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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'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.

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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 (1778-1846)


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 Eyewitness of Utopia


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.

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).

 

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)

 

Charles-Alexandre Lesueur's biography


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.

 

Alexandre Lesueur, tome 1, by Bauke Ritsert Rinsma

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

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