It’s interesting and sometimes instructive when different threads of work occasionally overlap. I had this experience earlier in the week, when I turned from some brainstorming I was doing regarding the Historical Society’s RIHA program (thinking about how I might structure a proposal that incorporated some 19th-century American and British social innovators who lived on the fuzzy edge between religion and irreligion), back to my online Environmental History project. I’ve been dragging my feet completing the next video in that series, but I had some time yesterday afternoon, so I parked myself in the library’s coffee area determined to write up my notes on Theodore Steinberg’s Nature Incorporated, which is the basis for my next “chapter.”
For those unfamiliar with Steinberg’s book, it’s an insightful look at early New England textile industrialization, and how the social understanding of common resources gradually changed to allow corporations to completely control the Merrimack River from Lake Winnipiseogee to the ocean. Taken from his dissertation, Steinberg’s story of the gradual “instrumentalization” of natural resources leans heavily on the work of his advisor, Morton Horwitz, who showed (in The Transformation of American Law) how many of the most sweeping legal changes of the nineteenth century happened not as a result of legislative or executive action, but through seemingly insignificant lower court rulings and changes in contract law. This is clearly a missing link in the chain of “how the heck did we get here?!” that environmentalists have to deal with, so you can see why I want to highlight it in an “EH for regular people” series. But neither Steinberg’s book nor Horwitz’s are easy reads, so they’re easily overlooked outside the academy. So my task is to render the main ideas in 10-15 minutes, in plain English.
So here’s the overlap: around 1810, Boston merchants Francis Cabot Lowell and Nathan Appleton each individually seem to have visited Robert Owen’s New Lanark textile mills in Scotland. Lowell and Appleton took what they learned at Owen’s water-powered mills, and returned to Massachusetts to form the Boston Manufacturing Company on the Charles River and later, as the Boston Associates, developed the Merrimack. No doubt the size of New Lanark (Owen’s mills were the largest in Britain at the time) and the community that had been built to serve the mills suggested some of the new forms of social engineering the Boston Associates developed in Lawrence, Lowell, and Manchester. They had a different effect on Owen himself.
Robert Owen emigrated to Indiana in 1825 and established a socialist community called New Harmony, on the site of an earlier “Harmony” built by the followers of German pietist George Rapp. The New Harmony Working Men’s Institute (est. 1838) contains the oldest continuously operated library in Indiana. Owen’s son, Robert Dale Owen, became a leader of the Working Men’s Party in New York before entering politics as an Indiana Representative, corresponding with Lincoln about Emancipation, and writing a radical draft of the 14th Amendment. Both the Owens are claimed by social reformers, radicals, and secularists in Britain and America as founding fathers of their various movements.
Robert Owen’s story suggests that there was a moment of recognition, when he and others like him discovered the magnitude of the social forces they were manipulating. Why the Owens chose to respond to this discovery as they did, and the Lowells and Appletons as they did, might turn out to be a very interesting, very contemporary story.