Robert Owen’s proposed utopian community in New Harmony, Indiana, 1838 (from Wikimedia Commons).

Heaven on Earth

A History of American Utopias

The New Year is here and many of us have resolved to make this one better than the last. But throughout our history, some Americans have set their sights a bit higher: building transformational communities from the ground up.  In this episode, we explore their efforts: from a transcendental, vegan commune in the 1840s to a Gilded Age factory town dubbed “The Most Perfect Town In The World.”  

Throughout, Ed, Brian, and Peter explore the utopian yearnings in the American past, and the ways they still resonate today. What allows some utopian communities to endure for decades, while others collapse within months? How have mainstream Americans viewed their utopian-minded brethren? And is America itself a utopian project?

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Heaven on Earth: A History of American Utopias
Aired January 3rd, 2014

PETER: This is BackStory. I’m Peter Onuf. As we kick off 2014, many of us are resolving to make a fresh start. So this week, we take a look at earlier Americans who have tried to start fresh on a large scale, like the 1840s transcendentalists who set out to recreate the Garden of Eden in rural Massachusetts.

RICHARD FRANCIS: They want to grow fruit, but they managed to buy a property with hardly any fruit trees on it, so that wasn’t a terribly good move.

PETER: Or the 1890s industrialist who hoped to end class conflict by building a perfect town for his workers. He impressed everyone, except those workers.

JANE BAXTER: And there’s a very famous quote by a resident of Pullman, who said, you know, we work in a Pullman factory, we sleep in a Pullman bed, we shop at a Pullman store, and when we die, we’ll go to a Pullman hell. They felt overwhelmed.

PETER: A history of American Utopians, this week on the BackStory. Major funding for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the University of Virginia, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, and an anonymous donor.

ED: From the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, this is BackStory. We’re the American Backstory hosts.

BRIAN: Welcome to the show. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. In 1808, a reclusive French philosopher named Charles Fourier published a book, The Theory of the Four Movements. In it, he sketched a plan for building an ideal community. The community would be cooperative and self sustaining, with fair wages for work and equality between the sexes.

ED: Fourier based his plan on observations of human nature, and some rather complicated mathematics. He calculated that each community, he called them phalanxes, should house exactly 1,620 people. That number, he wrote, would allow for a perfect balance of personalities, and the result would be total social harmony.

BRIAN: And things would only get better from there. Fourier predicted that diseases would essentially disappear. People would live to be 144 years old.

CARL GUARNERI: And human beings would develop long tails that would be a useful appendage.

PETER: That’s Carl Guarneri, a historian at St. Mary’s College. He says that Fourier had plenty of other predictions about the future that awaited successful phalanxes, like the idea that six moons would eventually orbit the Earth.

BRIAN: Fourier wrote that familiar animals would evolve into gigantic creatures, like the anti-crocodile, which would paddle human passengers across rivers. He even predicted global warming. Sort of.

CARL GUARNERI: The warmth would melt the polar ice cap. Not too far off, actually, from what’s happening now, except that he believed that would sort of give the seas a sugary, salty taste that would be something like lemonade, and make them drinkable.

PETER: But to turn this Utopian theory into reality, Fourier needed money.

BRIAN: The story goes that Fourier had announced that he would return to his apartment every day at noon to await the candidate, the benefactor who would fund one of his grand communal experiments.

ED: That’s when Albert Brisbane entered the picture. He was a young, wealthy Americans who fancied himself a budding intellectual. On an 1830s tour across Europe, he planned to meet with all the continent’s great thinkers, including Fourier. Now, Brisbane really did take to the Frenchman’s ideas, but he also saw Fourier’s Utopian dreams as an opportunity.

This was his chance to be the all important messenger, the guy who would spread the good news across the world. And what better place to start than back home in the United States? Brisbane knew that his practical countrymen would not go for some of Fourier’s stranger predictions, so he shrewdly edited Fourier’s ideas, losing the wackier ones. What was left was a step by step program for building your own phalanx.

PETER: At many times in US history, this would still have been a hard sell. Fourier was a radical, and a foreigner. But Brisbane’s return to the US was perfectly timed. Americans were reeling from the economic panic of 1837. Many were out of work, and scared of what looked like a grim, industrial future.

BRIAN: Americans who kept abreast of foreign events, and the newspapers were full of them back then, could read about the so-called dark, satanic mills of Manchester, where generations would be consigned to grimy work in factories, and it was felt that that kind of society might be coming to the United States, and there was this window of opportunity before it entrenched itself to try something else.

ED: So Brisbane got to work, arguing that Fourierism was just the thing that these anxious Americans needed. He published books, gave lectures, and wrote a column in an influential New York newspaper. Everywhere he went, he sang the praises of the phalanx. And Americans were willing to give it a try.

Within a few years, over two dozen phalanxes were organized across the country. There was La Reunion, Texas, Utopia, Ohio, and the boringly named North American Phalanx in New Jersey. In the 1840s and 1850s, over 10,000 Americans joined these communities.

PETER: None of the phalanxes lasted more than a few years, and to our knowledge, the oceans have not yet turned to lemonade. But Brisbane had accomplished in America what Fourier had never managed in France. He’d gotten large numbers of ordinary people to try out a project of radical social change, which, in its own way, is just as remarkable.

ED: So today on the show we’re asking why America has been such a fruitful ground for Utopian projects. Is there a particularly American brand of Utopian thinking? How do Utopian thinkers balance the desire to reform society with a desire to remove themselves from it? And is the United States itself a Utopian project?

PETER: We start in the summer of 1843, when a group of transcendentalists bought a 90 acre farm in rural Massachusetts and set out to recreate the Garden of Eden. They resolved to eat no animal products, drink nothing but water, and lead largely celibate lives. They hoped to create a new, more perfect society by living in harmony with nature, and so they christened the project Fruitlands.

BRIAN: The two main architects of the project were a wealthy Englishman named Charles Lane and a chronically bankrupt American named Bronson Alcott, father of the novelist Louisa May Alcott. The men were joined by a few other bright eyed converts, as well as a captive audience, Alcott’s children, and his skeptical wife Abigail.

PETER: But there was a major disagreement between Alcott and Lane. Alcott assumed that Fruitlands would be based around the old fashioned nuclear family. Lane, the one pushing celibacy, was not a family guy. He thought that Fruitlands would be a nice way to replace the biological family with a broader community based on shared ideals.

BRIAN: This disagreement simmered in the background as the Fruitlanders began their experiment. But soon the group had to grapple with more practical problems. As historian and writer Richard Francis told me recently, they weren’t exactly cut out to be farmers.

RICHARD FRANCIS: They buy this property, they want to grow fruit. Fruit is a very important part of their diet. But they managed to buy a property with hardly any fruit trees on it. And of course, if you want to set up an orchard, it takes about 15 years.

BRIAN: Right.

RICHARD FRANCIS: For your trees to get to maturity. So that wasn’t a terribly good move. And they didn’t believe in manuring the soil, because they–

BRIAN: Could you tell me why they didn’t believe in that? Was it oppressive to use manure from animals?

RICHARD FRANCIS: A, they didn’t believe in using or exploiting animals. But actually, this is a perfect example of how they’re both kind of cranky, and in certain ways, rather perceptive at the same time. And the analysis they made about manure was that fertilizing the soil led to heavy cropping. And sort of historically, this had brought about the rise of civilization.

Because once you have heavy cropping, it means that not everybody has to be a subsistence farmer, therefore some people could live in towns and cities. Cities bring about industry and smoke from chimneys, and that will cause pollution. And they actually thought the pollution would lead to climate change. And they actually said this in 1843.

However absurd they seem, one should never get away from the fact that they were genuinely engaged and worried about the problems and abuses of the society of their time. Things like the slavery question. I mean, although they wouldn’t eat and use animal products, they also wouldn’t use the products of slavery, which meant as far as their dress was concerned, not only could they not use leather or wool, but they couldn’t use cotton, either.

BRIAN: Now, Richard, you know, I cover the 20th century. We’ve got all kinds of polyester. What actually did they wear in an age before polyester, if they don’t wear cotton, and they don’t wear leather?

RICHARD FRANCIS: They wore linen.

BRIAN: Linen?

RICHARD FRANCIS: They wore linen, which is not a terribly good garment in the winter in New England.

BRIAN: No, I can imagine that.

RICHARD FRANCIS: Because it doesn’t keep the cold out.

BRIAN: Got it. All right, so let’s sum up here. They don’t have any money, they plan on eating fruit, but there are no fruit trees, and it takes 15 years to cultivate an orchard.


BRIAN: They’re not using some of the standard techniques for cultivating. How did they survive?

RICHARD FRANCIS: Well, I suppose the actual short answer to that is that ultimately, they didn’t survive. They teetered along, they planted some crops, but almost immediately, things went wrong. In September they took it into their heads to go to New York for no particular reason that one can see, except they had a vague idea of proselytizing and getting more converts, and more people to join.

BRIAN: Sure. What better place to go if you are, in essence, providing an alternative to the evils of the city than New York?

RICHARD FRANCIS: Yeah, that’s true. But on the other hand, perhaps the ideal time if you’re setting up a farm, to go is not September when your harvest is due. So Lane and Alcott went off.

BRIAN: Oh, wait. So did everybody go to New York, or just the guys?

RICHARD FRANCIS: Well, by this time the various newcomers that had joined had sort of rather faded away, and so what they left behind, basically, was Abigail Alcott and the children. And Abigail Alcott, I think, began to get the notion that she was being exploited. Because she was constantly trying to explain, particularly to Lane, you know, that women were exploited, women should be taken seriously, and so forth.

And Lane was sort of half-heartedly endorsing these views, but there was a sort of ambiguity see because, OK, she’s left in charge of the farm. That shows a great deal of trust in her. But B, she has to do all the work, which was not exactly the point she was trying to make.


RICHARD FRANCIS: And I think she began to feel that there was a triangle here, to use a famous remark by Princess Diana, there are three people in this marriage. I think that’s what she began to feel.

There was Charles Lane, her husband, and herself. And even, possibly, there’s a sort of hint that she thought that maybe that was a sort of homoerotic attraction between Alcott and Lane. Certainly she felt that it was a triangle in terms of power structures, and that she was being eased out, which she bitterly resented.

BRIAN: How did she feel about celibacy?

RICHARD FRANCIS: I’ve got a little quote, actually, here. I think this gives you the idea. She said a passionless person is to me a tame, half whole animal. Which I think makes her position fairly clear.


RICHARD FRANCIS: She had tried early in the summer, she had tried to kind of buy into this notion of abstention, but she soon got fed up with that.

BRIAN: When did things actually break up, and how did the members of Fruitlands disperse?

RICHARD FRANCIS: It all went horribly wrong by December. It was a very fraught atmosphere. There’s a wonderful entry in Louisa May Alcott’s diary, she was 11 at the time, and she writes, Mr. Lane was in Boston, and we were glad. In the eve, father and mother and Anna and I had a long talk. Anna and I cried in bed, and I prayed God to keep us all together.

I think that catches the atmosphere of that time. And Lane wrote to a friend in England, and he said, to be that devil come from old England to separate husband and wife I will not be, though it might gratify New England to be able to say it. So I think you get very clear the battle lines there. The family, the Alcott family were clustering together and pushing Lane out.

And then Abigail Alcott did something very bold, really. Basically, the mortgage on the house became due. Of course, they couldn’t pay the installment. The mortgage was guaranteed by her brother, Samuel May, and although we don’t have the letter anymore, it is fairly clear from letters we do have that she wrote to him and basically said, don’t honor the mortgage.

BRIAN: Right. So she said, let’s pull the plug on this experiment.

RICHARD FRANCIS: Let’s pull the plug. Yep. I don’t think Bronson Alcott would ever have known that she was the one who pulled the plug, but it’s fairly clear that she did.

BRIAN: I want you to help me understand the elements of Fruitlands that were really communal. The notion of all these people living together, breaking down, at least in theory, if not in practice, a lot of traditional boundaries. Are there any legacies in the social realm?

RICHARD FRANCIS: This seem a strange thing to say, but I kind of one of the legacies was actually what you might call the suburban ideal. That is to say–

BRIAN: I didn’t see that coming, Richard.

RICHARD FRANCIS: Well, what I mean by that is that when it all splits up, the Alcotts went back to Concord, settled down, and what basically Alcott did, and was actually very good at it, he became a gardener. You know, everything, in a sense, has to be invented, and I think the notion of a kind of suburban family ideal is a sort of Utopian dream in itself, and one that came in during the later 19th century.

BRIAN: Very interesting.

RICHARD FRANCIS: For something like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and her other books, celebrating the family group as this group that will cling together through thick and thin, I think that is a legitimate outcome of Fruitlands insofar as they blurred the distinction of what a family is.

They grew to learn, to value the actual sort of biological family unit, so it might not have been a kind of completely logical outcome of the community, but nevertheless I think it was a sort of human outcome. You know, that they developed this kind of intense family loyalty.

BRIAN: Richard Francis is the author of Fruitlands, The Alcott Family and Their Search for Utopia. It’s time for a short break, but don’t go away. When we get back, a Gilded Age railroad tycoon builds a capitalist utopia, but his workers aren’t depressed.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory, and we’ll be back in a minute. We’re back with BackStory story. I’m Peter Onuf.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

BRIAN: And I’m Brian Balogh. Today on the show, we’re looking at visions of utopia in American history. In the 1880s, spectators from around the world came to America to see what the London Times called the most perfect town in the world.

PETER: That was Pullman, Illinois, a factory town founded by railway industrialist George Pullman. Built on a prairie miles outside of Chicago, the town had plenty of sunlight and fresh air. Even unskilled workers enjoyed indoor plumbing, trash pickup, an all brick home and a fireplace. There were libraries with morally uplifting books picked by George Pullman himself. It was a far cry from the filthy, crowded tenements where most American workers lived.

JANE BAXTER: When the town was officially opened, one of the reverends who spoke at the opening said this is one utopia that America cannot wish to fail.

BRIAN: This is Jane Baxter, a historical archaeologist at DePaul University. She says that all these amenities were in service of a larger Utopian vision, a solution to the class conflict that royaled Gilded Age America.

JANE BAXTER: Pullman wants to see if he can make capitalism work better, so that people become content with their place in a capitalist system. So if you’re a worker, you’re happy being a worker. If you’re a manager, you’re happy being a manager. Whatever your job is and your place in the system, that you’ll find it a great place to be. And very early on, the press is quite enamored with Pullman.

A lot of stories talk about how beautiful the town is, the bucolic surroundings, the sort of happy workers. But even in 1881, there’s a very famous article in Harper’s Magazine where Richard Eli goes and spends time in Pullman, and he begins with this kind of embracing of the idea, and this positive sense about the community, and then he kind of realizes that the people just don’t seem very happy. And he goes on to say that, you know–

PETER: The objective of the whole thing.

JANE BAXTER: Yeah, exactly. The experiment isn’t can you build a bunch of houses, you know, nice houses for people, it’s does it actually transform the people who are living in them? You also notice if you look at census records and other records, which of course aren’t incredibly time sensitive, but there’s a great deal of turnover in the community. So people aren’t staying.

And there’s a very famous, and I can only paraphrase it, quote by a resident of Pullman who said, you know, we work in a Pullman factory, we sleep in a Pullman bed, we shop at a Pullman store, and when we die, we’ll go to a Pullman hell.

And they felt overwhelmed by living there, and just the ever presence of Pullman in their lives. And as a result, you don’t have this stable, content community that was hoping to be cultivated by this experiment.

BRIAN: Where did that dissatisfaction go?

JANE BAXTER: Well, this dissatisfaction that began almost as soon as the town was established continued as a low rumbling of discontent and dissatisfaction up into the strike of 1894, which is sort of the defining strike of the Pullman laborers. Most things that you would read about Pullman, and most stories that are told about the Pullman community talk about the strike really having its roots in the 1893 economic panic.

And the economic panic was a downturn that was the greatest recession prior to the Great Depression. And in that moment, George Pullman had a number of things he was trying to balance. Rail travel was down, orders for cars were down, the factory was not producing the same amount of goods, and he had workers that were living in his housing. He needed the rents paid, he needed to keep workers working, but he also had shareholders.

And he had promised his shareholders that they would always receive a 6% return. And what he decided to do was keep paying the return to shareholders, cut the wages of the factory workers, and not cut the rents for their homes.

BRIAN: And I suspect that in the heart of that great recession of the early 1890s, 6% was a pretty hefty return.

JANE BAXTER: It really was. It was another one of his ideals, that capitalism should be able to provide that well for everybody. The worker should be happy, but the shareholders should certainly be getting well enriched in the process. And so that was really the linchpin, the cause of the strike for the workers.

And it took them a while, but they kept reaching out to the American Railway Worker Union to get them to support the strike. And so the strike really gains prominence when the American Railway Workers Union agrees that they are willing to support and take collective action with the factory workers at Pullman. And what happened is they stopped putting the cars on the trains. And so–

BRIAN: So you could still ride on a Pullman car, you just couldn’t go anywhere.

JANE BAXTER: You just couldn’t go anywhere. I’m sure they were very comfortable seats, but you couldn’t get anywhere. So, yeah. Then what we have happen is Grover Cleveland sends in troops to help put down the strike. It was not a particularly violent uprising, but troops were brought in, and steps were taken to break up the strike.

BRIAN: This guy, Pullman, who left such an imprint on this town, his Utopian vision, how did he explain what obviously was a colossal disaster? How did he explain this to himself?

JANE BAXTER: You, know it’s interesting. Pullman dies in 1897, so he dies shortly after the strike, and it’s a very clear that he felt misunderstood. His early visions talk about creating a town that was free from strife, and where workers would have a better life. And I think that he really did believe that that should’ve been what happened. You know, quite famously, Pullman is buried in Graceland Cemetery under a very large tombstone.

I mean, decidedly large. And reports of what his grave are like is that it’s much deeper than you would expect a grave to be in the ground, and that it’s covered in railroad ties. He was so concerned upon his passing that his body would be exhumed and disrespected by the workers and the unions who hated him so much.

Once his wife passed away he had his home demolished, because he was afraid of sort of the legacy that was being left under the circumstances of the ending of the company town.

BRIAN: Does this story also tell us something about the gap between at least one titan of industry and the very men and women that worked with him? I mean, how could he so misunderstand the very people who he worked with?

JANE BAXTER: I think there’s an incredible parallel between, Pullman is operating his company in what was known as the Gilded Age, and we’re living in what many people call the Second Gilded Age.

I mean, if we look at the occupy movement and the idea of the 99%, and the idea that there’s such a chasm of wealth distribution, there’s a chasm of understanding of how things should be working, I think that there’s a real parallel to what was going on in Pullman’s time.

And what I find really interesting is when you look historically at the writings that are going on at the time of the first Gilded Age, this is very much a conversation about who owns the idea of America. Are the successful industrialists, who would tell you that they earned their money by working their way up, they built their businesses, they’re living the American dream, and then are doing things like George Pullman by creating a town and running his business the way he sees fit?

Is that what America is? Or is it all the workers and the immigrant workers who are coming in and actually making these factories work, so that people like Pullman can have money, right? And so I think that it’s not a dissimilar story from the types of conversations that we hear happening today.

BRIAN: Jane Baxter is a historical archaeologist at DePaul University, and lives in, you guessed it, Pullman, which is now a neighborhood in Chicago. On our website we’ve also post an excerpt from our conversation about the archaeology of utopias like Pullman.

ED: So Brian, they said at the beginning of that segment that this is the one utopia that America could not afford to fail, right? Why is that? Why would the general population look at Pullman more positively than they did at Fruitlands, or some of these other Utopian experiments?

BRIAN: I think, Ed, it’s because capitalism couldn’t afford to fail.

PETER: Right, right. Yeah. It’s working within the system.

BRIAN: And this was such a statement about the Utopian capacity of capitalism. Now, when we think about Fruitlands, we think about most of the utopias we’ve discussed so far on the show. These are ways of really getting outside of capitalism, or getting outside of individualism, which is a very important component of capitalism.

ED: Right, right.

BRIAN: Pullman was all about pushing capitalism that extra mile, so that we wouldn’t need to get outside of capitalism. That’s why it couldn’t afford to fail.

PETER: And this is the period of the so-called robber barons, and in many ways for contemporaries, that evoked the old regime, the past, when we had barons and we had a feudalism. But what Pullman would demonstrate against Marx is that yes, capital is concentrated and it becomes a force for good, it creates great wealth, and the enlightened capitalist knows how to share it.

BRIAN: And that’s why it was so important to demonstrate that this could really work.

ED: Except, of course, that it didn’t.

BRIAN: Yes, exactly.

ED: But you know, what I would like to suggest is that parts of it did. The idea that capitalism can best foster its own kind of mini utopia, we see it today in the free food available at Silicon Valley workshops, and the treadmills, and all these kinds of things, you know? As it turns out, I grew up in such a place.

Kingsport, Tennessee was designed from the ground up around the time of World War I by 10 northern corporations who came in and hired a city planner from Cambridge, Massachusetts to come out and figure out how all the different buildings would fit together, and how you would attract an Anglo-Saxon labor force from the mountains of Appalachia, and take away their guns so we wouldn’t shoot each other.

I’m not kidding. You had to stack your guns when you went into the Eastman Kodak, the Kingsport Press, Mead Paper. And when I was growing up, it was called the model city, and we were all very proud to live there. And it was an example of what industrial capitalism could do if the companies controlled everything there was to control in the city.

And so as it turned out, my folks didn’t work for Eastman Kodak, the big one of these, and so I have to admit, I burn with resentment at certain times of the year. You know, well, matter of fact, every Saturday when the kids got to go off to free movies and popcorn–

PETER: Free? Oh, no!

ED: At the Eastman Kodak. And then at Christmas, when Santa would just give away gifts to the kids who would just line up, who were the kids of Eastman Kodak employees. And so we benefited from having that prosperity around us, but I think I’m still trying to get over it. So, you know, I’m a little pointed about that because I see how exciting it was to have this operating in the middle of Appalachia.

And you realize, looking back on it now, that it’s kind of fallen apart. But it had strong elements of Utopian ideals in it.

PETER: Well, Ed, what you’re talking about is enlightened self interests of the capitalists.

ED: Yeah.

PETER: And how do you create or attract a working class to make factories work to produce profits? And not that corporate self interest is a bad thing. I’m not making a moral judgment, but I am saying it’s not the same as the impulse to escape the market, to escape property, to escape the ways in which we are made to compete with each other.

And that notion of hierarchy, that some will have power because they have wealth, and others will be at their mercy, well, that’s a refutation in intention with the whole idea of democracy of equality.

BRIAN: But there’s an element in lots of the utopias that we’ve been discussing, Peter and Ed, that I hadn’t thought about before, but it it’s a kind of static nature, and you can really see it in Pullman’s notion that people, if given the proper environment, will be happy with exactly who they are, where they are.

And it so much cuts against the central tenet of capitalism, of mobility. Of moving up, of making your own way.

ED: That’s why it’s Utopian.

BRIAN: No, that’s exactly right within capitalism, but it’s also this just incredible paradox.

PETER: If you’re just joining us, this is BackStory. Today we’re looking at Utopian thinking throughout American history, and we’ve reached the point in the show where we turn to listeners who have reached out to us about this week’s topic. Hey, guys, we’ve got a call from Colorado Springs. It’s Robert. Robert, welcome to the show.

ROBERT: Thanks for having me on.

PETER: You got a question for us about utopia. Where is it?

ROBERT: So my question for you guys stems from the founding period, and it deals with the Utopian philosophy of Republican virtue, and its application under the Articles of Confederation. It’s a little bit of a unique take, because contrary to most dystopian experiences, that stems from a lack of government.

PETER: Yeah, yeah. I gotcha.

ROBERT: And I was curious if you guys could analyze how the dystopian experience of the lack of government and excess liberty f people influenced conceptions of the role of government throughout each of your centuries.

PETER: Whoa. OK. Well, I’ll get us rolling, Robert. Wonderful question. And this is not a planned, perfect world, it’s the default of old regime. What you’re talking about, Robert, is anarchy. Anarchy was a lived experience for early Americans under the Articles of Confederation. That’s the regime that antedates the Federal Constitution, and it lasted from 1781 until 1789.

And I think what we’re getting at here is the practical experience of the so-called state of nature. So that, in a way, is the backdrop for the reform of government under the federal constitution.

ED: Well, I have a question for you, Peter. Was the Constitution a Utopian vision?

PETER: No, no. It’s anti-Utopian, in the sense that you can see this in the Federalist Papers, where Alexander Hamilton’s arguing against the golden dream of another age in which there would be no need for the state. And what Hamilton and Madison are arguing, and Jay in those early numbers of the Federalist papers is that the United States has been a failure.

So the more perfect union of the Constitution is the antithesis of the failure of union under the Articles, and that’s a failure of republicanism. Robert, are you out there? What do you think?

ROBERT: Yes, I am. And what was just interesting is just how this would align with this idea of American exceptionalism, and how–

PETER: You’ve got it.

ROBERT: America was kind of viewed as this Utopian escape from tyranny, but then all of a sudden you put liberty in the hands of the people, and it proves to be a bit of a failure initially.

PETER: Yeah, well, in that sense, right. And that’s the American focus on constitutions and institutions begins with this failure of community to be spontaneous. I think that’s what we’re talking here.

BRIAN: Yeah, we’re going to hardwire some of these rules, rather than just leaving it up to fate.

PETER: That’s right.

ED: You know, there’s an interesting irony here, and Robert, I wonder if this would address the general question that you have. If you think about what happens soon after the real founding of the United States in the early 19th century, Europeans look at it and say, you know, the absence of a strong government, the absence of established religion, the absence of a king means that it’s the perfect blank slate on which to create government-less Utopian communities, right?

And so throughout the early American era, people think, OK, now here’s our chance in the vacuum of authority to create something.

PETER: Yeah. I think you’ve got a good insight there, and that is there is something fundamentally Utopian about American anti-statism. It’s easy to see how bad the state is, particularly when you model it on King George III and British despotism.

BRIAN: Or the Department of Motor Vehicles.

PETER: Or you name it. Regulation is bad, and we’re good. And I think this notion of something spontaneous, natural, and honest and authentic about who we are as individuals, I think that is a very American antithesis, whereas Utopians elsewhere in the world are statist Utopians, often.

You start with the notion of governance and how to reform that in order to do well for the people, the commonwealth, but Americans believe that the material you’re working with is, well, it’s us, and that we’re basically.

ED: Speak for yourself.

PETER: OK, so Robert, have we solved all your problems for you? You’re thinking about how to live the good life, and I hope that you’ve gotten some insights from us about how you can go out and form the perfect community.

ROBERT: Well, it’s a bit far from that, but I think I’m maybe a little– I’m a little closer.

PETER: OK, well that’s great.

BRIAN: Thank you, Robert.

ROBERT: I appreciate it. Thank you, guys.

PETER: Bye, bye.



BRIAN: It’s time for another quick break. When we get back, we’re going to call up one resident of a modern day utopia.

PETER: You’re listening to BackStory. We’ll be back in a minute.

BRIAN: This is BackStory. I’m Brian Balogh.

ED: I’m Ed Ayers.

PETER: And I’m Peter Onuf. Today we’re looking at Utopian thinking throughout American history.

ED: That word utopia might conjure up images of wide eyed visionaries venturing into the wilderness on a quest for a perfect society. But now we have the story of a man for whom a better world was never some distant theoretical possibility. As Scott Gurian reports, Garry Davis spent his life trying to convince people that utopia already existed.

BRIAN: Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s, Garry Davis had a lot going for him. He came from a wealthy family, was the son of a famous bandleader, and was a rising Broadway star who once performed as an understudy to actor Danny Kaye. Then came World War II. Flying bombing raids over Brandenburg and losing his older brother Bud to a German torpedo caused him to seriously rethink his role, not just as a participant in the war, but as an American citizen.

GARRY DAVIS: And that’s why I said there is something intrinsically wrong with society, period. And I’m not going to play this game anymore. So, that started me on a whole wave of thinking about how not to play the game without going to a desert island and canceling out.

BRIAN: You concluded that the only way to prevent future wars was for people to remove themselves from the system that creates the us versus them mentality, and instead commit to the idea of world citizenship. So, on May 25, 1948, at the age of 26, Davis traveled to Paris, walked into the US Embassy, and renounced his allegiance to the United States of America.

GARRY DAVIS: It was a kind of a thrill. It was very exciting wondering what’s going to happen now. What’s the French government going to say?

BRIAN: No longer a citizen of any country, Davis was now undocumented, so French officials told him to leave, but since he turned in his American passport, traveling anywhere was kind of difficult. As it happened, right around this time, the newly formed United Nations was holding a meeting in the center of Paris.

The theater where the delegates gathered was temporarily declared international territory, so Davis headed over there with some friends and camped out on the front steps. They seized the chance to call for world citizenship as a path to lasting peace, something the UN’s predecessor, the League of Nations, had failed to uphold.

MALE SPEAKER: An incident that reflects the mood of an impatient world interrupts proceedings at the United Nations assembly.

GARRY DAVIS: All the press was there in the balcony boxes, and we had a huge lights, and we had the balcony box wired up so that it could take our speech.

MALE SPEAKER: I interrupt. I interrupt.

MALE SPEAKER: All the delegates were on the floor. Eleanor Roosevelt, with her headphones. They were wondering where this voice is coming from.

MALE SPEAKER: Mr. Vichinsky looks on as the interrupter, Garry Davis, self-styled first citizen of the world is hustled out.

GARRY DAVIS: –speak to the people. Shall I speak? Will you let me?

I said, I interrupt in the name of the people, not represented here. The nations you represent divide us, separate us, and lead us to the abyss of World War III. What we need is one government for one world, and if you don’t do it, step aside. We’re going to do it ourselves. We had screaming headlines the next day.

BRIAN: Those headlines caught the attention of people around the world. Authors and intellectuals like Richard Wright, Albert Camus, and even Albert Einstein spoke out on Davis’ behalf, and he began receiving letters from supporters interested in joining his movement. So he got to work creating something they could actually join.


GARRY DAVIS: We set up a registry of world citizens. We hired a hall, and we started issuing a world citizen card. We were IDing a whole new constituency, a world constituency. It was a new language.

BRIAN: Though Garry Davis was now officially a man without a country, he still considered New York his home, so he returned to the US Embassy and convinced authorities to let him migrate back to his native land. After he arrived, he got married, went back to acting, and tried returning to his prewar life. But his heart just wasn’t in it.

GARRY DAVIS: I left the top show in Broadway after three days of rehearsal, and I told the producer, I’m sorry, Horace, I can’t be in this show, because I’ve got to work for world peace.

BRIAN: In 1953, Davis officially created the World Government of World Citizens, which began issuing birth certificates, political asylum cards, and passports in seven languages, including the made up universal language of Esperanto. The movement took inspiration from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a UN document describing the dignity and freedoms to which all individuals are entitled.

Davis read to me a statement he issued at the time. It imagined a better world, where the focus shifted from nations to people, with global institutions preserving the peace.

GARRY DAVIS: In the absence of an international government, our world politically is now a naked anarchy. Two global wars have shown that as long as two or more powerful, sovereign nation states regard their own national laws supreme–

BRIAN: Today the world government has registered more than a million and a half members, and issued about five million legal documents, including passports to political refugees. Last summer Davis sent a world passport the NSA leader Edward Snowden, whose US passport had been revoked.

Though world citizenship still hasn’t caught on as widely as its supporters would like, the group says it has evidence that more than 150 countries have actually accepted its passports on a case by case basis.

Garry Davis’ view of political boundaries was not that they shouldn’t exist, but rather that they don’t exist. He said they’re a fiction we’ve all come to believe in, and by placing himself outside the realm of the nation state, thereby rendered them obsolete. For Davis, the idea of world government was not so far out, Utopian vision, but rather an idea rooted in pragmatism. He said we’re all world citizens, but it’s up to each of us whether we want to recognize that fact.

ED: Garry Davis passed away in July the age of 91. This story was produced by reporter Scott Gurian.

BRIAN: We’ve spent most of today’s show focused on Utopian communities that, well, quite frankly, didn’t work out. But across the country there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of intentional communities that are alive and well. They come in all shapes and sizes, some closely connected to mainstream society, and others much more removed.

PETER: One of the most prominent is Twin Oaks, founded nearly 50 years ago in central Virginia. We called up a long time resident, Keenan Dakota, to ask what it’s like to have spent several decades helping build an egalitarian community. Keenan, welcome to BackStory.


BRIAN: Hey, Keenan.

ED: Hey. Hey, Keenan.

PETER: Hey, Keenan, can you give us a little background on what Twin Oaks is?

KEENAN DAKOTA: OK, so Twin Oaks community these days is 105 people living in rural Virginia on 500 acres. And we have three businesses. One is making hammocks, the other is making tofu, and the other his heritage and heirloom seeds. The company is called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange.

And the main value that holds all this together is that we all live here equally. So there’s no economic elite, there’s no political elite, there’s no spiritual elite. We’re all sort of a random and equally empowered group of people who have managed to be running this experiment ever since 1967.

PETER: Wow. That’s an extraordinary record, Keenan. Americans have been pursuing equality for a long time, and they usually end up quarreling with each other.

KEENAN DAKOTA: I mean, the thing about pursuing equality is like, it is a really hard task, because the tendency of humanity seems to be towards social stratification.

PETER: Right.

BRIAN: Keenan, I have a lot of trouble just with Ed and Peter.

ED: We’re a real democracy here.

PETER: No, we’re not Brian’s equals, so it’s not a problem.

BRIAN: So how do you make it work?

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, so what Twin Oaks does is everybody has to work their share, which is 42 hours a week, and you can work anywhere in the community, including child care, or washing dishes, or cooking, or in the businesses. And it’s up to the individual where their work goes, but at the end of the week, you have to have done your 42 hours somewhere.


PETER: Well, how do you get necessary tasks done? Or do you just have this is magical way of dividing labor that people do all the necessary tasks? Or does somebody have to step up and say, I’m going to sacrifice for the group right now and do something I really hate to do.

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, there are two answers to that. I mean, one is, Twin Oaks has been going for getting on 50 years, so we are fairly successful getting the tasks done.

PETER: Right.

KEENAN DAKOTA: And what we have is, we have a weekly process where there’s a couple of people who do worksheets and will schedule work to make sure that there’s somebody taking care of the kids and somebody cooking a meal. And so there’s usually a list of people are willing to do that work, and they will just find that it shows up on their sheet.

ED: So you don’t have 50 years of unwashed dishes piling up.

KEENAN DAKOTA: Right. But the other answer to that is we actually make a fairly substantial sacrifice in efficiency. Because if you have people who are doing like four, or five, or six different jobs in a week, they’re not going to be particularly efficient in any one job. But we make enough money and get enough done so that the community’s doing well.

PETER: So, Keenan, one of the great obsessions of Americans in their pursuit of happiness is accumulating property.

BRIAN: We’re an ownership society.

PETER: We are. But you don’t. Everything is collective with you. Explain exactly, what is the status of, well, personal possessions, of property, of things.

KEENAN DAKOTA: So at Twin Oaks, everybody has their own bedroom, and anything that is in their bedroom is their own possession. But everything else is owned communally. So we have a fleet of 15 vehicles, and if I want to take a vehicle, I can go and sign one out and take it, but I don’t own it. And our bank account is also communal, and we have a big library of clothes. Like a big thrift store. And I can go in there and get any clothes I want, and then when I’m done, I can throw them back in the communal dirty laundry I don’t have to clean them.

BRIAN: Unless you’re on duty that week.


ED: Do you feel that you are sort of standing outside of American history, a kind of alternative to it, or do you feel like you’ve taken the best that America has to offer and sort of refined it? How would you define your relationship?

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I think that American culture and American history are to continue to experiment and to try new things. And I think it that what Twin Oaks is doing is doing the same thing culturally. Well, let’s try this and see how it works.

PETER: But Keenan, when you started, or when the community started before your time, it was very much part of the countercultural 1960s stuff.

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, that’s not true.

PETER: Not true. OK, I’m wrong.

KEENAN DAKOTA: It was a coincidence, sort of, that Twin Oaks started in 1967, which was the heyday of communes. But a whole bunch of hippies came to Twin Oaks, and many of them were disappointed in what they found, that Twin Oaks is very structured, and very focused on hard work, and not freewheeling in any of the ways that hippies were looking for.

BRIAN: Keenan, you know there’s a long history of actual Utopian communities, especially the 19th century. To what extent did Twin Oaks draw upon that in setting itself up and in the lessons it drew from other communities?

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, essentially, Twin Oaks learned nothing from the historical community except to not do things that way. Because the historical communities don’t exist anymore. And for a couple of reasons.

One is that they relied on a strong leader, so they weren’t focused on equality at all. Maybe in theory, but in practice, they weren’t. And so, once you lose your strong leader in any organization, then things tend to go belly up.

PETER: Mm-hm. I did notice, Keenan, that you name your buildings after intentional communities, or at least there’s a–

KEENAN DAKOTA: Yeah, we have Oneida and Harmony. So, certainly we respect that history, but mainly as, like don’t let this happen to you.

BRIAN: Right You’re really laughing at those communities by naming your buildings after them.

KEENAN DAKOTA: Yeah. We only can name our buildings after communities that no longer exist.

BRIAN: There you go.

KEENAN DAKOTA: So as we build more buildings, we are hoping that more communities fail so we have more names to choose from.

PETER: Thanks so much for sharing your insights, Keenan. It’s been wonderful talking with you.

BRIAN: Thank you, Keenan.

KEENAN DAKOTA: Well, thank you so much for having me.

BRIAN: Bye, bye.


BRIAN: That’s going to do it for us today, but we’ve got plenty of extras online, including an interview I did about the story of Soul City, North Carolina, a 1970s community created by a black power activist. You can hear that story at

PETER: As always, you can find a lot of other BackStory extras on our Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr pages. Our handle is BackStory radio. Don’t be a stranger.


ED: BackStory is produced by Tony Field, Jess Engebretson, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, and Jesse Dukes. Emily Charnock is our search and web coordinator, and Jamal Millner is our engineer. Our intern is [? Abe Sheck. ?] BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham

PETER: This week, we want to welcome our new stations, JPR in Ashland, Oregon, WFBL in Louisville, Kentucky, and KALW in San Francisco. It’s great to have you with us.

BRIAN: Major support for BackStory is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the University of Virginia, Weinstein Properties, an anonymous donor, and the History Channel. History, made every day.

FEMALE SPEAKER: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.