Far out! How starry-eyed American utopians saw the world

The author of ‘Paradise Now’ discusses the legacy of 19th-century super-dreamers.

'No moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the 19th century,' writes historian Chris Jennings in 'Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism.'

They weren’t aliens, but the utopians of 19th-century upstate New York must have seemed positively other-worldly.

There they were, outrageously dreaming of a better way. Equality for women, for instance. Communal property, public education, free libraries. Positively bonkers!

That’s not all. The Oneida Community touted a version of free love, and tradition-minded Americans promptly dispatched themselves to their fainting couches after carefully reading all about it. The Shakers decried sex itself, raising valid questions about their very survival.

There were more utopian groups: New Harmony, the Icarians, and the Fourierist Phalanxes, some armed with new takes on old religion.

“No moment in history or place on the globe has been more crowded with utopian longing and utopian experimentation than the United States in the middle of the 19th century,” writes historian Chris Jennings in his fascinating new book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism.

I asked Jennings, a writer based in Northern California, about the beliefs of these seers and their legacy today. They weren’t proto-hippies, he says, nor were they early Marxists. Instead, they tended to believe the end was near, and the time was right for drastic change for the better.  

Yes, the utopias failed. But in some important ways, their craziest dreams did come true. “Their utopian thinking,” Jennings says, “allowed them to jump the line by 100 years.”

Q: How did you become interested in utopian societies?

I was intrigued by 20th-century communes and the boom we associated with the 1960s and 1970s. That led me back in time, and I was surprised to discover how much more far-out the ideas were in 1840 than in 1970.

I wanted to understand how a bunch of really smart, level-headed, well-meaning people got so excited about such outlandish ideas.

They believed that human history was approaching its end point. Very reasonable people adopted the extremely unreasonable idea that the entire earth will be transformed in a few years. Family and property will be finished, and these things that are sacrosanct would fall by the wayside. They saw it as reasonable to expect a society of abundance and equality.

Q: How did they look at the family?

They all agreed on that the traditional family unit – mom and dad and kids – was a thing of the past. The nuclear family had to go in the new coming paradise.

They understood the centrality of sex to the fabric of society. And, of course, sex doctrines got the people outside of the communities more worked up than anything else.

People denounced the Shakers because they didn’t have sex, and they really denounced the Oneidans because they practiced “complex marriage” – any heterosexual coupling within the community was permitted.

Q: What about the middle of the 19th century made it such a big era for utopians?

The world was changing at a pace that had never happened before. The US was transforming from an economy of rural homesteads to a society where people work for wage, capital markets are formed, technology comes into the home, and the spheres of male and female life drift apart.

At that time, people were saying human society will get better and better, and man and his newfound cleverness will fix all the problems due to superstition and old thinking. New ideas and technology will deliver us into this wonderful egalitarian future.

This was happening at the same time as growth in a set of religious ideas about the coming millennium and the arrival of New Jerusalem: The last chapter of human history was going to play out.

Those two concepts really merged and bred utopianism.

Q: What were the utopians like compared to 1960s-era hippies who lived on communes?

These are some of the smartest people of their time, and they’re hard working. They’re not what we’d recognize as counter-cultural people on the fringes. And they’re not predominantly young people. They were ministers and bankers.

Q: Did the world adopt much of what they believed?

Ninety percent percent of what they preached didn’t take, like the abolition of the family. They all believed family had to go as the base unit of American life, but it’s still going strong. 

Q: There are people today who say the American family is threatened by the evolution of the culture in areas like gay marriage. How do today’s debates compare to those back then?

Their definition of a family wasn’t like a gay couple or parents who adopt or step-parents. Their new definition was going to be something like 200 people in one house. It was really radical.

Q: What did the utopians get wrong?

They overestimated their ability to change themselves, that the things we think about human nature will go away once you put people in a society of abundance and community.

Q: What did the utopians get right?

They were right about certain things long in advance of their countrymen. Their utopian thinking allowed them to jump the line by 100 years.

The most obvious example is the equality of women, which was really unthinkable elsewhere in American society. They also all believed in free libraries and giving people a free education. Now you have to go pretty far to find someone who wants to abolish public schooling.

Q: What can we learn from the 19th-century utopians today that will help us do a better job at the business of being people?

Fantasizing about the future is a good way to see what you want to change about the present.

Randy Dotinga, a Monitor contributor, is president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

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