Maclure of New Harmony: Scientist, Progressive Educator, Radical Philanthropist

Maclure of New Harmony: Scientist, Progressive Educator, Radical Philanthropist

by Leonard Warren


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Maclure of New Harmony follows the twists and turns of William Maclure's intriguing life. A native Scotsman, Maclure (1763–1840) became a merchant, made a fortune, and retired in his early thirties. Then his life became interesting. Fascinated by the study of geology, Maclure did fieldwork throughout Europe before traveling to the United States, where he completed the first geological survey of his adopted nation and published a detailed, color geological map—one reason he is known as the Father of American Geology.

Maclure's travels sharpened his convictions about social justice and led him to a life of social radicalism. He founded progressive schools to educate the children of the working classes and, in 1820, he joined forces with Robert Owen to found New Harmony—the utopian community in Indiana. Ever restless, Maclure later moved to Mexico, where he watched his hopes for the new republic founder.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253353269
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 07/01/2009
Pages: 376
Product dimensions: 6.40(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leonard Warren is Emeritus Professor of the School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of Joseph Leidy: The Last Man Who Knew Everything and other books. He lives in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania.

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Maclure of New Harmony

Scientist Progressive Educator Radical Philanthropist

By Leonard Warren

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Leonard Warren
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-35326-9


Origins and the Making of a Life


The Royal Burgh of Ayr, a port near Glasgow and an ancient center of agriculture and commerce, was home to about 4,000 people in the mid-eighteenth century. The town lies in a rolling green region by the sea, the black hills of Arran looming in the distance. Widely known as Robert Burns's country, the locale is remarkable for its many extraordinary sons who made their mark in the world. One of these was William Maclure, born on October 27, 1763. His father, David McClure, a merchant, like many other Scots, carried on an export-import business with North America that fell on hard times during the American Revolution, but William's early life cannot be said to be ruled by poverty and deprivation. He was one of twelve children, half of whom survived — William and two brothers, Alexander (1765?–1850?) and John (1771?–1834?), and three sisters, Anna (1766–1834), Margaret (1768–1839), and Helen, who was the only Maclure who married. She and her husband, David Hunter, had seven children, and when she died, William assumed responsibility for his nieces and nephews.

He had, in fact, been baptized James, but for reasons unknown, changed his name to William and his family name to Maclure, a change copied by his siblings. There is little question that William was the dominant member of the family who brought his siblings to America and arranged for them to spend their later years in New Harmony, Indiana. But despite the solicitude, he admitted to a friend that they gave him little pleasure. Insanity seemed to have run in the family. John, whom William called a "weaker brother," ended his days in a mental hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. As many as three of Helen's children were afflicted with significant mental instability, and Margaret was considered highly emotional, "ethereal," and "nonsensical." The suggestion has been made that William may not have had children for fear of perpetuating this family trait. Alexander proved to be a difficult, incompetent businessman, responsible for financial losses that were covered by William, the only member of the family capable of earning a living. Relations between William and Alexander and his religious sister, Anna, were always strained; they openly disapproved of their brother's philanthropy, and they taxed William to the extreme. The family story is one of a generous brother plagued by demanding siblings — worrisome financial millstones who continued to carry on their mischief, even after William's death. The troubled relationship with his siblings may provide some insight into William's silence about his parents; they simply disappear from his story.

Little is known of Maclure's formal education except that it was meager, nor do we know what sort of student he was. Since the family was not without means, William was tutored privately in his early years by a young clergyman, then educated in a public school in Ayr, instructed by a Mr. Douglas who was knowledgeable in the classics, mathematics, and science. From his later pronouncements, Maclure benefited from learning "practical facts" and mastering science and natural history, while he belittled his classical education, as he did English education in general with its bias toward classical and clerical instruction which reflected the tastes of the ruling class and was directed toward the middle-class student. Maclure thundered that the classics drilled into young minds were the remnants of an outworn tradition, myths of the "perfection" of the Greek democracies and the Roman republic, false because they were the progeny of unstable, unrepresentative political systems, "wandering in licentious anarchy," and the prey of "petty tyrants." Their age was barbarous, he felt, and could not measure up to "the present advanced state of civilization."

Classical education had left Maclure "ignorant as a pig of anything useful," and what he had learned after years of schooling could now be acquired in six to eight months of proper education — the waste of it all! It did little or nothing to educate the children of the poor, to teach them "useful" information that would equip them to acquire their fair share of the nation's wealth, and it probably did not even prepare Maclure for a life in business. He considered it "an original sin" that classical education was being transferred from Europe to American schools. His later involvement in the establishment of schools and libraries unquestionably derives from his own unsatisfactory scholastic experience, which laid the foundation for his radical thinking.

Maclure ended his formal instruction without going to a university, which left him with woefully inadequate chirographic skills — his writing often indecipherable, becoming smaller and smaller as time went on. It also left this intelligent man with remarkably little talent for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Indeed, for someone who read and wrote extensively, these failings were so pronounced and pervasive that they suggest a pathology or perhaps a lasting protest against his reviled classical education. Still, his extensive writings reveal an adequate vocabulary and an unadorned, forceful, polemical style of a man with a message, so that his intent was readily comprehensible. He was impatient to enter the practical world in which he would make his fortune, and if he did not excel as a schoolboy, he quickly took to commerce.

Maclure's implacable stance against religion and the clergy probably arose early, in reaction to the teaching of the Calvinist Church of Scotland (Presbyterian), which preached predestination, that man was born corrupt, steeped in sin, and that the only hope of salvation lay in a total dependence on God. To Maclure, formal religion that dominated the education of the young was a "delusion" that "led the human intellect astray, through the mysterious wilderness of deception, by the cunning intrigues of church and State." As a deist, he saw another world, one in which many people suffered terribly through no fault of their own, at the hands of a merciless upper class, abetted by the religious establishment. Significantly, he never mentioned any church affiliation for himself or his family, and he never explicitly revealed his personal view about God or the question of His existence. As for an afterlife, he asserted that he knew "nothing beyond the grave." Religion had little to offer — possibly an ineffective ethical voice, but little more. Morals and ethics based on the golden rule, the Sermon on the Mount, and the teaching of Christ could be better taught in the school.

Although he undoubtedly learned from his father, he never acknowledged receiving any help or encouragement from him — a puzzling silence that suggests some difficulties between them, and changing his name from James McClure to William Maclure would signify rejection. Furthermore, in Maclure's mature, radical philosophy, the family unit was an obstacle to the education of children and the realization of a utopian society, a view that, though formulated through careful reasoning, must strongly derive from the conflict within his own family. As for family pride, he considered it "an extensive delusion," but this did not dissuade him from looking after family members.

With his rather unhappy upbringing, he could not wait to put his life in Scotland behind him. Evidently there was no real identification with Ayr and Scotland. Once he left the country of his birth and youth, he never mentioned or reminisced about it, and conversely, Ayr seemed unaware of its remarkable son despite his great success as a merchant, philanthropist, and scientist. Maclure is not mentioned in Dunlop's book on Ayr, which lists and extols its native sons and the many luminaries it gave to the world. Perhaps they chose to ignore him because of his rebellious attitude toward traditional values — his radical political, social, and religious views. Maclure seems to have led a fugitive existence, a stateless, deracinated voyager, always on the go, visiting and residing in one country after another. He chose to become an American citizen while living the life of an American expatriate, and yet someone who met him in Paris in 1802 wrote: "William Maclure, who though Scotch by birth ... was thoroughly Americanized," no doubt because of his egalitarian principles and faith in the common man. According to Maclure, these derived mainly from British influences — "the old root from which we spring ... set down in a fruitfull Virgin soil, unpoluted by antient Superstition or prejudices. We had only the deffects to conquer we brought with us."

Details about Maclure's youth are almost unknown. While William was still in his teens, the family moved to Glasgow and then to Liverpool, presumably for reasons of business. In 1778, when a mere fifteen years of age, William and his father visited America during the revolution. Although nothing is known of this trip, it is possible that his father was trying to salvage the remains of his business, which depended on free intercourse between England and America.

The New World must have impressed William favorably because, four years later, when he had just come of age and could act independently, he made a second visit, spending some time in New York for the purpose of exploring means of earning a living in the newly minted, independent Republic, and he probably established important business contacts, perhaps with the help of family connections, but this is not known. He returned to London as a member of the firm Miller, Hart and Co., which like other firms involved in overseas trade shipped manufactured goods such as textiles, hardware, and utensils to America, where they were wholesalers. Maclure was an energetic, aggressive merchant, for not only did he manage the European end of the business, he also supervised the firm's offices in New York and Richmond, Virginia. He then established a lumber business in Norfolk, Virginia (1782), that was run by a clerk — an operation independent of the New York firm. He may also have had business dealings in Canada. The record is patchy, for little is known about the details of his business. He left no account of the nature of his commercial dealings that would explain just how he made a considerable fortune within a decade. With all his growing scientific and social awareness, it remains a puzzle where he found time to nurture his varied interests with such great success.

Between 1782 and 1797 Maclure was preoccupied with making money. Reminiscing, he wrote that he had retired from commerce in 1797. Yet it is known that between 1796 and 1805 he founded trading firms in Philadelphia and Richmond. After years of mercantile experience during which he established a network of buyers and sellers, Maclure's commercial affairs were so well organized, they could be carried on by agents with only occasional consultation and instruction, the hallmark of a competent manager and administrator. As his involvement in commerce faded, his later enterprises were probably more investments than active participation in business. He was traveling extensively in Europe (1800–1808), entering seriously into geological study and collecting mineral specimens as he roamed from "the Mediterranean Sea to the Baltic and from the British Isles to Bohemia."

A mercantile venture such as his was somewhat formulaic and straightforward in operation — buying and selling — with success measured immediately and precisely by profit or loss. His success in business, as evidenced by his fortune, convinced Maclure that he could use the same approach in his later career in the social and educational field, but this assumption was incorrect, and in the end proved costly. His establishment and maintenance of an educational system, with unconventional, experimental schools, and his later involvement in a utopian colony were vastly more complex affairs that could not be run from afar by assistants, however able and devoted. Hands-on direction and supervision were absolutely essential, but Maclure was unwilling to operate this way, insisting on the modus operandi that had been so successful in business.

Maclure's education never ceased, for he bears signs of the brilliant autodidact, reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin, a cosmopolite with experience in business. Similarities between the two men abound. Both were successful businessmen who retired early. Both were deists, profoundly critical of religion. Both became scientists, founded libraries and schools, and committed themselves to public service after they retired. Maclure read extensively, interacted with intellectuals and outstanding thinkers of the Enlightenment (often radical) in Europe and America, attended lectures in various countries, and became expert on disparate topics, derived partly from books but mostly from direct experience and by talking to people, and he tended to seize upon information that supported his ideas. Constant travel in Europe and America and his geological field studies left less opportunity for formal education. From information acquired, he arrived at firm opinions about science, education, and social and economic theory, expressed in later years in print, in a forthright manner in letters and journals, and in his Opinions on Various Subjects, a remarkable compendium of writings.

He had many axes to grind, and as he aged his views hardened into a bracing, bullying, argumentative style. He tended to pontificate at every opportunity and speak in maxims, and his later letters and writings were sometimes repetitive and tedious. Deficient in thoughtful, historical perspective, he derided historical study that would have added depth to his understanding. Not one to indulge in extended abstract thinking, he complained to President Jefferson that he could not understand the writings of Kant, and that in any event, it was of no use. Maclure's colleague Samuel George Morton said of him, "Mr. Maclure's mind was devoted to matters of fact, seldom indulging in hypothesis, and never yielding himself, at least in his writings, to purely imaginative reflections."

Contrasting characteristics abound in Maclure, a man who sought out and explored countries in dreadful turmoil that would discourage business, a wealthy man whose radical opinions could not have endeared him to his associates and upper-middle-class friends. He was able to afford anything he desired, but he lived frugally, deploring the materialism of Americans. Having given up commerce, a good part of his life was devoted to the study of rocks and minerals — emblematic of the inanimate and the eternally stable — while at the same time engaging in the volatile affairs of humankind; perhaps one was a tonic for the other.

Although travel at the time was arduous and sometimes dangerous, he coursed the length and breadth of Europe, crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty-two times, and traversed the Alleghenies over fifty times. There is uncertainty about how much time he actuallly spent in America during his earlier years. The whereabouts of this roving Scotsman, especially before 1805 when he began keeping a travel journal, are difficult to establish and can only be determined by the place of origin, the dates of his letters and articles, and the comments of his colleagues; what can be patched together is spotty and not particularly informative. On the other hand, he sometimes kept a record of the people he encountered, the inns he visited, their quality, the cost of food and lodgings, and the rocks and minerals he shipped to museums.

Maclure as a young man must have learned valuable lessons in politics and economics by witnessing the American Revolution and the establishment of a promising democratic system of government that presided over thirteen states — to him, an exciting experiment. The American model "confirmed and consolidated all my democratic principles" so sharply in contrast to the rigid, authoritarian societies of Europe. There, many revolutions ended up with a new form of despotism, while the American Revolution led to the founding of an independent republic, amenable to the advancement of ordinary, industrious working men and women (and their children). Maclure saw greater promise in America, a land of abundant natural resources where there was no feudal tradition, where there was far more fluidity of social and economic classes, a greater possibility for an equitable distribution of wealth, and legal and constitutional guarantees to protect the weak and the vulnerable. The temper of the American people had provided him with some assurance of success. And yet what he found in the newborn republic sometimes caused him to despair. At the turn of the nineteenth century, there was virtually no science in the country, and none was taught — "the Natural Sciences were almost as well understood by our Indians, as by the civilized inhabitants of our states" — and agricultural, manufacturing, and mining practices were primitive, far behind those of England. He had to look to the future.


Excerpted from Maclure of New Harmony by Leonard Warren. Copyright © 2009 Leonard Warren. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations

1. Origins, and the Making of a Life
2. Philadelphia (1796-1800)
3. Political and Economic Philosophy
4. European Sojourn (1800-1808)
5. The Maclurean Era of American Geology
6. Introduction of Progressive Education to the United States
7. The Grand Tour of Europe (1809-1815)
8. Patron of the Natural Sciences
9. Spanish Years, and Return to America
10. Robert Owen, Maclure, and the Utopian Commune
11. Harmonie to New Harmony
12. A Boatload of Knowledge
13. Education in New Harmony
14. Trouble in Paradise
15. Out of the Ashes
16. Withdrawal to Mexico
17. Crippling Losses of Madame Fretageot and Thomas Say
18. New Harmony Adrift: Journey into the Present
19. The Workingmen's Institute: Death of William Maclure


What People are Saying About This

author of America's Communal Utopias - Donald Pitzer

In these pages, Maclure comes alive in all his energy, genius, generosity, and glaring idiosyncrasies. . . . The merits of Warren's work promise to make [this book] the standard biography.

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