Secular Utopias in America

What do you think is an ideal way to live?

People have been attempting to establish utopian communities in the United States for as long as this country has existed. Utopian or intentional communities are communities where people live together, focused around teamwork. Oftentimes the members of the community volunteered to join due to a common social, political or spiritual vision for society. Intentional communities can be categorized into two groups, religious utopias or secular utopias. Secular utopias are organized around a social theory or principle: ideas such as housing as a human right, single tax policies, or egalitarianism. This does not mean that religion was not allowed in secular communities. Rather it means that religion was not the center ideal of the community. Sometimes these communities were organized around more than one theory.

Explore these three secular utopian communities. Each represents a different idea about what is the best way to live.

New Harmony Indiana

Family on a hillside overlooks a walled in town with all brick buildings and lots of towers Family on a hillside overlooks a walled in town with all brick buildings and lots of towers

Left image
A bird's eye view of a community in New Harmony, Indiana, United States, as envisioned by Robert Owen
Credit: Engraving by F. Bate, London 1838

Right image
Photo taken in the 1910s of residences built by the Rappites before Owens’ purchase of the town.
Credit: St. Joseph County Public Library (South Bend, IN)

Robert Owens, Welsh social reformer and manufacturer, moved to the United States in 1825 to try to create his perfect society. In the same year, he founded New Harmony Indiana and based the community on his economic theories known as Owenism. Followers of Owenism wanted to build a community so that everyone in the society lived an equal quality of life. Owenism was originally intended to cure the poverty of factory workers in Great Britain. In 1824 the Harmonists (or Rappites) of Harmony Indiana offered their town for sale. Robert Owens bought the town and sent out an open invitation to anyone who wanted to join him in New Harmony. The town’s 180 buildings had space to house eight hundred people and they were quickly filled. Although it was intended to be a self-sustaining community, New Harmony did not succeed. During its two-year run the fortunes of Robert Owens and his business partner kept the community afloat. This failure to become self-sustaining was due in no small part to the working-class community members’ rejection of Owens’ rules.

While Owen’s stated ideals were that of equality for all people, regardless of social class or gender, he fell short of his own ideals. Owens was particularly dismissive of people who he perceived to be working class or who did not have a formal education. While Owen advocated for communal self-government this was never implemented in New Harmony due to Owen's biases. Owen’s distrust of elections and people who were not highly educated meant that New Harmony had no government. All political or social organizing was done through public debates. Due to the growing animosity between social classes, these debates often became abusive. Some devolved into screaming matches in the streets. One such instance was recorded as becoming so volatile that Owens stood up and began yelling for kindness from participants.

Owens treated farmers and mechanics as though they needed rescuing from their way of life. He believed that if he forced the working-class people of New Harmony to behave as if they were upper-class this would push them into the next stage of evolution and improve their lives as a result. Owens imposed rules around what music people should listen to, what food to eat, and how people should approach courting. Owens went so far as to establish an official dress code for both men and women. All these rules were based on the behavior and tastes of the east coast scientists and educators whom Owens admired. These rules only deepened the divide between people of different social classes. Those in the working class refused to follow Owen’s rules for them and resented him for implementing them. Furthermore, Owens removed children from their parents as early as age two. In 1826 he established the infant boarding school in New Harmony. Here children in the community lived together until age five, at which point they would go to the next level of boarding school.

When he was in New Harmony Owens poured his attention into establishing rules for daily life or improving access to education. Public lectures by premier scientists were common in the community. The school systems established at this time outlasted the utopian experiment by several decades.

As a result of Owens treatment of working-class people, those with skills in farming or manufacturing began to split from the community in 1826 at the urging of Owen’s business partner. After this split Owen and his business partner sued each other over financial losses related to New Harmony. With this the brief attempt at a Utopian community collapsed. New Harmony transitioned to a traditional municipal government style. The town of New Harmony is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The influence of both Robert Owen and the earlier Harmonists utopian experiments are visible in the community.

The North American Phalanx New Jersey

Three story building with wooden siding and all windows broken and without glass and a two story extension attatched to the right side
Exterior view of the main residential edifice of the North American Phalanx, Colts Neck Township, Monmouth County, New Jersey, USA. This photo was taken shortly before the building burned to the ground in November 1972.

Photographed by the US National Park Service Historic American Buildings Survey

The Albany Fouriest Association founded the North American Phalanx in 1843. Fouriest associations were organizations or groups based on the philosophy of Charles Fourier (1772-1837). Fourier was a French socialist whose ideas caught on after his death. The Albany Fouriest Association was one of many such associations across the United States. Fouriests believed that communal living was inevitable, as it was the divine social order that God intended. Despite this spiritual aspect, religion played little to no role in the practical organization and day to day activities of The Phalanx.

The Albany Fouriest Association purchased land in Monmouth County, New Jersey. In 1843, half a dozen families moved to the property to prepare it for the rest of the association to join in spring of the next year. This property became The North American Phalanx, the longest surviving Fouriest association in the United States. Much of the information in this article about the North American Phalanx comes from a first-person account published in 1886 by Charles Sears, who lived there and continued to be a Fouriest after the collapse of this New Jersey community. The Phalanx approached communal living under the Joint-Stock principle. A joint stock company is a business or company where the stockholders own the company. The Albany Fouriest Association turned the community itself into a business of which all residents owned shares. By making their community into a joint stock business the Albany Fouriest Association was able to build a communal society while still living within the United States. This also meant that they still had and used US currency, which allowed them to hire extra people to help with the farm work when needed.

The North American Phalanx relied on agriculture to survive. They had orchards, subsistence farming, and produced for sale. Later on, they added manufacturing positions for the women members of the Phalanx Jobs in the Phalanx were paid in correspondence to the “usefulness, attractive and repulsiveness” of the job [1]. The pay rate depended on how important the job was, compared with how unpleasant the job was to perform. The more unpleasant but important the job is, the better it would pay. For example, cleaning animal stalls would pay better than making bread. Community members within the Phalanx lived in apartment blocks together. Each family unit had their own apartment while eating together. The Phalanx divided each area of life into series, and groups. For example, the agricultural series was divided into farming, market gardening, orchard, and experimental groups. Each group was made up of between three to seven members and they would elect a “chief.” That leader would represent the group in a council which made up the Department of Agriculture. Suffrage was universal in the Phalanx, meaning anyone of any gender could hold office. If someone was old enough the be a regular working member, they were a voter.

The North American Phalanx came to an end in 1856 when a fire destroyed the mill on the property and all the contents inside. This disaster plunged the Phalanx into $30,000 in debt, equivalent to roughly a million dollars in debt in 2023. The residents voted to dissolve the Phalanx. They decided to sell off all property and use the funds from the sale to pay off the debt. The remaining money was divided amongst the community members. Those who lived in the Phalanx dispersed, some going on to attempt to recreate the success of The North American Phalanx elsewhere. The main living quarters of the North American Phalanx stood until November of 1972. In November, two months after it was added to the National Register of Historic Places it burned down and was bulldozed.

Arden Delaware

two story Germanic style building, stone first floor, tan second floor and a green roof with a red one story extension to the right
Craft Shop in Arden, Delaware part of Ardens Historic District

Photographed by wikimedia user SmallBones

The Village of Arden still exists today. It was founded in 1900 by sculptor Frank Stephens and architect Will Price on Georgist economic principles. Over time Arden has expanded to include two more towns, Ardentown, and Ardencroft. Sometimes all three towns are referred to collectively as The Ardens or The Ardens Historic District. The collective Ardens Historic District is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Home to around 250 households and 500 residents, Arden became an artist colony.

Henry George was a 19th century social reformer who developed the economic theory now known as Georgism. George was concerned about economic inequality that arose due to land ownership and taxation on products. Georgism is based on the belief that people should own the full value of what they produce. Meanwhile the value derived from land and all natural resources on the land should belong equally to all members of society. This belief is why Georgism is also known as the single tax movement. The way Arden enacts this ideal is that no one owns the land in the village. All land is owned by a Trust, and they rent it out on ninety-nine-year leases to the people who live on that land. The price of rent is set by a Board of Assessors, a seven-person group elected annually by the residents of Arden.

Besides Georgist economics, Arden was also founded on the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, and the Garden City movement. The Arts and Crafts movement was a reaction against industrialization of design. Started in the mid-19th century in Britain, it spread to the United States. Participants sought to value the workmanship and quality of items equal to their appearance. The Garden City movement was an attempt to bring together the best parts of city living and rural living. City organizers would try to do this by having separate communities separated by greenbelts. In Arden around half of the land in the municipality is forest or other green space.

Today Arden is still a functioning single tax community with a population of around 500 as well as a thriving theater community. The three Ardens run under much the same organization structure that they’ve had since their founding. Though there is space for changes to be made if residents feel it is necessary. People are able to go see Shakespeare plays in the theater that has been there since the founding of the community.


While these three communities represent three different approaches to society building, they all had a common goal. They wanted to improve the society they lived in. Over many years people attempted to find remedies to social problems. Some, such as Arden, may not have grand sweeping impact. Yet it provided sustainable change in what the founders of Arden would have considered a positive direction. New Harmony and the North American Phalanx meanwhile were intended to fully overhaul society as quickly as possible. Due to differences in execution and goal of these communities they achieved different levels of success.

Utopian communities come in a wide variety of forms, with an equally wide variety of goals they are trying to achieve. Yet, they are only one way that people can approach the need for societal change. They are an extreme action that requires a significant amount of planning to achieve any level of success. The value of utopian communities, regardless of their success, is sparking peoples imagination about different ways to organize society.

How would you design your perfect society?

Foot Notes:

1: Sears, C. (1886). The North American Phalanx: An historical and descriptive sketch. J.M. Pryse, Pg 7

This article was researched and written by Alyssa Eveland, American Conservation Experience Fellow, Cultural Resources Office of Interpretation and Education

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. “National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form: Village of Arden.” Accessed August, 2023  d0fb1d31-939b-4b41-abf1-3fec0617f658 (

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. “National Register of Historic Places Inventory Form: North American Phalanx” Accessed August, 2023 National Archives NextGen Catalog 

United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service. “National Historic Landmark Nomination Registration Form: New Harmony NHL District Boundary Increase.” Accessed August 2023 NPGallery Asset Detail ( 

Village of Arden, Delaware. Village of Arden Delaware. (n.d.). 

Sears, C. (1886). The North American Phalanx: An historical and descriptive sketch. J.M. Pryse. 

Pitzer, D. E., & Jones, D. (2012). New harmony then & now. Quarry Books.

Last updated: October 23, 2023