6.3 First Essay
The earliest essay, written under the nom de plume of ‘one of His Majesty's Justices of the Peace for the County of Lanark’ (if intended to provide Owen with anonymity this was a thin disguise, given the content) and entitled ‘On the Formation of Character’, is prefixed by the famous precept, central to the ‘New View’, that:
Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of proper means; which means are to a great extent at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men.
A variant of this central theme stresses the individual rather than the community or society at large by emphasising, as Owen does in the Third Essay, that ‘the character of man is formed FOR – not BY himself’. We might also note that despite the apparent gender bias here and in the essays themselves, in the context of his time Owen was no male chauvinist; indeed, he held radical views on gender relationships, marriage, birth control and divorce (mostly kept to himself, but to which he would sometimes allude publicly). We can take it that by ‘men’ he was inclusive of women, and point out that at the same time he attached great importance to women's role as homemakers and educators and to equality generally. Indeed, equality (including uniformity of dress) was to become one of the foundations of later Owenite communities.
Now read the extracts from the First Essay, linked below, and in doing so consider the following questions:
What are Owen's views about the social structure and class divisions? And what, in his opinion, characterises the main social classes?
Which Enlightenment ideal does he refer to at this juncture and how is it to be achieved?
Are there examples of good practice which Owen says might be followed? Do they seem appropriate comparisons with New Lanark?
Click document below to open the First Essay
In his analysis of the social order Owen identifies the poor and working classes as his major category, at over 15 million, or ‘nearly three-fourths’ of the total population (he refers to the latest census of 1811, which recorded 18 million persons in Britain and Ireland; in fact a group of more than 15 million would have represented over 80 per cent of the total). He reckons that the great majority have character defects due to lack of ‘proper guidance or direction’ (p. 108). The worst are the poor and uneducated, who are effectively trained to form a criminal class, while the rest of the population are educated to a system of society with the wrong values – as evidenced, for example, by the vicious punishment of criminals raised in the system.
The Enlightenment notion to which Owen refers is social progress through the use of reason. His aims are improved ‘character formation’ and the happiness of individuals and of society at large through rational education.
Owen identifies several interesting examples of how his ideas could be applied, including through the educational innovations of Bell and Lancaster and, at the community level, his own experiments at New Lanark. He alludes to other establishments on the Continent which have been visited by British reformers, in Bavaria (which as a Napoleonic satellite-kingdom could have been regarded, albeit briefly, as a model of enlightened rule) and the Netherlands. The last had always been a country where the underprivileged had been treated sympathetically. During the Batavian Republic (1795–1806), when French revolutionary ideas prevailed, the poor were described as ‘children of the state’ – surely a liberal view even in a modern democracy. Note, however, that the ‘Pauper Colonies’ to which Owen refers were not established until later (see Figure 8).
While the examples Owen cites here are interesting instances of how the poor could be employed, these are not really appropriate comparisons. New Lanark was a large capitalist enterprise in a rapidly developing industry, whereas the European examples were essentially agricultural or urban workhouses. This might have raised problems for public perceptions of any future Owenite community scheme.
We might just note that among the many visual aids Owen produced to accompany his lectures were nine cubes based on a table in Patrick Colquhoun's Treatise on the Population, Wealth, Power and Resources of the British Empire (1814), eight representing volumetrically eight classes of society, while the ninth represented the total population. The largest of the eight was almost four inches square, while that representing royalty, the lords and bishops was just a quarter of an inch square. The royal dukes who were patrons of Owen's plan were apparently fascinated by the cubes, which, should this have been necessary, vividly demonstrated their position in society relative to the working and pauper classes.
The closing section of the essay is certainly a powerful critique of the prevailing distress and the condition of the poor and a vindication of the strategies Owen is proposing for improvement.
Take a moment now to reflect on what Owen is trying to say in his First Essay and how Enlightenment ideas underpin it, summarising your thoughts in a few sentences.
Click document below to open the First Essay
To summarise the First Essay, Owen believes that environmental planning and education hold the key to the formation of character. So suitably moulded characters can produce a pacific and harmonious working class. The social problems created by industrialisation and the oppressive working conditions and long hours in factories ought to be addressed by the authorities, otherwise ‘general disorder must ensue’ (p.108). ‘Happiness’, however, can even be equated with ‘pecuniary profits’, as Owen himself would presently demonstrate (pp.112–13). Much of this argument derived from the Enlightenment ideals of reason dispelling darkness from the human mind, the reasoned conditioning of people, and happiness generated by rational means.
Little of this, as Place observed, was really new. The influences of environment on individuals and society came from Rousseau and other thinkers of the Enlightenment era, whose ideas Owen had probably first read in Manchester. According to Owen, the fundamental concept that character and environment are mutually related could readily be applied in an industrial context. There paternalistic methods might produce a humanitarian regime and generate greater productivity and profit, in which, theoretically, all could share. Unity and mutual cooperation, however, were concepts for the future. At this time too Owen's thoughts on education were probably still being formulated, but, expanding on his earlier statement of 1812, he duly acknowledges his debt to Lancaster and to Bell – who, as we have seen, pioneered the simultaneous instruction of large numbers of children. This was likely to appeal in the first instance to other educational reformers, including Owen's Quaker associates. They were involved with a body known as the British and Foreign School Society (established as the Royal Lancasterian Society in 1808) to promote non-denominational popular education, and were anxious to encourage the development of schools applying Lancaster's principles.