Constructing the Past

Publication Date

Spring 2007


In November 1824, Robert Owen came to the United States with the intention of putting his beliefs about society into practice. He had done so once before in the “new system of society” that he had created at New Lanark (the site of a textile factory he owned), in which he singled out individualism, competition and selfishness as the sources of social evil. The prescribed cure was an improvement of their environment and circumstances, which Owen believed to be the true determiners of a person’s character. The experiment was considered a great success, and served as an international model. This perception of man’s character as being determined by his cultural surroundings was shared by many Americans of the time, as evidenced by the popularity of various reform movements. With the intention of recreating a society like the one he had engineered at New Lanark, Owen purchased the Indiana village of Harmonie from the religious sect (the Rappites) that inhabited it, rechristened it New Harmony, and issued an open invitation to all people to join his communitarian experiment. The excitement that ensued around the country was almost palpable as Owen embarked on a massive promotional tour for his venture: he met privately with former presidents, he recruited new members in Philadelphia, and he lectured in front of numerous statesmen, proclaiming the glories of his “new system of society.”