Situated between St. Louis and Louisville, New Harmony is a small town in southwest Indiana smaller than one square mile in area. Fewer than one thousand Hoosiers call this serene Posey County community home. Despite its size, the town has monumental significance in American history.
New Harmony serves as a real life case study that academics still look to when analyzing capitalism and socialism.
On the 100th anniversary of New Harmony's founding in 1914, the New York Times said, "This town probably is the most famous of places in the United States where the exponents of socialistic and community ideas have tried to prove the practical value of their theories."
The history of New Harmony began in 1814 when Father Johann Georg Rapp and a group of German Lutheran immigrants – called the Harmonites – migrated west in search of peaceful and affordable land. They settled on the eastern bank of the Wabash River in what was then called the Indiana Territory.
The Harmonites built a commune of 180 buildings from the ground up, and soon their community was growing and vibrant.
In 1825, Rapp's Harmonite commune was purchased by Robert Owen, a European immigrant who hoped to use the existing settlement to establish a secular utopia. He wanted to create a perfect society by eliminating wealth and offering free education.
Even though the heavy lifting of establishing a settlement from nothing was already completed, Robert Owen's vision failed to come to fruition. His New Harmony utopia lasted just a few years before it collapsed.
While the communities of both Rapp and Owen resisted private ownership, the original Harmonites maintained a religious motivation to "endure and suffer, labor and toil, sow and reap, with and for each other." That motto is etched in a small temple in the center of the Harmonist Labyrinth that still exists.
Owen's utopia, on the other hand, lacked a religious motivation or other incentive to stimulate productivity. This absence of tangible motivation was directly responsible for the demise of Owen's community. A society cannot succeed unless a sense of purpose prevails.
Former President William Howard Taft, when visiting New Harmony in 1914, remarked that "the most notable socialistic experiment, that of Robert Owen, failed as all socialism must fail, because it found no substitute for the motive essential to arouse and make constant human effort that is furnished by the institution of private property and the sharpening of reward by competition."
While historical views of Owen's New Harmony vary, we can all agree that the town has developed into a southern Indiana gem. Well-preserved 19th century brick buildings dot Main Street. Storefronts, art galleries, restaurants, sculptures and gardens attract visitors from all over the world.
Restoration of New Harmony's historical structures took place largely because of the efforts of Kenneth Dale Owen, a geologist and descendant of Robert Owen, and his wife Jane Blaffer Owen. One of New Harmony's greatest enthusiasts, Jane Owen provided vision and financial backing for many of the unique cultural landmarks found in the town.
From August 1-10, New Harmony will celebrate a bicentennial capstone week, and there is much to celebrate. Two hundred years after its founding, the New Harmony of today is a peaceful respite and the epitome of small town Indiana.
All Americans should visit this extraordinary place to experience the lessons from Owen's experiment and the successes of modern day New Harmony. As Hoosiers, we appreciate this town's contribution to history and are grateful that this community is located in our state.
Dan Coats is a U.S. Senator from Indiana
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