“To prepare a society of liberal, intelligent, and cultivated persons, whose relations with each other would permit a more simple and wholesome life, than can be led amidst the pressure of our competitive institutions.”
This letter was written in 1840 by Unitarian minister and transcendentalist leader George Ripley to author Ralph Waldo Emerson in order to convince Emerson to provide support for Ripley’s planned communal experiment, Brook Farm. Ripley was part of the movement by prominent antebellum leaders in the United States to attempt to create utopian communities in which participants could avoid the perceived inequities of the labor and social systems and participate in the formation of a strong, self-sustaining community. Ripley’s letter briefly outlines the overall goals of his proposed utopian community, including the desire to create a more egalitarian system of labor, reward, and education than existed in society as a whole, one that would make use of each participant’s relative skills and capacities. Ripley’s letter also addresses some of the practical implications involved in the foundation of a utopian agricultural community and the sacrifices required on the part of participants to make such an operation a success. Brook Farm began operations in 1841 and closed in 1847, after a devastating fire in 1846 crippled the community’s progress. Ultimately, Emerson elected not to join the communards at Brook Farm, instead pursuing other enterprises to explore the transcendentalist philosophy and way of life.
Transcendentalism was an American literary and philosophical movement that emerged in the late 1830s, partially from the Unitarian reform movement of the same era. Placed in historical context, transcendentalism emerged at a time when the United States economy was strong and the population was rapidly growing. In the established and relatively affluent communities of the northeast, a religious transformation was under way, led largely by Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing of Boston, who was leading many away from the spiritualism of Calvinism and toward the more rational and scientifically grounded Unitarianism. The Unitarian reformation brought a more liberal philosophy to the religious communities of the region and played a role in fostering widespread interest in social and political causes, including women’s suffrage, abolition, and educational reform.
Transcendentalism emerged from this environment and came to represent an alternative to the prevailing rationalist philosophy of the Unitarian church, blending elements of a more overt spirituality with a focus on individualism as both a spiritual and a practical philosophy. In New England, disposable income was sufficient to support the authors and lecturers who made a living traveling and discussing transcendentalist philosophy. In addition, transcendentalism blended well with the increasing focus on liberal social issues, as transcendentalists rejected the class structure of the traditional churches in favor of a belief that each individual, regardless of origin, was capable of manifesting qualities of the divine through his or her own self-realization.
The transcendentalist focus on individualism led to intense disagreement among practitioners as to the exact spiritual, philosophical, and practical elements that best expressed the movement. In general, transcendentalists believed that an individual could transcend the animalistic impulses of life to reach unity with the spiritual realm and that all beings were representations of a universal soul—or “oversoul”—that encompassed all life. They believed that humans should focus not on death or the afterlife but on the immediate physical world and reaching a state of self-realization that would bring them closer to universal truths. Further, they believed that these truths could be found in nature, as manifested in all living creatures and the natural phenomena of the world.
Some transcendentalists took from the philosophy a desire to escape the social, political, and economic inequities of mainstream society by forming utopian communities, where individuals could cooperate in creating a subculture based on shared morals, values, and spiritual beliefs. In general, these communities took the form of agricultural communes, intended to be self-sufficient communities separated from the economic system of mainstream society. The transcendentalists were not the only spiritual or philosophical group in the United States that attempted to form utopian agricultural communities; other examples include the Enfield community in Connecticut, founded by the Shakers in 1790; Harmony, Pennsylvania, formed in 1803 by the German Rappites; and the Oneida Community, formed in 1848 in New York. Brook Farm, established by transcendentalist George Ripley, was the most prominent utopian community based on the philosophy of transcendentalism and the principles of self-reliance, as found in the writings of foundational transcendentalist author Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The transcendentalist movement is traditionally seen as having peaked between the late 1830s and the mid to late1840s, but threads of the philosophy continued to play an important role in American philosophical and social circles beyond the Civil War. However, interest in many of the alternative philosophical schools of the antebellum era declined sharply as the Civil War progressed and the population was forced to contend with the practical demands of coping with war.
George Ripley was born in Greenfield, Massachusetts, on October 3, 1802, the son of tavern owners Jerome and Sarah Ripley. He was a cousin of the renowned transcendentalist theorist and writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the two shared a similar intellectual and cultural environment, which may have contributed to both men finding transcendentalism as an expression of their philosophical principles. Ripley’s father, a follower of Unitarianism, pressured his son to attend Harvard University. Ripley graduated from Harvard in 1823 and continued at Harvard Divinity School, eventually graduating with a degree in theology and becoming an ordained Unitarian minister in 1826. In 1827, Ripley married Sophia Dana, an intellectual who shared his passion for liberal social philosophy.
Ripley had a strong background in German and several other European languages, and he began studying the philosophies and writings of European authors, especially German idealism as embodied in the works of writers like Immanuel Kant. From these studies and the writings of theorists such as Emerson, whose 1836 essay Nature is considered by many to be the foundational document of American transcendentalism, Ripley began to abandon the Unitarian philosophy in favor of one in keeping with what would later be called transcendentalism. Ripley’s speech “Jesus Christ, the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever,” delivered in 1834 at a church in Canton, Massachusetts, has also been preserved as one of the foundational pieces of transcendentalist thought.
In 1836, Ripley, Emerson, and Unitarian ministers Frederic Henry Hedge and George Putnam met together in Cambridge to discuss forming a social intellectual club, later called the Transcendental Club, which began meeting a short time later at Ripley’s Boston home. The Transcendental Club later began publishing its own journal,the Dial, which was edited by Margaret Fuller, a feminist theorist and author who is also remembered as one of the founding philosophers of transcendentalism.
By 1840, Ripley and his wife, Sophia, had together developed their plan to form a utopian community where they and other like-minded individuals could live in a way that embodied the tenets of individualism, idealism, and transcendentalism. Ripley’s model for his proposed community was based largely on the writings of Charles Fourier, a French theorist who had expounded on the idea of utopian community formation. In 1841, Ripley resigned as head of the Purchase Street Church parish, and he and his wife started the Brook Farm community.
Brook Farm lasted for six years, but it was unable to achieve financial stability, as they failed to earn sufficient income from the sale of crops grown on the property. As the community developed, they officially embraced the views of Fourier and began publishing a periodical based on this philosophy. The community sunk what remained of its financial resources into the construction of a new communal building called a phalanstere, based on designs developed by Fourier. An accidental fire destroyed the phalanstere, plunging the community into financial turmoil. Also during this period, Ripley’s wife found she did not share her husband’s dedication to Fourier’s philosophy and secretly converted to Catholicism. The loss of Sophia’s support and the fire at Brook Farm brought an end to the community in 1847.
Financially destitute as a result of his investment in Brook Farm, Ripley began work as an editor and freelance writer. Ripley’s wife died in 1860 due to complications from an earlier injury. Ripley struggled to regain financial stability, and by the mid-1860s, his growing reputation as a writer and editor had allowed him to return to relative affluence and recoup his losses from the Brook Farm experiment. Ripley remarried in 1865 and spent the rest of his life in New York, where he was intimately involved with the city’s social and literary community until his death in 1880.
The idea of a utopian community can be traced to the ancient concept of an idealized culture, such as Eden in the Old Testament and similar ideas in Ancient Greek and Roman culture. Utopian communities in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere, derived from the mythological descriptions of utopia found in many religions, were aimed at creating idealized societies in which humans lived in harmony with one another and with their natural surroundings. In general, American utopian communities formed out of religious or philosophical movements whose basic tenets urged a lifestyle that was in some way difficult or even impossible to achieve within the confines of mainstream society.
The formation of a commune is a complex process with many variables affecting overall success or failure. Two basic requirements for settling a new community are a sufficiently large and dedicated group of people to handle the daily work of the commune and sufficient resources to purchase the land, supplies, and other equipment needed for the commune to function. Both these factors motivated Ripley to write to Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1840, hoping that Emerson would join in their efforts to build the Brook Farm community, or at least donate money to the cause as an investor. The correspondence between Ripley and Emerson is interesting in that it preserves a record of Ripley’s overall economic plan for his community, and the community’s failure to achieve economic stability was ultimately responsible for the failure of the project.
Ripley’s 1840 letter to Emerson came after a personal conversation about the idea in which Ripley had apparently shared the core concepts of his plan with Emerson and attempted to convince Emerson to take part in the community. In this follow-up letter, Ripley delves into the philosophical basis of the community, which he sees as creating a need for the experiment. Ripley sums up the goals of the Brook Farm community by saying that it will foster a “more natural union between intellectual and manual labor.” By this, Ripley refers to the perception that the economic and social realities of daily life often forced individuals into occupations that did not suit their personalities and skills. In Ripley’s view, individuals in an ideal society would only be required to engage in tasks that suited their skills.
To achieve this goal, Ripley intended first to create a system of labor in which individuals could freely choose their activities based on skill and preference. Second, in Ripley’s system, each individual would share in the benefits of the community’s profits equally, rather than basing profit on the relative income derived from any particular activity. Thus, in Ripley’s conception, the farmers who worked the fields and sold the crops would share the profits from their crop sales with those who functioned in other capacities, including medical care, child care, and education. Ripley further intended for each member of the community to receive education as part of their involvement, thus allowing them to develop intellectually and socially as they contributed to the function of the community.
Brook Farm was envisioned as a combined agricultural and educational community, containing a subsistence and commercial farm that would produce sufficient crop yields to sell products through agricultural markets and a school system, including preschool, primary, and secondary programs, that would serve not only residents of the community but also children and adults from other areas, who could attend the school for a fee. Additionally, the members of Brook Farm produced a variety of products, including clothing and local crafts, which they sold to visitors as a way to increase the overall income of the community. In essence, those living on the farm were allowed to explore a full spectrum of activities, including both manual labor and intellectual enlightenment, while the community also invited outsiders to visit their farm and benefit from the various products and programs offered by the residents. “Our farm would be a place for improving the race of men that lived on it,” Ripley wrote. “Thought would preside over the operations of labor, and labor would contribute to the expansion of thought.”
Ripley briefly discusses in his letter the financial considerations involved in the operation, telling Emerson that $30,000 would be needed to secure property and supplies for the first year of operation. An outlay of $30,000 in 1840 translates to almost $680,000 in 2012—a significant initial financial investment. Ripley further describes his plan to set up a joint stock company for investors, intended to repay loans at a fixed interest rate. Ripley is clear that he intended to avoid investors whom he describes as “rich capitalists,” meaning those who might invest primarily to profit from the interest on their investment. Instead, Ripley hoped to find investors were emotionally or intellectually committed to the potential of the Brook Farm project. In a second letter, sent to Emerson in 1841, Ripley reports that they are asking contributors to purchase shares at a price of $500 each (roughly $11,000 by 2012 standards), which would be repaid at 5-percent interest.
It is clear from Ripley’s writing that he passionately believed in the importance of his Brook Farm project, asserting that it may become “a light over this country and this world.” Among other goals, Ripley hoped that the community of Brook Farm would serve to demonstrate how a community could actively avoid the inequities of the mainstream division of labor and the social class system in most of the United States.
Ripley envisioned the problem as such: an individual working alone on a farm or similar venture will be so consumed with work that he or she will have little time to pursue intellectual or philosophical pursuits, while an individual who chooses to hire others to assist in labor is surrounding him- or herself with workers who are of such a different sociocultural status that he or she cannot call those individuals friends. Neither situation was acceptable to Ripley, who wished to build a community in which all those working, whether in the fields or on some other, more intellectual pursuit, would be of similar intellectual and social leanings. Rather than attempting to foster these changes within the mainstream, Ripley determined to create a society in which the ideal blend of labor and intellect would be present from the start.
Ripley shared with the other transcendentalists the perception that the divisions of labor and education in America prevented many from attaining the self-realization needed for spiritual, social, and intellectual enlightenment. The condition of the working class was a concern not only for the transcendentalists but also for many of the other spiritual reform movements of the era, especially those that came out of the Unitarian reform movement. Ripley mentions the “Practical Christians,” who were followers of Unitarian minister and social reformer Adin Ballou. Ballou, like the transcendentalists, was an ardent abolitionist and proponent of controversial socialist reforms; unlike the Brook Farm adherents, Ballou and his followers based their socialist reforms on a deep commitment to their Christian beliefs. Ripley felt that the Brook Farm community should be more liberal in its application of spiritual principles and less rigidly devoted to a single set of spiritual beliefs. For this reason, Ripley determined not to join with the practical Christians in the Brook Farm project, despite the shared goals between the communities. In 1842, Ballou and his followers founded their own utopian communal group, called the Hopedale Community, which was ultimately more successful than Brook Farm and lasted for fourteen years before closing.
In his letter, Ripley confesses to Emerson that he personally favors solitude and independence over the thought of engaging in such a close community but believes that the overarching goals of the community outweigh his personal inclinations toward a private life. Ripley admits further that his venture may in fact be premature, saying that the work of building communities like he envisions at Brook Farm may be destined for future generations. Ripley argues that though the community may fail, he believes the investment may provide its own rewards and the effort may still be worthwhile.
In furtherance of this thought, Ripley also describes his understanding that the success of the community will depend on the enlistment of “Practical Men,” by which he means those with the knowledge to handle the labor and daily operation of the farm. Ripley mentions that he wants to enlist a woman with skill in laundry to work on the farm. This woman, he says, may not be possessed of refined characteristics that would make her an immediate choice for a resident of the farm, but she has skills necessary to the lifestyle they wish to create and children whom Ripley says could be educated in the more nuanced philosophical and social subjects that will also be a focus of the community. Through this statement, it is clear that Ripley has some amount of disdain for those he sees as belonging to a lower sociocultural class, but he also wishes to utilize Brook Farm to bring as many as possible into accord with the society’s principles.
Ripley’s attempt to elicit financial support from Emerson was ultimately unsuccessful, and in December of 1841, Ripley again wrote to Emerson seeking his involvement. The only evidence of Emerson’s reaction to the project comes from a letter sent in response to Ripley’s correspondence, in which Emerson politely declines the offer to contribute to the Brook Farm experiment. Somewhat prophetically, Emerson also levies some tactfully written criticisms of the overall economic plan for the Brook Farm community, having discussed the project with friends involved in commercial agriculture. From these conversations, Emerson tells Ripley, he does not believe that the farm will prove profitable enough to secure continued success. Though Brook Farm managed to stay in operation for six years, the community never drew a significant profit from agricultural sales and ultimately fell into bankruptcy, perhaps validating some of the potential problems raised by Emerson in his analysis.
Ripley’s letter to Emerson illustrates the profound dissatisfaction many American intellectuals found with the labor and class divisions of mid-nineteenth-century society. An affluent individual, possessed of significant intellectual abilities, might find him or herself forced to “waste” his or her time engaged in menial labor, thereby reducing the time available to utilize his or her more advanced abilities. At the same time, an individual born into a lower socioeconomic class would find it difficult to gain access to the educational benefits that might allow him or her engage in more advanced intellectual and social activities. Together, the deepening educational and class divisions created an overall sense of dissatisfaction among members of all the various social classes.
Ripley’s Brook Farm was essentially a socialist community, based on the idea that each member of the community owned a share in their collective endeavors and benefited equally from the fruits of their labors. In the American capitalist system, the benefits of education may be readily available to those of higher socioeconomic classes, as they are able to afford the more expensive educational options. Those at lower socioeconomic levels cannot afford advanced education and are therefore unable to achieve equality in terms of employment opportunities. This cycle functions to maintain a class system that many believe is inherently unjust and responsible for a great deal of the suffering experienced by many individuals. In addition, individuals may be forced into a certain class by virtue of their gender or race, a situation that Ripley and similar intellectuals abhorred as a mark of an inferior society. At Brook Farm, men and women were paid equally for their labor, whereas women earned far less than men in most other parts of society.
While Brook Farm was based on the transcendentalist liberalism of the era, other communal experiments of the mid-nineteenth century derived from alternative reformist philosophies, many related to the overarching Unitarian reform movement that was spreading through the country. Ultimately, addressing the growing social and civil inequities of the American class system led to federal intervention and a variety of social welfare programs attempting to equalize the distribution of educational, medical, and employment benefits. The relative successes and failures of state-sponsored social welfare remained highly debated subjects into the twenty-first century, and the inequities of the socioeconomic class structure in the United States remained a major facet of US culture and a prominent criticism levied by those who favored social reform. The counterculture of the 1960s produced a number of utopian communal experiments, similar in many respects to Brook Farm and the communes of the 1800s and inspired by the same perceived inequities that resulted in part from the inherent inequality of the capitalist system.
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