“The principle, with regard to labor, lies at the root of moral and religious life; for it is not more true that ‘money is the root of all evil,’ than that labor is the germ of all good.”
The mid-nineteenth century was a period of great social and religious upheaval and growth in the United States. An abundance of new religious movements sprouted out of the rich American religious landscape brought on by the Second Great Awakening, increasing urbanization, industrialization, and immigration in the United States. As individuals strove to find God through new, often more personal ways, fledgling religious institutions gained many followers seeking a religious experience different from that of the Protestantism of the past.
One such movement, born in the earlier half of the century, was transcendentalism. Although more philosophical than religious in purpose, transcendentalism was formed by American intellectuals, some of whom were ordained ministers, in attempt to reconcile their rather liberal worldview with the time in which they lived. As a member of this movement, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody played a prominent role in the organization of the Transcendental Club, the publication and circulation of the movement’s magazine the Dial, and the formation of the Brook Farm community experiment in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, in 1841.
The nineteenth century sparked a number of changes in the American religious landscape. The decades preceding the Civil War were a time in which many sought lives outside of the social, economic, and political tensions of their era. Trying to avoid what philosopher Henry David Thoreau called “lives of quiet desperation,” some of these individuals, like the transcendentalists, formed what they believed would be communal utopias. With the goal of social equality and perfection in mind, these groups formed socialist, and often religious, communes in which all members were to work for the good of the whole. Their advent came shortly after the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s and 1840s, recalling similar early movements following the American Revolution, such as that of the Shakers.
Perhaps one of the best examples of communal utopian experimentation in the nineteenth century was the short-lived Brook Farm. Though its existence was fleeting, lasting only from 1841 to 1847, Brook Farm represented a religiously influenced, intellectually driven, idealized American community that faced many of the same triumphs and challenges as similar organizations of its day (such as the Oneida, Amana, or Harmonist communities). For the members of Brook Farm, the self-sustaining community was to be one in which spirituality and the pursuits of secular living could be explored in an atmosphere of like-mindedness and mutual respect.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, along with such well-known nineteenth-century American figures as George Ripley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott of Little Women fame), and Margaret Fuller, set out with the aim of creating a community in which both education and agriculture were central. As philosophers, writers, and social reformers, the members of Brook Farm seem to have been as much interested in the labor of their minds as that of their hands.
Elizabeth Palmer Peabody was born May 16, 1804, to Nathaniel Peabody and Elizabeth Palmer, both teachers. Her education was encouraged and supported by her parents, particularly her mother, who continued to teach to support the family while her husband dabbled in dentistry and medicine. Becoming a teacher herself, Peabody eventually moved to Boston in the 1820s, first running a small private school with her sister Mary and later teaching at Bronson Alcott’s Temple School. In the 1840s, Peabody opened a successful lending library and bookstore where many of Boston’s intellectuals gathered to share their ideas. With connections to the philosophical elite of her day, she became the sister-in-law of both education reformer Horace Mann, who married her sister Mary, and author Nathaniel Hawthorne, who married her sister Sophia; Elizabeth Peabody herself never married or had children. It was these meetings and familial connections that ultimately lead to Peabody’s work with the transcendentalist publication the Dial, as well as planning for the formation of the Brook Farm communal experiment.
A lifelong advocate for education, Peabody became interested in the work of German early-education pioneer Friedrich Froebel. The result of this curiosity was the first English-speaking American kindergarten, founded in Boston by Peabody in 1861. Like the transcendentalist movement to which she was so closely tied, Peabody’s educational system provided a space in which meeting the needs of the individual was considered paramount to that individual’s ability to be a successful and productive member of society. Peabody died in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, on January 3, 1894, having remained active in educational reform and continuing to publish well into her eighties.
This selection from Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s January 1842 “Plan of the West Roxbury Community” was published in the transcendentalist literary magazine the Dial as a continuation of her “A Glimpse of Christ’s Idea of Society,” published in a previous issue in October of 1841. With a readership of fellow intellectuals and social reformers, the article would undoubtedly have circulated among individuals who felt that the formation of a utopian society would provide a haven for those seeking to live more meaningful lives. Though Peabody never lived at Brook Farm, she, like many nonresident transcendentalists, had an attachment to and philosophical investment in the project. As a lifelong educator, she especially offers advice for the ways in which the community should go about educating its members and the children in its school to be both intellectually and agriculturally proficient.
As the extension of Peabody’s earlier essay, this piece of writing is aimed at carrying forward Peabody’s previous conclusions about the necessary work for the individual soul to an assessment of the ways in which the unique individuals at Brook Farm should work together to create a more perfect society. It is particularly important here to recall that in both pieces of writing what Peabody (and, indeed, many of her fellow transcendentalists) strove for was very much an ideal, and that they were fully aware of this idealism. In other words, although the Brook Farm community was brought to fruition, its members recognized that it was an experiment—one with the potential to succeed or to fail depending upon the participation and effort of its individual members.
The Brook Farm community, founded the year before Peabody’s second publication represented here, comprised a variety of individuals from different backgrounds and occupations. Although membership in the community was open to all who wished to join, the early community attracted a certain demographic. As it was founded by many of the prominent and educated transcendentalists of the day, Brook Farm was at first glance a community of intellectuals. Called at outset the “Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education,” the early community set out with the aim of excellence in these two arenas, education and agriculture. Beyond the farm, then, life in the community was focused on the education of its members, and the Brook Farm community established what became a well-known school, open to anyone, child or adult, who wished to learn. Agriculture was to be the primary source of labor, sustenance, and income for the community. At the head of the whole project, overseeing its regulation and well-being would be what Peabody describes as a “Faculty of the Embryo University,” a unique way of describing those in charge of the incubation of the new community.
At its height, Brook Farm was home to no more than 120 individuals all told. Most of the men and women were single adults in their twenties or thirties, and all, including the children, were expected to participate in the agricultural labor and intellectual pursuits of the community. Many scholars have noted that Brook Farm was especially appealing to women, as the promise of equal labor and equal gain—as well as an alternative to immediate marriage and motherhood—was quite a foreign one at the time. Although all residents had the opportunity to perform whatever labor they wished, the traditional gendered division of labor seen outside the community seems to have persisted voluntarily in life at the farm. As Peabody suggests, another draw of the community was that it would provide a lifestyle that was “natural” for its members in its attempts to balance the labor of the mind with physical labor.
While the communities at Oneida, New Harmony, and Amana were religious, Brook Farm was challenged from the start by its lack of a unified religious experience for its members. The absence of a central religious affiliation undoubtedly set the members apart from other utopian communal experiments of the era. Though not an explicitly religious experiment, however, Brook Farm was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the Christianity of its day. While no profession of faith was required of Brook Farm members, a general belief in the Christian God seems to have permeated all aspects of life and work there. In true transcendentalist fashion, participants sought God within themselves, often through their studies, and in the natural world around them.
Peabody’s writing is an excellent example of the ways many transcendentalists melded religion and philosophy to formulate a new approach to what constituted a moral and productive life in a society that seemed stale and corrupting. Though certainly far from the utopia that it was designed to become, Brook Farm, by most contemporary accounts, was marked by days that approached idyllic, despite the amount of work it took to sustain the community and property. However, the effort to find the balance between intellectual and agricultural labor ultimately became one of the biggest hurdles to the continued life of the community.
The plan for the Brook Farm community at West Roxbury was to create a place where all members had a stake in the organization, sharing all things (food, buildings, property, general finances) in common. Work, whether teaching in the community school or performing intense physical farm labor, was to be considered equally valuable to the community and thus compensated equally. As philosophers, writers, and social reformers, however, many members of Brook Farm seem to have placed greater emphasis on the importance and pleasure of the intellectual, rather than the physical, types of work available to them. Consequently, just a few years into their existence, social changes became necessary for the organization, as there were not enough hours in the week to fulfill both intellectual and farming demands.
Brook Farm also faced a number of agricultural challenges that made its goals less and less achievable. Perhaps most disappointing, the condition of the land that the association purchased was not conducive to growing. As he was not a farmer by training, former Unitarian minister George Ripley, the leader of Brook Farm, had not considered that the community’s farmland had previously been used for a dairy farm and that its sandy soil was unsuitable for growing crops. Equally problematic was the inhabitants’ general lack of farming skills. While Ripley and others had read quite a bit about farming before moving to West Roxbury, their general lack of practical farming experience made for a slow start. Although hard work andintellectual pursuits were to be the foundations of life at Brook Farm, finding a balance between the two ultimately proved to be too much of a challenge for the group. While their original intention had been to farm for sustenance (as well as financial profit), the farm never became self-sufficient. For this reason, the community had to pursue other sources of income, one of which was to open their school to outside students for a nominal fee, a decision that Peabody would undoubtedly have favored.
Though the Brook Farm community did not survive long enough to see future generations of adherents come of age, members were interested in the life of its young people from the start. It was believed that education of the intellect would produce wise future citizens, while education of the body through physical work would cultivate modesty and a genuine work ethic. Members entering Brook Farm from the lower classes were expected to engage in the intellectual pursuits of the community as much as any other member. This push for total equality was intended for the benefit of the entire community, as those from the lower classes would have the opportunity to work toward being intellectually equal with the middle-class members of the farm, who often needed to brush up on their skills in physical labor and farming.
As Peabody hoped, all members would be taught in this way so that, learning “what they loved” would make the burden of heavy work lighter for all. Many of the founding members had been teachers at some point in their lives, and it was their duty to personalize instruction in such a way that each individual member received exactly what he or she needed out of their educational experience. In an era in which higher education for women was just beginning to find its foothold in America, equal and individualized education for the old and young, male and female, was very progressive for its time.
It was the community’s intention to provide a stipend (“sufficient capital”) for children who were raised at the farm and might decide when they reached adulthood to leave the community for the outside world. Likewise, provisions were to be made for orphans and the elderly. Should an individual enter the community without funds to contribute to it, they were not to be turned away if their intentions for self-improvement seemed pure and their dedication to hard work was apparent. Brook Farm was indeed intended to be an idealized society in which all men, women, and children worked together for the edification of the individual, with the intended result of the improvement of the whole community.
Perhaps most indicative of the shifts that occurred in the life of the community was its name change from the “Brook Farm Institute of Agriculture and Education” to the “Brook Farm Association for Industry and Education” in 1844. This change is notable for two reasons. First, it marks the organization’s official acceptance of their agricultural difficulties (the very practice being removed from their title). Second, it also highlights the moment in which the community became followers of the utopian socialism espoused by French social philosopher Charles Fourier (1772–1837), to which Ripley had subscribed, and not merely to those ideals set forth for the community by the transcendentalists. Only a few short years later, however, the experiment would come to an end.
Although many of the ideals proposed by the Brook Farm community sound fair in theory, they sometimes emphasized class stratifications rather than eliminating them, creating tension between members. Beyond the agricultural challenges that the community faced, the underlying tension between secularism and religiosity also may have contributed to the dissolution of the Brook Farm experiment. In its later years, the community sank a large sum of money into the construction of a building that was intended to be a central dwelling for all members. This proved to be one of the final hindrances to the group’s survival. The community went bankrupt shortly after the building burned to the ground in March 1846, as it was not insured. While a faulty chimney was to blame and there was no apparent foul play involved, the loss of funds, time, and morale were the final blow to the already fading community. Despite Brook Farm’s reputation for equality, opportunity, and camaraderie, the community’s ideals and sense of brotherhood were not enough to keep it afloat. The Brook Farm community dissolved in 1847, deep in debt and with a following that had dwindled significantly. In many ways, Brook Farm’s change of direction in 1844 foreshadowed the movement from religiously or philosophically based planned communities to economically or politically motivated communes.
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