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Atheist, Philanthropist, Labor Reformer
Some philanthropists look on the masses only as objects of charity, unable to help themselves. But Welsh infidel Robert Owen spent a lifetime demonstrating that people working together could improve themselves and their lot.
No one knows what it is that makes a man of a different stripe. Hundreds of millions of us go through life not seeing, not caring, not attempting to make a difference. It reminds one of our own nation's Declaration of Independence — which no one, now, ever reads. There the simple truth is set out:
. . . all Experience hath shown, that Mankind are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.
The Declaration then goes on to list twenty-seven very grievous offenses which the king of England had visited upon all of the colonies of America.
Robert Owen only needed to see children in the factories of his day, cold, hungry, dirty, alone — and that was enough for him. We can only wonder what made him into the man he became.
He started out in life very ordinary, the son of a comfortable small tradesman, a saddler - who hustled on the side as a postmaster. His mother, Anne Williams, was a farmer's daughter — and like the women of the day had been taught that her function was to breed. She had seven children of whom Robert was number six. Somehow the parents managed to get some of their brood into school, which for any child in the late 1700s, was a one-in-seventy chance.
In any event, Robert Owen was born a Welshman on May 14, 1771, in a nation which was filled with tranquil and ignorant people. Robert Owen was quickly infected with the most dangerous proclivity known to man: he learned to read. This is a burden upon one's life and activities that few people experience — for the uncrushable desire to know is all-consuming.
In his case, as in the case of all avid readers, there came to him information which would fashion him differently than any others. By the age of ten, he already knew of the mutual bitterness of the diverse sects of religion, and this alone had turned him skeptical in that field.
He had other labor to do, for at age nine he was put to work in a grocer and haberdasher's shop to earn his living. But his reading education goaded him toward further horizons, and when he was ten he was permitted to go to London to join an elder brother who was a saddler there. Once in London, he stumbled onto a haberdasher in Lincolnshire who made him a handsome offer — board and lodging in return for work for one year. Should his master profit from young Owen's work, in the second year he should earn £8 and in the third year £10.
\Our opinions are made for us, not by us.\
When he was installed at the shop, to his delight he discovered that the haberdasher had a library. When the shop was closed at 4:00 P.M. each day, Owen was permitted to read for the next five hours in the library. His master was a Presbyterian and his mistress was Episcopalian, and as he dutifully trotted to one or the other churches to hear each minister rant against the other, he quickly concluded that \our opinions are made for us, not by us.\ His religious feelings were quickly displaced by a \spirit of universal charity toward the human race rather than toward god\ — and he was, even then, halfway to the rescue of the children.
The man to whom he was apprenticed was famous for finer articles of female wear and Owen became a good judge of different fabrics. This knowledge served him well in later life, as he managed mills for fine cotton.
Robert Owen pioneered many of the labor reforms which bettered the condition of the working people. Some of his writings and ideas were endorsed and sponsored by the duke of Kent, the father of Queen Victoria, and other members of Enqiand's political elite.
When his three-year term was done, he went back to London, where he found work as an assistant in a haberdasher's shop on old London Bridge. In just several years he received an offer of £40 a year in Manchester and the unknown north called him. He worked there, again within the world of cottons and linens, for two years. He knew his work well, and then, only nineteen years of age, he set up a small spinning mill of his own and soon cleared £6 a week. He was forced to learn to manage men, to keep books, to be innovative with fabric manufacture, to acquire a knowledge of fabrics, and master the machinery.
He heard that a larger factory owner was looking for a manager, went to the man, asked for the job, and demanded £300 a year. That was, to him, logical: with fifty-two weeks in a year, clearing £6 a week in his little mill, he was worth the price. The astonished owner gave him the job, and he managed the mill so well and turned out such a fine product, that in the second year he was paid £400 and in the third year £500 for his services. It was at this mill that American cotton was first used. In his fourth year of service, his management was so skilled that he acquired a quarter of the profits made.
The \reasoning machine\
As a young working man, he lodged with others and became intimate friends with Robert Fulton (pioneer of steam navigation), John Dalton (later a world-renowned chemist), and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (poet), all of whom belonged to the \Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester.\
It did not hamper matters that the French Revolution was in full blast; that Dalton talked of atoms, the bases of the universe; that Fulton was full of inventive ideas; and that Coleridge's poetry rang in his ears. All three called Owen \the reasoning machine.\ The atmosphere of Manchester was one of extreme liberalism and of debate, and Owen was soon a deist admiring only one mighty power that would really assist the human race: science.
There is a breed of man that cannot sit. philosophically discussing the problems of the age. They are driven rather to effectuate the changes which need to be made. In this case, as he traveled for his business, Owen went to Glasgow where he found that the Dale mills (on the Clyde River, in New Lanark) were up for sale, and he calmly proposed to buy them for £60,000. At the same time, he met, wooed, and married Miss Anne Caroline Dale, the daughter of the wealthy spinner who sold him the mills. They were married on September 30, 1799, when Owen was twenty-eight years old. It should be noted that Mrs. Owen retained her early religious opinions, which Owen treated with courtesy. Together they had seven children, four sons and three daughters.
The mill was typical of those at the time. It employed thirteen hundred cotton workers, men and women who brought their children to work with them (from dawn to dark) in the foul, unsanitary rooms. In the New Lanark mill there were also over five hundred orphans from various workhouses, from the slums of Glasgow and Edinburgh. To get rid of them, workhouse authorities would send a cartload of orphans, ages six and seven, to work in the mills.
The workers' quarters were typical of the day: the streets of the mill village were sewers; the homes were foul hovels; squalor was pervasive.
Improving the factory for both worker and owner
Owen's partners wanted money. They felt that the workers had no minds to be reformed, and Owen was severely taxed to introduce new methods to the factory. First he reorganized the work and introduced new machinery as he kept profits flowing. He reduced thefts with a checking system and then gave merit increases in wages for better work. As he worked with the large mill, he began to formulate and inaugurate measures which would improve the plant environment, produce better quality goods, and at the same time ameliorate the wretched working conditions of those employed there. He soon was on the track of constructing an ideal industrial community.
The Institute for the Formation of Character in New Lanark was one of the first \infant schools\ in Great Britain; at night it provided a place for the entertainment of adults.
He then went to work on the village. He founded reasonable stores with reasonable prices (25 percent cheaper). He had the streets cleaned and sewers installed. He forbade the casting of refuse in front of the houses on the streets. He then invaded the houses, insisting on a cleaning once a week and a whitewashing once a year. He divided the village into districts and put a \principal\ in charge of each. He compelled the fathers of illegitimate children to pay two shillings per week toward their upkeep. Soon the cleaner and better homes and streets, the better and cheaper food, were gradually and grudgingly appreciated. He then founded a Sick Fund and opened a Savings Bank. Because the wives also worked, he founded communal kitchens and dining rooms for good, well-cooked food for all of the workers. For the aged, he built a row of communal houses. By 1816, he was able to reduce the hours of work from fourteen (with two hours for meals) to twelve hours a day with one and a quarter hours off for meals.
Owen had named his school \The Institute for the Formation of the Character\ because he felt that early influences made a person good or bad. One of the activities he encourage in the school was dancing — much to the chagrin of his Quaker partners.
Schools, not work, for the young
When he decided to build a school for the children, his partners bitterly complained of this loss of profits — so he simply bought them out for £84,000 in 1809. In the ten years that the mill had been operating, they had also shared £60,000 in profits. New partners were found, but these too began to grumble at the waste of profits to benefit workers. They tried to assume complete control of the works, but with new business associates who were wealthy philanthropists he was able to resume command of the New Lanark mills.
He built his school — providing a large and comfortable playroom for the infants, the first infant school in Britain — and it was opened on January 1, 1816. A large two-storied building, it was known as \The Institute for the Formation of Character.\ It was open day and night, for in the evening it was used for concerts, dances, lectures, and adult entertainment. He refused the dicta of the times that too much education would lead to revolution. Instead he held fast that the industrial system was just — the machines treated each worker the same. And he considered that the better mind a worker had, the more thoroughly he would cooperate with the system.
He was soon operating on the principle that 5 percent should be paid on capital investment and the whole surplus devoted to general education and the improvement of laborers' conditions.
The fame of New Lanark spread throughout the world, and in the early decades of the 1800s, it had 2,000 visitors a year on average, mostly businessmen, factory owners, and those who would be philanthropists.
The principles of reform
Owen soon attempted to define what he perceived as the needed reforms of society. The French Revolution had resulted in Napoleon, and Napoleon resulted in Waterloo. The Industrial Revolution was replacing human labor with machinery. Britain suffered in one of its recurring depressions. And Owen published his \abstract principle\ of reform in a series of essays. The just of this was summarized by one writer as:
1. To establish a universal, uniform, unsectarian system of schools, with training colleges . . . for teachers.
2. To establish a department of State which shall collect and publish each quarter the condition of labour, unemployment, and wages in every district.
3. To restrict the hours of adult labour to ten, and forbid the employment of children.
4. To institute public works (making roads, etc.) which shall absorb all who are left unemployed by private enterprise.
5. To revise the Poor Laws drastically.
6. To reform the jails and the administration of justice with the same thoroughness.
7. To reduce the number of licenses and raise the duties on spirits.
8. To suppress the State lotteries and discourage gambling.
9. To reform the Church by abolishing tests and dogmas.
10. To get rid of religious intolerance and war. 1
As the situation deteriorated in England and Owen came under increasing attack, he courageously introduced the idea of \new industrial and agricultural communities\ of from five hundred to fifteen hundred persons where living conditions could be controlled so that the community was entirely self-supporting. He leafleted the nation, spending tens of thousands of pounds advertising his ideas. He soon found his enemy, and by 1817 he began openly to attack \all the religions of the world.\
A new world
England did not respond to his ideas. But in 1824 he received an emissary from the United States. A German dissenter and religious fanatic, George Rapp, had purchased 30,000 acres on the banks of the Wabash in Posey County, Indiana, and established a prosperous community which he named \Harmony.\ Now Rapp wanted to sell in order to move elsewhere.
Owen wanted to see the property. Leaving his son Robert Dale Owen in charge of the mill, he took another son, William, and in December 1824 set sail for the United States. The sale price was £28,000, and he bought the acreage, the surrounding village, the houses, the workshops — everything — out of his own private fortune. Immediately eight hundred eager colonists descended upon him. He wanted to do it his way — and in 1826 he renamed the community \New Harmony\ and opened it with Scottish recruits and American enthusiasts. The project contemplated a community of goods distributed according to age, the substitution of ethical lectures for religious worship, the public care of children, cooperative — instead of competitive — work in the various industries, with an ultimate objective of the colony thriving for the mutual benefit of all.
The very first of what came to be called \freethought\ periodicals was founded as a vehicle for Robert Owen's social views and was published at this community of New Harmony. The first issue was dated October 1, 1825. This publication, the New-Harmony Gazette, faithfully reproduced his numerous addresses and writings (when he was in New Harmony, he generally delivered lectures each Sunday). At first its three hundred subscribers found it to be only mildly anti-Christian. The second issue, however, found the editor openly espousing infidelity. During the fall of 1826, articles appeared showing the flimsy foundations of Christianity, the absurdity of the doctrine of original sin, and the insufficient evidence in support of future rewards and punishments. The accounts of the creation of the world, the Garden of Eden, the deluge, the Tower of Babel, Lot and his daughters, and, indeed, most Old Testament stories were held up to be absurd, irrational, and (often) obscene.
It soon developed that there was not as much harmony in the community as the name implied. By 1827 the restless groups asked Owen to break up the estate into three separate colonies (New Harmony, Macluria, and Feiba Pevia). He generously gave each group a 10,000-year lease of a plot of land at a nominal rent. The separate societies were soon at one another's throats. Owen left New Harmony on June 22, 1828. He was then fifty-six years old.
Later in the year (November 28, 1828) Owen went to Mexico where he had been promised a territory fifty leagues broad, stretching through 131/2° latitude. But that government refused the land grant when it proposed, and Owen refused, to have the colony adopt the Roman Catholic religion. He soon left Mexico and headed north to the United States.
The Campbell-Owen debate
Somewhere along the way Owen had made an agreement to debate a fiery Baptist preacher, the Rev. A. Campbell, and a date was set for April 13, 1829. He returned to the United States to keep this commitment, the first public debate in which the truth of the Christian revelation was impugned. The churches in the city of Cincinnati, where the debate was to be held, refused to rent space, but finally a Methodist meetinghouse, which seated one thousand, was obtained. The debate began at 9:00 A.M. every morning and continued for eight days — each day the meetinghouse being crowded to capacity. Mrs. Frances Trollope, the peripatetic travel author, was in attendance and was taken by Owen's delivery style. A shorthand reporter took it all down, and the published debate ran to 550 pages of small print. Owen had come to attack only one error of religion. Campbell insisted that the issue was the truth or falsehood of the Christian religion. The result was that each one went his own way in the argument, not paying any heed to the other. At the end of the debate, Carnpbell used the stratagem of asking all those present who believed in the Christian religion to stand. When, obviously, almost the entire meetinghouse did, he asked those who doubted the Christian religion to stand. Three were brave enough to do so.
After the Campbell debate, Owen returned to London, not to revisit the United States until 1844. There he had established the London Co-operative Society in 1824 during a prior stay in that city. Its purpose was to educate, and there the principles of Owenism were fought out with the \Philosophical Radicals\ — who Owen adjudged could only formulate \theories and doctrines [which] would only produce misery to the human race.\
In 1821 the journal the Economist had been established to propagate his views. During the remainder of the century, dozens of cooperatives, labor exchanges, community associations, ebullitions of the Owenite ferment were everywhere — usually run by incompetents and therefore short-lived. Few of the tens of thousands who attempted to emulate what he had done or had proposed understood the great ethical and educational ideals upon which he predicated his ideas. By 1830 there were thirty cooperative societies in London, and three hundred in the United Kingdom, with memberships of twenty thousand, issuing nine different journals. What Owen proposed was socialism, and that name soon became attached to his ideas. Owen's own paper, the Crisis, continued but from 1832 to 1834. About that time, he helped form an \Association of the Intellectual and Well-Disposed of the Industrious Classes for removing Ignorance and Poverty.\ The title showed his turn: he could not look to the state or the \idle rich\ for assistance, instead the \industrious classes\ whom he saw as mental and manual workers had to unite to free their fellows from ignorance and poverty. He quickly saw that labor should be the exchange value, and the medium of exchange he proposed was that of \labour notes.\
By 1834, the attempts at Owenism had run their course in England. During that time, Owen had become less and less reserved concerning his opinion about religion, and powerful religious enemies were made, all of which mitigated against his success with socialism. He also saw no hope in politics and politicians.
Demand for an eight-hour day
At this time, the economic situation in England was so bad that the workers turned to trade unionism to champion their own cause, and to this movement Owen turned to help. Its beginnings were in the early 1830s and Owen began with a demand for an eight-hour day — forty-eight hours of manual work a week. This he wanted with no reduction of wages. Although the movement failed, the idea was planted. He then attempted to have all the unions join in a \Grand National Consolidated Trades Union of Great Britain and Ireland,\ and early in 1834, the organization had half a million members. Unfortunately a finally unified government brutally crushed it within six months.
Eventually the movement passed to the supervision of George Jacob Holyoake and was moved to Birmingham, with elements of religion frozen into it. Rational Religion, (Secularism, Rationalism, and Ethicism) soon had sixty-four branches, with Sunday services being attended by as many as fifty thousand persons each week. By 1839 it sold no less than half a million tracts, and the membership reached one hundred thousand. Unable to rent facilities in which to meet, the groups were soon building their own \Halls of Science\ or \Social Institutions.\ But soon a \holy war\ was instigated against the Rationalists by the House of Lords. It is no wonder that the last trial for Atheism was against George Jacob Holyoake in 1841.
On May 4, 1845, a \Convention of the Infidels of the United States\ was held in New York, and Owen was in attendance and gave an address. Others there included Ernestine Rose 2 and Dr. Charles Knowlton. 3 Delegates appeared from New York, the New England states, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Alabama, and South Carolina. A total of 196 delegates signed in, and the hall was filled with over 500 freethinkers and infidels. A society was to issue from the meeting, and the name proposed by Owen was \The Society for the promotion of Universal Mental Liberty,\ but the name finally chosen was \The Infidel Society for the Promotion of Universal Mental Liberty.\
One final communal experiment was tried in 1839 at Tytherly, in Hampshire, on a large 533-acre farm known as Queenswood, but this failed in 1845. Owen, then seventy-four, did not try another. Instead, at long last, he returned to the United States for a few years but then, finally, went back to England where he continued to try to exert his influence — to little or no avail. He died on November 17, 1858, at age eighty-seven. He wanted to be buried beside his father, and the rector of the parish demanded a full church service over his grave. The rector refused to permit any of his friends to speak at the grave.
But Owen has his memorial stone elsewhere: in the nations in which young children no longer are in factories, in which there are public schools for all, in which poverty and vice are not so proliferate as in his early years in Britain, in which women are often the civic equals of men, in which the average work day is eight hours. There is hardly a reform movement in the world which does not owe much to Owen's original spirit and aspirations. He could well be the greatest, but least-known, social redeemer in the world.
A Conversation Between Father and Son
David Dale, the father of the woman Robert Owen wooed and finally wed, was fervently religious, having founded his own sect and preached for forty years. With some persistence, Owen was eventually able to overcome his objections to having a man of infidel tendencies marry his daughter Anne Caroline.
Owen did not interfere with his wife's inherited beliefs and permitted her to rear their children with religious ideas. But he had to give an honest answer to any question asked, as the following conversation between father and son demonstrates.
Shortly before this discourse, Robert Dale Owen, his oldest son, hod realized that his father was an infidel. The revelation came when he heard his father argue with a bishop over the church doctrine of man's natural depravity. Owen, of course, hdd taken the position that there was no such thing. And so his small son decided to convert him.
\I recollect, to this day, the spot on which I commenced my long-projected undertaking. It was on a path which skirted, on the farther side, the lawn in front of our house and led to the garden. I could point out the very tree we were passing when — with some misgivings, now that it was to be put to the test — I sounded my father by first asking him what he thought about Jesus Christ. His reply was to the effect that I would do well to heed His teachings, especially those relating to charity and to our loving one another.
\This was well enough, as far as it went; but it did not at all satisfy me. So, with some trepidation, I put the question direct, whether my father disbelieved that Christ was the Son of God?
\He look a little surprised and did not answer immediately.
\ 'Why do you ask that question, my son?' he said at last. \ 'Because I am sure —' I began eagerly
\ That He is God's Son?' asked my father, smiling.
\ 'Yes, I am.'
\ 'Did you ever hear of the Mahometans?' said my father, while I had paused to collect my proofs.
\I replied that I had heard of such a people who lived somewhere, far off.
\ 'Do you know what their religion is?'
\ \They believe that Christ is not the Son of God, but that another person, called Mahomet, was God's chosen prophet.'
\ 'Do they not believe the Bible?' asked I, somewhat aghast.
\ 'No. Mahomet wrote a book called the Koran; and Mahometans believe it to be the word of God. That book tells them that God sent Mahomet to preach the gospel to them, and to save their souls.'
\Wonders crowded fast upon me. A rival Bible and a rival Saviour! Could it be? I asked, 'Are you quite sure this is true, papa?'
\ 'Yes, my dear, I am quite sure.'
\ 'But I suppose there are very few Mahometans: not near — near so many of them as of Christians.'
\ 'Do you call Catholics Christians, Robert?\
\ '0 no, papa. The Pope is Antichrist.'
\My father smiled. \Then by Christians you mean Protestants?'
\ 'Well, there are many more Mahometans than Protestants in the world: about a hundred and forty million Mahometans, and less than a hundred million Protestants.'
\ I thought almost everybody believed in Christ, as mamma does.'
\ 'There are probably twelve hundred millions of people in the world. So, out of every twelve persons only one is a Protestant. Are you quite sure that the one is right and the eleven wrong?'
\My creed, based on authority, was toppling. I had no answer ready. During the rest of the walk I remained almost silent, engrossed with new ideas, and replying chiefly in monosyllables when spoken to.
\And so ended this notable scheme of mine for my father's conversion.\
Reprinted from Robert Owen: A Biography by Frank Podmore (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1906).
Cole, G. D. H. Curiosities in Politics, Robert Owen. London: Ernest Benn Ltd., 1925.
Cole, Margaret. Robert Owen of New Lanark, 1771-1858. London: The Batchworth Press, 1953.
Johnson, Oakley C. Robert Owen in the United States. New York: Humanities Press, 1970.
McCabe, Joseph. Robert Owen. Life Stories of Famous Men. London: Watts & Co., 1920.
Owen, Robert. The Book of The New Moral World Containing the Rational System of Society founded on demonstrable facts, developing the constitution and laws of human nature and of society. London: The Home Colonization Society, 1842. Reprint. Clifton, New Jersey: Augustus M. Kelley, 1970.
Owen, Robert, and Campbell, Alexander. Debate on the Evidences of Christianity, containing an examination of the \Social System\ and all the systems of skepticism of ancient and modern times. Held in the City of Cincinnati, Ohio, from the 13th to the 21st of April, 1829; between Robert Owen, of New Lanark, Scotland, and Alexander Campbell, ofBethany, Virginia. Reported by Charles H. Sims, Stenographer, with an Appendix, written by the parties. Bethany, VA: Printed and Published by Alexander Campbell, 1829.
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Pitzer, Donald E., ed. Robert Owen's American Legacy: Proceedings of the Robert Owen Bicentennial Conference. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1972.
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1 Joseph McCabe, Robert Owen, Life-Stories of Famous Men (London: Watts & Co., 1920), p. 38.
2 Ernestine Louise Lasmond Potovsky Rose (1810-1892), Polish-born reformer and abolitionist, who was a much admired Atheist orator in her generation. Her accomplishments were featured in \Roots of Atheism: Ernestine Rose, A Troublesome Female,\ American Atheist vol. 30, no. 2.
3 Charles Knowlton (1800-1850), American physician and birth control advocate. His life was described in \Roots of Atheism: Charles Knowiton,\ American Atheist vol. 23, no. 1