The road to utopia
The utopian ideal, the belief that something close to heaven can be created on earth, has been part of the fabric of the American national character since the beginning of our country.
The colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were founded in the 17th century on differing visions of what a Christian utopia should look like. In the 19th century the Mormons established their own utopia in the west, later brought into the union, not entirely voluntarily as the state of Utah.
Pamphleteer of the American Revolution Tom Paine, expressed that part of our makeup in 'Common Sense,' “We have it in our power, to begin the world anew.”
From the founding of our nation, utopian idealists started to take off into the wide open spaces of the west with groups of like-minded individuals to build models of what the good society would look like. They expected their success would convince the world to follow their lead into utopia.
Their efforts were opposed by Karl Marx, who despised “utopian socialists” and preached the only road to utopia was through world revolution.
There were literally hundreds of attempts to found intentional communities throughout the 19th century. Most failed in short order.
Businessman Robert Owen bought a town from the Rappite religious community in Harmony Indiana and founded the secular socialist community of New Harmony in 1825. It folded in less than three years. The Rappites themselves lasted as a communal sect until 1906 though.
In 1843 Bronson Alcott, father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, founded Fruitlands, whose members ate only fruit that fell naturally from trees and wouldn't bathe in heated water. It lasted until winter set in.
Brook Farm was founded in 1841 on vaguely socialist ideals of combining a life of manual labor with artistic and intellectual pursuits. The community, which included famous members such as Nathanial Hawthorne, was by most accounts a pleasant enough place, remembered fondly by people who lived there. But it fell heavily into debt and closed in 1847.
There were longer-lasting attempts. Some survived for a few generations, some blended into the mainstream of American society, others still thrive as subcultures among America's “peculiar peoples.”
The Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amana community, offshoots of the 16th century German pietistic movement, transplanted to America to escape persecution.
The Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites survive as religious communities. The Amana communities reorganized as a joint-stock company in the 1930s, manufacturing household goods.
The Oneida free-love community founded in 1848 in New York became the Oneida silverware company, whose stockholders and board of directors seem rather embarrassed by their wild ancestors.
Their polar opposites, the celibate Shakers, survive though greatly diminished as one might expect.
The Individualist Anarchist community of Modern Times on Long Island eventually became a more-or-less normal community with a strong tolerance for eccentricity, now known as Brentwood.
It's easy to laugh at these people now. How naive and impractical the intellectuals of Fruitlands and Brook Farm now seem, to dive headlong into farm life without a clue about how to run a successful farm!
Yet, to me there is something appealing about them. Today those who would build the world anew disdain the idea of say, allowing the states to try different reforms of health care, welfare, etc to see which ideas prove workable. They have no patience with local, piecemeal, step-by-step approaches to reform.
Unlike our modern utopians who insist we overhaul our national institutions RIGHT NOW, the 19th century utopians took a more humble approach. They tried to demonstrate on a small scale how their ideals would work first. Most failed, but then that's the nature of experiments.
But the next time you use a flat broom, circular saw, or clothespin – thank the Shakers who invented them. And maybe we should remember that utopia means “no place.”