Robert Owen and New Harmony




New Harmony represents one of the less successful American utopian experiments. Like the Shakers which it followed, and whose organization New Harmony's founder studied, and Oneida , which would follow it, New Harmony resulted from the utopian vision of one man, Robert Owen. Owen based his conception of utopian society on the belief that an individual's character was shaped by his or her environment. Owen therefore believed that by controlling the environment, superior character could be developed whi ch would result in a new utopian social order.

Born in England in 1771 as one of the younger sons in a large family, Owen was forced to conclude his formal education at the age of ten. He was lucky to be apprenticed to a prominent merchant who allowed him time to read and study. Through his study, Owen came to reject Christianity in favor of a more rational philosophy that included a belief in the need for social reform. Once he had completed his apprenticeship, he used his considerable economic skills to manage factories in Manchester. Ann Lee a nd the original Shakers had left Manchester for the United States less than twenty years before Owen arrived there, and in studying their success he became convinced that a communal utopia was possible. In 1799, Owen, with partners, was able to buy woole n mills at New Lanark , Scotland, the site of his now famous original social experiments. At New Lanark, he developed a system of life for his workers that at once improved the conditions under which they lived and fixed his control over their lives. He improved and expanded the school system, to include education for both younger children and life-long learning for adults, which also provided indoctrination into his philosophies.

Owen became convinced that the United States provided he perfect setting for his utopian experiments, and he left Great Britain to pursue his ideas here. Undoubtedly, Owen was responding in part to the myth of the West and its place in the process of soc ial regeneration, as Henry Nash Smith details it in Virgin Land, as well as to the success that communities like the Shakers were having in that environment. But Owen was also reacting to the powerful influences of the industrial revolution and the nega tive influences that it was having over society in Britain.

Owen came to the United States in November of 1824, and following meetings with some of the most prominent politicians in Washington and visits with the Shakers and with a community of Rappites, another utopian group, he traveled to New Harmony, Indiana, a community established by the Rappites that they were trying to sell. He purchased the town for $135,000, and invited people to apply for the 800 spaces that were available. Owen believed that the community would serve as the model for the "New Moral World" communities that would follow New Harmony and eventually transform world society according to enlightenment principles. Progressive experiments in education, communal living and science were attempted, and Owen brought to New Harmony some of the m ost progressive European educators and scientists.

New Harmony provided equality for all its inhabitants, male and female. This manifestation of this equality was the responsibility of each citizen to contribute to the labor force of the community. In order to provide motivation for his workers in this system, Owen instituted a system of "time money" and "time stores". New Harmony currency was worth the amount of time that a worker had labored, and could be exchanged for commodities worth the equivalent amount of labor.

But although Owen provided New Harmony with everything he could imagine that it would need to succeed, it was missing the essential component that made other communities, like the Shakers, cohesive. Because Owen did not believe in God, their was no centr al covenant that committed the residents of New Harmony to their enterprise. Although they were united by their communal labor, and to the idea of utopian life, the very rational concepts upon which Owen had based the community were antithetical to commu nal life. Because they lacked the strong central belief which served to unite other utopian groups, the members of the community were lacking the commitment to carry out the mission that Owen envisioned. New Harmony dissolved in less than three years.