Back to Robert Owen Index

'David Lenz House', New Harmony, c1820


1824, the year when he had to agree to the conditions laid down by Allen and his friends, was also the year when he received Richard Flower, an Englishman living in North America, who was trying to find a buyer for 'New Harmony' - a large tract of land, some 30,000 acres, in Indiana, owned by the 'Rappites', followers of a German millennialist preacher called George Rapp

Rapp had arrived in America from Würtemburg in 1803 and initially set up a community in Pennsylvania, under the name of 'Harmony'. There were soon about 600 members and around 1807 they decided to adopt a policy of strict celibacy. Thenceforth, like the Shakers, their numbers had to be replenished by new people coming in from outside.

In 1814, for a variety of reasons including bad relations with their neighbours, they moved to Indiana. Now they wanted to move again and were offering, according to the account by C.R.Edson: '30,000 acres of land, nearly 3,000 of it being under cultivation and consisting of nineteen detached farms; 600 acres of improved land occupied by tenants; 15 acres of full-bearing vines; fine orchards; the village with regularly laid out streets, running at right angles to each other; a public square, around which were built churches, schools, and other public buildings, of brick; mills and factories, all for the sum of $150,000 a mere pittance for the property involved.'

The Indiana property was, however, in a very isolated area with poor and erratic communications. Large consignements of goods could only be transported by river and only at particular limited times of the year. From Owen's point of view, aiming at a self sufficient society, this was not a disadvantage, but the Rappites were deeply interested in commerce with the external world. They now wanted to move back to Pennsylvania, to a new site they called 'Economy', near Pittsburgh.   There they were to remain throughout the century. It is rather sad to contrast the material success of the Rappites with Owen's effort which was, in the event, a fairly thoroughgoing failure. Edson, in an article published in 1892, tells us that:

'In less than five years from the time of their establishment at Economy, they had built factories for the manufacture of cotton, woollen and silk goods, and later on were controlling at Beaver Falls the largest cutlery establishment in the United States, and were noted for their extensive farming operations, orchards and vineyards ...

'and there they are to be found - what is left of them - to-day, millionaires, rich in their railroads, oil wells, coal mines, and other landed property.'

There may be an element of sour grapes in Robert Dale Owen's comment that 'Intellectually and socially, however, it was doubtless a failure; as an ecclesiastical autocracy, especially when it contravenes an important law of nature [he is referring to the celibacy] eventually must be.'

The Rappites had employed Flower as their agent to find a buyer and he had thought of Owen, the champion of the co-operative village. He visited New Lanark in the Summer and seems to have surprised himself at the ease with which he won Owen over to the idea. Owen accompanied him back to America at the end of the year and was lionised by the North American establishment, apparently very excited by his vision of a network of well-organised self sufficient co-operative communities. Even before he established New Harmony itself he had inspired a Swedenborgian congregation in Cincinatti under Rev Daniel Roe to establish a community in Yellow Springs, in Greene County, Ohio. He also excited the enthusiasm of William Maclure, a Scotsman who has been called the 'father of American geology' and who introduced the Pestalozzi educational system into North America. Maclure gathered together a 'boatload of knowledge' with some of the best scientific minds in the country, to come to New Harmony and contribute to the educational side.

Robert Dale Owen was closely involved with his father in the New Harmony project. Looking back on it many years later in his autobiography, he felt that going to the United States had been an error, since the North American labouring class was at the time in much less desperate straits than their English equivalents: 'The need for co-operation, or some other protection for labour, may be said to be threefold greater there than here' (he was writing in North America).

A further error, he felt, was to provide no mechanism for assessing the quality of those who wanted to join the community. Advertisements were placed in the papers over the Summer of 1825 and some eight hundred people soon turned up but there was no attempt to secure references or any other information about them. In addition 'he allowed this motley assembly to elect its own Committee of Management' though in fact Owen, who had the right under the constitution to appoint the whole committee for the first year, nominated four out of its seven members and the nominations were accepted. This was all decided in May 1825 and in July Owen left to return to New Lanark. He did not return until January 1826 when he arrived together with Robert Dale about the same time as the 'boatload of knowledge'.

The Committee had a crucially important role because, in the initial stages of the community, when it was felt to be impossible to introduce a full equality of remuneration, they decided how much each member's contribution was worth and therefore how much they should be paid. Owen had insisted that some such system was necessary since 'scientists and educators would be brought to the settlement under inducements'. The committee provided housing and free education, boarding and clothing for the children:

'As to the other inhabitants' Robert Dale explains, 'they received a weekly credit on the public store to the amount which their services were, by the committee, deemed worth. There was a good band of music; and the inhabitants, on my father’s recommendation, resolved to meet together three evenings each week - one to discuss all subjects connected with the welfare of the society; another for a concert of vocal and instrumental music; while the third was given up to a public ball.'

When Robert Dale arrived at the beginning of 1826, he particularly liked 'the weekly ball, where I found crowds of young people, bright and genial if not specially cultivated, and as passionately fond of dancing as, in those days, I myself was.'

When Owen returned in January he declared himself pleased with the state of the community as he found it and as a result decided to move on to the next stage of development, which had been envisaged from the start - an equality of property. Still following Robert Dale Owen's account:

'Until now the executive committee had estimated the value of each person’s services, and given all persons employed respectively credit for the amount, to be drawn out by them in produce or store goods. But under the new constitution, all members, according to their ages, not according to the actual value of their services, were to be "furnished, as near as can be, with similar food, clothing, and education; and, as soon as practicable, to live in similar houses, and in all respects to be accommodated alike ...  The power of making laws was vested in the Assembly, which consisted of all the resident adult members of the Community. There was an Executive Council, having superintendence and empowered to "carry into effect all general regulations"; but the Council was "subject at all times to any directions expressed by a majority of the Assembly and communicated by the clerk of the Assembly to the secretary of the Council."'

This new constitution was adopted in February 1826 and those wishing to remain members were expected to agree to it within three days. Robert Dale remarks that it took Louis Napoleon four years to become absolute dictator of France after the democratic republic was declared in 1848; but it took his father only five weeks after this democratic constitution was adopted to become absolute dictator at New Harmony, in response to the anarchy that resulted. A process seems to have set in by which the community broke up into a number of different, more or less independent, smaller communities, and within the main community there was a tendency to divide into separate self organising trades. One of the communities was formed under Maclure and had the name 'Macluria'. There was a particularly nasty quarrel between Maclure and Owen on financial matters though it seems Owen had also started a system of education separately from Maclure who felt that that was his responsibility.

Owen left again in the Spring of 1827. On his return in April 1828 he said in a speech in Harmony Hall:

'I had hoped that 50 years of political liberty had prepared the American people to govern themselves advantageously. I supplied land and the use of capital, and I tried, each in their own way, the different parties who collected here; and experience proved that the attempt was premature, to unite a number of strangers not previously educated for the purpose. I afterward tried what could be done by those who associated through their own choice and in small numbers; to those I gave leases of large tracts of good land for ten thousand years for a nominal rent, and upon moral conditions only; and these I did expect would have made progress during my absence; and now upon my return I find that the habits of the individual system  were so powerful that these leases have been, with a few exceptions, applied for individual purposes and individual gain, and in consequence they must return again into my hands ... My intention now is to form such arrangements on the estate as will enable those who desire to promote the practise of the social system, to live in separate families on the individual system and yet to unite their general labor; or to exchange labor for labor on the most beneficial terms for all; all to do both or neither as their feelings or apparent interest may influence them; while the children shall be educated with a view to the establishment of the social system in the future ...'

From then on he had little more to do with it. A large number of the original families, however, did continue to live in the area, and Owen's sons, David Dale Owen and Richard Owen, as well as his daughter, Jane Dale Owen, kept up their connection with it. Maclure established an orphan school and later, in the old Rappite church, a Workingman's Institute and library. Both David Dale and Richard followed Maclure in becoming geologists and through David's influence New Harmony became in 1839 the centre of the United States Geological Survey.