Introduction: Experiment in Politics
In 1842, seven men formed a community in western Massachusetts, called the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. Their utopian communityThe attempt to create a utopian (perfect) community. Reformers in the 1840s experimented with utopian communities as a method for supporting the reforms of the time. would come to be one of many democratic experimentsIn the 19th century, many groups of people formed utopian communities to try out new ways of organizing society. of the early 19th century. Throughout its short existence the members of the Northampton Association for Education and Industry attempted to create a new egalitarianA belief and political doctrine stating that all people should be treated as equals, and have the same political, social, economic, and civil rights. model for an existing society, which they viewed as corrupt and immoral. (View the NAEINorthampton Association of Education and Industry constitution)
Democracy in the Mid-Nineteenth Century
The 1830s and 1840s is deemed the Era of the Common ManDuring the 1830s and 40s the participation of citizens in government increased through universal manhood suffrageThe right to vote., party nominating conventions, popular election of electorsBy the 1830s, the vast majority of states stopped having the state legislatures elect presidential electors and instead allowed their voters to choose electors., rise in third parties, more elected offices, and popular campaigningPolitical campaigns in the 1830s and 40s involved parades with floats, marching bands, and large rallies. Candidates would also appeal to large audiences by personally attacking opponents.. As a result of this increased democratic participation, the period becomes known as the Era of the Common Man. it marked expanded democracyExpanded democracy Reform aimed at increasing the participation of women and African-Americans in the political system. in America. The revoking of property requirements led to suffrageThe right to vote. for all white males across the United States. Expanded political participation also took form in party nominating conventions, popular election of electorsBy the 1830s, the vast majority of states stopped having the state legislatures elect presidential electors and instead allowed their voters to choose electors., the rise of third partiesIn the 1830s other political parties emerged even thought they could not realistically win a major election. As example of these third parties was the Anti-Masonic party., more elected offices, and popular campaigningPolitical campaigns in the 1830s and 40s involved parades with floats, marching bands, and large rallies. Candidates would also appeal to large audiences by personally attacking opponents. (link to parade letter). The expansion of democratic practice not only encouraged more participation but also sparked new debate over expanded rights for women and African Americans.
Combined with the religious revivals of the 1830s, this expansion in democracy helped to create the many reforms of the 1840s. UtopianismThe attempt to create a utopian (perfect) community. Reformers in the 1840s experimented with utopian communities as a method for supporting the reforms of the time. was one strategy that some reformers used to explore ideas of expanded democracyExpanded democracy Reform aimed at increasing the participation of women and African-Americans in the political system. and moral reform. In these intentional communities, members would attempt to create a democratic, moral, and/or economic model for the larger society, which they viewed as corrupted by social, political and economic problems. Massachusetts had several utopian communities, including FruitlandsFruitlands was a transcendentalist utopian community established in Harvard, Massachusetts by Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane in the 1840s., near Boston; Brook FarmBrook Farm was a transcendentalist utopian communal experiment started by the former Unitarian minister George Ripley at the Ellis farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts., in West Roxbury; Hancock Shaker VillageHancock Village thrived as an active Shaker community during most of the following two centuries. Shaker communities were religious communal movements which kept men and women strictly separate, forbidding marriage and sexual relations. This posed a problem with membership for most Shaker communities., in the Berkshires; and the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, in Northampton. Each utopian society had its own goals. Because of the rapid change in society, these communities could reasonably believe they would have an influence on society.
The communitarian momentA short period of time in the 1840s within which numerous utopian communities formed in attempts to promote reform and change in society. of the 1840s was short lived and resulted from many changing aspects of society. Many of the reformers involved took part in these communities as one part of a lifetime of activism.
Democracy at the Association
The Northampton Association established an egalitarianA belief and political doctrine stating that all people should be treated as equals, and have the same political, social, economic, and civil rights. community, which would inspire action for a better way of life. From the beginning, the Association did not have one leader and had rules and regulations which were set only to establish frameworks and a process for decision-making. The Northampton Association was similar to other communitarian groups in establishing a principle of brotherhood that was linked to “true” Christianity.
The founders and members of the Association believed that humans could live together harmoniously without the divisions of gender, race, and class. When they arrived in Northampton they received little welcome from the local people as their ideas were viewed as radical and even harmful. (examples is there anything we can link to here?) This reception only fueled the reformers higher purpose of revolutionizing the old system.
In February of 1843, Connecticut artisan James Stetson wrote to his wife, Dolly, to discuss the idea of moving their family to Northampton, MA to join the Northampton Association. Stetson penned his letter in the margins of the Northampton Association’s constitution. The constitution detailed a framework for their community expressing views about leadership, work and equality. (Link to constitution 2 and bylaws) The Association’s interest in democratic process and in equality for all its members partly stemmed from religious principles. The members of the Association believed in non-resistanceA theory condemning the use of force in resisting violence or war. Non-resistants in the 1840s extended this idea into a critique of existing institutions, particularly slavery., a theory which extended anti-slavery reform into a full critique of existing society, government and institutions, including the church.
Their democratic principles extended to religion as the Association recognized no specific sect of Christianity and practiced religious tolerance. While acceptance and tolerance were essential, the Association regulated its membership making sure to accept only people who would uphold their moral standards. (examples? Letters? 22,24)
In reading the Stetson letters, it becomes evident that groups, which were traditionally excluded from political and economic decisions, took a prominent role in the Association’s operations. Sojourner TruthSojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree. She was a slave who was sold several times until she was freed under New York state law. She became an abolitionist and women's rights advocate through her religious activism. Her narrative is the autobiography of her life and experiences. held an esteemed position at the Association as head of the laundry. (image and letters 43) Dolly Stetson and other women consistently participated in the community meetings, voting, and debates. (Example) Evident from the first letter that James wrote to his wife about the Association, Dolly clearly participated in the decision-making in her family. (letter) Almira Stetson’s aspirations show support for women’s rights in politics, reform and education. Her desire to emulate self-educated women like Margaret FullerMargaret Fuller was a journalist, critic, and women’s rights activist. Her work, Woman in the 19th Century, is known as the first feminist work in American history., show her own goals but also the role her parents were willing to accept for her.
(2 letters 39,42) The participation of women in the community mirrored their larger effort to support the Garrisonian Abolitionists. The debate over women had divided the abolitionist movementMovement to abolish/end slavery in the United States that increasingly gained support in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. and also caused the Association to receive criticism. Although these practices at the community embodied the principle of women’s equality, there was clearly a gendered division of laborWhere labor within a given system is divided based on women’s roles and men’s roles. based on rural New England society and some women clearly voted only with their husbands. (examples) The equality for women was at times practiced and at times symbolic.
The goal of racial equality also held as much symbolic significance as actual. While four African Americans lived at the Northampton Association, most members were white families that had community or reform connections. While it is unclear how many fugitive slaves passed through the association, it is clear that not many blacks even applied to be members. There is evidence that the community would accept black members with less scrutiny, presumably to promote their principles of equality.
Sojourner TruthSojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree. She was a slave who was sold several times until she was freed under New York state law. She became an abolitionist and women's rights advocate through her religious activism. Her narrative is the autobiography of her life and experiences. and David RugglesDavid Ruggles was an anti-slavery activist who was active in the New York Committee of Vigilance and the Underground Railroad. He claimed to have led over six hundred people, including friend and fellow abolitionist Frederick DouglassOne of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movementMovement to abolish/end slavery in the United States that increasingly gained support in the 1830s, 40s, and 50s., which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. A brilliant speaker, Douglass was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to engage in a tour of lectures, and so became recognized as one of America's first great black speakers. He won world fame when his autobiography was publicized in 1845. Two years later he began publishing an antislavery paper called the North Star., to freedom in the North. were treated as equals and took prominent roles within the community. Overall, their goals of establishing a multi-racial community mostly remained just that – goals. The community received scathing criticism for its African American participation, although it was minimal. (example from Chris’s book) Despite their efforts, the community’s racial composition reflected the broader color line of American society.
This image of Sojourner TruthSojourner Truth was born as Isabella Baumfree. She was a slave who was sold several times until she was freed under New York state law. She became an abolitionist and women's rights advocate through her religious activism. Her narrative is the autobiography of her life and experiences., drawn in 1867 by a former Northampton Association member, depicts her washing laundry at the Association, where she was the director of the laundry department. In the nineteenth century, it was extremely rare for an African-American woman to supervise white workers. Image courtesy of Historic Northampton. For the members of the Association, education played a major role in the expansion of democracy. All members, young and old, received education at the Association. (examples 2,3,13) Work and study occupied 6 days a week, Sunday afternoon set for free meetings of adults, youth, and visitors where religious and moral subjects were debated. (example 8.) The “learn-by-doing” model encouraged active participation. The Stetsons were clearly attracted to the Association for the education they would be able to provide for their children. (examples 2)
The Industrial model established by the community also encouraged democracy and social responsibilityResponsibilities citizens have to their society and nation.. All members worked and contributed to the Association’s business—studying and working 6 days a week. Silk was chosen for both practical and symbolic reasons.The silk worm was a symbol of democracy—equal and classless. From 1843, regular business meetings were held on Saturday evenings for the whole community. Wages, production, and restructuring of industrial production were all debated by the community. (examples) The overall goal was to bring workers into harmonious cooperation with employers. There were no strict rules, instead relying on the voluntary efforts of the community to do what needed to be done.
In the end, it was not the social structure but the economic pursuits that led to the failure of the community. Their ideas of freedom and equality for women and African Americans, which seemed so radical at the time, would later be adopted by mainstream Americans and become an essential part of American society. Their questioning of the conflict between labor and capital would be taken up for decades to come. Their noble efforts to create a more democratic society called into question the greater ideas that were set forth within the nation’s Constitution.