When the Messiah Came to America, She Was a Woman

On the rise and fall of American utopia.

Chris Jennings | Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism | Random House | January 2016 | 29 minutes (7,852 words)


Below is an excerpt from Paradise Now, Chris Jennings’ look at the history of the golden age of American utopianism, as recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky. 

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A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at. . . .


Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

At noon, darkness spread across the sky. It was the nineteenth of May 1780, a Friday. On the rolling pastureland of western New England, sheep and cows lay down one by one in the damp grass. As the darkness became total, finches and warblers quieted and returned to their roosts. Above the white pines and budding oaks, bats stirred. Mistaking day for night, they took wing.

The fratricidal war for American independence was grinding into its fifth year. A week earlier, the Continental army had surrendered the smoldering port of Charleston to the British navy after more than a month of heavy shelling. In New England, with so many young men off fighting, gardens went unplanted and the wheat grew thin.

For many colonists the war with Great Britain aroused a stolid nationalist piety, a consoling faith in “the sacred cause of liberty”—the belief that providence would guide the rebels to victory and that the fighting itself constituted an appeal to heaven. But in the hilly borderland between New York and Massachusetts, the anxiety and austerity of the long conflict inspired frenzied revival meetings. This was the New Light Stir, an aftershock of the Great Awakening of radical Protestantism that had coursed through New England in the 1740s. From makeshift pulpits, the New Light evangelists shouted an urgent millenarian message: These are the Latter Days; the Kingdom is at hand.

Standing at the crack of American independence, these backwoods Yankees believed that they were living the final hours of history. It is written: He will come back and the righteous will be delivered from sin for a thousand years of earthly peace and happiness. The New Lights believed that the time had come and that their small revivals, held in fields and cowsheds, would trigger the return of Christ and the millennium of heaven on earth. Looking up from their plows and their milking stools, these hill-country farmers scanned the horizon for signs of His approach.

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Nobody could say for sure when or if the blackness would pass and the light return.

In this atmosphere of millennial anticipation—days of “war and rumors of war”—the sudden midday blackness was an indisputable sign of the times. As New England and eastern New York were plunged into total darkness, nervous farmers lit smoky, fat-smelling candles just to eat their lunch or read a few lines of scripture. Lacking telegraphy, they were left to assume that the unnatural darkness had enveloped the whole globe. “People [came] out wringing their hands and howling, ‘the Day of Judgment is come,’ ” recalled a young rebel fifer. Nobody could say for sure when or if the blackness would pass and the light return.

A doctor in New Hampshire tried to get an empirical grip on the situation. “A sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes,” he wrote by candlelight, “was equally invisible with the blackest velvet.” Others turned to familiar stories for illumination. The black sky echoed the plague of darkness that God summoned over pharaoh’s Egypt. Or it was a reprise of the midday eclipse that supposedly occurred while Christ hung suffering on Calvary. Even in the rational precincts of the Connecticut legislature, the sudden blackness stirred apocalyptic thinking. When the darkness forced the House of Representatives in Hartford to adjourn, Colonel Abraham Davenport stayed at his desk and asked that candles be brought into the statehouse. If the Day of Judgment was at hand, he said, he wished to be found at his work.

Near dawn the next day, the moon finally came out. A day past full, it shone red.

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She told the men that the millennium…had already begun.

A month before the darkness, Talmadge Bishop and Reuben Wright, a pair of New Light revivalists from New Lebanon, New York, were walking west along a wooded footpath just north of Albany. Passing through a remote territory known as Niskeyuna, they happened upon a low, boggy homestead. Hoping to rest their feet and cadge some food, they knocked on the door of the rough, two-story cabin. Inside, they were surprised to discover a crowd: five men and seven women, living together in the small building. These were the Shaking Quakers, a raggedy sect from Manchester, England, gathered around a short, forty-four-year-old mystic named Ann Lee.

Lee, whom her followers addressed as “Mother,” invited the travelers in. Bishop and Wright lived nearby, but they had never heard any mention of these people. The Shakers had been in the area for six years, but they had maintained a low profile. They had good reason. The Hudson River, which linked British-controlled Canada and the forts of the Adirondacks to the vital port in New York City, was of great strategic importance. The surrounding Hudson Valley was a hotbed of royalist counterrevolution. Improvised rebel militias were on hair-trigger guard against Tory sabotage. It was a dangerous place to have your commitment to the Revolution questioned. In this paranoid atmosphere, Lee and her followers had kept their eccentric faith and Mancunian accents to themselves.

The Shakers fed the two travelers while Mother Ann explained her unusual gospel. She told the men that the millennium they and other New Lights had been furiously calling down from heaven had already begun. Its promised life of sinless perfection was free for the taking.

The next morning, Bishop and Wright hurried back across the Hudson to New Lebanon. They brought their tale of an ethereal, blue-eyed woman living in the wilderness to their minister, a popular New Light revivalist named Joseph Meacham. Meacham, a tall, grave young man who had left the Baptist Church to preach the new millenarian faith, had been leading revival meetings in New Lebanon for most of the past year. In the barn of a wealthy convert, he would whip his congregation to great heights of spiritual excitement. As he called out the good news of the coming paradise and the need for immediate surrender to the Holy Spirit, his audience trembled, stamped their feet in the straw, and let loose flurries of glossolalia.

The kinetic enthusiasm of Meacham’s revival could not hold. His message, like the message of other revivalists throughout New York and New England, was one of bated anticipation: Paradise or Apocalypse is imminent. But nothing happened. The fall of 1779 closed into winter; winter opened onto spring; and still the world had not ended. The New Lights had been primed for cataclysm: fire from the sky, the Son of Man swinging a golden sword, the descent of the holy city of New Jerusalem. Instead, the long, hard days of spring planting started up again. Having screamed their millenarian faith until they were hoarse, many New Lights felt adrift.

After hearing Bishop and Wright’s account of the woman called Mother, Meacham dispatched his friend Calvin Harlow to investigate. A few days later, Harlow returned to New Lebanon, spellbound. Meacham himself then set out on foot for Niskeyuna. And that is when the sky went black.

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Mother Ann. . . . inspired wave upon wave of Americans to come, as they liked to say, ‘out of the World.’

In her cabin in Niskeyuna, Ann Lee interpreted the “Egyptian darkness” as a divine signal that the time had come to open her gospel to the people of the New World. When Meacham walked up the trail, Lee greeted him warmly. She said she had been expecting him.

Sitting with Shakers in their cramped cabin, Meacham quizzed them about their claim to have discovered the true nature of salvation. Had they really triumphed over sin? How was it possible that they were led, against the unambiguous teachings of Saint Paul, by a woman? Something in the serene eloquence of their responses convinced Meacham that he was among a godly people. He converted that day. Mother Ann anointed him her “first-born son in America.”

Following the lead of their impressive young pastor, other New Lights from across the Hudson made the trip to Niskeyuna to sit with Lee. They came from New Lebanon and also from the nearby Massachusetts towns of Pittsfield and Hancock. After six years of living in poverty and obscurity, the Shakers opened their small home to all comers.

Within a decade, thousands of Americans regarded Ann Lee, the scrawny daughter of a Manchester blacksmith, as the Second Coming of Christ. Eventually, more than twenty thousand people across much of the United States would live in the society she founded. The vision Mother Ann offered them, of an immaculate New World Zion—an austere, celibate, communistic paradise—inspired wave upon wave of Americans to come, as they liked to say, “out of the World.”

The opening of the Shaker gospel in the weeks after what came to be called the Dark Day represents the start of a remarkable chapter in the history of the United States: a long, sunny season of American utopianism.

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Thus in the beginning, all the world was America.

The dream of utopia is eternal. We walk through this world imagining another, better existence. Sometimes that perfected life is thought to be waiting on the far side of death, or on a remote island, or in the green shade of prehistory. Sometimes we imagine a flawless society right here, just a few years hence. Occasionally, people set their vision in brick and mortar—they frame the buildings of utopia, write out its customs, furnish its rooms, and try to move in.

No moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. Countless people on both sides of the Atlantic believed that a new and wondrous society was about to take form in the American wilderness. It was a time when the imminence of paradise seemed reasonable to reasonable people.

This surge of utopian energy came out of the confluence of two ideas, one mystical and ancient, one rational and modern. The first is the Judeo-Christian proposition that history is bookended by golden ages. In the beginning, God planted a garden in the East. And with it was planted the half-remembered dream of a bountiful, property-free existence in the orchards of Paradise, a life uncorrupted by capitalism, technology, or even pants. Scriptural history begins in a garden, but it ends in a metropolis—the gleaming, prefab city of New Jerusalem that God will lower down to us at the time of the millennium, the thousand-year reign of heaven on earth. All human existence—history, time, suffering—is just the hard distance between these two utopias, a long but finite exile from paradise.

The second idea, dating back to the seventeenth century, is that the human race is advancing ineluctably toward a perfection of our own making. The intellectual triumphs of the Enlightenment—Newtonian physics, astronomy, rationalism, chemistry—all seemed to point toward the possibility that the universe is one big mechanism, as elegant and soluble as an equation. Thanks to the scientific method and the semi-miraculous power of Reason, humankind will eventually discover the obscure but predictable calculus—the science—beneath every phenomenon, even the muddled scrum of human affairs. A genuine science of society will not just be descriptive, telling us when and why people act the way they do, it will allow us to change how people act, to fix every social problem. The basic assumption was this: As knowledge deepens and old superstitions fade, the world will become more comfortable, more just, and more happy. Progress without end, amen.

This impression of endless and inevitable progress had particular force during the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Republicanism had taken firm root in the New World, and it was starting to germinate in western Europe. New technologies of mass production augured a future in which scarcity would become a dim legend. New ideas crossed the globe with startling speed. To many, it felt as though history itself, like a hot-fired steam engine, were gathering momentum.


Shakers dancing. Via Wikimedia Commons.

For horizon-scanning millenarians, this same sense of historical velocity and the uneasiness that was its constant attendant fueled the impression that things were coming to a head, that the End was nigh. Some combined the two strands of thought. The new faith in limitless, human-driven progress merged with the old faith in an imminent golden age. Perhaps human genius—manifested in new ideas, buildings, machines, and social institutions—would be the lever by which the millennium of fraternity and abundance was activated. New Jerusalem was coming, but it would not be winched down from above. It would be built from the ground up, by planners and engineers.

In Europe, this type of thinking was amplified by the vast, silent presence of the North American continent. Looking west across the Atlantic, European visionaries saw a wide-open wilderness, sparsely populated and loosely governed by liberal institutions. Through the rosy lens of millenarian optimism, the New World looked like a blank slate, blessedly removed from the ancient tangle of European principalities and churches. On the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald called it, any future might be inscribed. This sense of a clean start was woven into the keenest hopes of the American Revolution. “We have it in our power to begin the world over again,” wrote Thomas Paine in 1776. “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now.”

The notion that history, like the sun, travels east to west has been around since the Middle Ages. Under this theory, civilization began in the East (in “a garden eastward in Eden”) and has been westering steadily across the face of the earth toward some unknown apocalypse. This view of things had obvious appeal to theologians and cartographers perched on the western limit of the known world. Later, when people began to suspect that the earth is a globe, some claimed that the End would come when we arrived back at the location of the beginning, when some Christian explorer macheted his way through the jungle and arrived back at the Tree of Life. This was certainly Captain Columbus’s view as he probed the eastern fringe of the New World in search of Eden. The presence of a large indigenous population only added to this European impression of Edenic innocence. Even for those who did not see North America as the literal historic location of Paradise—and there were plenty who did—the virginal continent seemed inherently Edenic. Sailing west from Liverpool was like traveling back in time. “Thus in the beginning,” wrote John Locke in 1690, “all the world was America.”

To people steeped in this conception of time and space, the New World in the West looked to be the inevitable staging ground for the final dispensation of history. Many early Anglo settlers sincerely believed that North America, conveniently hidden from Christendom until the Reformation had gained traction, was destined to be ground zero for the millennium.

In the nineteenth century, secular-minded Europeans took a surprisingly similar view. They claimed that the final chapter of history, the top rung on the ladder of progress, would play out in the New World. In Berlin, Hegel lectured that the United States was “the land of the future.” It was there that “the burden of world history shall reveal itself.” North America was not just an expanse of plains and mountains; it was a messiah made of land: the locus and guarantor of all redemption. The most optimistic observers hoped that post-Enlightenment man, with all of his newfound cleverness—his sudden zeal for steam engines, hygienic tenements, the scientific method, and equality—finally had a chance to get things right, to build paradise.

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Friendly whales will tow our ships.

The spread and evolution of these ideas can be tracked through the rise and fall of five communalist movements that flourished during the busy golden age of American utopianism. These groups do not represent the sum total of that era’s utopian experimentation, let alone American utopianism in general. At least one hundred experimental communities were founded in the United States during the nineteenth century and countless more since. But, taken together, these five interconnected groups represent the high-water mark of an intellectual impulse that has flowed through the American experiment since day one, an impulse that may now be near its lowest ebb.

The idea of a New World utopia was born in the fever dream of religious revelation and the waking nightmare of early industrialization. Led by the prophet Ann Lee, the Shakers decided that the Second Coming had already happened and that it was up to them to build the perfect earthly society: a whitewashed stronghold for the dawning millennium. To construct their Zion—a federation of tidy, communistic villages—the Shakers invented a new type of society from scratch, scorning the most fundamental and sacrosanct building blocks of Western civilization. In Zion there would be no property, no family, no sex. Women and men would be equal. Labor would be worship. And the individual would dissolve entirely into the collective.

By the 1820s, the Shakers had established prosperous villages throughout most of the settled regions of the United States. Inspired by their success, secular utopians took up the idea that small, planned communities might be the ideal mechanism with which to remake the world. In 1824, the Welsh socialist and textile magnate Robert Owen, a student and admirer of the Shakers, came to the Indiana frontier. In the village of New Harmony, Owen hoped to build a rationalist, communist utopia that he called the New Moral World. He would raise a “parallelogram,” a palatial building in which thousands of people of every class could live and work in peace, abundance, and total equality. At New Harmony and a dozen smaller communities, the Owenites hoped to prove that property and religion were all that stood between humanity and a glorious future in a man-made paradise.

In 1840, a decade after the dramatic collapse of Owen’s grand experiment, with the Republic in the doldrums of its first major depression, a New Yorker named Albert Brisbane began publicizing the doctrines of the French social theorist Charles Fourier. Like the Shakers and the Owenites, Fourier believed that the road to paradise lay in the establishment of small, cooperative villages. Fourier claimed that the right kinds of social institutions could unleash the powerful forces of human passion and usher humanity toward its true destiny: an orgiastic global utopia that he called Harmony. To hasten the ascent into Harmony, Fourier proposed building enormous complexes called “phalansteries,” in which groups of precisely 1,620 people would live and work. Like Owen’s parallelogram and the Bible’s New Jerusalem, Fourier’s phalanstery was essentially an entire city contained in a single building, a high-tech Versailles for the people. Once the era of Harmony commenced, Fourier prophesied, every human impulse, even the most taboo sexual predilection, will be satisfied and rendered productive. Abundance will prevail; mosquitoes will go extinct; friendly whales will tow our ships; and the oceans, tinctured by “boreal fluid” from the melting arctic icecap, will taste like lemonade. Fourier’s ideas, broadcast daily on the front page of the New-York Tribune, the country’s bestselling newspaper, spread fast. By the end of the 1840s, twenty-nine Fourierist “phalanxes” had been founded in the United States. Most were half-cocked, underfunded ventures that folded quickly. Others fared better. The longest lived was the North American Phalanx in New Jersey. The most famous was the Brook Farm Phalanx in Massachusetts, home to some of the illuminati of the New England literary renaissance.


Charles Fourier’s Phalanstére. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1848, as the Fourierist phalanxes were falling apart and Europe erupted with republican uprisings, a fresh infusion of French utopianism arrived in the Port of New Orleans under the leadership of a Parisian radical named Étienne Cabet. In the mid-1840s, Cabet, known to his devoted followers as “Papa,” was the leading communist in France. He preached a mystical strain of socialism in which Christ was celebrated as the first communist. The artisans who formed his base of support called themselves “Icarians” after the fictional people described in Travels in Icaria, Cabet’s hugely successful utopian romance novel. Under Cabet’s semimessianic leadership, several hundred French Icarians crossed the Atlantic to build the techno-communist utopia of Icaria in the Trinity River valley of east Texas, where Robert Owen had helped them secure cheap land. The community in Texas ended in disaster, but the determined Icarians went on to build colonies in Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, and California.

While the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, and Icarians all had intellectual roots in Europe, the most remarkable and, by many measures, the most successful utopian venture in United States history was entirely homegrown. New York’s Oneida Community thrived for three decades under the brilliant and mostly benign autocracy of John Humphrey Noyes, a Dartmouth- and Yale-educated prophet of “Perfectionism,” “Bible Communism,” and free love. Like the Shakers, the Perfectionists believed that the prophesied millennium had already commenced, that they were freed from sin, and that it was up to them to commence building the perfect earthly society. To do so, they discarded institutions they deemed anti-Christian, such as the nuclear family, monogamy, and private property. Underwritten by several highly successful manufacturing enterprises, the Perfectionists lived a comfortable, intellectually rich life in a sprawling brick mansion in the spiritually turbulent Burned-over District of central New York. While earlier utopians often stumbled over their own rigid visions of the perfect society, Noyes and his followers lived in a state of constant social experimentation. To avoid the pitfalls of their forebears, the Perfectionists studied the strengths and follies of the Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and others. On their beautifully manicured estate they championed gender equality, a novel form of birth control, and a unique method of group therapy. They also practiced “complex marriage,” a carefully regulated system by which almost any woman in the community could have sex with almost any man. In their final decade, they initiated a program of eugenics to breed the ultimate citizen, the perfect Perfectionist for the dawning millennium.

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Industrial capitalism. . . . seemed, to them, to lay waste to everything in its path while offering as its sole compensation cheap goods and a few private fortunes.

These five groups were guided by five different visions of utopia, yet they generally regarded one another as fellow travelers. They exchanged letters, newspapers, and visits. From time to time, Owenites became Shakers; Fourierists moved to Icaria; or Perfectionists joined Fourierist phalanxes. Despite their divergent views on sex, pleasure, and religion, they mostly shared a basic set of (then) radical values that put them at odds with the ascendant values of Jacksonian America. They all believed that men and women are more or less equal, that financial competition is morally corrosive, and that material equality is a precondition of a just society. To their fellow citizens, the various utopians looked to be part of a single, loosely defined movement. More significant, they all shared the basic premise of utopianism: that the society in which they lived required a total overhaul. Utopianism may be a species of optimism, but it is always born of discontent. Every utopia, whether it remains on the page or takes shape in brick and mortar, reveals the anxieties and disappointments of its author(s). “The great utopians,” wrote the historians Frank and Fritzie Manuel, “have all borne witness to their anger at the world, their disgust with society.”

Utopia is diagnostic. Suffering yields hope, and each particular shade of hope is colored by the particulars of the suffering. The plow-broken serf places his utopia on the rock-candy mountain, where hammocks swing between sandwich trees and rivers run with beer. The harried, well-fed urbanite puts her utopia in an arcadia of primitive farmwork. The nineteenth-century utopians shared a common anxiety about the rising specter of industrial capitalism, a then novel system that seemed, to them, to lay waste to everything in its path while offering as its sole compensation cheap goods and a few private fortunes. Rather than blaming technology itself, the utopians sought to hitch the remarkable new engines of mass production to a higher purpose. They could not believe that something as unsavory—for many of them, as irreligious—as competition was going to be the foundation of modern society. They refused to accept that “Cash Payment,” as Thomas Carlyle wrote in 1843, was destined to be “the sole nexus of man with man.”

The various utopians all agreed that society was rotten and that for the first time in history, the means to perfect it—through human ingenuity, divine providence, or both—were at hand. Even more than the scale of their ambition, the thing that set them apart from the other reformers of their day, the thing that really earns them the designation utopian, was their method. Rather than trying to improve the world in any of the usual ways—through electoral politics, prayer, propaganda, civil disobedience, armed insurrection—they intended to catalyze a global revolution by building a working prototype of the ideal society. Once a model of the new system is up and running, they believed, its example will be so compelling that it will be replicated ad infinitum. In short order, the new system will blanket the earth, spread entirely by the force of its own evident perfection. As the Owenite turned anarchist Josiah Warren wrote, the new ideas “only needed to be seen in their beautiful and consistent symmetry to be at once approved and adopted.” This was how the utopians intended to trigger the man-made millennium. “The only practical difficulty,” wrote Robert Owen, “will be to restrain men from rushing too precipitously” into the new paradise.

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The very specific belief that small communistic societies could trigger a new and perfected existence across the entire globe.

The word utopian, when used in reference to communal experimentation, is partly a matter of style. As Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography, you know it when you see it. The usual roster of American utopias is long and shifting, encompassing everything from small, back-to-the-land hippie communes to artists’ colonies to architectural experiments to austere sects of religious separatists. The five movements chronicled here fit within a narrower definition. The Shakers, Owenites, Fourierists, Icarians, and Oneida Perfectionists all labored under the very specific belief that small communistic societies could trigger a new and perfected existence across the entire globe. While these communities often resembled their less ambitious counterparts, their hopes, and therefore their rhetoric, set them apart. They did not wish merely to take leave of a fallen world or retreat into a pious enclave. They intended to lead the charge into a new and wholly transformed future.


Round Shaker barn. Via Wikimedia Commons.

This narrower, grander definition of the term utopian comes mostly from those tireless coiners of terminology Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. They used the designation utopian-socialist to classify a group of thinkers who preceded them historically and whose socialism they found fundamentally bourgeois (because its aspirations were the aspirations of the bourgeois and because it depended upon the largesse of private donors). To populate this dubious intellectual category, Marx and Engels named names: Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Étienne Cabet. Marx and Engels sought to distinguish the theories of these “utopian socialists” from their own brand of self-styled “scientific socialism.” Mocking Fourier, Owen, and Cabet in a single breath, The Communist Manifesto memorably scoffs at the “dream of . . . founding isolated [Fourierist] ‘phalansteres,’ of establishing [Owenite] ‘Home Colonies,’ of setting up [Cabet’s] ‘Little Icaria’—duodecima editions of the New Jerusalem—and to realize all these castles in the air they are compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois.” Beneath this condescension was a grudging respect, evidenced by the great quantity of ink that Marx and Engels spent upon their analysis of utopian socialism. They granted that the utopians had accurately diagnosed society’s chief ailments—economic competition and private ownership of the means of production—and correctly determined that an extreme cure was required. Besides, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote about the relationship between Team Marx and the utopians, “Even revolutionaries like to have ancestors.”

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A certain type of observer even seems to find reassurance in their failure.

Today, when these castles in the air warrant mention it is usually to underscore the extravagant “enthusiasms” of the middle nineteenth century. The utopians are remembered as little more than the crazy froth at the crest of a general wave of Jacksonian optimism. The sheer scale and folly of their expectations—the wrongheadedness of Owen’s geometric paradise or Fourier’s lemonade sea—are indeed baffling. We occupy the future about which they dreamed and we can plainly see that it looks nothing like their imaginings. A certain type of observer even seems to find reassurance in their failure: those self-proclaimed realists who keep watch over every sally into utopia, awaiting the moment when, as Mary McCarthy put it, “some practical joker . . . called ‘human nature’ ” shows up to spoil the picnic.

Yet the tens of thousands of Americans who lived in these communities were not fools. To be sure, in an era thick with cranks and faddists, the utopias sheltered more than their share. But the majority of the communitarians were intelligent, hardworking people. They came from every denomination and every social class. Significantly, unlike the utopian communalists of other eras, they were not primarily young people. They were blacksmiths and farmers, journalists and lawyers, tailors and scientists, teachers and clergymen. A few of them were among the most articulate and prescient reformers of their day. After their respective sojourns in utopia, many went on to illustrious careers elsewhere. They may have been dreamers, but they did their dreaming out loud, with their dollars, their arms, and their time. They tried to manifest their impractical visions with great practical skill.

* * *

They bought too much land and went bankrupt; they bought too little land and went bankrupt.

It is not news that they failed. If they hadn’t, we would be living in a communist paradise, flying about in Icarian hot-air balloons or spending four-day weekends at grand, state-organized Fourierist orgies. The immediate reasons for their failure are mostly mundane. They bought too much land and went bankrupt; they bought too little land and went bankrupt; their buildings burned down; they got so rich that they feared letting in new members. Often the children of the founding generation wanted to see something else of the world. Sometimes the communards quarreled over doctrine. Sometimes they simply got sick of one another. The close quarters and shared chores of rural communalism make equanimity difficult. As the trustees of the doomed Nashoba Community learned, “That which produces in the world only common-place jealousies and every-day squabbles, is sufficient to destroy a community.”

Mostly they failed because the utopians ceased to believe that paradise was waiting for them just around the corner. Breaking ground in the wilderness and building a new society from zero is incredibly hard work. As long as the colonists believed that their dream might be realized, they labored with heroic energy, gladly bearing immense hardships. At their best, they worked with an inspiring sense of solidarity, laboring, as Étienne Cabet wrote, “as one man, afire with dedication and enthusiasm.” When the faith slipped, the wind spilled from their sails.

These serial failures have become the most potent legacy of the communal utopias. Many observers read the history of experimental utopianism as one long cautionary tale, told in a series of dismally repetitive chapters, about the hazards of radical adventurism. The failure of the nineteenth-century utopians to produce even one enduring society cannot be ignored, but neither is it the whole story. Questions about why these communities formed in the first place and what they were like during their relatively brief lives can be just as instructive as the mechanics of their ultimate self-destruction.

* * *

My ears hear them driving, thick and fast, nails into the coffin of despotism.

For better or worse, the utopian visionary sets out to remake the world by reordering life’s most basic features. The base unit of utopian thinking is not the individual or even the community; it is the day. One of the most consistent features of utopian literature is the description of the typical citizen’s typical day—a blow-by-blow accounting of how he or she wakes up, eats breakfast, dresses, rides to work aboard some newfangled conveyance, and so on. The experimental utopians (as opposed to those who simply wrote utopian fiction) were not much different. While they spoke of abstract virtues such as Equality and Peace and Brotherhood, the distinctive appeal of their visions was in the details.

As it happened, few of the nineteenth-century utopian colonies looked anything like what their citizens had hoped for. They set out to raise granite palaces and feast on peach cobbler; they often ended up with drafty shacks, hard labor, and cold beans. Yet even when life within utopia looked just as shabby as life in that place they invariably called “the World,” it felt extremely different. Within the communal utopias, when things were going well and the sun was shining, the most quotidian tasks were imbued with a sense of high purpose and historical consequence.

In 1844, on a summer afternoon at the Trumbull Phalanx, a Fourierist community in the wilds of eastern Ohio, a young Oberlin grad named Nathan Meeker took stock of his new home:

Seating myself in the venerable orchard, with the temporary dwellings on the opposite side, the joiners at their benches in their open shops under the green boughs, and hearing on every side the sound of industry, the roll of wheels in the mills, and merry voices, I could not help exclaiming mentally: Indeed my eyes see men making haste to free the slave of all names, nations and tongues, and my ears hear them driving, thick and fast, nails into the coffin of despotism. I can but look on the establishment of this phalanx as a step of as much importance as any which secured our political independence; and much greater than that which gained the Magna Charta, the foundation of English liberty.

Looking upon the most ordinary scene of village life—a dusty orchard, a gristmill, men swinging hammers—Nathan Meeker saw the earth shifting on its axis. His impression may be hyperbolic, but it captures the daily experience of many utopians: a sense of actively transforming the world, of living on the cusp of an incandescent future.

The spirit of improvisation that prevailed within these communities charged life with extraordinary creativity. The utopians were in the business of reinventing society from the ground up, and they left no flaw or inconvenience unturned. Along with a flurry of radical social institutions, they produced dozens of new inventions: the flat broom, the lazy Susan, the clothespin, a new mop ringer, a hernia truss, motorized washing machines, a new mousetrap, vacuum-sealed cans, the circular saw, cut nails, a superior animal trap, a cheese press, a corn cutter, a pea sheller, an elastic women’s sneaker, and new types of barns and houses. Almost every community designed some new type of costume, usually one that liberated female colonists from the suffocating garb of the Victorian era. Whatever truth there is in the axiom that communism suppresses innovation, the long list of marketable inventions to come out of the communistic utopian colonies offers a strong counterpoint.

* * *

One young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the ‘chilling cordiality of the world.’

Along with this invigorating sense of creativity, the citizens of the small utopias tended to have much more fun than the people living beyond their fences. Except for the Shakers, who felt theologically compelled toward tranquility outside of their raucous prayer meetings, most of these communities kept up a dizzying schedule of contra dances, lectures, card games, séances, philosophical debates, cotillions, history lectures, picnics, stargazing expeditions, concerts, plays, tableaux vivants, boating trips, berry-picking outings, ice-skating parties, quilting bees, fishing trips, baseball games, oyster suppers, and croquet tournaments.

All of this took place at a time when rural Americans often went months without seeing a nonrelation. When the British journalist Frances Trollope (mother of novelist Anthony) came upon a rural western homestead in 1832, the woman working the stove told her, “I expect the sun will rise and set a hundred times before I shall see another human that does not belong to the family.” By contrast, the utopians sat down to supper each afternoon with more than a hundred people. And while most Americans, even in big cities, seldom conversed with people outside of their class or denomination, the utopians lived intimately and in (theoretical) equality with people of every class and creed, although not every race. African Americans were mostly absent from these communities. This jumble of experience and opinion produced predictable tensions, but it also bred intellectual excitement and an enduring liberalism.


Shaker dance. Via Wikimedia Commons.

When the end inevitably came, some utopians returned to the World with a sense of relief, exhausted by the thousand small frustrations of clumsily enforced equality. Others were sick with disappointment. For a great many, their years spent living “in association,” as they said, would be remembered as the highlight of their lives: a merry springtide of intellectual ferment, pleasure, and hope. For many, the end came like a casting out. After the Brook Farm Phalanx disbanded, one young communard wondered how, having known such intimacy and freedom, she could possibly face the “chilling cordiality of the world” or “feel contented again with the life of isolated houses, and the conventions of civilization.”

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Influential utopian novels. . . . are seldom read, let alone written, anymore, yet we require fifteen-year-olds to spend their holidays underlining paperbacks of Brave New World and 1984.

Today, thinking grandly about the future is regarded as a sin in and of itself. Calling a proposal “utopian” is among the more routine slurs on Capitol Hill. The supposed end of history—with the laurels for “final form of human government” going to Western liberal democracy—has been trumpeted for at least three decades. The prevailing view on both the left and the right is that the current state of affairs, while far from ideal, is better than the hazards inherent in trying to make things too much better. Not long before his death, the historian Tony Judt wrote that the task of today’s intellectuals and political philosophers “is not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones.” At best, American politics, in both rhetoric and practice, is concerned with finding the least bad version of the status quo—the prevailing assumption being that what we have is well enough and well enough ought to be left alone. Tocqueville saw this coming in 1835: “I cannot overcome my fear that men may come to the point of looking upon every new theory as a danger, every innovation as a vexing disturbance, and every sign of social progress as a first step toward revolution.”

Literature is a sensitive indicator of utopian sentiment. The shift in attitude from the 1840s to today can be tracked in the library. Influential utopian novels of the kind written by Thomas More, Francis Bacon, Étienne Cabet, or Edward Bellamy are seldom read, let alone written, anymore, yet we require fifteen-year-olds to spend their holidays underlining paperbacks of Brave New World and 1984, chilling visions of utopia run amuck. Dystopian blockbusters dominate the summer box office. When utopia is not depicted as soul crushing, it is farce. Laurel and Hardy’s late, second-rate film Utopia (1951) nails the modern view of utopia as fool’s errand. When the fat man and the thin man set out to build paradise on a remote island, their naive fantasy is overrun with slapstick venality. (Their island, the world discovers, sits atop a uranium mother lode.) The cumulative moral is precise: Anyone nuts enough to try building heaven on earth is bound for a hell of his own making.

One reason that history does not look kindly upon the utopians of the nineteenth century is that they trafficked in extreme, absolutist visions of the future. Today, we have ample reason to recoil from such visions. Many of the darkest episodes of the twentieth century—the Thousand-Year Reich, Soviet gulags, the Khmer killing fields—were born of utopian and millenarian ideologies. Regardless of the details, we now flinch at the notion that there is one specific way in which the world ought to be arranged. This reflex is well justified. Again and again, collectively held visions of paradise have been used to justify systems of terror and repression.

Surprisingly, the American utopians of the nineteenth century and the European visionaries who inspired them shared our post-twentieth century fears about the hazards of revolutionary social change. Owen, Cabet, and Fourier were all intimately aware of the darkest and most utopian episodes of the French Revolution. While their Jacobin comrades descended into paranoid, self-consuming terror, the communal utopians tried to take a different road to a similar, although not identical, paradise. They hoped that discrete experimental communities would demonstrate—to worker, boss, and baron—the obvious superiority of an egalitarian society. For their faith in the basic decency of the rich and powerful, the utopians were derided by the next generation of radicals as terminally bourgeois. Rather than exerting influence incrementally through politics and propaganda, or instantly through insurrection, the utopians hoped to construct the perfect society in miniature and then lead by example—to pull, rather than push, the world toward perfection.

Although it surely did not feel this way to them, theirs was a relatively low-stakes method of reform. If the scheme fails, the corrupt old world will always be right where you left it, just outside the gates. For the utopian vision to spread beyond the seminal prototype, it must prove itself. As Albert Brisbane, the leading American Fourierist, put it, the new order will take hold only “when practice has shown its superiority over the present system.” In utopia, size makes all the difference. When Brook Farm collectivized agriculture and sent the intellectuals out to mow wheat, the results were goofy and edifying. When Mao Tse-tung tried the same trick, forty million starved.

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An Age of Reason in a patty-pan.

Because of their small scale and grand ambitions, these communities offer an unusually clear window onto the practical working out of various social theories. Every community, utopian or not, is composed of notions about how people ought to live together. The state, Hegel wrote, is the ethical idea made actual. But on the scale of nations and empires, those actualized ideas are submerged in an obscuring bath of time and happenstance. A political notion—say, democracy—is animated within the history of a democratic state, but only under the influence of countless personalities and externalities over the course of generations. By contrast, utopias, both literary and experimental, tend to be born fully formed from the mind of one individual. Fourier plotted every detail of his perfect society—what time everyone would eat, how many people would work in the pear orchard, how they would elect their foremen—before he recruited a single follower. Within utopian communities, social and ethical ideas are put into play in a very narrow span of time and space. Tracking the miniature revolutions that repeatedly sundered New Harmony or the various Icarian villages is like watching several centuries of modern history—the glacial advance and retreat of big ideas about power, liberty, and community—transpire inside a beaker. Emerson rightly called Brook Farm “a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty-pan.”

The brief histories of these miniature societies reveal, with remarkable clarity, how their citizens approached a set of timeless questions. Must the family be the base unit of civilization? How does diversity affect a highly socialized society? Can citizens really be transformed by the institutions within which they live? Is monogamy required for a stable, prosperous society? Is private property? How much must theory bend in the face of circumstance? How does spiritual authority interact with political authority? Does social progress flow from the initiative of self-advancing individuals or from broad, collectivist reforms? Is competition the ideal motor of innovation and prosperity? Can social solidarity be stimulated or must it arise spontaneously? Hovering above all of these questions is the overarching dialectic that defines civil society: the back-and-forth between individual liberty and mutual aid, between the freedom to do as you please and the freedom from being cold, hungry, and alone.

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Sensing a deficit in our own time, a way in which their story mocks us.

The ideas that undergirded these communities, like the ideas enshrined in our founding documents, were born out of the European Enlightenment. While the utopians’ aspirations can seem alarmingly foreign, their basic outlook was hyper-American—American, but more so (in terms of ideals, if seldom reality). Americans cherish freedom of conscience; where better to nurture new heresies? America is profoundly egalitarian; where better to abolish property? Americans cherish liberalism; where better to emancipate women? America is a land of new beginnings; where better to kick off the millennium?

The lunatic optimism and creativity of our utopian predecessors can be infectious. They took no social institution for granted. With bearings fixed toward a meridian of joy and perfection, everything old and familiar—monogamy, property, hierarchy, family—went overboard. Mistakenly sensing that the world was on the brink of total transfiguration, they built their tiny societies according to a single criterion: their own shining vision of the future.

It is almost impossible not to mock the extravagant hopes of the nineteenth-century utopians. Yet it is difficult to linger amid the ruins of those hopes without sensing a deficit in our own time, a way in which their story mocks us. In the company of these strange, familiar Americans, we might revive their essential question: What sort of a future do we want?

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From the Book:
PARADISE NOW: The Story of American Utopianism by Chris Jennings
Copyright © 2016 by Christopher Jennings
Published by arrangement with Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC