Wednesday, 28 September 2016

The New Moral World: Robert Owen's New Lanark

New Lanark, Scotland, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site about 25 miles from Glasgow on the Falls of Clyde. David Dale founded New Lanark as a textile mill village in 1785, taking advantage of the water power the falls provided. It became famous as a model factory town in the early 19th century after Dale's son in law, Welshman Robert Owen, took it over.

Contrary to the ideas of many factory owners of the early industrial era, Owen was convinced that he could treat his workers humanely and still make a profit. Besides offering better wages and shorter hours than most mills, he provided the workers and their families with decent housing and opportunities for education and self-improvement. He established the first infants' school in the UK in 1817, to take care of and educate young children while their parents worked. 

New Lanark flourished. Owen made a lot of money, and the town became well known, attracting the rich and famous from all over the European world. At its height, it was home to 2500 people. Owen's success convinced him that he could replicate it elsewhere, and go further in the direction of what he called "The New Moral World."

Owen believed, in common with many Enlightenment thinkers, that environment shaped human character, and that the right environment would produce morally superior people, a "New Moral World." By the 1820s, he had decided that the right environment was a "cooperative" one, in which people worked together for the common good.

In effect, Owen had embraced what Karl Marx later called "utopian socialism." In 1825, Owen sold New Lanark and sailed to America, where he founded a cooperative community, New Harmony, in Indiana. Below are two images of Owen's concept of the community, with housing, workshops, schools, and factories.

The New Harmony experiment was largely a failure. The inhabitants, not Owen's employees, proved to be un-cooperative. Perhaps, too, Owen was seen as a tyrant, trying to direct people's lives too much. 

After a few years, Owen gave up on New Harmony and sailed back to Britain, though several of his children remained and carved out successful careers in America. Back in Britain, he tried to establish a union of all British workers, The Grand National Consolidated Trades Union. Due in part to government persecution, it failed by 1834, and Owen began to promote a new movement to found producers and consumers co-operatives. The first successful co-op was founded in 1844, in Rochdale, Lancashire, by the Rochdale Pioneers. It soon became a model for countless others since.

New Lanark itself went into a gradual decline after Owen left. It continued producing textiles until 1968. After the mill closed, people moved away and the buildings began to deteriorate. In 1974 a trust was founded to save them, and they have been gradually restored. About 200 people live in the restored housing and thousands more visit the site every year, learning about Owen's "New Moral World."

The old mill is now a hotel and some of the housing is now used as a hostel.

The infants school has also been restored to what it looked like when Owen established it. (School and Mill Race)

Today, New Harmony, Indiana, is also a popular tourist destination and so, in some form, Owen's legacy lives on. 

Further Reading: JFC Harrison, Robert Owen and the Owenites in England and America: The Quest for a New Moral World (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969)

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Tom Paine, Rejected Hero

Poor Tom Paine. Rejected by American Patriots he served so well for being too radical, nearly guillotined by French revolutionaries for being too conservative, he died poor and forgotten in an America he helped to create. Ironically, he became a hero to many people in the land he rebelled against: Great Britain.

Paine was born in Thetford, England January 29, 1737. He trained in the same trade as his Quaker father, as a maker of rope stays used on sailing ships (not corset stays as some detractors claimed). At various times he also worked as an excise officer and schoolteacher.

In 1768 he was appointed an excise officer in Lewes, in Sussex, a town with a strong republican tradition. He lived in the 15th century Bull House.

Paine soon became involved in the town government of Lewes and often held forth on politics at the White Hart Inn, now Hotel. I stayed here on my trip to Lewes a few years ago.

During his time in Lewes, Paine became increasingly anti-monarchical and anti-aristocratic, sentiments he took to America in the autumn of 1774. He emigrated at the suggestion by Benjamin Franklin, then representing colonial interests in Britain. Paine arrived in Philadelphia to find the thirteen colonies on the verge of revolt against British rule. He quickly became involved in politics, and surged to fame with the publication of his immensely popular pamphlet Common Sense in January 1776.

Paine argued that independence was just that: common sense. He avoided the formal, scholarly political discourse of the day, writing in an easy to read, punchy style that rendered politics intelligible to the average reader. The work converted many ordinary Americans to the idea of independence.

At the end of 1776, Paine published a pamphlet series The American Crisis, designed to inspire sacrifice in the struggle for independence. It opens with some of the most famous words ever written: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” Washington had it read aloud to his soldiers.

During the War for Independence, Paine served the revolutionary government in various capacities. It was a bumpy time for him, as he clashed with some of his fellow revolutionaries, accusing them of corruption.

Perhaps Paine’s most important contribution to the revolutionary cause was his mission to France in 1781, with John Laurens of South Carolina.

Paine and Laurens succeeded in gaining funds and a French commitment to send a fleet and army to America later that year. The arrival of the French during Washington’s Siege of Yorktown, Virginia played a crucial role in bringing about the surrender of British forces under Lord Cornwallis in October.

Peace talks began a few months after Yorktown, and a treaty recognizing American independence was finalized in 1783.

Paine returned to England in 1787 to pursue business projects. He soon became involved in the Revolution that began in France in 1789. In 1791, he wrote a long defense of the French Revolution, The Rights of ManIt sold over a million copies, to the horror of British conservatives. 

James Gillray's cartoon, below, attacks Paine as he tightens violently Britannia's corset, a reference to his supposed occupation as a corset staymaker.

A second volume of The Rights of Man, in 1792, argued for a comprehensive program of universal, free education and social security. The book helped inspire radical movements, as well as major government efforts to suppress them and the book's author.

Paine went to France to avoid arrest, and became involved in the radical phase of the revolution. He was elected to the National Convention. When Louis XVI was tried for treason in 1792, Paine, who opposed capital punishment, voted against execution. 

Paine's plea to spare the king, although unsuccessful, angered radical Jacobins who soon came to power and began the Reign of Terror. They arrested Paine. He spent ten months in prison and narrowly avoided being guillotined. After his release, he criticized President Washington and other American leaders for not helping him.

In the late 1790s, Paine supported Napoleon, but turned against him when his authoritarian aims became clear. At the invitation of President Jefferson, Paine returned to the United States by 1803. 

Paine's welcome was not warm, partly because of his scathing criticisms of Washington and other American leaders. His opposition to slavery also alienated many people. And another work he wrote in installments during these years, The Age of Reason, attacked Christianity. 

The Age of Reason sold well, but it outraged many people in America, where a great evangelical revival was underway. Paine died impoverished and nearly friendless in New York in 1809. Only six people came to his funeral, two of them black freedmen. A widely reprinted obituary stated that he “did some good, but much harm.”

In 1819 William Cobbett, a British radical, took Paine’s remains back to England for a proper burial. (image)

The burial never happened and the ultimate disposal of Paine’s remains is unknown. 

During the 19th century, Paine and his works helped inspire progressive movements in Britain and America. He is remembered fondly in the town of Lewes, Sussex. There is even a Rights of Man pub. Drop in for a pint when in town and toast the memory of Tom Paine, a friend to mankind.

Lewes, Sussex