Owen, Robert

Owen, Robert a noted socialist and philanthropist, was born at Newton, Montgomeryshire, North Wales, in 1771. His parents were poor, but they gave him a good elementary education. Until he was fourteen he was employed in drapers' shops in his native town and at Stamford. He then procured a situation in London, where he showed such talents for business that at eighteen he became a partner in a small cotton mill. He was successful in this enterprise, and then removed to the Chorlton Mills, near Manchester, where he was equally prosperous. In 1801 he married the daughter of David Dale, a manufacturer of Glasgow, who had established in 1784 a cotton-factory near Lanark, now New Lanark, on the banks of the Clyde. In this factory not only cotton-spinning, but other connected branches of the manufacture were carried on, and at one time as many as 4000 persons were settled there in connection with it. Shortly after his marriage, Owen sold the Chorlton Mills and undertook the management of New Lanark. The latter establishment had been a center of disorder and immorality; but the incessant labors and the paternal administration of the new proprietor made a rapid change in affairs. The little colony established at Lanark prospered both materially and morally. As a commercial speculation it was in a high degree successful: but the most remarkable feature was the benevolent care with which Mr. Owen attended to the welfare of the persons employed and to the education of their children. He here introduced many improvements, since adopted in other schools, so as to make instruction at once attractive and useful, and founded, if not the first, one of the earliest of the infant schools. Besides the ordinary routine of education, the children of whom there were at one time 600 — were taught various practical arts, and were instructed in singing and dancing, care being also taken of their health by building well ventilated school- rooms and providing for active exercise. The reputation of the establishment spread rapidly; it was visited by persons of rank and influence, giving to Lanark a European celebrity. In 1812 he published his New View of Society, or Essays on the Formation of Human Character, and afterwards a Book of the New Moral World, in which he developed a theory of modified communism. SEE SOCIALISM. The unfavorable reception which his system received among the English clergy induced him in 1823 to relinquish his connection with New Lanark and to betake himself to the United States. About 1824 he purchased from a Pennsylvania German colony, under Frederick Rapp, a tract of land on the Wabash, in Posey Co., Indiana, and founded the settlement of New Harmony, where he endeavored to carry his theory of the co-operative system into effect. Largely composed of vagabonds and adventurers from all nations, this colony proved an utter failure, and Owen returned to England in 1827. In this year an attempt was also made to effect an establishment in consonance with his new view of society at Orbiston, in the parish of Bothwell, Lanarkshire. It was intended to purchase 1200 acres of land, and to erect a parallelogram to accommodate 1200 persons. A large sum of money was raised, but the expenses so greatly exceeded the estimates that not more than a fourth of the purposed parallelogram was built; but it had a theater, lecture-room, and schoolrooms. Less than 200 persons were collected; the laborers were to work on the co-operative system, but were not all paid alike, nor did all fare alike. They took their meals in a common hall, but at four different tables, the charge for the total weekly board varying from 14s. to 10s., 7s., and 5s., 6d. Including English and Irish families, as well as Scotch, it is not strange that their manners and customs gave great offense to their Presbyterian neighbors, and indeed there was much that was objectionable. It terminated in a short time; the society was dissolved; the property was sold at an enormous loss; the buildings were pulled down, and the materials sold; and nothing now remains of New Orbiston. A similar experiment was also made at Tytherley, in Hampshire, and was equally unsuccessful. Mr. Owen's attempts to establish a "Labor Exchange" in London, in connection with a bazaar and a bank, were likewise fruitless; after a short existence the concern became bankrupt. In 1828 he visited Mexico on an invitation from the Mexican government to carry out his scheme there. but nothing was done. In 1829 he held a public debate at Cincinnati, with the Rev. Alexander Campbell, D.D., of Bethanyv Va., on the "Evidences of Christianity;" of which discussion a newspaper of the day says: "With an acute, vigorous mind, quick perceptions, and rapid powers of combination, Mr. Campbell sorely. puzzled his antagonist by his masterly defense of the truth, divine origin, and inestimable importance of Christianity." In spite of his failures, Owen lost nothing of his wonderful activity. For a long time he resided at London, where he held weekly reunions and a great number of meetings. In these gatherings he delivered more than a thousand discourses. For years he edited the Millennial Gazette, a publication designed to show that men might be happier by uniting their interests than by carrying out the present competition system. He wrote more than two thousand articles for the journals. He also undertook numerous journeys, some of which were to France, where his "rational system" did not even succeed in exciting curiosity. An audience which he obtained in 1840 from queen Victoria, by the mediation of lord Melbourne, provoked against him in the House of Lords some most severe remarks. After having failed in 1847 in the parliamentary elections of London, he thought to take advantage of the Revolution of February, 1848, - 60 passing into France and rallying to the support of his system the provisional government, or one of the socialistic parties; but he could not make his voice heard there. He, however, continued for the rest of his life to advocate his views both as a writer and public speaker, and revisited America several times, attempting to found a system of religion and society according to reason alone. During his last years he was a believer in spiritualism, through which he became convinced of the immortality of the soul; and he devoted much effort to the vindication of his claim to hold conversations with the spirits of the dead. He died at Newton, Nov. 19, 1858.

Owen insisted on an absolute equality in all rights and duties, and the abolition of all superiority, including alike that of capital and that of birth. Being desirous of improving the condition of the industrial classes, he speculated on the causes of evil, and approached the subject from the extreme sensational point of view. He regarded the power of circumstances as controlling, and he was led to consider action as simply obedience to the stronger motive. He thus introduced the idea of physical causation into the human will, and made the rule of right to be each one's own pleasures and pains. He believed that man is born a passive creature with certain susceptibilities, and that external circumstances acting on these susceptibilities of necessity give rise to our dispositions, and through them form our whole character; in other words, that the character of an individual is formed for him, and not by him. This doctrine, which is the most extreme development of philosophical necessity that the present age has known, was doubtless in great part the result of a too exclusive experience with that class of mankind which exists chiefly as the appendages and machinery of commercial life, and which is made up of those whose poverty and ignorance unite to render them to an unusual degree passive instruments. As a philosopher Owen must be condemned; but, whatever may be thought of the opinions he held, there can be little doubt of his extreme benevolence, his moral integrity, and his executive ability, more especially as, displayed in his early life. His publications are, A New View of Society (Lond. 1813): — Observations on the Effects of the Manufacturing System (1815): — Address to the Inhabitants of New Lanark (Lond. 1816): — Tracts Relative to the New Society (1817): — Two Memorials in Behalf of the Working Classes: — Discourses on a New System of Society, with an Account of the Society of New Lanark (Pittsburgh, 1825): — Robert Owen's Opening Speech, and his Reply to the Rev. Alexander Campbell; the Debate on the Evidences of Christianity, the Social System, and Scepticism, between Mr. Owen and Mr. Campbell (Bethany, 1829): — Mr. Owen's Memorial to the Republic of Mexico (Cincinnati. 1829): — Book of the New Moral World (Lond. and N. Y.): — The Revolution in the Mind and Practice of the Human Race (Lond. 1849). See Packard, Life of Robert Owen (Phila. 1866) Martineau, Biographical Sketches; A. J. Booth, Robert Owen, the Founder of Socialism in England (1869); Noyes, Hist. of Socialism; English Cyclop. s.v.; American Cyclop. s.v.; Allibone, Dict. of Brit. and Amer. Authors, s.v.; Drake, Dict. of Amer. Biog. s.v.; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Generale, s.v.; Farrar, Critical Hist. of Free Thought, p. 201 sq.; Morell, Hist. of Modern Philosophy, p. 293 sq.; New-Englander, 1866, p. 399 Amer. Presbyt. Rev. April, 1866, p. 344.

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