Editor’s note: A shorter version of this article first appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
On July 4, 1826, America awaited a special moment. It was the young nation’s Jubilee. It was the 50th anniversary of its birth, of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a grand triumph in the annals of not merely the new nation but in the much older and longer march of humanity.
“The United States celebrated its fiftieth birthday with parades and speeches across the country,” details historian Andrew Burstein in his book, America’s Jubilee. “It was a watershed moment in the nation’s history…. But what ultimately sanctified the national jubilee in the minds of the celebrants was an extraordinary coincidence: the nearly simultaneous deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the last pillars of the original republic, already venerated as legends in their own time.”
Americans solemnly awaited impending news of whether the two principal architects of the Declaration, Jefferson and his chief editor, Adams, would survive for the celebration. Jefferson was 83 and Adams was 90. How profound it was that both indispensable founders lived just long enough. Both died that exact date, July 4, 1826, as if by divine doing.
But like all moments of glory, the devil lurks in the darkness, biding time in grim hope of destroying what is good.
To that end, on that same glorious date, July 4, 1826, an English socialist transplanted to American soil likewise issued a bold declaration. His name was Robert Owen (1771-1858), one of whom my colleague at The American Spectator, Dan Flynn, describes as the 19th century’s “Yankee Utopians.” Owen was one of the first in a long line of leftist property-seizers, nature-redefiners, and God-haters.
On July 4, 1826, Owen stood atop his new ideological colony in New Harmony, Indiana, the heart of the American heartland, and delivered his “Declaration of Mental Independence.” It was, in effect, an anti-Declaration of Independence, the opposite of an affirmation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, of the laws of nature and nature’s God.
“I now declare to you and to the world,” proclaimed Owen, “that man up to this hour has been in all parts of the earth a slave to a trinity of the most monstrous evils that could be combined to inflict mental and physical evil upon the whole race.” What were these monstrosities? “I refer to private property, absurd and irrational systems of religion and marriage founded upon individual property,” answered Owen.
Property, religion, marriage: Robert Owen’s unholy trinity.
The stoic socialist called for no less than a “revolution” to deliver mankind from “this hydra of evils.” He told his socialist colonists that the Declaration of Independence had been but a precursor on the arduous road to securing their “mental liberty,” their freedom of the mind. He gave a cursory nod to “Washington, Franklin, Henry, and the other worthies.” But unfortunately, “these men, whose minds were in advance of the age in which they lived, were encircled by the prejudices which they and their fathers brought from Europe, and which had descended to the inhabitants of those regions through many ages of despotism, superstition and ignorance.” They might have been enlightened men, but they were not enlightened enough. They were shackled, especially by the false promise of religion, which, said Owen, was the mindset of “superstitious idiots.” The American Founders’ conception of liberty was manacled by the “monstrosity” that was religion.
Robert Owen grandiosely explained to his colonists that for “nearly forty years” he had been “employed, heart and soul, day by day, almost without ceasing” in the task before him, which he now generously presented to them. Now, he assured, “the fullness of time” had arrived: “the fullness of time, for the accomplishment of this great event … such has been the extraordinary course of events, that the Declaration of Political Independence, in 1776, has produced its counterpart, the Declaration of Mental Independence in 1826—the latter just half a century from the former.”
Thus, Robert Owen embarked upon his collectivist colony, shaping and defining it in his own image. He and his acolytes began their new civilization by scrapping the Christian Anno Domini calendar, marking 1826 as their new Year One. Owen’s new society was a giant collective that pooled profits and people, replacing the nuclear family with the collective family. Children were separated from parents into distinct parts of the collective for proper group “education.”
Predictably, the New Harmony colony floundered. Within just two years, Owens utterly and objectively failed. But to a committed leftist, there is never any such thing as failure. Utopia is always possible in this world. A confident Owen proclaimed: “The social system is now firmly established.”
Well, in an ironic way, it was indeed.
Even as Robert Owen’s New Harmony commune quickly collapsed, dozens of imitators eagerly sprang up around the country, from the Charles Fourier/Albert Brisbane models to the Oneida colony of “Bible communist” John Humphrey Noyes, all merely in the 19th century. A century later still, in the 1960s, the cultural Marxists and socialists and secular “progressives” of the New Left erected their hippie “commie communes,” such as Tom Hayden’s and Robert Scheer’s Red Family collective in Berkeley. Rarely did any of these collectivist cocoons last more than four years. But again, failure has never deterred the left. The left simply will tell you that it needs more power and it will ultimately get it right.
And Robert Owen was one of the first.
And so, on July 4, 1826, as Jefferson and Adams, geniuses of a genuinely peerless Declaration, fathers of a lasting revolution, both dramatically breathed their last gasps of life on the 50th anniversary of their eloquent achievement on behalf of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and as Americans celebrated, there was a tiny band of leftist cultural revolutionaries and fundamental transformers already concocting new schemes for a new human nature. And sadly, here in America on July 4, 2016, it is those forces, those “change agents” (to borrow from Barack Obama) that are at long last winning the day.
For a good two centuries, the ideas of Jefferson and Adams, of an American understanding of liberty based on timeless Judeo-Christian principles and natural law, prevailed. But alas, that was the old America. Today, in the New America, our nation’s “progressives” and their contemporaries celebrate a new definition of “freedom.” They herald what Justice Anthony Kennedy, legal architect of same-sex “marriage,” proclaimed: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
No. That is absolutely not what the American founders defined as liberty. That is, really, the Robert Owen standard. It is the right to reinvent liberty, to define one’s own concept of existence, meaning, the universe, and human life anew.
And in fact, Robert Owen and Anthony Kennedy are much more alike than we might think at a glance. Kennedy, like Owen, gives a cursory nod to the American founders, but haughtily dismisses their allegedly limited and narrow understanding of “liberty.”
And in that, and most devastating of all, Kennedy and his progressive allies on the Supreme Court and in the White House have a mass culture behind them. Today’s Americans, awash in a font of secular ignorance provided by a rudderless education system that aggressively undermines everything the founders imagined, blithely reject the timeless Judeo-Christian principles and natural law upon which the founders established a great nation. They merrily redefine everything from marriage to gender to whether or not life itself is even deemed “life” worthy of protection under the Constitution devised by the American founders.
In a shrill echo of Robert Owen, the modern spirit that prevails in America today is one where absolutist appeals to private property, religion, and marriage are deemed irrational at best. Ask the bakers or florists or photographers who, in the name of their religion, plead with the state not to be forced to service a same-sex wedding that they believe violates their faith. Ask Melissa and Aaron Klein in Oregon, who lost their business and are being crushed personally and financially for asking a lesbian couple to please go elsewhere for a wedding cake. The left is more than happy to shut them down and destroy their livelihood and lives. Conscientious objectors are cretins in the left’s Brave New World of fundamental transformation. They are bullied by the forces of “tolerance” and “diversity” who deem their views unacceptable and intolerable in the New America.
Kim Davis? Come now. What is she to secular progressives but an Owen-esque “superstitious idiot?” To quote one of my atheistic British correspondents, does Davis really believe there exists some giant, invisible “sky fairy” who decides what is and isn’t marriage? Hah! Absurd and irrational!
As Dan Flynn has correctly observed, Robert Owen “would feel more at home” today in a world of same-sex marriage, easy divorce, and public squares and courthouses stripped of manger scenes and the Ten Commandments.
And that’s just marriage and religion. Remember that Robert Owen was, after all, more broadly a socialist, and socialism is on the rise in America unlike ever before. A major Pew study informs us that 49% of Americans aged 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, exceeding those with a positive view of capitalism. Self-described socialist Bernie Sanders ran a closed second pursuing the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He earned over 12 million votes nationwide.
And there’s still more: Today, Robert Owens’ unwitting disciples on the secular left are even following his colony’s lead in attempting to scrap the Christian calendar. If you haven’t noticed, they are hellbent on eradicating the antiquated use of “B.C.” and “A.D.” And why not give it a shot? They have had tremendous success chasing Christ out of Christmas. Why not chase him from the calendar? They are on a roll.
This is the New America, the “fundamentally transformed” one, to borrow from our President of Fundamental Transformation. The America of this July 4, 2016 looks increasingly a lot more like Robert Owen’s than that of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.
It is chilling to imagine that on July 4, 1826, all eyes in America were fixed on Jefferson and Adams while virtually no one was watching Robert Owen, and yet it is Owen’s ghost that hovers among us.
Robert Owen might have been a dangerous, destructive nut in his day, but he was also a prophet, a forerunner, a herald of 21st century America.