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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.

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Utopians on the Philanthropist, by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

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 Communities

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
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

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


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

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.

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).


Keelboat on the Ohio River - by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur

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.

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