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Robert Owen and New Lanark
Robert Owen and New Lanark

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8 Impact of the essays

While there was much in the essays that enlightened persons could endorse, Owen's publication attracted considerable criticism. William Hazlitt, the essayist and critic, for one, abhorred the style and pretended revelation, especially Owen's use in the title of his favourite word, a new view of society. ‘It may be true but it is not new’, wrote Hazlitt.

It is not coeval whatever the author and proprietor may think, with the New Lanark mills, but it is as old as the royal borough of Lanark; or as the county of Lanark itself. It is as old as the Political Justice of Mr Godwin, as the Oceana of Harrington, as the Utopia of Sir Thomas More, as the Republic of Plato.

(Hazlitt, 1931, pp. 97–8)

He dismissed Owen's principles because they implied the efficiency of a deterministic system of control over human behaviour, assumed a new philosophy was older than the creative human spirit, and aimed at substituting benevolent direction for the dignity of freedom, with all its potential dangers (Jones, 1991, p. 244).

Nevertheless, the essays positioned Owen on the national stage and provided a springboard for more ambitious plans, which he was soon calling the ‘New System of Society’. Despite the criticisms of Hazlitt and others, Owen commanded an audience because his ideas addressed some of the major concerns of the Regency era. Apart from popular education, these included the impact of the factory system on working conditions, especially the employment of children, the condition of the working class, Poor Law reform and economic regeneration in the post-war years. He was not alone in realising how closely all these issues were related, but went further than most in explaining in practical terms how New Lanark might provide lessons for universal problems, the central theme of the Third and Fourth Essays. Moreover, and again emphasising his universal vision, he took his campaigns of reform to Europe in 1818, to Ireland in 1822–3 and finally to the United States in 1824. I shall briefly review the highlights of this remarkable story, concentrating on factory conditions and social reform, before setting out some conclusions about Owen and his essays.