New Harmony

New Harmony. Ultrachrome print, text panel. 2016. Image courtesy the artist.

Location: Harmony Township, Posey County, Indiana

Duration: Phase 1: 1814-1824; Phase 2: 1825-1827

Affiliation: Phase 1: Harmonist Movement; Phase 2: Owenite

Size: Phase 1: 160 homes; Phase 2: 800 residents

“You can, if you will, train man to be a social animal, and to obey only social instincts; and with men so trained a community such as I propose cannot fail of success” –Robert Owen

Phase 1: Harmony, Indiana became the second home for George Rapp and his followers upon immigrating to America. The Harmonists, or Rappites, believed the fall of man occurred when the female element was separated from the male. They practiced common ownership of property and celibacy. When George Rapp came to the realization that having a common purpose can unite a group, he decided to move his organization back to Pennsylvania in 1824 to build from scratch the town of Economy. He sold a ready-made town to Robert Owen, which included 150 buildings, a vineyard, an orchard, and a 5-acre garden.

Phase 2: The Owenite phase of New Harmony is considered America’s first experiment in secular communism. Its founder and patron, Robert Owen, was a wealthy industrialist who used his textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland as an experiment in social reform. Owen was a strong believer in the idea that social conditions created social character. He believed vices, such as criminality and poverty, could be eliminated if everyone agreed to communally lift the standard of living for all.
Owen sailed to the United States in 1824 to purchase a site to implement his vision for “a New Moral World” of happiness, enlightenment, and prosperity through education, science, technology, and communal living. Owen was a passionate promoter of his vision for New Harmony. He persuaded prominent educators such as Marie Fretageot and scientist William Maclure to become a part of the venture. In 1826, a group of intellectuals and reformers from Philadelphia boarded the keelboat Philanthropist, which was also called the “Boatload of Knowledge”. They arrived in New Harmony to help Owen establish his new experiment in socialism.
Upon their arrival, the leaders of New Harmony drafted a second constitution that called for: equality of rights for all, equalities of duties, cooperative union, community of property, freedom of speech and action, sincerity in all proceedings, kindness in all actions, courtesy in all intercourse, order in all arrangements, the preservation of health, the acquisition of knowledge, and the practice of economy. The community was divided into six departments: agriculture, manufacturing, literature-science-education, domestic economy, general economy, and ecommerce.
New Harmony is notable for its focus on education. It was in New Harmony where the first public school in the country was formed; however it was with education that the community began to falter. Owen saw children as blank slates that could be molded in a virtuous way. The classroom was a laboratory for his behaviorist model of character formation through passive indoctrination. On the other hand, William Maclure’s goal was to level the class system by making education available to all. He stressed teaching children how to think as opposed to what to think. It was Maclure who started the Working Man’s Institute as a library and meeting space for workers and their families to take back political power through knowledge.

Reasons for Demise: Robert Owen perhaps described it best when he wrote in a journal “the enjoyment of the reformer is much more in contemplation than in reality.” Owen was a charismatic leader, but he spent the majority of his time away from New Harmony. Thus he preached the abstract virtues of socialism as opposed to overseeing their implementation. He also failed to screen applicants and as result, he ended up with a largely unskilled labor force, supplemented by a larger group of slackers. Further, he was unable to find a way to bridge the cultural differences between the laborers and the intellectuals. Finally, his obsession with abolishing religion and marriage blinded him to the more substantial causes of 19th century poverty and inequality, such as speculators, unscrupulous banks, industrialization, and slavery.