Memory  /  Book Excerpt

What’s Next?

Expanding the radical promise of the American Revolution.
Joseph Ferdinand Keppler/Library of Congress

On July 4, 1826, Americans woke before dawn. Some squeezed into blue coats that had been folded in trunks for decades and covered what was left of their hair with tricornered hats, long out of fashion. At sunrise, cannons boomed, church bells pealed, and across the nation’s scattered villages and modest cities, aged “heroes of ’76” fired salutes from flintlock muskets, marching down dirt thoroughfares to drum and fife and the cheers of the crowd. Most parades then proceeded to a grove or a town square for a reading of the Declaration of Independence, followed by high-flown speeches honoring this momentous day: the semicentennial, or “Jubilee,” as they called it. Some addresses spun wild visions in which the twenty-four states dotted with family farms and the vast forested territories beyond would one day become a powerful empire. The listeners adjourned to eat barbecue and then headed to the taverns for rounds of toasts—to George Washington, to the flag, to the eagle, to the first half century of American life.

As orators waxed poetic on “the imperishable names of the founders” who had risked execution as traitors to the Crown in order to bequeath the everlasting legacy of freedom, Thomas Jefferson died in his bed in Virginia. Hours later, sitting in a chair at home in Massachusetts, John Adams followed him. It was exactly fifty years after the Declaration they had drafted together was approved, founding the United States of America. Many regarded this strange historical coincidence as a divine message, God’s seal of approval on the American Revolution and a promise of perpetuity for its outcomes. Unmistakably, it was the threshold of a new era, the end of the beginning. The young nation had outlived the men who made it. What was next?

One man in Indiana claimed to know. Robert Owen was a rich industrialist, renowned in this country and in Europe for running philanthropic experiments in a cotton mill he owned in New Lanark, Scotland. As the nation celebrated its Jubilee, he mounted the stage at New Harmony Hall, a former church that he had purchased, along with the twenty thousand acres surrounding it. Intrigued by communal groups like the Shakers and emboldened by his experience applying his social theories to the factory workers he employed, Owen had sailed for the United States to propose a project on a far grander scale. His fame had spread after he addressed the assembled leaders of the federal government the previous year in Washington, DC, pitching a wholesale reorganization of American life that was surprisingly well received. It was pouring rain on the Wabash River that Fourth of July, but a thousand people packed the building, traveling to this rural outpost from all over the country to hear what this slight Welsh gentleman had to say.