Notopia, Part 1 – Oneida, ”free love” and the all-American Utopia

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By Fredrik Thorslund

This article is the first in a three-part series exploring the notion of utopia, the human search for a perfect society – and specifically – those who have tried and failed to establish them.

The rapid economic and territorial expansion of the US during the 19th century brought with it a thirst for a reinvented, all-American cultural identity, separate and distinguishable from that of its European predecessors. The idea of a new era the new America attracted the attention of intellectuals and eccentrics with ideas on how to create a model society for the coming age. Suddenly, small utopian communities started appearing across the US; religious utopia, socialist utopia, agrarian utopia and you-name-it; they grew fast in the fertile grounds of optimism. In 1840 alone, over 80 utopian projects were initiated in the US.

One of these communities, the Oneida community in New York, was described by a visiting correspondent from the New York Tribune in 1878:

“Four miles from Oneida, Madison Co., N.Y., a class calling themselves Christian Perfectionists, twenty years ago organized a Community.

The location is the most beautiful in the land. It embraces over 500 acres in the choice Oneida Valley. The principal residence is brick, three stories high, and as extensive, as neat, and as elegant as are buildings erected by the State for benevolent purposes. The grounds are laid out by a scientific, rural architect. There are evergreens, hedges, clumps of trees, shaded winding walks, bowers, summer-houses, and borders and gardens of flowers. The most refined taste is gratified.

They employ no physician, for they need none; no lawyer, for they are peaceable; and no preacher, for they are perfect.”

The Oneida community had been founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes, a former Christian minister who had had his licence revoked for his radical theological views. Noyes had established an obscure branch of Christianity called “Perfectionism” according to which, opposed to the mainstream Calvinist viewpoint, man was considered to be free from sin. Therefore, argued Noyes, he and his followers were unable to do wrong.

Noyes was also a devout communist. The Oneida community, peaking at about 300 members, built on the principles of communal property, communal household and communal affection. The latter was realised through Noyes own system of “complex marriage”. Community members were prompted, under the supervision of Noyes, to change partnerships continuously as Noyes believed monogamous love to be selfish and undesirable in his utopia. Preferably, younger members of the community would be matched with experienced elders, to be sexually initiated. This already pretty disturbing setup was further complicated by the strict practice of male continence: intercourse without ejaculation (which Noyes referred to as “the propagative part of sexual intercourse”). Allegedly, the American 1960’s tagline “free love” was coined by John Humphrey Noyes himself.

The Oneida community had a pretty good run compared to the other utopian communities at the time. However, like all of them, the community didn’t last. When, in 1880, Noyes tried to pass leadership on to his son (who was unfortunatly both an atheist and a terrible leader), the community started to fall apart. To add to the mess, Noyes himself had had to flee the community, since he was wanted and accused for statutory rape. Without Noyes, the community soon caved under the pressure, dissolving in 1881. The material remnants of the community, along with a few of its members, was repurposed to establish a limited liability silverware production company called Oneida Limited, which still exist today.

Oneida and the other contemporary utopia (like Brook Farm, the Icarians or Fruitlands), from what I can tell, doesn’t seem to have been actively expansive or revolutionary – not like the Eastern Bloc, or the caliphate dreams of ISIS (President James A Garfield was assassinated by one of the community members, although not for political reasons as much as for mental health reasons). The community was governed by a bureaucratic juggernaut of nearly 80 different administrative sections and committees, but never exceeded its capacity of 300 members. It doesn’t seem to have been actively campaigning for independency or recognition as a sovereign state, like Palestine. The community, like the other utopian pop-up societies at the time, kind of existed as low key parallel societies within the US – socialist-agrarian oases within the stronghold of the free world – like Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, or the still existing Amish settlements sprinkled across the US.

The American utopias were also an experimentation with society and the human condition – naive and sometimes cynical, like a kid playing The Sims, or a 19th century version of Paradise Hotel. They were the deformed offspring of a charismatic megalomaniac, but although they failed, they were still a touchning materialization of the American dream.

By Fredrik Thorslund 

Cover: Markus Ireland

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