Joshua Muravchik
Heaven on Earth

The storekeepers and clerks seem abundantly busy in attending them—and altho there is so many persons officiating behind the counters, it is frequently very difficult for country people to obtain attention—It has been remarked by many persons in my hearing that three Dutch storekeepers would do more business than them all and with far less confusion—It seems to me an expensive system! plenty of storekeepers, clerks, committee men and rangers—few smiths, artizans [sic] & farmers!
Laggard in production, bureaucratic in distribution, New Harmony survived only because Owen subsidized it, pouring in some thirty thousand dollars those first months, in addition to the cost of his purchases from Rapp. Even this subsidy was not enough to raise the living standards above a spartan level. Brown complained that 'a great part of the time the people were very much stinted in their allowances of coffee and tea, butter, milk, &c.' And even the resolutely upbeat Pelham confessed that 'our privations are sometimes such as to test the strength of our principles.' In a letter to friends planning to join him at New Harmony, he urged them to bring items that were in short supply, including ham, despite complaints that the pigs had the run of the place.

Perhaps in consequence of this general feeling of want, or perhaps because of the character of some of the people drawn to New Harmony, 'a pilfering disposition very much prevailed,' reported Brown. 'Scarce a week passed but shirts, handkerchiefs, or stockings, were filched from...out of the laundries or yards of the boarding houses.'

The only things that seemed to be pursued with energy at New Harmony were meetings and entertainment. One of the few instructions that Owen had given before his departure was that the community should convene three nights a week: once for general discussion, once for a musical recital, once for a ball. These occurred unfailingly, it seems, on Wednesday, Friday and Tuesday nights, and to them were added, according to Pears, parade and drill on Monday nights and 'fire engine' and debates on Saturdays.

Despite these diversions, New Harmony was an uneasy place throughout 1825. Pelham remained confident that 'the present inconveniences will gradually be supplanted,' but he also had to report that his two friends who had reached New Harmony after a journey of two weeks had decided one week later to return at once to Zanesville. And Thomas Pears' wife, Sarah, lamented: 'If ever I should be fortunate enough to get into civilized society once more, I think I should never wish to leave it again.'

The young community pined for its founder. After two months in Scotland and England, Owen headed back to America accompanied by his oldest son, Robert Dale, who described himself as having exulted over the journey 'as an Israelite may have exulted when Moses spoke to him of the Land of Promise.' Owen's party also included an architect named Steadman Whitwell. Owen had retained Whitwell to explain the six-by-six-foot scale model of the ideal cooperative village that he was bringing back with him. It is not easy to understand why Owen attached so much importance to this model when he had nearly a thousand followers living in a flesh-and-blood community patterned according to his social, if not his architectural, ideas. Soon after disembarking, he arranged for Whitwell to convey the thing to Washington, where President Adams allowed them to display it for some weeks in a White House anteroom.

Before returning to New Harmony, Owen traveled to Philadelphia to link up with William Maclure. A Scotsman who had settled in Philadelphia, Maclure was himself a wealthy reformer who had visited Owen's mills at New Lanark and had been powerfully impressed. He had agreed to join Owen in the New Harmony venture and to help finance it. Although Maclure supported Owen's socialist ideas, the goal dearest to his heart was educational reform. It was agreed that he would take charge of education at New Harmony, utilizing it to experiment with new methods. He gathered to himself several educators from Europe and also several scientists of distinction, which he himself was in the field of geology. The coterie included Thomas Say, sometimes called the father of American entomology, and two well-known Europeans, the Dutch geologist Gerard Troost and the French naturalist and illustrator Charles Alexandre Lesueur. So impressive were the group's scholarly credentials that the vessel which carried them to New Harmony was nicknamed the 'boatload of knowledge.'

Owen's arrival at New Harmony in January 1826 brought great rejoicing. The schoolchildren gathered to greet him and accompanied him to his quarters at the tavern. In contrast to the widespread sense of distress among the denizens, Owen declared himself mightily pleased with the progress of New Harmony in his absence. Within a week he announced his intention to dissolve the 'Preliminary Society,' then in only the ninth month of its intended three-year duration, and to replace it at once with a permanent society in which all lingering inequality of rewards would be done away with. It was to be 'liberty, equality, and fraternity in downright earnest,' wrote Robert Dale Owen.

For two weeks, New Harmony was alive with meetings and drafting sessions culminating on February 5 with the adoption of the constitution of the New Harmony Community of Equality. Its preamble echoed the Declaration of Independence: 'When a number of the human family associate in principles which do not yet influence the rest of the world, a due regard to the opinions of others requires a public declaration of the object of their association, of their principles, and of their intentions.'

Apparently, however, the constitution was not pleasing to everyone. Within days, one group, discontent with Owen's antireligious views, broke away and formed an independent community on land that Owen agreed to lease or sell to them. They called their community 'Macluria,' although Maclure himself was not among them, and he was no less a nonbelievel than Owen. In the main community, after two weeks the populace despaired that the new constitution sufficed to set them on a sound course. so the governing committee unanimously voted to give Owen dictatorial powers for a year. A month later, another split ensued and a third community was formed, taking the name 'Feiba Peveli.'

This peculiar name derived from an invention of the architect Steadman Whitwell. He found it confusing that so many places in America were named Washington, and troubling that the name of a place told nothing of its whereabouts. To remedy this, he devised a new system of geographic notation in which each degree of longitude or latitude received an alphabetic designation. Whitwell ingeniously assigned consonants and vowels in such a way as to assure that each place would be pronounceable. By his system London became 'Lafa Vovutu,' Pittsburgh 'Otfu Veitoup,' and the site of community number three at New Harmony came out as 'Feiba Peveli.' When challenged about the lack of euphony of his system, Whitwell responded that his place names were a breeze compared with the name of a nearby Indian chief, known as 'Occoneocoglecoco cachecachecodungo.'

In the main community, Owen undertook a reorganization designed to elicit more work and responsibility from the members. The new constitution contained a provision reminiscent of Owen's 'silent monitors' at New Lanark. A record was to be kept of 'the Intendants opinion of the daily character of each person attached to their Occupation.' Then, at public meetings each Sunday, Owen would read aloud the character ratings and the amount of work performed by each member of the society.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Through Eden took their solitary way.