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American Utopian Societies

American Utopian Societies

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Published by: lmwummel on Jan 05, 2010
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The Amana Colonies were one of many utopian colonies established onAmerican soil during the 18th and 19th centuries. There were hundreds of communal utopian experiments in the early United States, and the Shakersalone founded around 20 settlements. While great differences existed between the various utopian communities or colonies, each society shared acommon bond in a vision of communal living in a utopian society. Thedefinition of a utopian colony, according to Robert V. Hine, author of 
California's Utopian Colonies
, "consists of a group of people who areattempting to establish a new social pattern based upon a vision of the idealsociety and who have withdrawn themselves from the community at large toembody that vision in experimental form." These colonies can, bydefinition, be composed of either religious or secular members, the former stressing (in the western tradition) acommunity life inspired by religion while the latter may express the idealism of a utilitarian creed expedient toestablishing human happiness, with a belief in the cooperative way of life. The more familiar non-monasticreligious communal movements typical in Western society have generally originated from a deliberate attemptamong various Christian sects to revivethe structure of the primitive Christiancommunity of first-century Jerusalem,which "held all things in common"(Acts 2.44; 4.32). This essay exploresthe origins and development of theUtopian idea and its arrival in theUnited States before giving examplesof nineteenth century utopian coloniesand some organizations on their ultimate demise. The Shaker, Rappiteand Amana experiments, as well as theOneida community and Brook Farm,find their origins in the EuropeanProtestant Reformation and the later Enlightenment.
Origins of the Utopian Idea:
Thewestern idea of utopia originates in theancient world, where legends of anearthly paradise lost to history (e.g.Eden in the Old Testament, themythical Golden Age of Greek mythology), combined with the humandesire to create, or recreate, an idealsociety, helped form the utopian idea.The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347BC) postulated a human utopian societyin his
 Republic
, where he imagined theideal Greek city-state, with communalliving among the ruling class, perhaps based on the model of the ancientGreek city-state of Sparta. Certainly the
The Hancock Shaker Village, inMassachusetts, is one example of America'smany Utopian communities.
Photograph by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark Review Project, 1974
The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347BC) wrote the dialogue
The Republic,
which involved the search for justice inconstruction of an ideal state.
Plato (resembling Leonardo da Vinci) isa detail from Raffaello Sanzio's painting,"The School of Athens" painted in 1510-11. Vatican Collection.
 
English statesman Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) had Plato's
 Republic
in mind when he wrote the book 
Utopia
(Greek 
ou,
not +
topos,
a place) in 1516. Describing a perfect political and social system on an imaginary island,the term "Utopia" has since entered the English language meaning any place, State, or situation of ideal perfection. Both the desire for an Edenic Utopia and an attempt to start over in "unspoiled" America merged inthe minds of several religious and secular European groups and societies.The 19th-century utopian sects can trace their roots back to the Protestant Reformation. Following the earlyChristian communities, communal living developed largely within a monastic context, which was created bySaint Benedict of Nursia (480?-543?AD), who founded the Benedictine order. During the Middle Ages acommunal life was led by several lay religious groups such as the Beghards and Brothers and Sisters of the FreeSpirit. In allowing the sexes to live in the same community these societies differed from the earlier Catholic andOrthodox monasteries. The Protestant Reformation, which originated with the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), changed western European societal attitudes about the nature of religionand work. One of Luther's beliefs broke with the medieval conception of labor, which involved a hierarchy of  professions, by stressing that all work was of equal spiritual dignity. Calvin's doctrines stressed predestination,which stated that a person could not know for certain if they were among God's Elect or the damned. Outwardlya person's life and deeds, including hard work and success in worldly endeavors, was a sign of possible inclusionas one of the Elect. These theological ideals about work were stressed in the various American religious utopiansocieties. The Shakers, for example, believed in productive labor as a religious calling, and the AmanaInspirationists saw labor as productive and good, part of God's plan of contributing to the community.In the wars and general disorder following the establishment of Protestant sects in northern Europe, many peasants joined Anabaptist and millenarian groups, some of which, like the Hutterian Brethren, practicedcommunal ownership of property. To avoid persecution several of these groups immigrated to America, wherethe idea of communal living developed and expanded. The first significant group was the Ephrata Community(now a National Historic Landmark), established in 1732 in Pennsylvania. Much of this community wasdestroyed when Ephrata's members cared for the injured soldiers following the battle of Brandywine in 1777.Typhus set in, killing both soldiers and residents. By the end of the century the cloister's vitality was gone. Itwas not until the first half of the 19th century that a great expansion of communitarian experiments took place on American soil. Inexpensive andexpansive land, unhampered by government regulations in a time when progress and optimism shaped people's beliefs, created a fertile milieu for the establishment of utopian societies. Europe, in the early 19th century, wasemerging from a long history of religious and dynastic wars, and America,in contrast, became a location where people could start over, the "NewEden" that beckoned colonists across the Atlantic Ocean.The Great Awakening, a series of religious revivals that affected every partof English America in the first half of the eighteenth century, prepared theAmerican soil for numerous religioussects. In addition to the religiousrevivals, new ideas on governmentand man's role in society began withthe Enlightenment, an 18th-centuryEuropean philosophical movementcharacterized by rationalism and astrong skepticism and empiricism insocial and political thought. Theseideas found reception among thedrafters of the American Constitution.Freedom of religion, guaranteed inthe First Amendment of the UnitedStates Constitution, attractedEuropean groups who were persecuted in their own countries. Arriving in America, some of these colonists
Sir Thomas More, lord chancellor of Englandunder Henry VIII and author of "Utopia"
Painting by Hans Holbein theYounger (1497?-1543): Sir Thomas More, Copyright Frick Collection, New York 
 
hoped to form Utopian societies, self-containing religious or secular communities, agrarian and largelycommunal in nature, far removed from the perceived vices found in the overcrowded cities. While numerousreligious and secular utopian experiments dotted the American landscape, the Shakers, Rappites, thePerfectionists of the Oneida Community, the experiment at Brook Farm and the Amana Colony of theInspirationists were among the most famous. Some exploration of their beliefs and history presents an exampleof how these utopian colonies functioned.
The Shakers:
Formally known as theUnited Society of Believers inChrist's Second Coming, the Shakersdeveloped their own religiousexpression which included communalliving, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes,and a ritual noted for its dancing andshaking. A significant portion of Shakerism was founded by (Mother)Ann Lee, in England (for moreinformation seeThe Shakers) in 1758.Ann Lee and some followers arrivedin America in 1774. Ann Lee died in1784, but Shaker colonies, spread tonewer communities. Containing 6,000 members before the Civil War, these communities maintained economicautonomy while making items for outside commercial distribution. Intellectually, the Shakers were dissentersfrom the dominant values of American society and were associated with many of the reform movements of the19th century, including feminism, pacifism and abolitionism: an Enfield Shaker's diary, for example, records thevisits of fugitive slaves, including Sojourner Truth. Their work was eventually redirected from agricultural production to handcrafts, including the making of chairs and furniture (for more information seeShaker Style).TheEnfield Shakers Historic District, in Enfield, Connecticut, and the Hancock Shaker Village, in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, stand as two noteworthy examples of Shaker communities. The community at Enfield,which began in the 1780s, peaked from 1830 to 1860. In 1860 there were 146 Shakers in Enfield, living in same-sex housing, working in its garden-seed industry. The Enfield Shakers Historic District, containing 15 buildings,has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places for its significance in reflecting the social valuesand communal lifestyle of the Shakers. The Hancock Shaker Village was considered the center of Shaker authority in America from 1787 until 1947, and is today designated as a National Historic Landmark. Four other Shaker Village have also been designated as National Historic Landmarks:Shakertown at Pleasant Hill HistoricDistrict (Harrodsburg, Kentucky), Canterbury Shaker Village (Canterbury, New Hampshire), Mount Lebanon Shaker Society(New Lebanon, New York) andSabbathday Lake Shaker Village(New Glochester, Maine), the latter is the sole surviving Shaker community.
Brook Farm:
Some of the secular utopian communities in the United States found inspiration from ideas and philosophies originating in Europe. Transcendentalism began as a termdeveloped by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804)embodying those aspects of man's nature transcending, or independentof, experience. Taking root in America, Transcendentalism created acultural renaissance in New England during 1830-45 and received itschief American expression in Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualisticdoctrine of self-reliance. Some Transcendentalists decided to put their theories about "plain living" into practice. This experiment incommunal living was established at West Roxbury, Massachusetts, onsome 200 acres of land from 1841 to 1847. The Brook Farm Instituteof Agriculture and Education became better known than many other communal experiments
The 1827 Shaker Meetinghouse in EnfieldShakers Historic District, Enfield, Connecticut.
Photograph by B. Clouette, courtesy of Connecticut Historical Commission, National Register collection
The Margaret Fuller Cottage at Brook Farm, in SuffolkCounty, Massachusetts.
Photograph by Polly M. Rettig, Landmark Review Project 

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