Robert Owen – A famous Successful businessmen biography By Elbert hubbard
I have always expended to the last shilling my surplus wealth in promoting this great and good cause of industrial betterment. The right-reverend prelate is greatly deceived when he says that I have squandered my wealth in profligacy and luxury. I have never expended a pound in either; all my habits are habits of temperance in all things, and I challenge the right-reverend prelate and all his abettors to prove the contrary, and I will give him and them the means of following me through every stage and month of my life.
Robert Owen, in Speech before the House of Lords
In Germany, the land of philosophy, when the savants sail into a sea of doubt, some one sets up the cry, “Back to Kant!”
In America, when professed democracy grows ambitious and evolves a lust for power, men say, “Back to Jefferson!”
In business, when employer forgets employee and both forget their better manhood, we say, “Back to Robert Owen!”
We will not go back to Robert Owen: we will go on to Robert Owen, for his philosophy is still in the vanguard.
Robert Owen was a businessman. His first intent was to attain a practical success. He produced the article, and sold it at a profit.
In this operation of taking raw material and manufacturing it into forms of use and beauty—from the time the seed was planted in the ground on up to the consumer who purchased the finished fabric and wove it—Owen believed that all should profit—all should be made happier by every transaction.
That is to say, Robert Owen believed that a business transaction where both sides do not make money is immoral.
There is a legal maxim still cited in the courts—”Caveatemptor”—let the buyer beware.
For this maxim Robert Owen had no respect. He scorned the thought of selling a man something the man did not want, or of selling an article for anything except exactly what it was, or of exacting a price for it, by hook or crook, beyond its value.
Robert Owen believed in himself, and in his product, and he believed in the people. He was a democratic optimist. He had faith in the demos; and the reason was that his estimate of the people was formed by seeing into his own heart. He realized that he was a part of the people, and he knew that he wanted nothing for himself which the world could not have on the same terms. He looked into the calm depths of his own heart and saw that he hated tyranny, pretense, vice, hypocrisy, extravagance and untruth. He knew in the silence of his own soul that he loved harmony, health, industry, reciprocity, truth and helpfulness. His desire was to benefit mankind, and to help himself by helping others.
Therefore he concluded that, the source of all life being the same, he was but a sample of the average man, and all men would, if not intimidated and repressed, desire what he desired.
When physically depressed, through lack of diversified exercise, bad air or wrong conditions, he realized that his mind was apt to be at war, not only with its best self, but with any person who chanced to be near. From this he argued that all departures in society were occasioned by wrong physical conditions, and in order to get a full and free expression of the Divine Mind, of which we are all reflectors or mediums, our bodies must have a right environment.
To get this right environment became the chief business and study of his life.
To think that a man who always considers “the other fellow” should be a great success in a business way is to us more or less of a paradox. “Keep your eye on Number One,” we advise the youth intent on success. “Take care of yourself,” say the bucolic Solons when we start on a little journey. And “Self-preservation is the first law of life,” voice the wise ones.
And yet we know that the man who thinks only of himself acquires the distrust of the whole community. He sets in motion forces that work against him, and has thereby created a handicap that blocks him at every step.
Robert Owen was one of those quiet, wise men who win the confidence of men, and thereby siphon to themselves all good things. That the psychology of success should have been known to this man in Seventeen Hundred Ninety, we might call miraculous, were it not for the fact that the miraculous is always the natural.
Those were troublous times when Robert Owen entered trade. The French Revolution was on, and its fires lit up the intellectual sky of the whole world. The Colonies had been lost to England; it was a time of tumult in Threadneedle Street; the armies of the world were lying on their arms awaiting orders. And out of this great unrest emerged Robert Owen, handsome, intelligent, honest, filled with a holy zeal to help himself by helping humanity.
Robert Owen was born in the village of Newtown, Wales, in Seventeen Hundred Seventy-one. After being away from his native village for many years, he returned, as did Shakespeare and as have so many successful men, and again made the place of his boyhood the home of his old age. Owen died in the house in which he was born. His body was buried in the same grave where sleeps the dust of his father and his mother. During the eighty-seven years of his life he accomplished many things and taught the world lessons which it has not yet memorized.
In point of time, Robert Owen seems to have been the world’s first Businessman. Private business was to him a public trust. He was a creator, a builder, an economist, an educator, a humanitarian. He got his education from his work, at his work, and strove throughout his long life to make it possible for others to do the same.
He believed in the Divinity of Business. He anticipated Emerson by saying, “Commerce consists in making things for people who need them, and carrying them from where they are plentiful to where they are wanted.”
Every economist should be a humanitarian; and every humanitarian should be an economist. Charles Dickens, writing in Eighteen Hundred Sixty, puts forth Scrooge, Carker and Bumball as economists. When Dickens wanted to picture ideal businessmen, he gave us the Cheeryble brothers—men with soft hearts, giving pennies to all beggars, shillings to poor widows, and coal and loaves of bread to families living in rickety tenements. The Dickens idea of betterment was the priestly plan of dole. Dickens did not know that indiscriminate almsgiving pauperizes humanity, and never did he supply the world a glimpse of a man like Robert Owen, whose charity was something more than palliation.
Robert Owen was born in decent poverty, of parents who knew the simple, beautiful and necessary virtues of industry, sobriety and economy. Where this son got his hunger for books and his restless desire for achievement we do not know. He was a business genius, and from genius of any kind no hovel is immune.
He was sent to London at the age of ten, to learn the saddler’s trade; at twelve he graduated from making wax-ends, blacking leather and greasing harness and took a position as salesman in the same business.
From this he was induced to become a salesman for a haberdasher. He had charm of manner—fluidity, sympathy and health. At seventeen he asked to be paid a commission on sales instead of a salary, and on this basis he saved a hundred pounds in a year.
At eighteen a customer told him of a wonderful invention—a machine that was run by steam—for spinning cotton into yarn. Robert was familiar with the old process of making woolen yarn on a spinning-wheel by hand—his mother did it and had taught him and his brothers and sisters how.
Cotton was just coming in, since the close of “George Washington’s Rebellion.” Watt had watched his mother’s teakettle to a good purpose. Here were two big things destined to revolutionize trade: the use of cotton in place of flax or wool, and steam-power instead of human muscle. Robert Owen resigned his clerkship and invested all of his earnings in three mule spinning-machines. Then he bought cotton on credit.
He learned the business, and the first year made three hundred pounds.
Seeing an advertisement in the paper for an experienced superintendent of a cotton mill, he followed his intuitions, hunted out the advertiser, a Mr. Drinkwater, and asked for the place.
Mr. Drinkwater looked at the beardless stripling, smiled and explained that he wanted a man, not a boy—a man who could take charge of a mill at Manchester, employing five hundred hands.
Robert Owen stood his ground.
What would he work for?
Three hundred pounds a year.
Bosh! Boys of nineteen could be had for fifty pounds a year.
“But not boys like me,” said Robert Owen, earnestly. Then he explained to Mr. Drinkwater his position—that he had a little mill of his own and had made three hundred pounds the first year. But he wanted to get into a larger field with men of capital.
Mr. Drinkwater was interested. Looking up the facts he found them to be exactly as stated. He hired the youth at his own price and also bought all of young Mr. Owen’s machinery and stock, raw and made up.
Robert Owen, aged nineteen, went at once to Manchester and took charge of the mill. His business was to buy and install new machinery, hire all help, fix wages, buy the raw material, and manufacture and sell the product.
For six weeks he did not give a single order, hire a new man, nor discharge an old one. He silently studied the situation. He worked with the men—made friends with them, and recorded memoranda of his ideas. He was the first one at the factory in the morning—the last to leave it at night.
After six weeks he began to act.
The first year’s profit was twenty per cent on the investment, against five for the year before.
Drinkwater paid him four hundred pounds instead of three, and proposed it should be five hundred for the next year. A contract was drawn up, running for five years, giving Owen a salary, and also a percentage after sales mounted above a certain sum.
Robert Owen was now twenty years of age. He was sole superintendent of the mill. The owner lived at London and had been up just once—this after Owen had been in his new position for three months. Drinkwater saw various improvements made in the plant—the place was orderly, tidy, cleanly, and the workers were not complaining, although Owen was crowding out the work.
Owen was on friendly terms with his people, visiting them in their homes. He had organized a day-school for the smaller children and a night-school for the older ones who worked in the mills. His friendliness, good-cheer and enthusiasm were contagious. The place was prosperous.
Just here let us make a digression and inspect the peculiar conditions of the time.
It was a period of transition—the old was dying, the new was being born. Both experiences were painful.
There was a rapid displacement of hand labor. One machine did the work of ten or more persons. What were these people who were thrown out, to do? Adjust themselves to the new conditions, you say. True, but many could not. They starved, grew sick, ate their hearts out in useless complaining.
Only a few years before, and the spinning of flax and wool was exclusively a home industry. Every cottage had its spinning-wheel and loom. There was a garden, a cow, a pig, poultry and fruits and flowers. The whole household worked, and the wheel and loom were never idle while it was light. The family worked in relays.
It was a very happy and prosperous time. Life was simple and natural. There was constant labor, but it was diversified. The large flocks of sheep, raised chiefly for wool, made mutton cheap. Everything was home-made. People made things for themselves, and if they acquired a superior skill they supplied their neighbors, or exchanged products with them. As the manufacturing was done in the homes, there was no crowding of population. The factory boarding-house and the tenement were yet to come.
This was the condition up to Seventeen Hundred Seventy. From then until Seventeen Hundred Ninety was the time of transition. By Seventeen Hundred Ninety, mills were erected wherever there was water-power, and the village artisans were moving to the towns to work in the mills.
For the young men and women it was an alluring life. The old way gave them no time to themselves—there was the cow to milk, the pigs and poultry to care for, or the garden making insistent demands. Now they worked at certain hours for certain wages, and rested. Tenements took the place of cottages, and the “public,” with its smiling barkeep, was always right at the corner.
Hargreaves, Arkwright, Watt and Eli Whitney had worked a revolution more far-reaching than did Mirabeau, Danton, Robespierre and Marat.
Here creeps in an item interesting to our friends who revel in syntax and prosody. Any machine or apparatus for lifting has been called a “jack” since the days of Shakespeare. The jack was the bearer of bundles, a lifter, a puller, a worker. Any coarse bit of mechanism was called a jack, and is yet. In most factories there are testing-jacks, gearing-jacks, lifting-jacks. Falstaff tells of a jack-of-all-trades. The jack was anything strong, patient and serviceable.
When Hargreaves, the Lancashire carpenter, invented his spinning-machine, a village wit called it a “jenny.” The machine was fine, delicate, subtle, and as spinning was a woman’s business anyway, the new machine was parsed in the feminine gender.
Soon the new invention took on a heavier and stronger form, and its persistency suggested to some other merry bucolic a new variation and it was called a “mule.” The word stuck, and the mule-spinner is with us wherever cotton is spun.
The discovery that coal was valuable for fuel followed the invention of the steam-engine.
When things are needed we dig down and find them, or reach up and secure them. You could not run a steamship, except along a river with well-wooded banks, any more than you could run an automobile with coal.
The dealing in coal, or “coals” as our English cousins still use the word, began in Eighteen Hundred Nineteen. That was the year the first steamship, the “Savannah,” crossed the ocean. She ran from Savannah to London. Her time was twenty-five days. She burned four hundred fifty tons of coal, or about two-thirds of her entire carrying capacity. Robert Fulton had been running his steamer “Clermont” on the Hudson in Eighteen Hundred Seven, but there were wooding-stations every twenty miles.
It was argued in the House of Commons that no steamship could ever cross the Atlantic with steam, alone, as a propelling power. And even as it was being mathematically proved, the whistle of the “Savannah” drowned the voice of the orator.
But the “Savannah” also carried sail, and so the doubters still held the floor. An iron boat with no sails that could cross the Atlantic in five days was a miracle that no optimist had foreseen—much less, dared prophesy.
The new conditions almost threatened to depopulate the rural districts. Farmers forsook the soil. The uncertainty of a crop was replaced with the certainty of a given wage. Children could tend the spinning-jennies as well as men. There was a demand for child labor. Any poor man with a big family counted himself rich. Many a man who could not find a job at a man’s wage quit work and was supported by his wife and children. To rear a family became a paying enterprise.
Various mill-owners adopted children or took them under the apprentice system, agreeing to teach them the trade. Girls and boys from orphan asylums and workhouses were secured and held as practical slaves. They were herded in sheep-sheds, where they slept on straw and were fed in troughs. They were worked in two shifts, night and day, so the straw was never really cold. They worked twelve hours, slept eight, and one hour was allowed for meals. Their clothing was not removed except on Saturday. Any alteration in the business life of a people is fraught with great danger.
Recklessness, greed and brutality at such a time are rife.
Almost all workingmen of forty or over were out of work. Naturally, employers hired only the young, the active, the athletic. These made more money than they were used to making, so they spent it lavishly and foolishly. It was a prosperous time, yet, strangely enough, prosperity brought starvation to thousands. Family life in many instances was destroyed, and thus were built those long rows of houses, all alike, with no mark of individuality—no yard, no flowers, no gardens—that still in places mar the landscape in factory towns.
Pretty girls went to the towns to work in the mills, and thus lost home ties. Later they drifted to London. Drunkenness increased.
In Seventeen Hundred Ninety-six, there was formed the Manchester Board of Health. Its intent was to guard the interests of factory-workers. Its desire was to insure light, ventilation and sanitary conveniences for the workers. Beyond this it did not seek to go.
The mill superintendents lifted a howl. They talked about interference, and depriving the poor people of the right to labor. They declared it was all a private matter between themselves and the workers—a matter of contract.
Robert Owen, it seems, was the first factory superintendent to invite inspection of his plant. He worked with the Board of Health, not against it. He refused to employ children under ten years of age, and although there was a tax on windows, he supplied plenty of light and also fresh air. So great was the ignorance of the workers that they regarded the Factory Laws as an infringement on their rights. The greed and foolish fears of the mill-owners prompted them to put out the good old argument that a man’s children were his own, and that for the State to dictate to him where they should work, when and how, was a species of tyranny. Work was good for children! Let them run the streets? Never!
It is a curious thing to note that when Senator Albert J. Beveridge endeavored to have a Federal Bill passed at Washington, in Nineteen Hundred Seven, the arguments he had to meet and answer were those which Robert Owen and Sir Robert Peel were obliged to answer in Seventeen Hundred Ninety-five.
When a man who worked a hundred orphans fourteen hours a day, boys and girls of from six to twelve, was accused of cruelty, he defended himself by saying, “If I doesn’t work ‘em all the time ‘cept when they sleep and eat, they will learn to play, and then never work.” This argument was repeated by many fond parents as conclusive.
The stress of the times—having many machines in one building, all run by one motor power, the necessity of buying raw material in quantities, the expense of finding a market—all these combined to force the invention of a very curious economic expediency. It was called a Joint Stock Company. From a man and his wife and his children making things at home, we get two or three men going into partnership and hiring a few of their neighbors at day wages.
Then we get the system of “shareholding,” with hundreds or thousands of people as partners in a manufacturing enterprise which they never visit.
The people who owned the shares were the ones who owned the tools. Very naturally, they wanted and expected dividends for the use of the tools. That was all they wanted—dividends. The manager of the mill held his position only through his ability to make the venture bring returns. The people who owned the shares or the tools, never saw the people who used the tools. A great gulf lay between them. For the wrongs and injustices visited upon the workers no one person was to blame. The fault was shifted. Everybody justified himself. And then came the saying, “Corporations have no souls.”
Robert Owen was manager of a mill, yet he saw the misery, the ignorance and the mental indifference that resulted from the factory system. He, too, must produce dividends, but the desire of his heart was also to mitigate the lot of the workers.
Books were written by good men picturing the evils of the factory system. Comparisons were made between the old and the new, in which the hideousness of the new was etched in biting phrase. Some tried to turn the dial backward and revive the cottage industries, as did Ruskin a little later. “A Dream of John Ball” was anticipated, and many sighed for “the good old times.”
But among the many philosophers and philanthropists who wrestled with the problem, Robert Owen seems to have stood alone in the belief that success lay in going on, and not in turning back. He set himself to making the new condition tolerable and prophesied a day when out of the smoke and din of strife would emerge a condition that would make for health, happiness and prosperity such as this tired old world never has seen. Robert Owen was England’s first Socialist.
Very naturally he was called a dreamer. Some called him an infidel and the enemy of society.
Very many now call him a seer and a prophet.
In Robert Owen’s day cotton yarn was packaged and sold in five-pound bundles. These packages were made up in hanks of a given number of yards. One hundred twenty counts to a package was fixed upon as “par,” or “standard count.” If the thread was very fine, of course more hanks were required to make up the five pounds. The price ranged up or down, below or above the one-hundred-twenty mark. That is, if a package contained two hundred forty hanks, its value was just double what it would have been if merely standard.
Robert Owen knew fabrics before he began to spin.
First, he was a salesman. Second, he made the things he could sell.
The one supremely difficult thing in business is salesmanship. Goods can be manufactured on formula, but it takes a man to sell. He who can sell is a success—others may be.
The only men who succeed in dictating the policy of the house are those in the Sales Department—that is, those who are on the side of income, not of expense.
The man with a “secret process” of manufacture always imparts his secret, sooner or later; but the salesman does not impart his secret, because he can’t. It is not transferable. It is a matter of personality. Not only does the salesman have to know his goods, but he must know the buyer—he must know humanity.
And humanity was the raw stock in which Robert Owen dealt. Robert Owen never tried to increase his sales by decreasing his price. His product was always higher than standard. “Anybody can cut prices,” he said, “but it takes brains to make a better article.” He focused on fineness.
And soon buyers were coming to him. A finer article meant a finer trade. And now, on each package of yarn that Owen sent out, he placed a label that read thus, “This package was made under the supervision of Robert Owen.” Thus his name gradually became a synonym for quality.
Among other curious ideas held by Owen was that to make finer goods you must have a finer quality of workman. To produce this finer type of person now became his dream.
Mr. Drinkwater smiled at the idea and emphasized “dividends.”
Now Mr. Drinkwater had a son-in-law who looked in on things once a month, signed his voucher and went away fox-hunting. He thought he was helping run the mill. This man grew jealous of the young manager and suggested that Drinkwater increase the boy’s pay and buy off the percentage clause in the contract, so as to keep the youngster from getting megalocephalia.
Drinkwater asked Owen what he would take for the contract, and Owen handed it to him and said, “Nothing.” It gave him a chance to get out into a larger field. Drinkwater never thought of the value of that little Robert Owen label. No wise employer should ever allow a thing like that.
Owen had won both name and fame among the merchants, and he now engaged with several mills to superintend their output and sell their goods with his label on each package. In other words, he was a Manufacturers’ Broker. From a five-hundred-pound-a-year man he had grown to be worth two thousand pounds a year.
No mill owned him. He was free—he was making money. The dream of human betterment was still in his heart.
On one of his trips to Glasgow to sell goods, he met a daughter of David Dale, a mill-owner who was in active competition with him. Dale made a fine yarn, too.
The girl had heard of Owen: they met as enemies—a very good way to begin an acquaintance. It was Nature’s old, old game of stamen, pistil and pollen, that fertilizes the world of business, betterment and beauty. They quarreled.
“You are the man who puts your name on the package?”
“And yet you own no mill!”
“Never mind. You certainly are proud of your name.”
“I am—wouldn’t you be?”
“Not of yours.”
Then they stared at each other in defiance. To relieve the tension, Mr. Owen proposed a stroll. They took a walk through the park and discovered that they both were interested in Social Reform. David Dale owned the mills at New Lanark—a most picturesque site. He was trying to carry on a big business, so as to make money and help the workers. He was doing neither, because his investment in the plant had consumed too much of his working capital.
They discussed the issue until eleven forty-five by the clock.
The girl knew business and knew Society. The latter she had no use for.
The next day they met again, and quite accidentally found themselves engaged, neither of ‘em knew how.
It was very embarrassing! How could they break the news to Papa Dale?
They devised a way. It was this: Robert Owen was to go and offer to buy Mr. Dale’s mills.
Owen went over to Lanark and called on Mr. Dale, and told him he wanted to buy his business. Mr. Dale looked at the boy, and smiled. Owen was twenty-seven, but appeared twenty, being beardless, slight and fair-haired.
The youth said he could get all the money that was needed. They sparred for a time—neither side naming figures. It being about noontime, Mr. Dale asked young Mr. Owen to go over to his house to lunch. Mr. Dale was a widower, but his daughter kept the house. Mr. Dale introduced Mr. Owen to Miss Dale.
The young folks played their parts with a coolness that would have delighted John Drew, and would have been suspicious to anybody but a fussy old mill-owner.
Finally as the crumbs were being brushed from the rich man’s table, Mr. Dale fixed on the sum of sixty thousand pounds for his property.
Owen was satisfied and named as terms three thousand pounds and interest each year for twenty years, touching the young lady’s toe with his own under the table.
Mr. Dale agreed. Mr. Owen had the money to make the first payment. The papers were drawn up. The deal was closed—all but the difficult part. This was done by rushing the enemy in his library, after a good meal. “It keeps the business in the family, you see,” said the girl on her knees, pouting prettily.
The point was gained, and when Robert Owen, a few weeks later, came to New Lanark to take possession of the property, he did as much for the girl. So they were married and lived happily ever afterward.
Robert Owen took up his work at New Lanark with all the enthusiasm that hope, youth and love could bring to bear.
Mr. Dale had carried the flag as far to the front as he thought it could be safely carried—that is to say, as far as he was able to carry it.
Owen had his work cut out for him. The workers were mostly Lowland Scotch and spoke in an almost different language from Owen. They looked upon him with suspicion. The place had been sold, and they had gone with it—how were they to be treated? Were wages to be lowered and hours extended? Probably.
Pilfering had been reduced to a system, and to get the start of the soft-hearted owner was considered smart.
Mr. Dale had tried to have a school, and to this end had hired an elderly Irishman, who gave hard lessons and a taste of the birch to children who had exhausted themselves in the mills and had no zest for learning. Mr. Dale had taken on more than two hundred pauper children from the workhouses and these were a sore trial to him.
Owen’s first move was to reduce the working-hours from twelve to ten hours. Indeed, he was the first mill-owner to adopt the ten-hour plan. He improved the sanitary arrangements, put in shower-baths and took a personal interest in the diet of his little wards, often dining with them.
A special school-building was erected at a cost of thirty thousand dollars. This was both a day and a night school. It also took children of one year old and over, in order to relieve mothers who worked in the mills. The “little mothers,” often only four or five years old, took care of babies a year old and younger, all day.
Owen instructed his teachers never to scold or to punish by inflicting physical pain. His was the first school in Christendom to abolish the rod.
His plan anticipated the Kindergarten and the Creche. He called mothers’ meetings, and tried to show the uselessness of scolding and beating, because to do these things was really to teach the children to do them. He abolished the sale of strong drink in New Lanark. Model houses were erected, gardens planted, and prizes given for the raising of flowers.
In order not to pauperize his people, Owen had them pay a slight tuition for the care of the children, and there was a small tax levied to buy flower-seeds. In the school-building was a dance-hall and an auditorium.
At one time the supply of raw cotton was cut off for four months. During this time Owen paid his people full wages, insisted that they should all, old and young, go to school for two hours a day, and also work two hours a day at tree-planting, grading and gardening. During this period of idleness he paid out seven thousand pounds in wages. This was done to keep the workmen from wandering away.
It need not be imagined that Owen did not have other cares besides those of social betterment. Much of the machinery in the mills was worn and becoming obsolete. To replace this he borrowed a hundred thousand dollars. Then he reorganized his business as a stock company and sold shares to several London merchants with whom he dealt. He interested Jeremy Bentham, the great jurist and humanitarian, and Bentham proved his faith by buying stock in the New Lanark Company.
Joseph Lancaster, the Quaker, a mill-owner and philanthropist, did the same.
Owen paid a dividend of five per cent on his shares. A surplus was also set aside to pay dividends in case of a setback, but beyond this the money was invested in bettering the environment of his people.
New Lanark had been running fourteen years under Owen’s management. It had attracted the attention of the civilized world. The Grand Duke Nicholas, afterwards the Czar, spent a month with Owen studying his methods. The Dukes of Kent, Sussex, Bedford and Portland; the Archbishop of Canterbury; the Bishops of London, Peterborough and Carlisle; the Marquis of Huntly; Lords Grosvenor, Carnarvon, Granville, Westmoreland, Shaftesbury and Manners; General Sir Thomas Dyce and General Brown; Ricardo, De Crespigny, Wilberforce, Joseph Butterworth and Sir Francis Baring—all visited New Lanark. Writers, preachers, doctors, in fact almost every man of intellect and worth in the Kingdom, knew of Robert Owen and his wonderful work at New Lanark. Sir Robert Peel had been to New Lanark and had gone back home and issued an official bulletin inviting mill-owners to study and pattern after the system.
The House of Commons asked Owen to appear and explain his plan for abolishing poverty from the Kingdom. He was invited to lecture in many cities. He issued a general call to all mill-owners in the Kingdom to co-operate with him in banishing ignorance and poverty.
But to a great degree Owen worked alone and New Lanark was a curiosity. Most mill towns had long rows of dingy tenements, all alike, guiltless of paint, with not a flower bed or tree to mitigate the unloveliness of the scene. Down there in the dirt and squalor lived the working-folks; while away up on the hillside, surrounded by a vast park, with stables, kennels and conservatories, resided the owner.
Owen lived with his people. And the one hundred fifty acres that made up the village of New Lanark contained a happy, healthy and prosperous population of about two thousand people.
There was neither pauperism nor disease, neither gamblers nor drunkards. All worked and all went to school.
It was an object-lesson of thrift and beauty.
Visitors came from all over Europe—often hundreds a day.
Why could not this example be extended indefinitely so that hundreds of such villages should grow instead of only one? There could, there can and there will be, but the people must evolve their own ideal environment and not have to have it supplied for them.
By Owen’s strength of purpose he kept the village ideal, but he failed to evolve an ideal people. All around were unideal surroundings, and the people came and went. Strong drink was to be had only a few miles away. To have an ideal village, it must be located in an ideal country.
Owen called on the clergy to unite with him in bringing about an ideal material environment. He said that good water, sewerage and trees and flowers worked a better spiritual condition. They replied by calling him a materialist. He admitted that he worked for a material good. His followers added to his troubles by comparing his work with that of the clergy round about, where vice, poverty and strong drink grouped themselves about a steeple upon which was a cross of gold to which labor was nailed—a simile to be used later by a great orator, with profit.
Owen was a Unitarian, with a Quaker bias. Any clergyman was welcome to come to New Lanark—it was a free platform. A few preachers accepted the invitation, with the intent to convert Robert Owen to their particular cause. New Lanark was pointed out all over England as a godless town. The bishops issued a general address to all rectors and curates warning them against “any system of morals that does away with God and His Son, JC, fixing its salvation on flowerbeds and ragged schools.”
New Lanark was making money because it was producing goods the world wanted. But its workers were tabu in respectable society, and priestly hands were held aloft in pretended horror whenever the name of Robert Owen, or the word “Socialism,” was used.
Owen refused to employ child labor, and issued a book directing the attention of society to this deadly traffic in human beings. The parents, the clergy and the other mill-owners combined against him, and he was denounced by press and pulpit.
He began to look around for a better environment for an ideal community. His gaze was turned toward America.
Robert Owen’s plan for abolishing vice and poverty was simply to set the people to work under ideal conditions, and then allow them time enough for recreation and mental exercise, so that thrift might follow farming. In reply to the argument that the workman should evolve his own standard of life, independent of his employer, Owen said that the mill with its vast aggregation of hands was an artificial condition. The invention, ingenuity and enterprise that evolved the mill were exceptional. The operators for the most part lacked this constructive genius, the proof of which lay in the very fact that they were operators.
To take advantage of their limitations, disrupt their natural and accustomed mode of life, and then throw the blame back upon them for not evolving a new and better environment, was neither reasonable nor right.
The same constructive genius that built the mill and operated it should be actively interested in the welfare of the people who worked in the mill.
To this end there should be an ideal village adjacent to every great mill. This village should afford at least half an acre of ground for every family. In the way of economy, one building should house a thousand people. It should be built in the form of a parallelogram and contain co-operative kitchens, dining-rooms, libraries, art-galleries and gymnasia. It should be, in fact, a great University, not unlike the great collection of schools at Oxford or Cambridge. All would be workers—all would be students.
The villages should be under the general supervision of the government, in order to secure stability and permanency. If the mill management failed, the government should continue the business, because even if the government lost money in the venture, at times, this was better than always to be building jails, prisons, insane asylums, almshouses and hospitals.
In sections where there were no mills or factories, the government would construct both mills and villages, to the intent that idleness and ignorance might be without excuse. To this end Owen would ask all landowners, or holders of estates of a thousand acres or more, to set apart one-tenth of their land for ideal villages and co-operative mills to be managed by the government.
As proof that his plans were feasible, Owen pointed to New Lanark and invited investigation.
Among others who answered the invitation was Henry Hase, cashier of the Bank of England. Hase reported that New Lanark had the look of a place that had taken a century to evolve, and in his mind the nation could not do better than to follow the example of Owen. He then added, “If the clergy, nobility and mill-owners will adopt the general scientific method proposed by Mr. Owen for the abolition of poverty, ignorance and crime, it will be the greatest step of progress ever seen in the history of the world.”
In proposing that the clergy, nobility and mill-owners should unite for the good of mankind, Mr. Hase was not guilty of subtle humor or ironical suggestion. He was an honest and sincere man who had been exposed to the contagious enthusiasm of Mr. Owen.
Owen was fifty-seven years of age, practical man that he was, before he realized that the clergy, the nobility and the rich mill-owners had already entered into an unconscious pact to let mankind go to Gehenna—just so long as the honors, emoluments and dividends were preserved. That is to say, the solicitation of the Church is not and never has been for the welfare of the people; it is for the welfare of the Church for which churchmen fight. All persecution turns on this point.
If the stability of the Church is threatened, the Churchmen awake and cry, “To Arms!” In this respect the Church, the nobility and vested capital have everything in common—they want perpetuity and security. They seek safety. All of the big joint-stock companies had in their directorates members of the nobility and the clergy. The bishops held vast estates—they were Lords.
Robert Owen did not represent either the Church or the nobility. He was a very exceptional and unique product; he was a workingman who had become a philanthropic capitalist. He was a lover of humanity, filled with a holy zeal to better the condition of the laborer.
The mills at New Lanark were making money, but the shareholders in London were not satisfied with their dividends. They considered Owen’s plans for educating the workingman chimerical. In one respect they knew that Owen was sane: he could take the raw stock and produce the quality of goods that had a market value. He had trained up a valuable and skilled force of foremen and workers. Things were prosperous and would be much more so if Owen would only cease dreaming dreams and devote himself to the commercial end of the game.
If he would not do this, then he must buy their stock or sell them a controlling interest of his own.
He chose the latter.
In Eighteen Hundred Twenty-five, when he was fifty-five years old, he sailed for America. He gave lectures in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington on his new order of economics. He was listened to with profound attention. At Washington he was the guest of the President, and on invitation addressed a joint session of the Senate and the House, setting forth his arguments for Socialism.
The Moravians at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had founded their colony as early as Seventeen Hundred Twenty. The Zoarites, the Economites, the Separatists, the Shakers and the Rappites had been in existence and maintained successful communities for a score of years.
Robert Owen visited these various colonies and saw that they were all prosperous. There was neither sickness, vice, poverty, drunkenness nor disease to be found among them. He became more and more convinced that the demands of an advancing civilization would certainly be co-operative in nature. Chance might unhorse the individual, but with a community the element of chance was eliminated. He laid it down as a maxim, evolved from his study, observation and experience, that the community that exists for three years is a success. That no industrial community had ever endured for three years, save as it was founded on a religious concept, was a fact that he overlooked. Also, he failed to see that the second generation of communists did not coalesce, and as a result that thirty-three years was the age limit for even a successful community; and that, if it still survived, it was because it was reorganized under a strong and dominant leadership.
Communists or Socialists are of two classes: those who wish to give and those who wish to get. When fifty-one per cent of the people in a community are filled with a desire to give, Socialism will be a success.
Perhaps the most successful social experiment in America was the Oneida Community, but next to this was the Harmonyites, founded by George Rapp. The Harmonyites founded Harmony, Indiana, in Eighteen Hundred Fourteen. They moved from Pennsylvania and had been located at their present site for eleven years. They owned thirty thousand acres of splendid land at the junction of the Wabash and Ohio Rivers. They had built more than a hundred houses, and had barns, stores, a church, a hall, a sawmill, a hotel and a woolen-factory.
Now when Owen went to Pittsburgh, he floated down the Ohio to Cincinnati and then on to Harmony. He was graciously received and was delighted with all he saw and heard.
Owen saw the success of the woolen-mill, and declared that to bring cotton up by steamboat from the South would be easy. He would found cotton-mills, and here New Lanark should bloom again, only on an increased scale.
Would the Rappites sell?
Yes; they wanted to move back to Pennsylvania, where there were other groups of similar faith.
Their place, they figured, was worth two hundred fifty thousand dollars. Owen made an offer of one hundred fifty thousand dollars, which to his surprise was quietly accepted. It was a quick deal.
The Rappites moved out, and the Owenites moved in.
Just across the Ohio River they founded the town of Owensboro.
Then Owen went back to England and sent over about three hundred of his people, including his own son, Robert Dale Owen.
Robert Owen had large interests in England, and New Harmony on the banks of the Wabash was incidental. Robert Dale Owen was then twenty-five years old. He was a philosopher, not an economist, and since the place lacked a business head, dissensions arose. Let some one else tell how quickly a community can evaporate when it lacks the cement of religious oneness:
For the first few weeks, all entered into the new system with a will. Service was the order of the day. Men who seldom or never before labored with their hands devoted themselves to agriculture and the mechanical arts with a zeal which was at least commendable, though not always well directed. Ministers of the gospel guided the plow and called swine to their corn instead of sinners to repentance, and let patience have her perfect work over an unruly yoke of oxen. Merchants exchanged the yardstick for the rake or pitchfork; and all appeared to labor cheerfully for the common weal. Among the women there was even more apparent self-sacrifice. Those who had seldom seen the inside of their own kitchens went into that of the common eating-house (formerly a hotel) and made themselves useful among pots and kettles. Refined young ladies who had been waited upon all their lives took turns in waiting upon others at the table. And several times a week all parties who chose, mingled in the social dance in the great dining-hall.
But notwithstanding the apparent heartiness and cordiality of this auspicious opening, it was in the social atmosphere of the Community that the first cloud arose. Self-love was a spirit which could not be exorcised. It whispered to the lowly maidens, whose former position in society had cultivated the spirit of meekness, “Thou art as good as the formerly rich and fortunate; insist upon your equality.” It reminded the former favorites of society of their lost superiority, and despite all rules tinctured their words and actions with “airs” and conceit. Similar thoughts and feelings soon arose among the men; and though not so soon exhibited they were none the less deep and strong. Suffice it to say, that at the end of three months—three months!—the leading minds in the Community were compelled to acknowledge to one another that the social life of the Community could not be bounded by a single circle. They therefore acquiesced, though reluctantly, to its division into many. But they still hoped, and many of them no doubt believed, that though social equality was a failure, community of property was not. Whether the law of mine and thine is natural or incidental in human character, it soon began to develop its sway. The industrious, the skilful and the strong saw the product of their labor enjoyed by the indolent, the unskilled and the improvident; and self-love rose against benevolence. A band of musicians thought their brassy harmony was as necessary to the common happiness as bread and meat, and declined to enter the harvest-field or the workshop. A lecturer upon natural science insisted upon talking while others worked. Mechanics, whose single day’s labor brought two dollars into the common stock, insisted that they should in justice work only half as long as the agriculturist, whose day’s work brought but one.
Of course, for a while, these jealousies were concealed, but soon they began to be expressed. It was useless to remind all parties that the common labor of all ministered to the prosperity of the Community. Individual happiness was the law of Nature and it could not be obliterated. And before a single year had passed, this law had scattered the members of that society which had come together so earnestly and under such favorable circumstances, and driven them back into the selfish world from which they came.
The writer of this sketch has since heard the history of that eventful year reviewed with honesty and earnestness by the best men and most intelligent parties of that unfortunate social experiment. They admitted the favorable circumstances which surrounded its commencement; the intelligence, devotion and earnestness which were brought to the cause by its projectors, and its final total failure. And they rested ever after in the belief that man, though disposed to philanthropy, is essentially selfish, and a community of social equality and common property is an impossibility.
The loss of two hundred thousand dollars did not dampen the ardor of Robert Owen. He paid up the debts of New Harmony, had the property surveyed and subdivided, and then deeded it to his children and immediate relatives and a few of the “staunch friends who have such a lavish and unwise faith in my wisdom”—to use his own expression.
To give work to the unemployed of England now became his immediate solicitation. He was sixty years old when he inaugurated his first co-operative store, which in fact is the parent of our modern Department-Store.
In this store he proposed to buy any useful article or product which any man might make or produce, figuring on cost of the raw material and sixpence an hour for labor. This labor was to be paid for in Labor Script, receivable in payment for anything the man might want to buy. Here we get the Labor Exchange. Owen proposed that the Government should set delinquent men to work, instead of sending them to prison. Any man who would work, no matter what he had done, should be made free. The Government would then pay the man in Labor-Exchange Script. Of course, if the Government guaranteed the script, it was real money; otherwise, it was wildcat money, subject to fluctuation and depreciation. Very naturally, the Government refused to guarantee this script, or to invest in the co-operative stores. To make the script valuable, it had to be issued in the form of a note, redeemable in gold at a certain time.
The stores were started, and many idle men found work in building mills and starting various industries. Three years passed, and some of the script became due. It was found to be largely held by saloonkeepers who had accepted it at half-price. Efforts had been constantly made to hurt Owen’s standing and depreciate the market value of this currency.
The Labor Exchange that had issued the script was a corporation, and Robert Owen was not individually liable, but he stepped into the breach and paid every penny out of his own purse, saying, “No man shall ever say that he lost money by following my plans.”
Next he founded the co-operative village of Harmony or Queenswood. The same general plan that he had followed at New Lanark was here carried out, save that he endeavored to have the mill owned by the workers instead of by outside capital.
Through his very able leadership, this new venture continued for ten years and was indeed a school and a workshop. The workers had gardens, flowers, books. There were debates, classes, and much intellectual exercise that struck sparks from heads that were once punk. John Tyndall was one of the teachers and also a worker in this mill. Let the fact stand out that Owen discovered Tyndall—a great, divinely human nautilus—and sent him sailing down the tides of Time.
At eighty years of age, Owen appeared before the House of Commons and read a paper which he had spent a year in preparing, “The Abolition of Poverty and Crime.” He held the Government responsible for both, and said that until the ruling class took up the reform idea and quit their policy of palliation, society would wander in the wilderness. To gain the Promised Land we must all move together in a government “of the people, by the people and for the people.” He was listened to with profound respect and a vote of thanks tendered him; but his speech never reached the public printer.
Robert Dale Owen became a naturalized citizen of the United States, and for several years was a member of Congress, and at the time of the death of his father was our minister to Italy, having been appointed by President Pierce.
He was in England at the time of the passing of Robert Owen, and announced the fact to the family at New Harmony, Indiana, in the following letter:
Newtown, Wales, November 17th, 1858.
It is all over. Our dear father passed away this morning, at a quarter before seven, as quietly and gently as if he had been falling asleep. There was not the least struggle, not the contraction of a limb or a muscle, not an expression of pain on his face. His breathing stopped so gradually that, even as I held his hand, I could scarcely tell the moment when he no longer lived. His last words, distinctly pronounced about twenty minutes before his death, were: “Relief has come.”
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