This curriculum unit is designed for American history students or ninth-grade World History students; it is intended to take up ten to fifteen class periods. One goal of this unit is to increase student awareness and interest in the practical idealism of men and women of the past. Students will be challenged to examine carefully the writings of utopian idealists of the nineteenth century and present arguments defending or attacking these ideas. This unit is meant to supplement an earlier unit I wrote in 1987, entitled “Utopian Communities: European Roots, American Realities,” which was part of Volume II “Epic, Romance and the American Dream,” pages 88-102. The teacher should read these two units together for a more complete treatment of this subject. In this unit, I expand on some of the earlier material on Robert Owen and John Humphrey Noyes.
Students will study two communities for comparison: (1) a purely secular community (Owen’ s experiment in New Harmony, Ohio); and (2) a strictly religious one (Noyes’ community in Oneida, New York)
Though both communities were communistically organized, i.e., both shared property and wealth, they were quite different in goals, methods and achievements. Students should become aware of the diversity possible within such communal living experiences. Another goal that I have is for students to appreciate the religious, economic and social conditions present in nineteenth-century America that led to the formation of literally hundreds of small communities such as the ones outlined in this unit. I expect that students will be able to develop some sort of criteria for judging “successes” and “failures” of such social experiments.
What makes for a successful community? This question is central to my unit. Worthy goals? Able leadership? Economic stability? One nineteenth century commentator, William Alfred Hinds, made the following observation:
[A community] may have its hundreds of members . . . its immense domain; its manifold industries; its large library and every aid to intellectual development; and yet, unless it finds a way to secure the conditions . . . essential to the happiness of a small family, it will prove a gigantic failure. . . . (Hinds,
, page 162)
Family virtues and values. Can we define them? If Hinds is correct, his theory may have implications far beyond those of experimental communities begun a century or more ago.
Many religious communities such as the Shakers believed in earthly service performed out of a heaven-directed motive. As one Shaker hymn expressed it:
I work thirteen hours in each twenty-four,
Or more if necessity call;
In point of distinction, I want nothing more
Than just to be servant of all:
I peaceable work at whatever I’ m set,
From no other motive but love,
To honor the gospel and keep out of debt,
And lay up a treasure above.
Of the religious groups, the Shakers were one of the most enduring. Perhaps there is a clue to their success in the ideas expressed in the hymn recorded above. Many of the nineteenth-century Christian communities believed that the time of Christ’s Second Coming was very near. By righteous living and diligently practicing Biblical injunctions to separate themselves from the world, many believed they could usher in the Millennial Kingdom on earth, the time promised by the prophet Isaiah when
The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
and the young lion and the fatling together;
and a little child shall lead them.
They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain:
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD,
as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah, chapter 31, versus 6 and 9)
The Mormons believed they had been instructed by God through their earthly leader, Joseph Smith, to build a holy city. Mormon believers were to do their best to recreate an earthly paradise.
A Mormon editorial in 1842 declared:
‘Let the division fences be lined with peach and mulberry trees, . . . and the houses surrounded with roses and prairie flowers, and their porches covered with grape vine, and we shall soon have formed some idea of how Eden looked.’ (Quoted in Hayden, page 104)
The secular communitarians also placed a high value on building principles as symbolic of social principles. Albert Brisbane, a follower of Charles Fourier, and chief architect of the North American Phalanx, advocated a well-planned layout. Brisbane claimed (1843)
‘If we can with a knowledge of true social principles, organize one township rightly, we can, by organizing others like it, and by spreading and making them universal, establish a true Social and Political order.’
(Quoted in Hayden, page 8)
Can orderly principles in architecture lead us to the well-ordered society? John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida community, also saw a direct relationship between architectural form and community function. Both Noyes and Fourier saw the need for a large community meeting house so that the community members might have something symbolic to identify with and something practical to communicate in. An Oneida song of the 1870s spoke of the unifying effect of a community meeting place:
We have built us a dome on our beautiful plantation
And we all have one home and one family relation.
Back to thoughts expressed of a family again! What are those elements in a family which can allow us to help structure a larger group which can survive in a sometimes hostile world? To explore this question within the context of communitarian ventures might help students realize that communities are complex institutions, often fragile, which endure and are successful only if there is a proper balance of freedom and responsibility. As Shelley so ably stated in his
Declaration of Rights
, “All have a right to an equal share in the benefits,
burdens, of government.”