University of Southern Indiana

Robert Owen 250th Celebration

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About Robert Owen

Robert Owen was born the second youngest of seven children in May 1771. At the young age of ten, he left home to work as a draper’s apprentice. It is here that he spent much of his free time in his employer's library, where he concluded there were flaws in both religion and society.

While a manager at the New Lanark Cotton Mill, he began to develop ideas for his experiment of an ideal society. He believed in equality, education, and from his own experience, he wanted to change how overworked people were for their low wages. In 1824, he received a chance to give his social theories a trial in an experimental community. Owen and his partner William Maclure purchased New Harmony from the Harmonists and led the town's second attempt at utopia.

While the society failed, due in large part to differing views as to how the community should be governed, the residents made significant contributions to the fields of science and education. Robert Owen left New Harmony, leaving behind 80% of his fortune he invested into the community. Owen had plans for others in Texas and Mexico, but nothing came of them and he eventually returned to Europe, where he continued to fight for equal labor rights. Owen died in his birthplace of Newtown, Wales in 1858.

Robert Owen's Influence Around the World

Robert Owen's lasting legacy is easy to see not only in his children and their families, but in the social reforms that he advocated for.

Owen had a major role in bringing change to labor laws with children. Both in New Lanark and New Harmony, children under 10 years old were no longer able to work but would rather attend infant school. Owen opened his first infant school and nursery in New Lanark, continuing the idea in his time at New Harmony. Owen also worked to limit children eighteen or younger to 10 hours a day to prevent them being overworked and enable them to obtain an education. With the assistance of William Maclure in New Harmony, he was able to provide a higher education to children specifically with scientific research. Due to the successes of Maclure, scientists, educators and scholars came to New Harmony to further research in all areas.

Owen's son, Robert Dale introduced and argued in support of widows and married women's property rights in the Indiana House of Representatives, but the bill was defeated. He also proposed laws granting women greater freedom of divorce. In addition to equal rights, one of the first feminist groups originated in New Harmony, highlighting a significant influence in the women’s suffrage movement. Constance Fauntleroy, the granddaughter of Robert Owen, founded the Minerva Society in 1859.

Robert Dale also took part in the US Congress and was instrumental in establishing the Smithsonian Institution. With his brother David Dale, they aided in planning and designing the first building which is still in Washington DC today.

William Owen, who was left in charge of New Harmony when Robert left, was responsible for many areas in the community with banking and agriculture and later assisted in founding the theatrical tradition. He founded the Thespian Society and aided in establishing the Posey County Agricultural Society. Finally, his youngest son, Richard Owen, was a decorated war hero and professor at Indiana University later becoming the first president of Purdue University.

Today, you can learn more about Robert Owen and his lasting legacy here in New Harmony and other sites around the world. The New Lanark World Heritage Site in Scotland tells the story of Owen as the manager of the mill. At his birth, and death, place in Newtown, Wales, the Robert Owen Museum shares his many accomplishments, particularly his contribution in the Cooperative Movement.

Robert Owen's Connection to New Harmony

The town of New Harmony was sold to Robert Owen in January of 1825. Owen had long since wanted a community where he could put his ideas of social reforms into action. With his partner William Maclure, the second attempt at Utopia began.

Within the society, Owen thought it would be best to approach improvements in two steps rather than one giant leap. He first began by introducing a constitution that had rules set involving membership and ownership that everyone would have to sign. A constitution for the Preliminary Society, intended to last three years, was adopted in that May. Equality was prioritized to make the community more of a large family than to have levels of power. While the constitution had great ideas, it was vague, and the society was not built to last. Owen quickly left New Harmony to settle his affairs in Scotland, while Maclure worked to attract educators and scholars to the community in hopes of enacting is own social reforms and starting a labor school. Upon Owen's return, he proudly shared his model for New Harmony. The Phalanstry represented a large walled structure with towers, social rooms and living quarters. While it was never built, work did begin including the creation of bricks.

At this point the community was facing growing difficulties. The population was larger than available accommodations, food supplies were scarce and only 137 members were a part of the "employed professions." Blind to the problems, Owen announced that the "Preliminary Society" has made progress and it was now time to enact the second step, the "Community of Equality." A new constitution was adopted with more lofty and worthy ideals, but no practical plans for organizing labor and distributing resources.

Economic troubles compounded and when Fredrick Rapp arrived to collect another installment of the money due to the Harmonists, Maclure paid the money, then immediately filed a lawsuit against Owen for the same amount. An out of court agreement was eventually reached with Owen deeding 490 acres, half the town of New Harmony, to Maclure. In a March 1827 issue of The New Harmony Gazette, two of Robert Owen's sons admitted that the community had failed. Owen gave a farewell address and departed the community on June 1, 1827.

While the community was short-lived and, for all intents and purposes, a failure, members of the community made extensive contributions to the fields of science and education. Furthermore, Owen's own children continued to push for many of the reforms Robert Owen believed in, including abolition, women's rights and education.

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