Communitarian Experiments at New Harmony Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Two experiments in communitarianism undertaken at New Harmony were responses to rapid modernization and industrialization. They enjoyed mixed success but encouraged other many cooperative living experiments among people yearning for peaceful and simple lives.

Summary of Event

Founded in the spring of 1814, New Harmony, Indiana, was a small village located on the banks of the Wabash River in the southwestern part of the state. Its chief historical significance rests in the fact that it was the site of two experiments in communal living that reflected an important phase of U.S. social and cultural history during the pre-Civil War period. The town was founded by George Rapp, a German pietistic Lutheran Lutheranism;and communitarian movement[Communitarian movement] and dissenter. Rapp believed in communal life and sought a place in the American West where he might implement his social theories in detail. Having already developed a flourishing settlement of German immigrants like himself in Pennsylvania, Rapp sought a new abode that would be more spacious and closer to river transportation for the many goods his followers were producing for sale to the outside world. In the spring of 1814, he purchased more than 24,000 acres of rich alluvial land near the Wabash River south of Vincennes, then the capital of Indiana Territory. New Harmony Communitarian movement Indiana;New Harmony Rapp, George Owen, Robert [kw]Communitarian Experiments at New Harmony (Spring, 1814-1830) [kw]Experiments at New Harmony, Communitarian (Spring, 1814-1830) [kw]New Harmony, Communitarian Experiments at (Spring, 1814-1830) New Harmony Communitarian movement Indiana;New Harmony Rapp, George Owen, Robert [g]United States;Spring, 1814-1830: Communitarian Experiments at New Harmony[0700] [c]Social issues and reform;Spring, 1814-1830: Communitarian Experiments at New Harmony[0700] Owen, Robert Dale Maclure, William Say, Thomas

The hamlet of Harmonie, Harmonie, Pennsylvania Pennsylvania;Harmonie which Rapp named after the town he and his followers were abandoning in Pennsylvania, prospered under the guiding hand of the industrious Germans. Within a few short years, its colonists had placed under cultivation hundreds of acres of rich Indiana bottomlands that included large fruit orchards and an extensive grape vineyard as well as the usual farmlands. In addition, the colonists created an extensive system of small manufactures, including a gristmill, a tannery, a center for weaving, a distillery, and a cotton gin. The Rappites sold their products from farm and factory throughout the entire area and shipped quantities of goods by keelboat and flatboat down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. Private property was not allowed, and all property and profits were held in common, with all members of the community sharing equal ownership.

The social practices of the community were as interesting as their economic life was successful. Rapp ruled with an iron hand, and his decisions served as the infallible guide to daily action within the town. Men and women lived in separate dormitories, which were constructed soon after the town was established, and celibacy was strictly enforced for everyone, even married couples. The concept of family was replaced by that of community. Regular churchgoing at the two churches in Harmonie, a flourishing school system, and weekly social activities, lectures, and intellectual discussions made life in the town busy and stimulating.

Although Harmonie was prospering, there is evidence showing that as early as 1821 Rapp was planning to relocate the community. Indiana was not as ideal a place for his experiment as he had hoped, because residents of the surrounding areas were uneducated, uncultured, and resistant to new ways. In his efforts to gain recognition for his communitarian movement, Rapp moved the experiment and founded Economy, Pennsylvania, in May, 1824. Earlier that same year, Rapp had sent agents to England to seek out prospective buyers of the communal property in Indiana.

Robert Owen, the famous Welsh-Scottish philanthropist, social reformer, and textile manufacturer, showed immediate interest in the site, viewing it as an opportunity to acquire a ready-made place to implement his personal theories for social reform. Owen was an atheist who believed that humankind was basically good and, if removed from the corrupting influences of the modern world, might achieve perfection. He wanted to humanize, not reject, industry and had already created a small-scale model milltown in New Lanark, Scotland. Wanting to try his experiments on a larger scale, he personally inspected the lands in Indiana early in 1825 and purchased Harmonie for $95,000, complete with its twenty thousand acres of rich land and 180 buildings capable of providing places of business and housing for at least seven hundred people. Thereafter, he then changed the name of the town to New Harmony, by which it is best known to students of the communitarian movement in the United States.

Owen was a powerful propagandist—a man with a mission to bring reform, theoretical and practical, to the world. He wrote and traveled widely to disseminate his ideas; the purchase of New Harmony gave him a laboratory in which to experiment concretely with his theories. Within a relatively short time following the announcement of the transfer of ownership to Owen, people interested in participating in the new experiment in community living began to arrive in New Harmony. Hampered by overcrowding and by groups of people with a diversity of intentions and points of view, the New Harmony experiment struggled to keep afloat.

Architect’s rendering of Robert Owen’s vision for his Harmony community.

(Library of Congress)

Lacking the cohesiveness of the German colonists who had preceded them, Owen and his supporters never experienced the economic success that had been enjoyed by the Rappites. Only the commitment of Owen’s considerable personal fortune to the enterprise prevented the operation from going under quickly. At the same time, however, a substantive community life developed at New Harmony under the leadership of Owen and his son Robert Dale Owen. Owen, Robert Dale For a time, widely recognized intellectual leaders such as William Maclure, Maclure, William a famous geologist and philanthropist, and entomologist Thomas Say Say, Thomas , the curator of the American Philosophical Society, lived at New Harmony and participated enthusiastically in the bustling life of the experimental community.

After 1830, Robert Owen turned his attention to other reform projects. He had lost much of his fortune in financing the social experiment in Indiana, and his interest declined as debts piled up and small groups broke off from the main community of reformers. The reformist spirit symbolized by Owen continued in New Harmony long after he personally abandoned the project. Experimental efforts in public education initiated by Maclure, and the continued residence in New Harmony throughout the 1830’s and 1840’s of various sons of the founder, served to remind the outside world of the significant heritage demanding basic changes in society that was emanating from this obscure village on the edge of the civilized world.

New Harmony was technically a community of social equals during both Rapp’s and Owen’s eras. A primitive form of socialism was attempted there under Owen’s leadership, but it never functioned successfully. Nevertheless, this backwoods settlement was symbolic of efforts in many other parts of the United States in the pre-Civil War era to establish small, egalitarian communities that were to serve as beacon lights of reform for American society and for the Western world in general.

Historians of this communitarian movement have identified almost one hundred of these small reformist societies that were established between 1825 and 1860, chiefly in the Midwest. New Harmony, then, clearly served as a prototype for the entire movement. Communitarianism was collectivistic by nature, opposed to revolution, yet impatient with gradualism. The first purpose of the small experimental community was to implement apparently incompatible aims: to achieve immediate, root-and-branch reform by gradual, nonrevolutionary means. A second purpose was to serve as a model of peaceable change for the larger world. Microcosms of society could undergo drastic alterations, and then the rest of society could be depended upon to imitate these models, somewhat more slowly over a period of time, in achieving widespread and desirable social reform.

The two communitarian experiments at New Harmony also reflect the broad historical development of the communitarian ideal. It had its origins in the religious ideology of the radical Protestant sects that appeared at the time of the Reformation—attitudes that were transferred to the United States in the colonial and early national periods by immigrants much like George Rapp and his followers from Germany. By the second quarter of the nineteenth century, however, the communitarian ideal was becoming rapidly secularized. Robert Owen, an atheist, symbolized this second phase in the development of the movement. Those attracted to New Harmony during his regime almost without exception were vitally interested in the social regeneration of humankind but saw no need to connect this concern to specific religious doctrines.


The communitarian ideal received the widespread attention it did in the four decades prior to the Civil War (1861-1865) for a variety of reasons. The rapid Frontier, American;expansion of westward expansion of the frontier during this period left the entire social structure of the country somewhat in flux. This movement seemed to give a special thrust to the work of social reformers, since their efforts might well serve as the basic institutional framework for the nation’s foreseeable future as plastic institutions matured into permanence and the frontier era passed into history. The work of the communitarians also seemed attractive because alternative methods of social reform now were thought to be at a dead end. Rampant individualism seemed incapable of answering the need for some sort of collective action to deal with the ills of the nineteenth century.

Remembering the bloodlettings of the period from 1789 to 1815 in Europe, observers suggested that revolution had revealed itself to be a dangerous two-edged sword. Moreover, the problems created by industrialization seemed already to have moved beyond gradualism as a means of solving them. Drastic reform was necessary, but drastic reform without revolution. The communitarian approach seemed a model solution to the dilemmas posed by these attitudes. It was voluntaristic, genuinely experimental, deliberately planned, rational, and nonrevolutionary. All these characteristics were immensely appealing to reformers throughout the Western world in the first half of the nineteenth century.

These tendencies, and others, provided a special appeal in the United States during the same period. Faith in the idea that communities can remake their institutions by reasoned choice seemed normal, for that is what the United States had done during the period of constitution-making. The communitarians’ belief in social harmony, not class warfare, was also a deeply held American attitude. The experimentation of the communitarians found a ready response in a nation of tinkerers—a nation that was itself thought to be an experiment. Perhaps most important, the group procedure that was at the heart of the communitarian effort reflected a tendency that has revealed itself in many areas of American thought and activity.

Perhaps as a product of the frontier experience and a deeply revered democratic tradition, Americans have always placed great stress upon the development of voluntary associations. From the Mayflower Compact to the establishment of the Tennessee Valley Authority and the encouragement of grassroots community action programs, the belief in voluntary associations has asserted itself. The communitarian movement fits neatly into such an ideological framework.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Arndt, Karl J. R., ed. and comp. A Documentary History of the Indiana Decade of the New Harmony Society, 1814-1824. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1975-1978. A vast, encyclopedic collection of letters, official documents, maps, and other records of the New Harmony Society taken from its archives. Volume 2 contains a large, detailed map of the community in 1832, with a key identifying buildings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. George Rapp’s Harmony Society, 1785-1847. Rev. ed. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1972. A comprehensive narrative using primary sources from the New Harmony Society’s archives to let its members tell their own story. Previous historians of New Harmony did not have access to these sources; therefore, Arndt’s work is far more accurate and comprehensive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. George Rapp’s Successors and Material Heirs, 1847-1916. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1971. Continues Arndt’s volume that covered 1785-1847.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bestor, Arthur E. Backwoods Utopias: The Sectarian Origins and the Owenite Phase of Communitarian Socialism in America, 1663-1829. 2d ed. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1970. Situates New Harmony in the greater utopian and communal movement, paying special attention to Robert Owen’s involvement with the group.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donnachie, Ian. Robert Owen: Owen of New Lanark and New Harmony. 2000. Reprint. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005. Full biography of Owen that describes his work as a factory owner and social reformer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lockwood, George B. The New Harmony Movement. New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970. An early yet still useful work covering the history and sociological implications of the movement through the nineteenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Royle, Edward. Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium: A Study of the Harmony Community. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. Study of the Harmony community that Robert Owen established in Hampshire, England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Taylor, Anne. Visions of Harmony: A Study in Nineteenth-Century Millenarianism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Offers speculative biographies of George Rapp and Robert Owen, drawing heavily from materials not included in Karl J. R. Arndt’s work. Some of Taylor’s assertions are not supported by fact, and the work does not provide as much information on millenarianism as the title suggests.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Brian. Devastating Eden: The Search for Utopia in America. London: HarperCollins, 2004. One of the fullest history to date of both of the experimental communities that were established in Harmony, Indiana. Chronicles the successes and failures of both communities.

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