Fourierist Utopianism

One of the oddest phenomena ever to sweep America was Fourierist Utopianism. In the wake of social shocks including the large-scale movement of rural populations to industrial cities and the financial Panic of 1837, reformers across the youthful nation were smitten by the peculiar theories of the French thinker Frances Marie Charles Fourier (1772-1837) (image at right).

In 1821, Fourier had published his influential book, A Treatise on Domestic and Agricultural Association. In it, he advocated for communities organized into “phalanxes” freed from private ownership in order to provide economic comfort, social justice, and individual fulfillment while resolving the differences among capital, management, and labor. “Phalanx” was the English term for a Fourierist community, transliterated from the French phalanstère, a coinage by Fourier that combined the French words phalange (phalanx, a basic ancient Greek military formation) and monastère (monastery).

Fourier’s theory of “attractive labor” held that all work, whether craftwork, industrial labor, or farm work, could be achieved free of the evils of capital and private property when individuals come together, each following his or her natural proclivities. None of this was based on any concrete life experience of Fourier’s; it simply sprang from his brain -- as did his conviction that phalanx life should include free love, which nonetheless led him to an early defense of woman’s rights. Fourier also proposed a complex mystical cosmology, and jarringly predicted that when the perfect society was achieved, the seas would (literally) lose their salt and turn to lemonade!

Even so, Fourier’s thinking struck a surprising chord among social radicals. According to historian Arthur E. Bestor, Fourierism briefly "established itself as one of the leading theories of social reform in the United States." The 1840s saw no fewer than three hundred attempts to build Fourierist "intentional communities" across America -- "intentional" in the sense that members joined these communities purposely, by choice, in contrast to, say, a family or native region which one joined unintentionally, usually as an accident of birth.

Few such communities followed Fourier’s principles closely; even fewer interpreted them in the same way. But most involved some level of communalism, whether in the form of shared labor or something more radical, such as sexual access to one another’s spouses. Most survived for a maximum of three years.

The first Utopian intentional community in America was New Harmony, an Indiana commune founded by reformer Robert Owen in 1824. This pre-Fourierist community was founded on freethought principles; pioneer feminist and freethought lecturer Frances Wright spent time at New Harmony, which was also the site of the first nineteenth century experiment in dress reform. New Harmony failed in 1827.

The first Fourierist community in America was the famous Brook Farm at West Roxbury, Massachusetts. It was launched by a Shaker group in 1841 and continued until 1849, making it one of the longest-lived Fourierist experiments. As noted above, hundreds more followed. Most had some religious basis, whether traditional Christianity or some enthusiastic sect such as the Shakers or the Perfectionists.

Only two Fourierist intentional communities were wholly or significantly based on freethought principles: the Skaneateles Community and the Sodus Bay Phalanx. Both were founded in west-central New York late in 1843 and failed within three years.

By fall 1846, no Fourierist community, religious or otherwise, survived between Rochester and Syracuse.

Many intentional communities of this era featured economic, social, or sexual practices that former members -- and, later, their descendants -- would find scandalous or shameful. For that reason, the history of the Fourierist craze of the 1840s is often difficult to uncover because records were deliberately destroyed by family members and sympathetic archivists.

For a timeline of the Fourierist phenomenon in west-central New York, click below.