Social Reform in 19th Century America

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Cole Thomas: The Garden of Eden, 1828

How you have been rewarded by the reformers’ efforts to overcome the repression of women, slavery, and the working and living conditions of the Industrial Revolution

The pursuit of a perfect nation began in 1825 with “Father” Rapp’s and Robert Owen’s experiment at New Harmony, Indiana, “The Wonder of the West.” Owen was the true founder of Utopia in America, but Free Love was by far the most sensational social experiment, the one that won the greatest national, even worldwide, attention. The Utopian reformers shared a common trait: they were all romantics. They were searching for the absolute. Therefore, each one was attacked by the media of the day. The free lovers were the most abused.

The front page headline of the November 21, 1857 issue The Tri-Weekly Cleveland Herald reads, “The Berlin Free-Lovers,” tops this story: “The case of these ‘loose’ characters are (sic) still undergoing examination at Sandusky.”

The reader in 1857 knew all about these members of a “Free Love colony” in the township of Berlin, Ohio, now called Berlin Heights just west of Cleveland. Those who attacked it for its association with socialism called it a “Free Lust” colony.

The American Free Love Reformist Movement Attracted Utopian Industrialist Socialists

Experiments, such as the one at Berlin, Ohio, not only appealed reformers like Scots socialist Robert Owen and feminists Fanny Wright and Victoria C. Woodhull, but to anarchists such as Josiah Warren and crackpots like John Humphrey Noyes as well. The Cleveland newspaper reported that its followers were “an incalculable injury to that township. On account of their presence its very name has become a byword and term of reproach, property has declined in value, and the pecuniary credit of the township and community has been made to suffer.

“Nor has the reproach been confined to Berlin. It has extended beyond her township borders . . .It seems that the Berlin people have had in their township what they call a ‘Free Discussion Hall,’ and to this, very probably, is that town indebted for its present calamity. Churches for free speech, halls for free speech, newspapers for free speech, schools for free speech . . . we advise them to set their ‘Free Discussion Hall’ on fire, and make the ‘Free Lovers’ run away by the light of it.”

Newspapers of the day were freer to subjectively sermonize than the Free Lovers were to speak their minds inside their Free Discussion Hall. The result of such inflammatory propaganda was to discredit progressive ideas for social change and to create imaginary internal enemies that “patriotic Americans” felt they must oppose, a tactic still tiresomely used today.

The Fate of the Free Lovers

What became of the inhabitants of the commune in Berlin, Ohio? Was there Utopian community the model for the hippie communes to come in the 1960s and 70s where free love implied a sexually active lifestyle with casual sex partners who made no commitment to each other? Not at all. Free love was a collective, self-conscious effort by women and a few men to change the politics of sexual relations. It developed out of the European socialist reform tradition of the 1820s and 1830s.

These early experiments had almost nothing in common with the one-size-fits-all state systems that were installed later in Europe and Russia. Their founders and leaders had no Manifesto. They never suggested the revolutionary bloodbaths that removed royalty in France during the revolution from 1789 to 1799 and threatened the same ruthless extermination for other European monarchies.

They did not seek to eradicate capitalism or commercialism, nor did they ever plan to crush the government. Unlike the distraught workers and oppressed minorities in Europe, they were not organizing against industrialists and property owners in America. No, they saw the New World literally as a natural paradise where the utopia imagined by Plato and Sir Thomas More could be made a reality.

The Early Utopian Socialist Reformers were not Communists or Marxists

The moderate socialism of these early Utopian theorists cannot be compared to the communism promoted later by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who advocated a militant leftist form of socialism that called for class struggle and revolution to establish a society based on cooperation.

The early dreamers proposed that production and distribution should be managed by small, local communities, not by the state. They wanted the leaders of the movement to be wealthy industrialists like themselves, believing they were best equipped to develop the Utopian community based upon cooperation that would eventually eliminate the poverty of the lower classes.

The Free Love Movement Opposed Marriage

Free lovers advocated cooperation, not competition, and they rejected all notions of class struggle.Oppressed workers and social reformers in Europe, including some women who did not dread non-procreative sex, influenced the establishment of the free love movement in the United States.

Like the followers of the Utopian free-thinkers, its members imagined an egalitarian, marriage-free society where self-ownership was respected by all, where goods were distributed equally to all, where there was no money and all citizens worked together for the common good.

Their leisure time could be spent developing the arts and sciences together, again for the common good of the community and for the benefit of all its members. It’s time America became reacquainted with the forgotten, intrepid freedom fighters and crackpots who strove to build a social, political, economic, artistic, scientific, and technological utopia in early America.

References:

  1. Arthur Eugene Bestor, Jr., Backwoods Utopias, ACLS History E-Books Project, 1899.
  2. John Humphrey Noyes, The History of American Socialisms, Hillary House Publishers, Ltd., New York, NY (reprinted from 1870 edition).
  3. Josiah Warren, Practical Details of Equitable Commerce, New York, 1852.
  4. Nancy E. Cott, Public Vows, A History of Marriage and the Nation, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. and London, 2000.