More from the 1826 “Mutualist”?

More proof that “full text” translates to something like randomly indexed. While searching for something else, I came across this letter from A MEMBER OF A COMMUNITY, the name used in the first few “Mutualist” letters, in the New Harmony Gazette, a week before the first of those appeared. The letter asks most of the questions answered in THE MUTUALIST, Or, Practical Remarks on the Social System of Mutual Cooperation [see pdf, intro], so it seems quite likely that the author is indeed the same. The question of which community the Mutualist was a member of has occupied some of my time lately. The references to John Gray and the timing of the letters lead me to believe that, if it was an Owenite community, then it was probably the Valley Forge group. There were several Owenite communities which started in 1825-26, but the Valley Forge group were based in Philadelphia, where the American edition of Gray’s Lecture on Human Happiness was published, and were known as the Friendly Association for Mutual Interests. The Kendal, Ohio community also used that name, but evidence from the New Harmony Gazette makes it appear that the latter community was not well under way by the time these letters were published. So far, I haven’t found any mention of this interesting set of letters in the literature on Owenism, beyond the mention in Bestor’s “Evolution of the Socialist Vocabulary.” A large number of the Valley Forge colonists eventually joined the Shakers, and I have a very interesting narrative covering that which I will post soon.

For the New Harmony Gazette.
Several friends of the social system would be much gratified, if Mr. Owen, or any other member of your community, could answer explicitly and with perspicuity, the following practical questions on the system; which they deem of great and vital importance. They have perused in vain the writings of Mr. Owen, and Mr. Gray, and the essays in your Gazette, and found no where any explanation relating thereto. The advantages of the social system, the defects of the opposite selfish system, the utility of cooperation and mutual indulgence, have been unfolded with; ability: while the abstract principles of Mr. Owen’s peculiar tenets on moral agency, and combinations of circumstances, have been insisted upon, although they do not appear to be essential thereto, since philanthropic individuals could cooperate, whatever might be their ideas on the moral principle of action. The essential and practical operations (and difficulties) of the system have not been clearly stated and examined, their place being occupied by those abstract disquisitions upon which it is hard and needless to convince. But essays on the following operations of active social life would be acceptable to; all, understood by all, useful to all, and would remove many doubts suggested by practical friends of the mutual system.

I. What is to be the stimulus or encouragement to superior industry, activity, and ability in the communities, where no merit is to be ascribed to any one laboring better, quicker, or longer than others? What are to be the inducements to superior exertions, or discoveries in the arts and sciences, or inventions having a beneficial influence and extensive results on the communities and mankind, if such exertions and discoveries are entitled to no reward nor praise? And what are to be the means used or adopted to restrain and meliorate the idle, the petulant, the proud, the vicious, the intemperate, the libertine, &c. if they are to deserve no blame for the injures and unhappiness they may produce? These opposite effects of excellence and depravity are to be expected, more or less, in all communities or aggregation of individuals. If promotion and expulsion are to be the result, are they not rewards and punishments? Is not approbation a kind of praise or reward? Is not admonition equal to blame? How are ambition, jealousy, and vanity to be checked, indolence and neglect to be prevented?

II. How are the communities to stand towards general society and the laws of the land?. Even in the United States, the freest of all countries, a series of laws, results of ages of legislation on individual property, will act as checks and restraints on the mutual system, unless special laws are enacted for their benefit, and this it is doubtful whether selfish legislators will do. If the property of the communities is to be held in trust, what guarantee will bind the trustees? Are the members to be termed children or minors before the law, or what? Are they not to be deemed partners, since they labor for mutual benefit? As partners, the perplexing maze of laws on partnership will bear upon them, each being liable for each in all cases, and bad members might injure or disturb the communities: declarations and expositions will not avail in many cases. Widows and orphans have peculiar rights by law, which may perplex, or be used by enemies. How is all this to be avoided, how is it contemplated to act in common, and in spite of the bad laws forbidding special partnerships or cooperations?

III. Money is to be rendered useless, but how? Is not money or any other medium a conventional sign of a value, as much as cattle or cloth? Is not money wanted to buy the land, to settle upon, to hire additional workmen for the great buildings, for materials and tools, of trade or science, to pay the tax, &c. &c.? Are not money or values to be borrowed in and out the society, a stock created, and an interest paid thereon? All this requires money or the equivalent, whence will follow, as in every other concern, financial scheme, book., accounts, &c. If a community does not sell to general society a sufficiency to pay taxes, interest of stock, materials wanted, &c.—How are the difficulties that will follow to be overcome, and money to be dispensed with?

IV. A great hollow square is proposed, as the most efficient and useful mode of building a convenient village? Why has not the square been described, and engraved? Are we to go to Washington, or New Harmony, to see the models thereof? The journey may be long and expensive. Let us have good diagrams, elevations and explanations of a single side of the square, and we may then judge for ourselves, even at a distance. How are the halls, kitchens, rooms, stairs, doors, windows, &c. to be distributed? How are the steam stoves, chimneys, pipes for conveying warm and cool air or water to be contrived? What would be the cost of such a palace or single side, if built by contract, or by the members? What are the superior advantages of a hollow square over parallel sides at a convenient distance, or hollow triangles, pentagons, hexagons, or octagons? How will the unevenness of the ground be avoided? Are the sides to have cellars and garret—two or three stories? What kind of roofs? Are they to be made incombustible, and how?

Such, and many more, are the practical details which many have wished to know and are now asking to be informed upon.


About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.