Utopian Societies in American History

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I started a new series earlier this year based on the book 1,001 Things Everyone Should Know About American History, by historian John Garraty. If you haven’t already, check out the rest of the post in this series.

Facts number 423-431 are pre-Civil War American Utopians. The list is as follows:

Oneida Community
Oneida Community

423. Shaker communities
424. Harmony
425. New Harmony
426. Nashoba
427. Brook Farm
428. Hopedale
429. Oneida
430. Nauvoo
431. Icaria

To fully understand the utopian society, we must venture back to the original Utopia, written by Sir Thomas More in 1516. In this fictional text, Sir Thomas More created an imaginary island off the coast of South America which he called Utopia. Utopia was an island that contained a community, or society, that possessed highly desirable or perfect qualities. Since the publication of his book, many have tried to create their own utopian societies.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, land in America was very inexpensive. This allowed for self-contained communities to practice unconventional ideas and lifestyles. One of the first of these were the Shaker communities.

Mother Ann Lee
“Mother” Ann Lee

The Shaker communities were founded by “Mother” Ann Lee in the 1770s. These communities, near present-day Albany, New York, was established on the basis that “cohabitation of the sexes” was inappropriate. After four stillborn children and almost dying during childbirth, she–and her followers–began to practice celibacy. She also believed that Christ had returned and literally resided in her person…so take that for what it’s worth.

In 1804, German immigrant George Rapp founded Harmony. Rapp and his followers, Rappites, settled in western Pennsylvania and also practiced celibacy. The community prospered, greatly due to that fact that “Father” Rapp ruled with an iron fist. Rapp moved the community to Indiana (on a whim), and then moved back to Pennsylvania again. The reason for the move back? $150,000.

In 1824, George Rapp sold their Indiana property to Robert Owen, for $150,000. Owen did what any man would do and created his own community, calling it New Harmony. This socialist community was described by Owen’s son as “a heterogeneous collection of radicals…honest latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.”  The New Harmony community failed due to the “disease of laziness.”

Heavy influenced by Robert Owens, Frances Wright purchased Nashoba, a plantation in Tennessee, just one year after Robert Owen started New Harmony. She created this community with the hopes of bringing in small groups of slaves, so that they could learn skills and pay off their cost with labor. The slaves were later to be freed and set up outside American borders. Unfortunately, the community was a failure. Frances Wright freed the slaves and shipped them off to Haiti. She then settled in New Harmony where she earned the nickname “Priestess of Beelzebub” (she was an advocate for doing away with the legal institution of marriage and monogamy).

George Ripley
George Ripley

Brook Farm, once called home by Nathaniel Hawthore, was founded in 1841 by Unitarian minister George Ripley. Believe it or not, this community was created in hopes of forming a “union between intellectual and manual labor.” It was a hybrid co-op/joint stock company. All workers received the same wage, and members earned 5% of their investments annually.

What if I told you that I could literally create the kingdom of Heaven on earth?

Universalist minister Abin Ballou believed he could, tried, and failed. All members of the community were treated with respect “irrespective of sex, color, occupation, wealth, rank, or any other natural or adventitious peculiarity.” Members of the community could purchase shares of the community for fifty dollars a piece, and by 1853, the majority holders (two individuals) were concerned with the slow growth of the community and liquidated the organization.

The community of Oneida was founded in 1848, by John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes philosophy was that once one became a “Perfectionist,” one could be free of sin and totally happy. Somehow this community survived its complex marriage system where all men and women were married together, and all children were raised in a community nursery. Oneida prospered manufacturing high-end silverware, and in 1880 became a corporation. Still, to this day, you can purchase Oneida silverware.

Joseph Smith Family
Joseph Smith with his family

Upon Joseph Smith’s founding of the Mormons, they need a place to live–Nauvoo became that place. Nauvoo, based in Illinois, was created in 1839 and also ruled with an iron fist. His institution of “celestial marriage” and creation of his own private army, the Nauvoo Legion, made him many enemies. In 1844, Smith was arrested and lynched before he could have a fair trial. The Mormons, under new leadership, moved westward and set roots in Utah. Under the direction of Bringham Young, the Mormons have become the most enduring of the ideal communities.

French socialist Etienne Cabet took utopian societies to a new level. Cabet’s highly publicized utopian tale Voyage en Icarie gained him loyal followers, large in numbers. Upon arriving to America, with his hundreds of followers, he found that the land he purchased for his intended community was too remote for development; therefore, they headed north and settled in recent abandoned Nauvoo.

2 COMMENTS

  1. How interesting. What can you tell us about the aftermath of utopian failure? What do the people these communities attract have in common? One would suspect that their needs are not being met by the current society. But wanting to create an alternative community seems extreme. One example I can think of is during the early Roman Republic, the plebs, not being included, went off to form their own assembly. However, the result was eventual inclusion and not due to a sense of fairness from the patricians and equestrian class, but to external threats. Both Hitler and Stalin had utopian goals, so “hankering” after utopia may in itself be a suspect motivation. It would be interesting to read more of your research.

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