My Experience of Community Life: A Chapter of Autobiography

BEFORE I left England, in 1825, the facts already stated connected with the enormously increased power to produce, coexisting with the decreased and ever-decreasing means to live, among the laboring millions in that country, had convinced me, not only that something was grievously wrong and out of adaptation to the new industrial aspect of things, but that the essential remedy for the suffering which I witnessed around me was, as my father declared it to be, the substitution of co-operative industry for competitive labor ; and I jumped to the conclusion that, under a system of co-operation, men would speedily be able, by three or four hours of easy labor each day, to supply themselves with all the necessaries and comforts of life which reasonable creatures could desire. Nay, with Utopian aspirations I looked forward to the time when riches, because of their superfluity, would cease to be the end and aim of man’s thoughts, plottings, lifelong toilings ; when the mere possession of wealth would no longer confer distinction, any more than does the possession of water, than which there is no property of greater worth.

To-day, with half a century of added experience, I think, indeed, that invaluable truths underlie these opinions: but 1 think also that I much erred in judging one branch of a great social subject without sufficient reference to other collateral branches ; and that I still more gravely erred in leaving out of view a main, practical ingredient in all successful changes, namely, the element of TIME.

The human race, by some law of its being, often possesses powers in advance — sometimes ages in advance — of capacity to employ them. Alfred Wallace, in a late work on Natural Selection, reminds us that the oldest human skulls yet discovered are not materially smaller than those of our own times : a Swiss skull of the stone age corresponds to that of a Swiss youth of the present day ; the Neanderthal skull has seventy-five cubic inches of brain-space ; and the Engis skull (perhaps the oldest known) is regarded by Huxley as “a fair average skull, that might have belonged to a philosopher.” Wallace’s inference is that man, especially in his savage state, “ possesses a brain quite disproportionate to his actual requirements, — an organ that seems prepared in advance only to be fully utilized as he progresses in civilization.” 1

So also I think it is in regard to man’s industrial powers. He has acquired these in advance of the capacity to take advantage of them, except to a limited extent. The various departments of human progress must go forward, in a measure, side by side. Material, even intellectual, progress brings scanty result, unless moral and spiritual progress bear it company.

I still think it is true that social arrangements can be devised under which all reasonable necessaries and comforts could be secured to a nation, say by three hours’ daily work of its ablebodied population. But, in the present state of moral culture, would that result, in this or any civilized country, be a benefit ? Would leisure, throughout three fourths of each day, be a blessing to uneducated or half - educated men ? If such leisure were suddenly acquired by the masses, would life and property be safe ? Think of the temptations of intemperance ! Some of the reports even from the eight-hour experiment are discouraging.

Then, as to the popular worship of wealth, — characteristic of a period of transition or half-civilization,— that cannot be suddenly corrected. The gallants of Queen Elizabeth’s day sought distinction by the help of rich velvets slashed with satin, costly laces, trussed points, coats heavy with embroidery. It would have been vain, in those days, to take them to task about their finery. It has now disappeared, even to its last lingering remnant, the lace ruffle at the wrist ; but common-sense had to work for centuries, ere men were satisfied to trust, for distinction, to something better than gaudy apparel.

I still think that co-operation is a chief agency destined to quiet the clamorous conflicts between capital and labor ; but then it must be co-operation gradually introduced, prudently managed, as now in England. I think, too, that such co-operation, aside from its healthy pecuniary results, tends to elevate character. Evidence of this, ever multiplying, comes daily to light. I have just received a paper on that subject by Thomas Hughes, published in Macmillan’s Magazine, in which the writer says: “ It is impossible to bring before you, in the space I have at my disposal, anything like proofs of a tithe of the good which the co-operative movement has done ; how it is steadily strengthening and purifying the daily lives of a great section of our people.” From his own observation and that of a Mr. Ludlow, who, he says, “ has had as much experience in this matter as any living man,” Mr. Hughes states :

That the co-operative system, founded scrupulously on ready-money dealings, delivers the poor from the credit system.

That, if a co-operative workshop has elements of vitality sufficient to weather the first few years’ struggles, it is found to expel drunkenness and disorder, as inconsistent with success ; to do away with the tricks and dishonesties of work, now frequent between employers and employed ; to bring about fixity of employment ; to create new ties, new forms of fellowship, even a sort of family feeling, between man and man ; and thus, after a time, to develop a new type of workingmen, characterized “ not only by honesty, frankness, kindness, and true courtesy, but by a dignity, a self-respect, and a consciousness of freedom which only this phase of labor gives.”

The writer met with such a type first in the Associations Ouvrières of Paris, and confidently regards it as “ a normal result of co-operative production.”

Finally, as co-operative producers and consumers have a common interest, this system shuts out adulteration in articles of food, and dishonest deterioration of goods in general, whether caused by faulty workmanship or by employing worthless materials.

A point of vast importance, this last! The debasement of quality which, under the pressure of competition, has gradually extended of late years to almost every article used by man, is notorious. Yet as few persons except the initiated realize the immense loss to society from this source, an illustrative experience of my own may here be welcome.

When my father left me manager of the New Lanark cotton-mills, in the winter of 1824-25, a certain Mr. Bartholomew, who had long been a customer of ours to the extent of twentyfive or thirty thousand dollars a year, came to me one day, asking if I could make him a lot of yarn suitable for ordinary shirting, at such a price, naming it. “ We have but one price ” I said, “ and you know well that we sell such yarn twenty per cent above the rate you propose.”

“ I know that,” he replied; “ but you could make it, so as to be sold at my price.”

“ Yes, by using waste and mixing in weak, short-stapled cotton.”

“And it would look almost as well ? ”

“ Perhaps.”

“ Then I ’ll risk it.”

“ My father’s instructions,” I replied, “are not to lower the quality of our goods. I’m sorry; but I can’t fill your order.”

He went off in a huff, but returned two days later. “ See here,” he said, “don’t be Quixotic. I can have the yarn I asked you about spun elsewhere. What’s the use of driving a good customer from you ? I shall get the stuff I want, and use it, all the same.”

“It would injure the character of our mill.”

“ Not if you leave off your trademark. What do I care about the picture ? 2 Mark it as you will.”

I hesitated ; and finally — not much to my credit — agreed to make the yarn for him. I had it marked with a large B. “It will stand either for Bartholomew or for had,” I said to him when he came to look at it. “ I’m ashamed to turn such an article out of our mill.”

But three weeks later he came again. “Just the thing!” he said; and he gave me a second order, thrice as large as the first.

The B yarn became a popular article in the market ; the shirting that was made from it looking smoolh, and being sold at some ten per cent less than that made from our usual quality. Yet, to my certain knowledge, —for I tried it,— it did not last half as long as the other.

That transaction sits somewhat heavily on my conscience still. Yet it helped to teach me a great lesson. It is my firm belief that, at the present time, purchasers of cotton, woollen, linen, and silk goods, of furniture, hardware, leather goods, and all other manufactured staples, lose, on the average, because of inferior quality, more than half of all the money they pay out. And I doubt whether, except by cooperation, this crying evil can be remedied.

When I reached Harmony, early in 1826, these general ideas ruled in my mind, untempered by the “sober second thoughts ” which an after-life brought with it. I looked at everything with eyes of enthusiasm ; and, for a time, the life there was wonderfully pleasant and hopeful to me. This, I think, is the common experience of intelligent and well-disposed persons who have joined the Brook Farm or other reputable community. There is a great charm in the good-fellowship and in the absence of conventionalism which characterize such associations.

Then there was something especially taking— to me at least— in the absolute freedom from trammels, alike in expression of opinion, in dress, and in social converse, which I found there. The evening gatherings, too, delighted me; the weekly meeting for discussion of our principles, in which I took part at once ; the weekly concert, with an excellent leader, Josiah Warren, and a performance of music, instrumental and vocal, much beyond what 1 had expected in the backwoods ; last, not least, 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.

The accommodations seemed to me, Indeed, of the rudest, and the fare of the simplest ; but I cared no more for that than young folks usually care who forsake pleasant homes to spend a summer month or two under canvas,— their tents on the beach, perhaps, with boats and fishing-tackle at command ; or pitched in some sylvan retreat, where youth and maiden roam the forest all day, returning at nightfall to merry talk, improvised music, or an impromptu dance on the greensward.

I shrank from no work that was assigned to me ; and sometimes, to the surprise of my associates, volunteered when a hard or disagreeable job came up, as the pulling down of sundry dreadfully dusty and dilapidated cabins throughout the village ; but, after a time, finding that others could manage as much common labor in one day as I in two or three, and being invited to take general charge of the school and to aid in editing the weekly paper, I settled down to what, I confess, were more congenial pursuits than wielding the axe or holding the plough-handles.

I had previously tried one day of sowing wheat by hand, and held out till evening; but my right arm was comparatively useless for forty-eight hours after. Another day, when certain young girls, who were baking bread for one of the large boarding-houses, lacked an additional hand, I offered to help them ; but when the result of my labors came to the table, it was suggested that one of the loaves should be voted to me as a gift for my diligence ; the rather, as, by a little manipulation, such as apothecaries use in making pills, it might save me the trouble of casting bullets the next time I went out rifle-shooting.

To atone for these and similar mishaps, I sometimes succeeded where others had failed. When I first took charge of the school, finding that the teachers occasionally employed corporal punishment, I strictly forbade it. After a time the master of the eldest boys’ class said to me one day, “ I find it impossible to control these unruly rascals. They know I am not allowed to flog them ; and when I seek to enforce rules of order, they defy me.”

I sought to show him how he might manage them without the rod, but he persisted: “If you’d try it yourself for a few days, Mr. Owen, you’d find out that I’m right.”

Good,” said I. “I ’ll take them in hand for a week or two.”

They were a rough, boisterous, lawless set ; bright enough, quick of observation ; capable of learning when they applied themselves ; but accustomed to a free swing, and impatient of discipline to which they had never been subjected. I said to them, at the start, “ Boys, I want you to learn ; you ’ll be very sorry when you come to be men, if you don’t. But you can’t learn anything worth knowing, without rules to go by. I must have you orderly and obedient. I won’t require from you anything unreasonable ; and I don’t intend to be severe with you. But whatever 1 tell you, has to be done, and shall be done, sooner or later.” Here I observed on one or two bold faces a smile that looked like incredulity ; but all I added was, “ You ’ll save time, if you do it at once.”

My lessons, often oral, interested them, and things went on quietly for a few days. I knew the crisis would come. It did, in this wise. It was May, the thermometer ranging toward ninety, and I resolved to take the class to bathe in the Wabash, much to their delight. I told them, in advance, that by the doctor’s advice they were to remain in the water fifteen minutes only : that was the rule. When I called, “ Time up ! ” they all came out, somewhat reluctantly however, except one tall fellow, named Ben, a good swimmer, who detained us ten minutes more, notwithstanding my order, several times repeated, to come on shore.

I said nothing about it till we returned to the school-room ; then I asked the class, “ Do you remember my saying to you that whatever I told you to do had to be done sooner or later?” They looked at Ben, and said, “ Yes,” Then I went on : “I am determined that if I take you to bathe again, you shall stay in fifteen minutes only. How do you think I had best manage that?” They looked at Ben again, and seemed puzzled, never, very surely, having been asked such a question before. “ Has no one any plan ? ” I said.

At length a youngster suggested, “ I guess you’d best thrash him, Mr. Owen.”

“ I don’t wish to do that,” I replied ; “I think it does boys harm. Besides, I never was whipped myself, 1 never whipped anybody, and I know it must be a very unpleasant thing to do. Can’t some of you think of a better plan ? ”

One of the class suggested, " There ’s a closet in the garret, with a stout bolt to it. You might shut him up there till we get back.”

“That’s better than flogging ; but is the closet dark ? ”

“ It’s dark as hell.”

“You must n’t talk so, my child. You can’t tell whether there is such a place as hell at all. You mean that the closet is quite dark, don’t you ? ”

“ Yes.’

“ Then you ought to say so. But I think Ben would not like to be shut up in the dark for nearly an hour.”

“ No ; but then we don’t like to be kept from bathing just for him.”

Then one little fellow, with some hesitation, put in his word : " Please, Mr. Owen, would n’t it do to leave him in the playground ? ”

“ If I could be sure that he would stay there; but he might get out and go bathing, and remain in half an hour perhaps.”

At this point, Ben, no longer able to restrain himself, — he had been getting more and more restless, turning first to one speaker, then to another, as we coolly discussed his case,— burst forth: " Mr. Owen, if you ’ll leave me in the playground when they go to bathe next time, I ’ll never stir from it. I won’t. You ’ll see I won’t.”

“ Well, Ben,” said I, “I’ve never known you to tell a falsehood, and I ’ll take your word for it this time. But remember! If you lie to me once, I shall never be able to trust you again. We could n’t believe known liars if we were to try.”

So the next time we went bathing, I left Ben in the playground. When we returned he met me, with eager face, at the gate. " I’ve never left even for a minute ; ask them if I have,” pointing to some boys at play.

“ Your word is enough. I believe you.”

Thereafter Ben came out of the water promptly as soon as time was called ; and when any of his comrades lingered, he was the first to chide them for disobeying orders.

Once or twice afterwards I had to take a somewhat similar stand (never against Ben), persisting each time until I was obeyed. Then bethinking me of my Hofwyl experience, I called in the aid of military drill, which the boys took to very kindly; and when three weeks had passed, I found that my pupils prided themselves in being — what, indeed, they were — the best disciplined and most orderly and law-abiding class in the school.

So I carried my point against a degrading relic of barbarism, then countenanced in England, alike in army, navy, and some of the most accredited seminaries. I had witnessed an example, the year before, in London, during a visit to the central school of Dr. Bell, the rival of Lancaster, patronized by the Anglican Church. A class were standing up, for arithmetic. “ Seven times eight are fifty-six,” said one boy. " Is, not are,” sternly cried the teacher, dealing the offender such a buffet on the ear that he staggered and finally dropped to the ground ; then adding: " Get up ! Now perhaps you ’ll remember that, another time.” But whether it was the blow or the bit of doubtful grammar he was bidden to remember seemed not very clear.

I still recollect how my nature revolted against this outrage,—for such it appeared to me. " Father,” said I, as we left the room, I ’m very sorry you gave any money to this school.” He smiled, and apologized for the teacher, saying, “ The man had probably been treated in the same manner when he was a child, and so knew no better.” My father had, some time before, subscribed two thousand five hundred dollars in aid of the Bell system ; offering to double that sum if Dr. Bell would open his schools to the children of dissenters. But this the ex-chaplain, or his committee, had refused to do.

On the whole, my life in Harmony, for many months, was happy and satisfying. To this the free and simple relation there existing between youth and maidens much contributed. We called each other by our Christian names only, spoke and acted as brothers and sisters might; often strolled out by moonlight in groups, sometimes in single pairs ; yet, withal, no scandal or other harm came of it, either then or later, unless we are to reckon as such a few improvident or unsuited matches, that turned out poorly, as hasty lovematches will. What might have happened to myself amid such familiar surroundings, if my heart had not been preoccupied, I cannot tell. I met almost daily handsome, interesting, warmhearted girls ; bright, merry and unsophisticated ; charming partners at ball or picnic : one especially, who afterwards married a son of Oliver Evans, the celebrated inventor and machinist, to whom, I believe, we owe the highpressure engine. But this girl, many years since dead, and others both estimable and attractive, were to me, engrossed by recollections of Jessie, but as favorite sisters.

Naturally enough, under such circumstances, I was not haunted by doubts as to the success of the social experiment in which we were engaged. The inhabitants seemed to me friendly and well disposed. There was much originality of character, and there were some curious eccentricities ; but nothing to match the Page of Nature, who had so startled Captain McDonald and myself at New York.

One example occurs to me, — an old man named Greenwood, father of Miles Greenwood, well known afterwards to the citizens of Cincinnati as chief of their Fire Department, and still later as owner of the largest foundry and machine-shop then in the West. We had, during the summer of 1826 several terrific thunder-storms such as I had never before witnessed. The steeple of our church was shattered and one of our boarding-houses struck. It was during one of these storms, when the whole heavens seemed illuminated and the rain was falling in torrents, that I saw old Greenwood, thoroughly drenched, and carrying, upright as a soldier does his musket, a slender iron rod, ten or twelve feet long. He was walking in the middle of the street, passed with slow step the house in which I was, and, as I afterwards learned, paraded every street in the village in the same deliberate manner. Next day I met him and asked an explanation. “ Ah well, my young friend,” said he, “ I’m very old ; I ’m not well; I suffer much ; and 1 thought it might be a good chance to slip off and be laid quietly in the corner of the peach orchard.” 3

“ You hoped to be struck by the lightning ? ”

“ You see, I don’t like to kill myself,— seems like taking matters out of God’s hands. But I thought he might perhaps send me a spare bolt when I put myself in the way. If he had only seen fit to do it, I 'd then have been at rest this very minute ; all my pains gone ; no more trouble to any one, and no more burden to myself.”

“You don’t know how useful you may be yet, Mr. Greenwood.”

“ Under the green grass would have been better ; but it was n’t to be, just yet.”

In the educational department we had considerable talent, mixed with a good deal of eccentricity. We had a Frenchman, patronized by Mr. Maclure, a M. Phiquepal d’Arusmont, who became afterwards the husband of Frances Wright ; a man well informed on many points, full of original ideas, some of practical value, but, withal, a wrong-headed genius, whose extravagance and wilfulness and inordinate self-conceit destroyed his usefulness. He had a small school, but it was a failure ; he gained neither the goodwill nor the respect of his pupils.

Another, of a very different stamp, was Professor Joseph Neef, from Pestalozzi’s in Switzerland. Simple, straightforward, and cordial, a proficient in modern languages, a good musician, he had brought with him from Pestalozzi’s institution at Iverdun an excellent mode of teaching. To his earlier life, as an officer under Napoleon, was due a blunt, off-hand manner and an abrupt style of speech, enforced, now and then, with an oath, — an awkward habit for a teacher, which I think he tried ineffectually to get rid of. One day, when I was within hearing, a boy in his class used profane language. “ Youngster,” said Neef to him, “you must n’t swear. It’s silly, and it’s vulgar, and it means nothing. Don’t let me hear you do so again.”

“ But, Mr. Neef,”said the boy, hesitating and looking half frightened, “if — if it’s vulgar and wrong to swear, why — ”

“Well, out with it! Never stop when you want to say anything: that’s another bad habit. You wished to know why — ”

“ Why you swear yourself, Mr. Neef?”

“ Because I’m a d—d fool. Don’t you be one, too.”

With all his roughness, the good old man was a general favorite alike with children and adults. Those whose recollections of Harmony extend back thirty years preserve a genial remembrance of him walking about in the sun of July or August, in linen trousers and shirt, always bareheaded, sometimes barefooted, with a grandchild in his arms, and humming to his infant charge some martial air, in a wonderful bass voice, which, it was said, enabled him, in his younger days, when giving command to a body of troops, to be distinctly heard by ten thousand men.

We had, at this time, in the educational department, a good many persons ot literary and scientific ability. But dissensions crept in among them, and several, including Dr. Troost, finally left the place. Mr. Lesueur, however, remained many years, and Thomas Say settled in Harmony, where he spent his time in preparing his beautifully illustrated work on American Entomology, dying there in 1834.

I think my father must have been as well pleased with the condition of things at New Harmony, on his arrival there, as I myself was. At all events, some three weeks afterwards, he disclosed to me his intention to propose to the Harmonites that they should at once form themselves into a Community of Equality, based on the principle of common property. This took me by surprise, knowing, as I did, that when the preliminary society had been established, nine months before, he had recommended that this novitiate should continue two or three years, before adventuring the next and final step.

It was an experiment attended with great hazard. 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.” Also the real estate of the association was to be “held in perpetual trust forever for the use of the Community ” ; persons leaving the society to forfeit all interest in the original land, but to have claim for “a just proportion of the value of any real estate acquired during their membership.” 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.” 4 After the first formation of the Community, the assent of a majority of the Assembly was necessary to admit a member.

Liberty, equality, and fraternity, in downright earnest ! It found favor with that heterogeneous collection ofradicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.

A committee of seven (my brother William and myself included), elected at a town-meeting held January 26, 1826, were authorized to frame and report a constitution. They reported on February I ; and, after a few days’ debate, the constitution, somewhat amended, was adopted on February 5. Every member of the preliminary society who signed the constitution within three days was, with his family, admitted into the Community. All but a few, who soon after left the place, subscribed ; and then the books were closed.

I made no opposition to all this. I had too much of my father’s all-believing disposition to anticipate results which any shrewd, cool-headed business man might have predicted.

How rapidly they came upon us! Any one who still owns a file of the weekly paper then published in New Harmony may readily trace them.

Two weeks after the formation of the Community we find : “ On the 19th instant” (February) “ a resolution was adopted by the Assembly directing the Executive Council to request the aid of Mr. Owen for one year in conducting the concerns of the Community in conformity with the principles of the constitution.” 5 Three weeks later, in an editorial, we read : “ General satisfaction and individual contentment have taken the place of suspense and uncertainty. Under the sole direction of Mr. Owen, the most gratifying anticipations of the future may be safely indulged.” 6

It was four years after the declaration, in Paris, in 1848, of a Republic, before France settled down under the leadership of one man ; but, at Harmony, five weeks sufficed to bring about a somewhat similar result. The difference was, however, that Louis Napoleon, false to his oath, and resorting to a coup d' état, upset the Republic, while my father conscientiously adhered to the instructions given by the Assembly to conform to the principles of the constitution. This very adherence, beyond doubt, caused his failure.

For a time, however, things improved under his management. Under date March 22, an editorial tells us : “ While we have been discussing abstract ideas, we have neglected practical means. Our energies have been wasted in useless efforts.....But by the indefatigable attention of Mr. Owen, order and system have been introduced into every branch of business. Our streets no longer exhibit groups of idle talkers ; each is busily engaged in the occupation he has chosen. Our public meetings, instead of being the arena of contending orators, are now places of business,”7 etc.

This is a useful lifting of the curtain, disclosing what the immediate effects of a premature step had been. Two months later appear symptoms of doubt. My father, reviewing the proceedings of the Community, May 10, says: “The great experiment in New Harmony is still going on, to ascertain whether a large, heterogeneous mass of persons, collected by chance, can be amalgamated into one community.”8 Up to that time,it would seem, he had delayed to make any conveyance of the land.

When three months more had passed, my father, addressing the Assembly, said, in reply to a question as to having all things, land included, in common, “ I shall be ready to form such a community whenever you are prepared for it..... But progress must be made in community education before all parties can be prepared for a community of common property,”9 He then proposed, and the Assembly adopted, a resolution that they meet three evenings in the week for community education.

These meetings continued, with gradually lessening numbers, for a month or two. Then comes an editorial admission that " a general system of trading speculation prevails ” ; together with “a want of confidence in the good intentions of each other.” 10

Finally, little more than a year after the Community experiment commenced, came official acknowledgment of its failure. The editorial containing it, though without signature, was written by my brother William and myself, as editors, on our own responsibility ; but it was submitted by us, for revision as to the facts, to my father. We said : Our opinion is that Robert Owen ascribed too little influence to the early anti-social circumstances that had surrounded many of the quickly collected inhabitants of New Harmony before their arrival there ; and too much to those circumstances which his experience might enable them to create around themselves in future..... We are too inexperienced to hazard a judgment on the prudence and management of those who directed its execution ; and the only opinion we can express with confidence is of the perseverance with which Robert Owen pursued it at great pecuniary loss to himself. One form of government was first adopted, and when that appeared unsuitable another was tried ; until it appeared that the members were too various in their feelings and too dissimilar in their habits to govern themselves harmoniously as one community..... New Harmony, therefore, is not now a community.” 11

Thenceforth, of course, the inhabitants had either to support themselves or to leave the town. But my father offered land on the Harmony estate to those who desired to try smaller community experiments, on an agricultural basis. Several were formed, some by honest, industrious workers, to whom land was leased at very low rates ; while other leases were obtained by unprincipled speculators who cared not a whit for co-operative principles, but sought private gain by the operation. All finally failed as social experiments. To the workers who had acted in good faith my father ultimately sold, at a low price, the lands they occupied. By the speculators he lost in the end a large amount of personal property, of which, under false pretences, they had obtained control.

My present opinion is that, in stating the causes which led to the failure of my father’s plans of social reform at New Harmony, my brother and I omitted the chief error. I do not believe that any industrial experiment can succeed which proposes equal remuneration to all men, the diligent and the dilatory, the skilled artisan and the common laborer, the genius and the drudge. I speak of the present age ; what may happen in the distant future it is impossible to foresee and imprudent to predict. What may be safely predicted is, that a plan which remunerates all alike will, in the present condition of society, ultimately eliminate from a co-operative association the skilled, efficient, and industrious members, leaving an ineffective and sluggish residue, in whose hands the experiment will fail, both socially and pecuniarily.

The English associations which are now succeeding were organized under a special act of Parliament, as joint stock companies (limited); all heads of families and single adults within each being at once the stockholders who furnish the necessary capital, and if it be a store, the customers, or, if it be a manufacturing or agricultural establishment, the workers who give that capital its value. A small executive board, its members being themselves experienced workers, and having moderate fixed salaries, is elected by the association, and superintends all operations. These superintendents are required to visit, at stated hours throughout the day, each department of industry, and to register, on books kept for that purpose, the exact hour and duration of these visits. Each artisan or other laborer is paid wages at the rate which his services would command in the outside world ; and is entitled, at the end of each year, when the profits are declared, to a dividend on his stock, in addition.

There are other important details, for example, arrangements in the nature of benefit societies in case of sickness ; but they would be out of place here. This slight sketch may suffice to show, in a general way, how the workman, if he can once lay up in a savings’ bank or elsewhere a small capital, may obtain the entire value of his labor ; may secure permanent employment which only misconduct can forfeit; and, besides, have fair wages regularly paid, and his just proportion of profits, deducting only the necessary expense of a judicious and economical management.

Robert Owen distinguished the great principle ; but, like so many other devisers, missed the working details of his scheme. If these, when stated, seem to lie so near the surface that common sagacity ought to have detected them, let us bear in mind how wise men stumbled over Columbus’s simple puzzle ; failing to balance an egg on one end till a touch from the great navigator’s hand solved the petty mystery.

I have little doubt that the English co-operators are gradually furnishing a practical solution of the most important of industrial mysteries, — the great problem how increased powers to produce shall not only procure increased comforts to the producer, but, at the same time, elevate him, day by day, in the moral scale, until he becomes, as the years go on, a self-respecting, upright, intelligent man.

That these civilizing influences should result from the principle of association for mutual benefit is according to the due order of human progress. Animals are self-dependent and individually isolated, and so are liable to grave injury from slight cause, and are daily in peril from stronger and fiercer brutes.12 Savage man is but a step in advance of this ; and scarcely more secure than he is the laborer of modern days, when segregated from his class, and fighting the life battle, single-handed, against capital and competition. Divided, he falls lower and lower in the social scale. United only, — but it must be judiciously united,13 — can he succeed in attaining security and comfort. Nor need he surrender wholesome liberty in associating for common good : the English co-operative workman is far more free, as well as more safe, than his isolated neighbors.

Such considerations may palliate, in my father’s case, the charge of rash confidence, and what may seem reckless self-sacrifice, in carrying out his favorite plans. He expended in the purchase of the Harmony property, real and personal, in paying the debts of the Community during the year of its existence, and in meeting his ultimate losses the next year by swindlers, upwards of two hundred thousand dollars.

Had his plans succeeded, he would, beyond question, have conveyed the whole of his Indiana property in trust forever, without value received, or any compensation other than the satisfaction of success, to support co-operative associations there. Thus, as his property did not then reach quarter of a million, he was willing to give up more than four fifths of what he was worth to this great experiment.

The remainder, not exceeding forty thousand dollars, might have sufficed for a competence, had he been content to live quietly upon it. But it soon melted away in a hundred expenditures for experiments, publications, and the like, connected with social and industrial reform. He seems to have felt it to be a point of honor, so long as he had means left, to avert reproach from the cause of co-operation by paying debts left standing at the close of unsuccessful experiments, whenever these had been conducted in good faith.14

One result of all this seems to me now so little like what usually happens in this world, that, if it provoke incredulity, I think the sceptics may be readily excused. It relates to my brother William and myself, exemplifying the effect of early habits and impressions. Soon after our return from Hofwyl, my father had made us partners in the New Lanark mills, conveying to each of us one share of fifty thousand dollars. We bought whatever we wanted ; and, as it happened, our profits amply sufficed for our wants. Yet I cannot call to mind that I ever examined my partnership account, or posted myself as to the balance.

When my father agreed to devote four fifths of the property that would naturally have come to us, as his heirs, to the cause of reform, neither William nor I, to the best of my recollection, expressed or even felt regret that it was about to pass away from us. Several years after the purchase of Harmony, when we learned from my father that his funds were running low, we both volunteered to transfer to him, unconditionally, our New Lanark shares. He accepted the offer as frankly as it was made ; but he conveyed to us jointly land on the Harmony estate worth about thirty thousand dollars. Engrossed with the sanguine hopes of youth and the vague dreams of enthusiasm, I believe that I scarcely bestowed a second thought on the pecuniary independence for life which I was thus relinquishing. If any one had lauded my disinterestedness, it would have been unmerited praise ; it was simply indifference, not self-sacrifice. Nor do I remember ever pining after the luxuries of Braxfield, or wishing myself back again in the Old World.

My father’s intention in bringing us up thus unconcerned about money and careless as to its acquisition was kind and commendable ; it was far better than to have taught us that riches are the main chance in life, and that all things else should be postponed to money-getting ; but I am of opinion now that it was a grave mistake, nevertheless. I think a father ought to say to his sons, as I have said to mine : “Money is a power for good as well as for evil. It is an element of personal independence. Do not grasp after it ; yet seek to acquire it fairly, honorably, without doing hard things, especially without grinding others. Do not enter public life until you shall have set apart what suffices for a reputable living, and invested your savings with reference to absolute safety rather than to high rate of interest. Thus, on solid ground yourself, you can the more effectively lend a hand to the cause of reform ; and if you are elected a legislator, or to other civil service, you can act out your convictions, without fear that loss of office will reduce you to poverty.”

My father took a less practical, if more Scriptural, view of things, virtually telling us : “ Seek first the good of human kind,and all other things shall be added unto you.” He protected us, however, to a great extent, from suffering while following such advice. For, at a later period, he conveyed to his sons, then citizens of the United States, the New Harmony property, his only surviving daughter being already provided for. All he required of us in return was to execute a deed of trust, of some thirty thousand dollars’ worth of land, burdened with an annuity to him, during his life, of fifteen hundred a year ; after that a life interest to his daughters-in-law, and the fee to their children. The above annuity was his sole dependence for support during many years of his life. We, with the means he put into our hands, might have readily accumulated an assured independence by the time we reached middle age, had we known (which we did not) how to manage and improve Western property, and had we steadily followed up the pursuit of a competency, as we ought to have done. There is more power in knowledge than in gold, no matter how large the pile.

In looking back upon myself as I was in those days, I have often wondered how far my after-life might have been affected by the judicious advice of some cool-headed, dispassionate friend, one who, while sharing many of my aspirations, would have brought the chastening experience of a long life to mould and give wise direction to them : what, for example, the result would have been if the Robert Dale Owen of seventy could have become the counsellor of the Robert Dale Owen of twenty-five ; talking over that eager youth’s ideas of reform with him ; dissecting his views of life here and his doubts of life hereafter ; correcting his crudities and calling in question his hasty conclusions.

I found no such mentor, but met, instead, with a friend some ten years my senior, possessing various noble qualities, but with ideas on many subjects, social and religious, even more immature and extravagant than my own. This new acquaintance mainly shaped, for several years, the course and tenor of my life.

Frances Wright was a cultivated Englishwoman of good family, who, though left an orphan at an early age, had received a careful and finished education, was thoroughly versed in the literature of the day, well informed on all general subjects, and spoke French and Italian fluently. She had travelled and resided for years in Europe, was an intimate friend of General Lafayette, had made the acquaintance of many leading reformers, Hungarian, Polish, and others, and was a thorough republican ; indeed, an advocate of universal suffrage, without regard to color or sex, — a creed that was much more rare forty years ago than it is to-day. Refined in her manner and language, she was a radical alike in politics, morals, and religion.

She had a strong, logical mind, a courageous independence of thought, and a zealous wish to benefit her fellowcreatures ; but the mind had not been submitted to early discipline, the courage was not tempered with prudence, the philanthropy had little of commonsense to give it practical form and efficiency. Her enthusiasm, eager but fitful, lacked the guiding check of sound judgment. Her abilities as an author and a lecturer were of a high order ; but an inordinate estimate of her own mental powers and an obstinate adherence to opinions once adopted detracted seriously from the influence which her talents and eloquence might have exerted. A redeeming point was, that to carry out her convictions she was ready to make great sacrifices, personal and pecuniary. She and a younger sister, a lady alike amiable and estimable, had always lived and journeyed together, were independent in their circumstances, and were devotedly attached to each other.

She had various personal advantages,— a tall, commanding figure, somewhat slender and graceful, though the shoulders were a little bit too high ; a face the outline of which in profile, though delicately chiselled, was masculine rather than feminine, like that of an Antinous, or perhaps more nearly typifying a Mercury ; the forehead broad, but not high ; the short, chestnut hair curling naturally all over a classic head ; the large, blue eyes not soft, but clear and earnest. When I first met her, at Harmony, in the summer of 1826, some of the peculiarities of character above set forth had not developed themselves. She was then known, in England and here, only as the author of a small work entitled A Few Days in Athens, published and favorably received in London ; and of a volume of travels in the United States, in which she spoke in laudatory tone of our institutions and of our people. She condemned, indeed, in strong terms — as enlightened foreigners were wont to do — that terrible offence against human liberty (tolerated, alas ! by our Constitution) which the greatest war of modern times has since blotted out.

But she did more than to condemn the crime of slavery : she sought, albeit with utterly inadequate means and knowledge, to act as pioneer in an attempt to show how it might be gradually suppressed. She had already purchased a large tract of unimproved farming land, situated in West Tennessee, about fourteen miles back of Memphis, on both sides of a small stream called by the Indians Nē-sho-bāh, or Wolf River ; and she had bought and removed to that place nine negro slaves. Her confident hope was, to prove that these people could, in a few years, by their own labor, work out their liberty ; and, with a strange ignorance alike of Southern character and of the force of lifelong habits, and of the sway of selfish motive among the rich and idle, she was credulous enough to expect that the better intentioned among the planters of the South would gradually follow her example.

Miss Wright’s vigorous character, rare cultivation, and hopeful enthusiasm gradually gave her great influence over me; and I recollect her telling me, one day when I had expressed, in the New Harmony Gazette, with more than usual fearlessness, some radical opinions which she shared, that I was one of the few persons she had ever met with whom she felt that, in her reformatory efforts, she could act in unison. Thus we became intimate friends, and in the sequel coeditors.

Friends ; but never, throughout the years we spent together, anything more. I felt and acted toward her, at all times, just as I would toward a brave, spirited, elder comrade of my own sex. Affections already engaged and the difference of age may have had their weight; but, aside from this, while I saw much to admire in Frances Wright, I found nothing to love.

Whether I was ever Quixotic enough to believe that her experiment at Nashoba (so she named her plantation) would, to any appreciable extent, promote negro emancipation, I cannot now call to mind. I think that the feature in her plan which chiefly attracted me was her proposal there to collect, from among the cultivated classes of England and America, a few kindred spirits who should have their small, separate dwellings, contribute to a common fund enough for their support, and spend their time in “lettered leisure.” 1 probably pictured to myself a woodland cottage, with honeysuckle-shaded porch, and with Jessie and myself as its inmates.

We learn of one of Homer’s heroes, that the gods

“ Granted half his prayer ;
The rest the winds dispersed in empty air " :

but I was less favored. No part of my Tennessee dream was to be real ized.

Robert Dale Owen.

  1. Contributions to the Theory of Nature] Selection, by Alfred Russell Wallace, author of the Malay Archipelago, etc., London and New York, 1870, P. 343.
  2. Mr. Wallace adds : “A brain slightly larger then that of the gorilla (which is thirty to thirty-four cubic inches) would, according to the evidence before us, have fully sufficed for the mental development of the savage.”
  3. Size of brain is the chief, though not the sole, element which determines mental power. An adult male European with less than sixty-five cubic inches of brain is invariably idiotic.
  4. On each ten-pound package we were wont to paste an engraving of the mills and village ; and our yarn, in consequence, went, far and near, by the name of “ picture-yarn.”
  5. Where a temporary cemetery had been opened ; the Germans having reserved their graveyard, and stipulated that no one should be buried there.
  6. For a copy of the constitution, see New Harmony Gazette, Vol. I.
  7. New Harmony Gazette of February 22, 1826, P. I75.
  8. New Harmony Gazette of March 8, 1826, p. 190.
  9. New Harmony Gazette, Vol. I. p. 207.
  10. Same volume, p. 263.
  11. New Harmony Gazette of August 30, 1826, Vol. I. p. 391.
  12. New Harmony Gazette of November 8, Vol. II. p. 46.
  13. New Harmony Gazette, Vol. II, p. 206
  14. The effect upon animals of what has been called “natural selection,” says Wallace, “depends mainly on their self-dependence and individual isolation. A slight injury, a temporary illness, leaves the individual powerless against its enemies. " — Work on Natural Selection already quoted, p. 3II.
  15. What is the effect on a laboring father of a family, with two dollars and a half a week to support them, of “ slight injury or temporary illness ” ? Is he not at the mercy of his enemies,— abject penury, starvation?
  16. Trades unions are often but disguised tyrannies ; examples of an excellent principle, miserably perverted.
  17. In the year 1832 (for example), there was established in London, by workingmen friendly to cooperation, a Bazaar, or “ Labor Exchange.” At first my father was requested to act as manager, which he did without salary, merely stipulating that no expense or risk should devolve upon him ; but, after a time, the parties concerned thought they could manage better themselves, and my father withdrew. When, at a later period (says one of his biographers), the business was wound up, ‘‘there was a deficiency of upwards of twelve thousand dollars ; and when it was represented to Mr. Owen that it was through confidence in him that many persons had been led to make deposits, whose distress or even ruin would ensue if the loss were not made up, he assumed and paid the whole.” Life of Robert Owen, Philadelphia, 1866, pp. 223, 224.