because they were atheists. These commentators do this in an effort to link Owen's nineteenth-century project to twentieth-century communism and events that occurrred in Russia. No such things ever took place in New Harmony of course. By the way, most of Owen's utopians went to church every Sunday morning. These same commentators will also tell you the town was filled with rascals and idlers, and that nothing constructive ever happened, even though contemporary sources provide evidence of the contrary. Owen's communitarians were quite motivated and they were actively building a post office, a new school building, and a boarding house to create better living conditions for the newly arrived participants. These dedicated disciples were working hard to turn Owen's dream into reality, even though they suffered hardships and shortages.

    Ultimately, the end of New Harmony's social system was due to the uncompromising attitude of the leaders, who refused to find common ground when there was still a chance to work things out. In spite of these problems, great things would be accomplished in New Harmony between 1825 and 1833, and even until 1856. As Donald Pitzer put it in the preface of Ritsert Rinsma's book Eyewitness to Utopia, New Harmony was a "stepping stone", an experimental utopia where new solutions were being tried: "Owen's followers from New Harmony and elsewhere went on to employ other means of organization and activism to further their utopian agenda - lectures, publications, labor unions, producer-consumer cooperatives, and holding public office. As a result, the ongoing Owenite movement to which Lesueur was an eyewitness into the 1830s exercised a profound influence on shaping modern America with emancipation, laborers' and women's rights, and free tax-supported public schools, libraries and museums, including the Smithsonian Institution."

    Some of the fruits of New Harmony greatly impacted the course of American history, and they are still affecting the lives of millions Americans today. See our article The Successes of New Harmony's Utopia.

    The Smithsonian Castle

    The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. is probably the best visible consequence of Robert Owen's Utopia in New Harmony. Created through a bill introduced by his son Robert Dale Owen in 1845, it was to house New Harmony's geological collections and a Normal School, based on Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi's principles. This last proposal was ultimately rejected, but as a National Museum its primary goal to diffuse Useful Knowledge to the greatest number of people fully accomplished William Maclure's dream. The Norman-castle-inspired architectural structure of the building honors the Father of the United States Geological Survey, not David Dale Owen (Robert Owen's other son), but his mentor Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, born in Normandy, France, in 1778. For more information about the history of the United States Geological Survey and the Smithsonian Institution, read The Successes of New Harmony's Utopia and Ritsert Rinsma's Eyewitness to Utopia.


    Read more about the amazing New Harmony experiment 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).

    The Smithsonian Castle

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