. This curriculum unit is designed for ninth-grade World History students; it is intended to take up ten to fifteen class periods. One goal of this project is to increase students’ awareness and interest in the practical idealism of men and women of the past.
From its inception, America has been pictured as the “promised land.” Any road map reveals the idealistic aspirations of the founders of such places as Jerusalem Corners, New York, or Promise City, Iowa. Freeway exits in the Golden State reveal places such as Elysian Valley and Arcadia. New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Eden, Virginia as well as our own New Haven, Connecticut reflect Columbus’ claim to have discovered a “new heaven” and a “new earth.” There is an image of paradise illustrated in Puritan sermons, early corporate towns and land speculators’ maps.
This project is about dedicated idealists who regarded the New World as a potential paradise, and who believed that this potential could best be realized through collective organization. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries several hundred groups planned and set up model communities in the United States. The approaches were as diverse as they were imaginative; the problems to overcome were immense. The standards for success varied with the experiment. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who lived at the Brook Farm community, provides one statement of purpose:
‘My best hope was, that, between theory and practice, a true and available mode of life might be struck out; and that, even should we ultimately fail, the months or years spent in the trial would not have been wasted, either as regarding passing enjoyment, or the experience which makes men wise.’ (Quoted in Hayden, p. 6)
Robert Owen had higher hopes:
‘I am come to this country to introduce an entire new system of society; to change it from an ignorant, selfish system to an enlightened social system which shall gradually unite all interests into one, and remove all causes for contest between individuals.’ (Quoted in Melville, p. 34)
Of all the nonsectarian groups, the Shakers proved to be the largest, longest-lasting and the most influential. The Shaker experiment won the attention of such diverse individuals as Henry George, Friedrich Engels, Count Leo Tolstoy and Alexis de Tocqueville. What were the factors for their longevity, when so many others died in infancy or early youth? Ann Lee, the often-persecuted founder of the Shakers, provided a clue with the motto she gave to the movement: “Hands to work, and hearts to God.” She claimed it was the good works of the Shaker people that would spread this movement, even more than its religious message, as important as the message was. Under capable leaders such as Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright, the Society grew from 1787 to 1808 with eleven new Shaker settlements in New York and New England (see map below). Their organizational principles follow:
‘Orders, rules, and regulations, in temporal and spiritual things, were framed, appropriate to the new relations they were then coming into as a body of people. Elders and deacons of both sexes were appointed, and set in their proper order; and a Covenant was written and entered into for the mutual understanding and protection of the members.’ (Quoted in Morse, p. 61)
Though the Shaker movement itself declined and has all but disappeared, the Shaker heritage is being evaluated in light of contemporary values. The essential Shaker spirit was one of humble decency. One student of Shaker life expressed it this way:
‘I think there’s something in us that will always love them . . . To find a group of people who have been living righteousness for two hundred years instead of just talking about it is a rare and beautiful experience.’ (Quoted in Horgan, p. 189)
For the Shaker, an early hymn expresses the Shaker ideal of what genuine love was all about. The thoughts certainly challenge the mainstream of American values today as they did then:
‘Love not self, that must be hated,
Love not satin, love not sin;
To the flesh, tho’ you’re related,
Love not flesh, not fleshly kin.
Love not riches, honor, pleasure,
Love no earthly vain delight:
But the gospel’s hidden treasure,
You may love with all your might.’ (Quoted in Cook, p. 198)