New Harmony

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New Harmony was a utopian community founded by the British industrialist and social reformer Robert Owen in 1825. Established in southwestern Indiana, it was one of the first intense efforts to create a community based on cooperative, proto-socialist ideals, but it failed after two years, mainly because of the flawed principles it was founded on. Portions of New Harmony still exist, and continue to be a reminder of this early socialist experiment.


In 1804, a German quasi-religious sect under the leadership of Father George Rapp emigrated to America. The principles of the group, whose members called themselves "Harmonists" but were more generally known as "Rappites," are somewhat vague, but it emphasized communal life and labor, withdrawal from the state and from established religion, and strict obedience to the will of their leader, Father Rapp. Among other things, Rapp outlawed all sexual activity and the use of tobacco, and demanded simple living from his followers (he himself had had four children and lived in a large and comfortable house).

After arriving in America, the Rappites lived in Pennsylvania for a time before moving to the Wabash river valley in Indiana, where Rapp purchased some 20,000 acres for the construction of a new community, named Harmony. The group built over a hundred structures, but they found the climate hot and unhealthy and eventually moved back east.

In 1824, the reformer Robert Owen visited America to explain his ideas for cooperative living. After becoming a rich and successful industrialist in Scotland, Owen had gone on to propose tighter regulation for laboring conditions, including a ban on child labor. By the early 1820s, he had begun proposing the elimination of private property and individual life; instead, people were to live in rectangular communes where commodities would be distributed by the authorities and profits would be fairly divided among the members. He also proposed eliminating religion and the institution of marriage.[1]

Owen was already aware of Rapp's community and sought to emulate his system of organization and control. On learning of the Rappites' intention to sell their Indiana land and return east, Owen purchased the site in the winter of 1824-25 and renamed it "New Harmony," inviting his supporters to join him there and create a new society.

Commune Life

New Harmony officially opened in April 1825. In his address inaugurating the commune, Owen made it clear that his goal was a revolutionary recreation of human existence: "I am come to this country, to introduce an entire new state of society; to change it from the ignorant, selfish system, to an enlightened, social system, to an enlightened, social system, which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all cause for contest between individuals."[2]

New Harmony had certain advantages to allow it to begin functioning as a commune. The project was bankrolled by Owen himself, freeing other members from financial obligations; a complete infrastructure, including houses, fields, and workshops, had already been put in place by the Rappites; and its isolated position on the western frontier helped dissuade members from quickly leaving in times of trouble.

By October 1825, the population of New Harmony was over 800, and more continued to arrive through the winter. Owen had left the commune in June, not returning until January 1826; in his absence, it was governed by a council that instituted central planning for all economic affairs, including production and the distribution of goods. Conventional forms of currency were replaced with labor notes, in which members paid with goods or services with a promissory note equivalent to a specific amount of labor, to be performed in the future by the buyer.

On the theory that a new system of education was also needed to separate the young from the corrupting influence of the older generation and its imperfect lifestyle, New Harmony leaders also instituted collective schooling, in which children were not only educated but raised apart from their parents. One youth at the commune later stated that "I saw my father and mother twice in two years."[3] Owen attempted what he called a program of "social education," in which lectures were substituted entirely for books and group learning replaced teacher-student interaction, but this failed to take root.

Several satellite communities were created to relieve overcrowding in New Harmony, brought on by the influx of interested people. These included Feiba Pevili, Macluria (named for a follower of Owen's), and others.


Despite the high degree of interest in the New Harmony experiment, the community was troubled from the first days of its existence. One serious problem was that Owen and other leaders, for whatever reason, decided that the commune should focus on agriculture, about which they had little experience, and which few members actively participated in. Of the 800 or so members of New Harmony in the fall of 1825, only a few dozen were actively engaged in farming. A few items were produced--barley, as well as soap, candles, and glue; but these were insufficient to make the community profitable.

Other problems contributed, such as the absence of Owen himself, who left New Harmony in June 1825 and did not return until the following January, and was therefore unable to provide guidance during the critical first months. At the same time, the arrival of so many people overwhelmed the infrastructure left behind by the Rappites (necessitating the creation of satellite communes). Of these, a disproportionate number were neither farmers nor craftsmen, but intellectuals with little experience or interest in manual labor. For example, Owen's architect, Stedman Whitwell, spent a great deal of time on a scheme to rename cities in accordance with a grid of geographical coordinates he had designed, rather than on improving or expanding the existing community or its structures.

However, the greatest problems stemmed from the socialist model New Harmony was founded upon. Because Owen's project eliminated the possibility of individual profit, members had no incentive to labor in an industrious or efficient manner. One supporter of Owen's theories admitted that "the men generally do not work as well as they would for themselves."[4] Moreover, because everything at New Harmony was the property of the commune, not the individual members, there was little effort even to maintain what already existed, much less expand on it. Visitors soon reported that houses and roads were falling into disrepair, with rotting animal carcasses scattered throughout the town. Meanwhile, the network intended to equally distribute goods broke down, with shortages of even basic commodities.[5]

In June 1827, the New Harmony commune was dissolved. Owen delivered a confident farewell address, telling his followers that "the [new] social system is now firmly established," and would go on to launch additional communes elsewhere, but the population at New Harmony quickly dwindled, and it gradually became a ghost town. Those who did remain appeared thoroughly disillusioned with socialist ideas; one Scottish "Owenite" visiting in the early 1840s reported that "I was cautioned not to speak of Socialism, as the subject was unpopular....The people had been wearied and disappointed by it."[6]

See also


  1. "The Charter of the Rights of Humanity," in Selected Works of Robert Owen, Vol. 2, p.195.
  2. Robert Owen, "Address," New Harmony Gazette, October 1, 1825, p.1
  3. William E. Wilson, The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1964), p. 145
  4. Wilson, The Angel and the Serpent, p. 126.
  5. Edward K. Spann, Brotherly Tomorrows: Movements for a Cooperative Society in America, 1820-1920, p. 46.
  6. John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms, p. 42.