Monday, September 25, 2006

Robert Owen's Letter to America, 1826

I'm currently working a lot on the years 1825-27 in America, the high-water mark period for Robert Owen's influence in the U.S., as well as the period out of which the "Mutualist" of 1826 emerges. My search for clues to the identity and location of that early critic of Owen and contemporary of Josiah Warren was one of the things that convinced me to pursue the Distributive Passions project. Expect a sort of miscellany of period pieces here over the next week or so.

At Sea—New York Packet, October, 1825.

Americans—I am again hastening to your shores, and I return with a fixed determination to exert all my powers for your benefit, and through you for that of the world at large.

In your industry, mechanical knowledge, and general enterprise; in the quality and cheapness of your soil; in the extent and variety of your climate; in your liberation, in part, from the prejudices of the old world, but more particularly in the freedom of your government, you amply possess the means to secure immediately the most important private and national benefits to yourselves and to your posterity, and to give them to other nations still more in want of them.

It is true you have derived many advantages from your European ancestors; but it is equally true, that you have transplanted a very large portion of their errors and prejudices: you cannot, therefore, enjoy, to their full extent, the benefits to which I refer, until these errors of the old world shall have been removed.

The greatest and most lamentable of these are the notions, that human nature has been so formed as to be able to believe and disbelieve, and to love and hate, at pleasure, and that there can be merit or demerit in believing or disbelieving, and in loving or hating. These false notions are the origin of evil, and the real cause of all sin and misery among mankind; yet they are received and continued in direct opposition to every fact known to the human race. Every one may easily ascertain for himself that they are errors of the imagination. Let any one endeavour, by his own will alone, to compel himself to believe what he disbelieves, or has been taught to think he disbelieves. For instance, let any one who is a sincere christian, endeavour, with all his powers, to compel himself to believe that Mahomet was a true prophet; or a devout Jew that Jesus was the true Messiah, and only Son of God; or a conscientious Musselman, that Mahomet was a cheat and an impostor. Or again, let any one endeavour to dislike that which by his nature or education he has been made to like.

This experiment, if fairly and honestly made, will be sufficient to convince every one, that belief and disbelief, love and hatred, are not under the control of the will. It is therefore irrational in the extreme to maintain, that man can be accountable for either, and unjust and injurious to force any such absurdity into the infant mind.

Yet all religions and laws have been hitherto founded on this error. Hence their want of success; hence the present irrational state of the human mind in every part of the world; and hence nearly all the evils, except those of climate, which afflict the inhabitants of the United States.

When these errors shall have been removed there will be no obstacle to great improvements in education, rapid advances in valuable knowledge of every kind, the creation of wealth, and the arrangement and government of society for the well being and happiness of the inhabitants of every state in the union.

But this change cannot be effected until society shall be remodelled on principles in strict accordance with our nature, nor until men shall be taught the facts upon which these principles are founded, viz. that no infant ever formed any part of itself—that no two infants are alike—that infants from birth are gradually formed into the characters which they afterwards become, by the circumstances which exist around them acting upon the peculiar combination of faculties, qualities and propensities which has been given to each infant at birth.

A knowledge of these facts will develope the real nature of man, and show the importance and necessity of well directing the circumstances which shall form the characters of the next and future generations, and which may materially amend those of the present. Having devoted many years to acquire a knowledge of the various circumstances by which men have been hitherto formed and governed, and in applying this knowledge to practice, I am induced to think that the experience thus obtained will enable me to explain to the world the science of the influence of circumstances, through a knowledge of which society may be in future so arranged and governed, that it shall almost always produce happiness, and scarcely ever produce misery.

It cannot be expected that a subject so comprehensive in practice, and so new to the world, should be readily understood by a verbal or written explanation, except by a few superior minds. I have therefore had a model formed explanatory of the proposed new arrangements, under the influence of which the character and condition of each individual, and of society, cannot fail to be entirely changed and incalculably improved. This model I bring as a present to the general government of the United States, that the individual government of each state may have an opportunity of obtaining a copy of it, and that all, if they choose, may be equally benefitted, should the plan be found to comprise all the extraordinary advantages which long experience has taught me to think it possesses. The model, and all the knowledge which experience has imparted to me on the various subjects connected with it, I freely give, without the expectation of any return. You possess nothing which I desire to obtain, except your good will and kind feelings; and these you cannot avoid giving, it circumstances shall be created to produce them; and if not, you cannot bestow them. Your wealth, places and honours I could not, with my views, either value or accept. Your praises would be no praises to me, and the principles which I entertain lead me to estimate fame less than an infant's rattle. I come to you with a fixed determination to make no-pecuniary gain in-your country—I come to you, therefore, with no sordid, nor with any interested motive, unless it be one to desire-to see so many of my fellow creatures enjoy the happiness which I believe this change of your system will produce. If you do not make the change, I cannot, in the slightest degree, blame any of you; but I shall attribute the want of success of my views to the deficiency of power in myself to explain them in such a manner as to make it appear to be your interest to adopt them All I ask is, that you will fully and honestly examine the subject. Your friend,
[The Universalist, Jan 2, 1826, Vol. 1, No. 19, p. 300.]

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